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When the Fender Telecaster was born, Elvis Presley was a schoolboy; rationing was still a reality in post-war Britain; and the Queen's old man, King George VI, was on the throne. Yet, here we are, 70 years later, whittling down the substantial number of Teles in the most current Fender catalogue to the 10 best Telecasters for your delectation and consideration.
Without counting the numerous Custom Shop models on offer, there are currently 36 Telecaster models available across the Fender and Squier brands. Priced from a just couple of hundred sheets to well over two grand, the intrepid explorer will encounter Telecasters toting a variety of tone woods, neck shapes, and pickup outputs. There really is a Tele for everyone, and we're here to help you bag the right one for you.
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Best Telecasters: the history
Leo Fender wasn't a guitar player. He approached the creation of a new style of electric guitar as an inventor and engineer. Genius move one: he chose a solid body to counter the feedback problems inherent in the big hollow Jazz guitars that were all the go in the late 1940s.
Genius move two: Leo's new guitar was designed with a removable neck so that a replacement could be ordered if the original was damaged, or the frets wore out.
Now he was really on fire: the new guitar was lightweight yet practically indestructible. Punters also got two electric guitar pickups, and volume and tone controls that lay within easy reach.
By 1950, Fender had launched the single pickup Esquire guitar and the two-pickup Broadcaster. In an anecdote oft repeated, Gretsch objected to the use of the name Broadcaster. It sold a drum kit marketed as the Broadkaster. Never one to waste a thing, Leo snipped the Broadcaster part off of his headstock logos to produce the '51 era guitars Tele geeks describe as "Nocasters". By 1952, Fender settled on the name Telecaster for its two pickup solid body. It's been in production ever since.
What is the best Telecaster right now?
With the recent demise of the much-loved Classic Player Baja Telecaster, that void has been filled by the Mexican-built Vintera Series guitars. There are a few models available split into vintage correct and modern spec "modified" formats. Our personal fave is the '60s Telecaster Bigsby with its slim neck and iconic vintage style vibrato.
Let's say you have a little more cash in your wallet, you might want to consider the 70th Anniversary Broadcaster. This exquisite tone machine replicates the original 1950 guitar down to its body shape, fingerboard radius, and pickup spec. You also get the big "U" profile neck that is way easier to handle than you'd imagine.
Best Telecasters: buying advice
A great Fender Telecaster should sound the business before you even plug it into a guitar amp. Give one a good old strum and you should expect to hear loads of sustain and a bright tone. If it sounds good acoustically it should be a winner when you amplify it. Remember that two identical Teles can sound and feel very different so it pays to paw at a few examples.
Early '50s spec models will come replete with maple fingerboards which add to the guitar's inherent brightness. Notes will sound snappy. Later '50s and '60s style models generally come loaded with warmer sounding rosewood 'boards. Sub-$/£1,000 examples are now supplied with rosewood substitutes like Pau Ferro and Indian Laurel. These timbers look a bit like rosewood but can sound as bright as maple due to their hardness.
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Before we move on, the other big deal in Tele circles is neck size. '50s Broadcasters, Nocasters and Telecasters, and most of their reissues, feature huge necks. This beef was reduced gradually as the '50s rolled on from a V profile mid-decade to a rounder C shape around '58 when rosewood fingerboards were introduced. By 1963, slim C necks were all the rage before a slightly fatter profile was phased in around 1965.
The most common neck size available today is the Modern C. This shape should accommodate most players but be sure to slap a bunch of different neck profiles in your palm.
Up next is our pick of the best Telecasters around right now. We've listed them in price order to help you find the right one for your budget, plus our price matching software has found the best deals online right now.
The best Telecasters you can buy right now
Don't assume that the Squier Affinity Telecaster's bargain basement price means you're missing out on great tone. This guitar follows the classic Fender blueprint and, as any Tele freak will tell you, often it's the cheapest examples that can surprise you with great tone and feel.
First impressions are convivial thanks to an easy to love slim C profile neck, coated in a satin urethane finish to avoid a sticky situation when your palm gets sweaty. 21 medium jumbo frets and a modern 9.5" fingerboard radius make for a low action (aka string height) and slinky string bending.
The Affinity is available in a bunch of cool finishes, with a choice of maple and Indian laurel 'boards. It's also one of the few Teles that comes in a left-handed format, albeit in a natural finish/maple 'board only edition.
As great as the Squier Affinity is for the price, the brand's Classic Vibe Series offers a significant jump in spec and feel for not much more money and is one of the best Telecasters if you’re on a tight budget. In the case of this '70s Telecaster Deluxe, you also get a lovely big slice of vintage cool on the side.
This is the Tele you buy if you like classic rock stuff. The Wide-Range humbuckers offer great note separation and clarity no matter how intense the distortion gets. Controls are more Gibson like with two volumes, two tones and a three-way pickup selector toggle switch.
A slim C profile neck makes this guitar even easier to love. We also appreciate the vintage feel of the 21 narrow tall frets and a proper gloss urethane finish. All in all, this is just about the coolest looking budget guitar you'll find under $/£500.
The Player is arguably the Tele that offers the best value for money. For a smidgen under $700/£600 you get a well spec'd, giggable tone machine with classic looks and modern playability. The latter is fuelled by the combination of a Modern C profile neck and 9.5" radius fingerboard, not to mention 22 medium jumbo frets.
If you're all about the classic two single coil Tele layout then you'll be more than happy here. The Player Series single coils pump out all the jingle jangle you can handle. That said, there is a two humbucker loaded version available for those looking for a bit more grunt. Also available soon is a Limited Edition Player with two Fender Custom Shop '51 Nocastet single coils in Butterscotch Blonde. That should be a bit tasty.
Read the full Fender Player Telecaster review
The Telecaster owns country music. No Nashville session ace would dare enter a studio in Music City without a Tele. Often these players would customise their guitars to extract the maximum amount of tonal variation. That's what the Fender Deluxe Nashville Telecaster is all about.
Fender has added a middle pickup and a five-way pickup selector switch to allow this Tele to produce Strat-like "in-between" tones. Basically, we’re talking about the combination of bridge/middle or neck/middle sounds that Strat players like Jimi Hendrix loved. The pickups are Fender Noiseless models which offer classic tones with reduced hum, something that studio musicians, producers and engineers will appreciate.
Read the full Fender Deluxe Nashville Telecaster review
The Telecaster and Bigsby vibrato have been mates since the early 50s. The iconic whammy bar was designed by inventor and motorcycle engineer Paul A Bigsby. He also built guitars that happened to feature headstocks with the tuners all on one side. Just like Fender but Bigsby got there first. We'll leave that there...
The Mexican-built Vintera '60s Bigsby features some distinctly vintage specification. The C profile neck has a 7.25" fingerboard radius and 21 vintage frets. That means you don't get quite the same low action as a modern 9.5" radius but it's still a great neck to play. In keeping with its '60s vibe the neck has a gloss finish but where you'd expect to find a rosewood 'board we get the more eco friendly Pau Ferro. The package is completed by a smooth operating Licensed Bigsby B-50 wiggle stick, natch.
The Performer Telecaster Hum is the lowest price American-built model in the current Fender catalogue. What's "hum"? Well, this guitar features a humbucker in the neck position, just the way Keith Richards likes it. We should point out that the American Performer Telecaster is also available in a traditional, two single coil layout at the same price.
Players like a neck humbucker on a Tele for a number of reasons. Blues noodles like the warmth and sustain it can produce. Jazzers enjoy the depth it adds to their comping stuff. Rockers like the grunt it produces. This guitar also features the Fender Greasebucket tone circuit which allows you to roll off the treble without adding bass. That means you retain Tele clarity when you want to soften the Tele's trademark top end.
Read the full Fender American Performer Telecaster Hum review
The '70s Telecaster Custom is one of the sexiest electric guitars ever made. Slung low around a cadaverous Keith Richards' shoulders it became a sought after classic despite being made during Fender's worst decade for quality control. Some examples weighed over ten pounds and had unnecessarily thick finishes.
The American Original improves on the '70s made model with a gloss nitrocellulose finish for the neck and body. One thing the original guitars did well was tone and this reboot captures that with a great sounding bridge single coil and an accurate remake of the iconic Fender Wide-Range humbucker, the latter perfected by pickup guru Tim Shaw. Yes, a lot of love went into creating this reissue. It's just a shame there isn't a black with maple 'board option like Keef's...
The new Ultra is as far away from a vintage spec Tele as you can get. This is the Telecaster hot rodded for players that want bang up to date tone and playability. For example, the rear of the body is contoured to allow easy access to the top frets. There's a 10" to 14" compound radius fingerboard to allow for the lowest possible action above the 12th fret, and easy chording in the open positions.
A pair of Ultra Noiseless Vintage single coils offer up classic tones without the background hum and there's the Fender S-1 circuit to switch between series and parallel modes for increased tonal variety. Figure in the locking tuners and a Modern D neck profile and you've got one of the best performing Teles ever made.
Read the full Fender American Ultra Telecaster review
Now you're talking! This is the Telecaster as Leo Fender originally envisioned it, right down to the Broadcaster decal on the headstock. This is the guitar most Tele junkies consider is the greatest spec ever. A lightweight ash body, the baseball bat "U" profile neck, the 7.25" fingerboard radius.
The idea of a big neck can be intimidating but many players forget all that when they've spent some time handling one. The reward is great tone and sustain, and you're less likely to suffer hand cramps than you will on a skinny modern neck profile. At the current price, this anniversary model is significantly more affordable than a Custom Shop version, but like those guitars it proves just how 'right' Leo and his team got it first time around.
And now for something completely different. Fender's second run of Parallel Universe models continues the theme of guitars that could have happened over the last 70 years, but didn't. The Tele Magico features a semi-hollow Thinline body, a flame maple neck with a soft V to C profile, and a Gibson spec 12" fingerboard.
This is a pretty guitar but the real beauty lies in the "Gold Foil" single coil pickups. Back in the 60s, Japanese manufacturers flooded the west with cheap guitars based on Fender designs. Many of these guitars had pickups with gold foil tops. Now, while the guitars weren't particularly great quality, the pickups produced a bright punchy tone that connoisseurs like roots legend Ry Cooder loved. These pups were often plundered and installed in better quality guitars. That's what Fender has replicated on this pumped Telecaster. It's yet another new twist on a guitar that's been around for 70 years.