For many, the Telecaster remains the quintessential electric guitar. Despite
its simplicity, the Tele offers a wide range of modding possibilities.
If you read Mod Garage with
any regularity, you’ll know
we’ve been covering Stratocaster
mods for several years now.
During this time, I’ve received
countless e-mails about
Telecaster mods, so I know a
lot of you are waiting for this.
Well, now the time has come!
Fans of this iconic guitar will be
happy to know that with this
month’s column, we begin a
series of Tele and Esquire mods.
On a personal note, I enjoy
playing a good Strat, but the
Telecaster is still my weapon of
choice. It was the first real electric
guitar I owned and it fits
my playing style perfectly. I love
its tone, shape, and the simplicity
of the whole structure, and,
of course, knowing it was the
first real electric guitar from Leo
Fender—a piece of history.
Many people assume that
because a standard Tele sports
only two pickups, two controls,
and a 3-way pickup selector
switch, there isn’t much to mod.
But you’d be surprised how
many possibilities you have even
with a single-pickup Esquire!
Let’s start with a brief discussion
about the Telecaster’s essential
construction, and discover
how to do some simple modifications
to it to enhance its fundamental
tone. Then we’ll ease
into some very basic—but supereffective—
modifications, just to
warm you up for what will follow.
I’ve received a lot of emails
about this subject, and I’ve made
a list of the most-requested
mods. Each month we’ll explore
a new one, and gradually our
projects will get more complex.
But before we heat up the soldering
iron, let’s take a moment
to think a little about physical
construction and discuss ways
to enhance the primary tone of
your Telecaster. This is an often
underrated and overlooked subject
for electric guitars. Many
people think it’s only the pickups
that make the difference, but a
pickup by itself is a really “stupid”
device—it can only sense
the vibrations coming from the
guitar and transport that signal
to a stompbox or amplifier.
Our acoustic colleagues
know what I’m talking about
because primary tone is what it’s
all about for them. So it’s time
to face the facts: On an electric
guitar, “good” or ““bad” sound
is directly linked to its primary
In simple terms, the primary
tone of any electric guitar is
what you hear when you play
it unplugged. Besides this,
you can also feel the primary
tone, because the whole guitar
vibrates and resonates.
Depending on the spot you
touch, you’ll feel different vibrations.
Give it a try. Touch the
neck, the body, the bridge, and
the headstock, while someone
else is playing your guitar.
There are many simple
things you can do to enhance
your guitar’s primary tone. In
some cases, these can make an
average guitar sound good, and
sometimes they’ll even make a
good guitar sound fantastic.
So let’s get busy.
Screws. Regularly check all
the screws on your guitar. They
should be very tightly fastened
for structural integrity and a
better sound, but don’t break
them! Critical locations are the
screws that attach the neck, the
bridge, and the tuners. Loose
screws can also be the source of
persistent rattling noises that
sometimes are even audible
when playing through an amp.
And remember: Flat screwdrivers
are not designed for
Phillips screws and vice versa!
Get a good quality set of screwdrivers
for this work, otherwise
chances are good that you will
mar the screws. When you don’t
use a particular tool very often,
it can make sense to buy a
budget-quality item, but screwdrivers
are definitely the wrong
place to save money. There are
specialized screwdriver sets for
luthiers and guitar techs that are
perfect for this work. For years
I’ve used a set from stewmac.
com, and to this day they’ve
never let me down.
Neck pocket. Take care of
your neck cavity. Remove the
neck and check the cavity—it
should be absolutely free of any
paint, dirt, and other things.
During the years I found a lot
of funny things in there—credit
cards, paper, cardboard, and so
on. The bottom and the sides of
the neck cavity should be absolutely
bare and free of any paint.
If it’s not, take a piece of fine
sandpaper and rework your cavity
until you see the plain wood.
If you feel that the neck does
not fit the guitar’s cavity because
the cavity is too wide or too
low, get your guitar to an experienced
luthier who will shim it.
Bad work at this critical point
can ruin your guitar’s tone! If
you find a very thin piece of
wood or wooden veneer inside
the cavity, then it has already
been shimmed at the factory for
some reason. In this case, leave
the shim and cavity untouched,
and get the guitar to your local
luthier or guitar tech. He will
check the neck angle for you
and, if necessary, correct it.
Neck heel. Check the neck
heel—this is what attaches to the
neck cavity. Often you can find
stickers, paint, or bubbled finish
there. If so, scrape this away.
I also highly recommend you
sand away all the paint or finish
until you can see and feel the
plain wood on the neck heel. You
don’t need any paint there, and a
strong and even “wood-to-wood”
connection will enhance the tonal
transfer dramatically. As you
bolt on the neck, set the screws
very tight, but don’t overdo it—
beyond tight, there is broken.
Let it breathe. Your guitar
needs to “breathe,” or resonate.
To accomplish this, remove the
paint at any location that can’t
be seen. On a Telecaster, a critical
location is the surface underneath
the bridge. Many professional
guitar techs remove the
paint between the bridge and the
body to give the hardware direct
contact to the wood. This will
enhance tone on most guitars.
Some professional techs also
remove the paint inside the
pickup cavities and anywhere
the pickguard covers the body.
Though some players swear by
this, personally I would not do
this to any guitar—not my own
nor my customer’s.
Next issue, I’ll be back
with another round of tone
tips for Teles. Until then,
Germany and is fascinated
by anything related to old
Fender guitars and amps.
He plays country, rockabilly,
and surf music in two
bands, works regularly as a
session musician for a local studio, and writes
for several guitar mags. He’s also a hardcore
guitar and amp DIY-er who runs an extensive
—on the subject.