As a guitar maker, when you come out with something that even remotely looks like a Fender Telecaster, the bar for legitimacy is automatically set very high. That’s because the Telecaster is a pretty damn iconic instrument. Sound-wise, it’s perhaps the most easily recognizable of the Big Three (the other two being the Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul). It is the twang guitar. But, while Tele players like Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, and plenty of others have been able to get their signature sounds out of them (OK, Townshend’s was a Tele-style built by Schecter, but still…), those who choose a Tele-style guitar usually expect it to have a bright, cutting tone. And the T-Master from North Carolina builder John Widman doesn't just look a little like a Telecaster—it looks a lot like one. So let’s see how it stacks up in all these regards.
From the classic, Tele-style bridge to the metal switchplate, knurled knobs, and recognizable curves, the T-Master screams “I’m a Tele” from far away. But Widman adds his own touch with an oblong pickguard, a headstock that’s a wider variation on the traditional (it’s outfitted with Schaller M6 Mini tuners), and a staggered-pole humbucker in the neck position that says, “I’m not just
a Tele.” And that’s probably the best way to sum up this beautiful instrument. The bridge is a Callaham Vintage T with “enhanced vintage compensated” brass saddles, so you get the classic three-saddle Tele bridge without compromising intonation. Part of the lip on the treble side of the bridge plate has been removed to help fingerpickers dig into the high E.
The T-Master’s pickups are by Lindy Fralin, with a P-90-style P-92 in the neck, and a single-coil Blues Special at the bridge. Both feature cloth leads and Alnico III cores. Based on Fralin's website and on playing the T-Master, it’s clear these pickups strive for an accurate reproduction of vintage tones, although on the Widman T-Master they’re a little hotter and darker than what you’d find on a stock Fender Tele, old or new.
Does it Sound Like a Tele?
In the bridge position, I found the T-Master to be very bright and clear, with a little more fatness and bass. It also lacked some of the high-end chime found on American-made Fenders. In the neck position, there are well-defined edges of darkness in the tone, but enough single-coil clarity to still cut through. And this is where the instrument started to surprise me. Its tonal palette ranges from a prettier, slightly darker version of the twang you'd expect from a guitar that looks like this to something very beefy. This makes for a very versatile instrument—something Teles are not really known for.
The four-way pickup switch (which is common to many Teles these days) plays a huge role here. On both ends of the pickup switch you get your bridge or neck pickup in isolation, and in the two middle positions you get both pickups in parallel or both pickups in series. In parallel, the tone is somewhat reminiscent of the fourth position on a Strat. In series, the T-Master sounds surprisingly fat and round, but doesn’t lose its clarity—especially on the first three strings. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a Gibson SG with the switch in the middle position, though livelier. Speaking of lively, this guitar actually sounded pretty unplugged—how many solidbodies can you say that about?
In fact, “pretty” sort of sums up this guitar’s place in the modern-vintage market: the T-Master is a very pretty-sounding guitar, and one of the beautiful things about old Telecasters is their ability to get raunchy and gritty. In other words, I could see this instrument in the hands of Andy Summers or The Edge, but not Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer. Roy Buchanan and Albert Collins would have dug it, though, because this guitar's secretly dark soul lends itself very well to the blues. With distortion, it sounds very warm, with just the right amount of midrange. And distortion really helps you get a sense of the higher output pickups. Sustain is excellent on any pickup setting, though I found myself using both pickups in series the most—I was intrigued by what I dubbed a “jangly beef.”
Does it Play Like a Tele?
When you go to a custom-only shop, you expect fit and finish to be superb, and that is certainly the case with the Master-T. The ruby red finish is luscious without being garish like a hot rod, and it’s light enough to let the swamp ash grain find its way through the lacquer. The setup was clean—I simply tuned up and played. The only details that took some getting used to were the pots and knobs. The pots for the master volume and master tone controls were surprisingly stiff, and the knobs were a little rough on my fingers. I got used to pretty much everything on the guitar in a hurry except that. If you do fast volume knob changes with your pinky while playing, you may need to swap out the volume pot and knob.
The 22-fret ebony fretboard features mother-of-pearl markers and sits atop a somewhat thick (.83" at the first fret) C-shaped neck that’s surprisingly fast, though I would not call it slinky. I am accustomed to thinner necks built for speed, but the T-Master's did not slow me down. The neck itself is of quarter-sawn mahogany with a nice, lacquered finish that’s fast against your palm but not slippery. I compared several Telecasters to the T-Master, and all had their own character and qualities. For reference, the T-Master’s neck was thinner and faster than a Fender '52 reissue’s (both the V- and U-shaped necks), a little thicker than current American-made models, and quite similar to a G&L ASAT’s. The body also features a waist contour that makes it very comfortable to play and probably contributes to its light weight. The balance is perfect.
The Final Mojo
I realize it may not be fair to compare the classic Fender Telecaster with a Widman T-Master just because they look alike. But, it’s hard not
to, given the level of detail that was obviously inspired by vintage Teles. The guitar was clearly lovingly crafted and well thought-out. At $1800, it is not cheap, but when you play the T-Master you immediately realize you’re paying for lovely sounds and great playability.
you want a pretty-sounding, great-looking Tele-style guitar with excellent tonal versatility and playability.
you truly need that old-school Tele chime and twang.