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Vintage guitar of the week #14 - 1953 Fender Telecaster

It's probably true you can't afford this guitar. But you can recreate the sound of one if you know the right stuff to buy.

A real-deal 1953 Fender Telecaster is ridiculously expensive when it's the genuine article.

Is it worth it to give a go at recreating the sound of a '53?

Personally, I don't think that's a good idea, and I'll tell you why.

Vintage Telecaster wiring vs. Modern

For those of not in the know, the '53 is not wired like a modern Telecaster. Old-school vintage wiring is known as "dark tone" or "black guard." Position 1 is the rear pickup with tone control. Position 2 is the front pickup with tone control. Position 3 is the one that drives everyone nuts. It's the front pickup with no tone control and preset to have all treble rolled off.

Do I personally recommend vintage Tele wiring? Absolutely not. You are better off with the modern wiring of rear / both / front selections with volume and tone control on all positions.

"Building 'em like they used to" sometimes isn't all it's cracked up to be. To have a Tele wired without a both-pickups-together setting and have one of the positions be totally useless for most players just isn't smart.

Flat-pole pickups

From 1952 to mid-1956, Fender used pickups where the pole pieces were flat and not staggered. This results in the thicker strings being heard more than the thinner strings simply because of greater vibration, and the sound has, understandably, a lot more bass to it compared to the staggered poles Fender used later on.

If you've been playing Fender guitars for any length of time, you're very used to the staggered pole sound. Going from that to flat-pole - especially on a Telecaster pickup which has higher output than a Strat pickup does (at least in the rear position) - is a tone that takes getting used to.

This is not to say flat-pole is bad. It's just different.

"Ashtray" bridge with "long barrel" string saddles

A vintage Tele bridge is called an ashtray because it resembles an ashtray. Long barrel saddles are the vintage style where there are only 3 saddles, each supporting two strings.

Personally, I like the ashtray bridge just because it looks cool. Some players hate it because the outer edges stick up away from the body, potentially causing discomfort depending on your playing style. My playing style isn't affected by ashtray bridge, so it's not a problem for me.

The main problem with long barrel Tele saddles is intonation. It's basically impossible to intonate a Tele completely with this saddle style, and you will always have certain parts of the neck and certain chords played that are out-of-tune no matter what you do.

If you like the look but hate the intonation problems (and who wouldn't?), the solution is compensated staggered saddles.

Are the compensated long saddles as good as the smaller per-string saddles where better intonation is concerned? No. But they are better than the old long barrel saddles that have no compensation or stagger at all.

If you have a Tele now with the long barrel saddles and have intonation issues (and you probably do,) get a set of compensated saddles.

A blend of vintage + modern makes for a good Telecaster

Squier's Classic Vibe Telecaster '50s is a damned fine instrument that suits what most players want when it comes to a proper Telecaster.

However, one you might want to give consideration to is the Fender American Special Telecaster:

Fender American Special Telecaster

While true it's modern and not a '53, it has a very nice blend of vintage + modern, just like the Squier CV does. However, the "more vintage" of the two is the Squier. Ultimately, it's your choice which one you think is best for you.

The '53 is cool, no question about it. Lots of history in that guitar, lots of "mojo," and so on. But unless you have really deep pockets, you can't afford it. You can afford the Squier however. And if you want to spend more, the American Special is a good choice as well. If you've been biding your time and waiting for "that Tele," grab a Special. It's priced lower than an American Standard but still delivers in fine style. You won't be disappointed.

Published 2015 Oct 10

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