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  • 04.22.09

Flawless to Clueless, Part II: The Fender Telecaster

What constitutes a “game changer?” It’s usually an idea so bold that its effect completely alters preconceived notions of what something can do or should be. Think Apple’s iPhone, Toyota’s Prius or even the font Helvetica. The Fender Telecaster changed the way musicians thought about the electric guitar.

fender telecaster

What constitutes a “game changer?” It’s usually an idea so bold that its effect completely alters preconceived notions of what something can do or should be. Think Apple’s iPhone, Toyota’s Prius or even the typeface Helvetica.

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In 1950, the Fender Telecaster (originally called the Broadcaster) changed the way musicians thought about the electric guitar. It broke all the rules. It was the first commercially successful solid body guitar. It introduced bolt-together construction and utilized innovative electronics. And, everything about its design said “the future.”

Hollow body, arch top guitars were pretty much the norm up until the “Tele” came along. Leo Fender’s, beautiful invention quickly became favored by rock & roll and country musicians of the period. And it still is today. I’ve never seen Bruce Springsteen without one and its versatility and sonic range also appeals to jazz virtuosos like Bill Frisell.

Its blonde body and black pick guard looked great on black and white TV in the ’50s. The fret markers, simple ebony dots, contrast with the clear finish maple neck. The curvy body shape with a deep cutaway defied convention and gave guitarists total access to the notes on the neck. Its polished stainless steel hardware added a modern accent, and its lightweight two-inch thickness was balanced to feel good on the body.

I’ve owned my 1956 Telecaster (shown here) for about 15 years. I admire it for its innovative design as much as for its excellence as a musical instrument. I appreciate its no nonsense simplicity and its take no prisoners sound. When the treble pick up is engaged, it just screams. Minus the screaming, it’s so minimal that it would fit right in at Muji.

The Fender Telecaster is still in production today and is a living example of great American ingenuity and a celebrated piece of design history.

Editor’s note: Carbone recorded a riff on his “Tele” for us. Listen here:

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The “Yes to Less” rating is based on three criteria: beauty, ingenuity, and functionality. Designs can earn as many as five stars (“Flawless”), or as few as one (“Clueless.”)

Readers are invited to nominate design examples–from the brilliant to the egregious–for Carbone’s consideration.

Related: Introducing Guest Blogger Ken Carbone: A Look Inside His Private Journals
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About the author

Ken Carbone is a designer, artist, musician, author and teacher. He is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Director of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design and branding company in New York City.

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