Whichever way you spin it, there are really only three ways to present a new version of a decades-old classic - as a period- correct replica, a modern updated interpretation, or as something that sits somewhere in-between.
We’ve seen numerous Fender USA line-ups since the late 80s, but today’s ranges are trimmed down and much more focused. And, in this ongoing rejiggery, 2018 sees another significant change. It’s bye-bye to the American Vintage series, which was launched back in 2012, and hello to the new American Originals.
The American Vintage models were year-specific clones – or, as close as is possible with a modern build... These new Originals, however, aim for a ‘Best of Decade’ vibe. So, for the 50s we get a Strat, Tele and P-bass; for the swinging 60s we have that trio in their ‘grown-up’ specification plus, obviously, a Jazzmaster, Jaguar and Jazz bass. The 70s - hardly Fender’s golden decade - offers us just a lone, block-inlaid Jazz bass.
Meanwhile, southpaws aren’t forgotten with a trio of guitars - 50s and 60s Strats augmented by a 50s Tele.
Price-wise the new Originals sit between the slightly lower-priced American Professionals and the only slightly higher priced remaining American Vintages starting at £1,549 for the 50s Tele, rising to £1,649 for the bound 60s Tele - the basses are slightly more dear, starting at £1,699. Today we’re looking at the reworked Tele.
Available in just one nitrocellulose ‘lacquer’ gloss colour, Butterscotch Blonde (with untinted gloss nitro neck), this comes across - like most of the others in the line - as an almost Custom Shop-like take on a classic, like Fender has hopped into a time machine to fix the things Leo and team got wrong.
The truth is, the errors were few, but the modern 241mm (9.5-inch) fingerboard radius here is one significant ‘fix’, although it still comes with the original-style truss rod access at the base of the neck, which can be a right pain to adjust. That said, certainly here, the neck - classed as a ’52 ‘U’ - is a big ol’ handful and it’s married to a classic slab ash body, with small radius edges and none of the comfort contouring of its more famous sibling. Our sample not only feels chunky and business-like but it’s on the weightier side too at 4kg.
Both the bridge, with its trio of (uncompensated) chunky brass saddles and the pickups again aim to clone the early release Teles (although the three-way lever pickup selector is wired to a modern, post-1967 spec). The pots are 250k CTS with a large Fender Pure Vintage wax paper 0.05 microfarad tone cap and, of course, evocative cloth-covered wire. This was, of course, never a wiring that Fender used in the 50s.
Likewise, the vintage tall fretwire is another fix that many of us prefer over the lower-height original vintage-style wire.
But if there are fixes a-plenty, there’s are plenty of vintage details not least the five- screw black phenolic plastic single-ply scratchplate. Incidentally, all the screws are slot-head, not cross-head - a nice old-school touch maybe but do be careful if you’re removing them - it’s extremely easy for your screwdriver to slip off the screw head and leave a nasty mark.
A vintage-style Telecaster never ceases to amaze - especially from today’s perspective. It’s brutally simplistic and still seems like a working tool rather than an instrument to covet.
The neck shape will definitely polarise opinion almost as if it’s an unfinished, work-in-progress that got shipped anyway. Big neck, big sound? In this case, yes, even before we plug in there’s a superb ringing sustain. As we said it’s no lightweight either. Sophisticated? No. Raw rock ’n’ roll? It’s the epitome.
If you’re used to more modern-style Teles, actually even an American Professional, this Original Tele sounds and feels (certainly that neck) like you’ve stepped back in time. These are two big lumps of wood and, with the Tele’s single coils, there’s more than a little lap-steel to the sound. Having no treble bleed on the volume control tames that a little when reduced, but if your gig rep centres on 50s and 60s standards then there’s not much you can’t cover.
The bridge pickup and soulful mix will do it for you, and, as long as you’re not after Santana-like sustain from the neck pickup, it’s a keeper. Even the neck shape grows on you, although we were tempted to scrub away the slightly sticky-feeling gloss.
It still remains a surprise when you plug in a Strat after a Tele and this one has a little more sonic beef and thickness, which certainly benefits the bridge and middle mix. It comes, however, with an overly thick, as in lower midrange, colour on the neck/neck and middle mix. It doesn’t drive our amps quite as hard as either of our reference Strats either, but that’s easy to compensate for with additional preamp gain or a stompbox.
As our play time continues, with the fuller voicing, not least for rockier excursions, it begins to win us over. The feel of the bigger neck, the feel of the ’board and those slightly higher frets add up to a player that recalls vintage, but it’s a bit easier, slinkier, with appealing body.
Compared to Fender’s remaining non-artist, USA-made series, the Elite and Professionals, this re-organisation of the previous Vintage series feels a little unsubstantial. In essence, aside from the best-of-decade, as opposed to year- specific, models, the only real change is the fingerboard radius and slightly taller fretwire.
You’ll find these ‘fixes’ on many Fender Custom Shop models, of course, but while these don’t come with any ageing or relic’ing they are significantly cheaper.
Yet, viewed from a 2018 perspective, it gives Fender’s USA models a rare unity, a vintage nod to the escalating modernism of the Professional and ultra-tweaked and posher Elites. If you hanker after a new USA-made production Fender and want the most vintage-spec possible, this is now it. Vintage-inspired, yes, but with the fixes that many players will embrace.