The Telecaster is one of the most popular guitars of all time, for good reason. Its versatility, tonefulness, playability, and signature sustain, snap, and boldness are practically unparalleled in the guitar world. Just about every guitarist will eventually fall in love with a Tele. But while the 2 pickups, 2 controls, and 3 position selector switch have been the standard options for decades, they are far from the only way to make use of this humble worksmith. Here are a few options you can use to make your Tele more personal and more unique!
1. Add Vibrato
Teles can be used for any style of music, and adding a vibrato can take your guitar into a whole new dimension of playing. The Tele is a good candidate for many styles of vibratos and there are more options for upgrading Tele bridges than just about any other guitar. From B-benders to Floyd Roses, there is a way to get everything from dive bombs to pedal steel bends out of a Tele, and the classic Bigsby B-5 is one of the most popular mods you can make to a Tele. In the photo above, we have a new Tele Deluxe reissue that has been retrofitted with a Bigsby and a high quality, hand-machined Callaham bridge.
There are a number of ways to adapt a Tele for a Bigsby, but in all cases the string-through bridge must be replaced or modified. I’ve installed just about every option. The Callaham bridge is a great option that keeps the tone of the traditional 3 saddle bridge while improving intonation. But some players feel the Bigsby works better with a roller bridge or tuneomatic. Recently the Mastery Bridge has become a highly regarded upgrade for offset guitars like Jazzmasters, but they also work great on Teles.
My other new favorite vibrato system is the Stetsbar. It has an incredibly smooth feel and a great range, allowing for both dive and up-pull, and mounts as a single unit, replacing the bridge and adding a vibrato at the same time. In most cases it requires no extra drilling, so if you want to add vibrato without permanently modifying your guitar, it’s a fantastic option. The feel and pitch range is somewhere between a Bigsby and a floating Strat trem.
If your saddles are looking like this it might be time to think about an upgrade… As you can seen in many of the photos above, the quality of parts and machining on many of the bridges available from some of the small guitar companies out there are a noticeable step above the stock bridge saddles. They also offer compensation, to remedy the age-old problem of poor intonation on 3 saddle telecasters. While 6 saddle bridges are standard equipment on some Fenders, and do improve intonation, many Tele players swear by the 3 saddle bridges for their improved coupling between the string and the body. Many feel that better coupling produces more sustain and resonance, and is a big contributing factor in the signature sound of the Tele. Even experimenting with different saddle materials can deliver noteworthy changes in tone. Mix and match steel, brass, aluminum, titanium, graphite, tusq, or other materials to bring out the exact amount of clarity, focus, brightness, attack, boldness, or warmth that you are looking for and balance them from string to string. Callaham makes many great options, as do Glendale Guitars and several others.
3. Add a Blend Control or Other Custom Circuit
This Ron Kirn Barnbuster Tele comes wired like a traditional Tele with an upgraded tone cap, and is a great sounding guitar for traditional players. Different people will tell you different things about tone caps, but some players can notice and feel a difference in the touch, tone, and sweetness of their instrument by changing the tone cap. But your options don’t have to stop there! There are many, many cool things you can do with a Tele circuit to make it more versatile and more personal. To name just a few:
- Change your volume pot taper. Are you bothered by the sudden drop in output in tone as you turn your guitar down, or do you need the smoothest possible sweep from 0-10 on the control for volume swells? Have you played an older guitar where the volume range seemed more useful than your new one? Finding the right volume pot for your playing style can make a crucial difference. I can help you choose between audio, linear, vintage audio, and reverse audio taper, or add a treble bleed circuit to help control the function of your volume perfectly.
- Don’t use your tone control much? Consider a blend. We can replace your tone control with a blend control that is only active in the middle pickup position. This allows you to sweep between both pickups full on, to your desired blend of either. By giving yourself the option of bridge with just a hint of neck, or vice versa, you can make your two pickups unbelievably flexible. Perfect for players who don’t care for the darkness of traditional tone controls but want to get a better balance of warmth and presence from their guitar.
- Want total control without drilling more holes? Using concentric stacked volume and/or tone controls, you can have individual volumes and/or tones for each pickup. Another use for a stacked control would be to give you a treble AND bass control.
- Like that idea? Try a Fender TBX tone control. Works like a standard tone control when turning down. As you turn it up, it increases resistance, effectively removing the loading of the control from the circuit and boosting brightness and output
- Add a 4 way switch. 2 pickups doesn’t mean only 3 wiring options. A 4 way switch gives you the traditional Tele options, and adds a series wiring option, which runs both pickups together like a humbucker, for a warm, higher output option great for fuzzy leads or bold rhythm parts.
- Why stop there? Using a 5 way switch, you have numerous wiring options depending on your pickups, from adding coil taps, to out of phase sounds, to caps in series with the pickups to tune their frequency response. There is almost no limit to the possibilities you can hide under the hood without modifying the look of your Tele.
- Add a “blower” switch. If you like the cutting lead sound of the Tele bridge pickup (there’s nothing else that slices through a mix like that!) why not add a switch that takes all the other controls out of the circuit and wires the pickup straight to the output. You will hear your bridge pickup with nothing else in the way, detailed, full, loud and clear. Like having a boost pedal right in your guitar.
- Add a “kill” switch. Tom Morello and other modern guitarists have made great use of this effect for stuttering, morse-code inspired staccato bursts and hand controlled hard trem effects.
4. Change Those Pickups!
In case you haven’t noticed, we are living in the golden age of custom pickups. Fender still makes some great pickups for Tele, but if you want to differentiate yourself from the thousands of off-the-shelf Tele players out there, the best place to start, and the most bang for your buck, is personalizing your pickups. Whether you want to stick with a traditional Tele set, but even more purist, or way more modern, you have a plethora of choices. There are SO many pickup makers out there now that it’s impossible to have heard them all, but I can say that I’ve played and listened to a LOT and there are many impressive classic Tele pickups. But there’s also no reason you have to stick with the traditional setup. I can (and probably have) put just about any pickup in a Tele, so let your imagination run wild and create the tonal combination you’ve always imagined to define your sound. If you need help sorting through the hundreds of options on the market, don’t hesitate to send me an email!
It probably goes without saying that I’m a big fan of this upgrade, and since it’s also a part of routine maintenance it might not really be a “mod” but if you’re going to do other custom work on your instrument, it always helps to make sure you’ve got the best quality fundamental pieces in place!Modifying and personalizing your instrument is an ongoing process that evolves along with you as a musician. It may feel tough to know where to start, but that’s what I’m here for. Drop me a line (email is the best way to reach me) and don’t forget to send your bandmates my way if they need some help. Happy Picking!