Top-notch build quality. Nice humbucker tones. Well-balanced pickups.
Contemporary neck profile and fretboard radius might put off players with vintage Fender inclinations.
Players have been modding electric guitars since, well … since there were electric guitars. But the Telecaster neck-humbucker conversion was one of the first mods to become relatively commonplace. It’s hard to pinpoint who did it first. Keith Richards’ humbucker’d Telecasters, which were converted by Ted Newman Jones in 1972, may be the most famous. But Stones chum and soul belter extraordinaire Terry Reid rocked a butterscotch Telecaster with a PAF at Glastonbury the previous summer. And Steve Marriott switched his Telecaster’s neck pickup out for a Bill Lawrence-designed True Sound pickup when he was still with the Small Faces a few years earlier. Clearly a lot of players were looking for a little extra oomph from their otherwise perfect Fullerton slabs. And by ’72, even Fender themselves would be stuffing Telecasters with humbuckers in the guise of the Deluxe and Custom.
Wherever that path’s origins, it’s led us to this evolutionary incarnation of the Telecaster, the American Performer Telecaster Hum. But while the neck-position humbucker is the most overt modification to the traditional Tele template, it’s far from the only feature that sets this newest Telecaster apart. There’s a new Yosemite-series single-coil pickup in the bridge position, a Greasebucket tone circuit that attenuates high end without enhancing lows or reducing gain, and a coil-split switch that makes the neck humbucker a best-of-both-worlds single-coil/humbucker hybrid. Needless to say, none of these mods are brand new ideas, save for the new alnico 4 Yosemite single-coil bridge pickup. But gathered together in an alder-bodied, U.S.A.-built Tele for a little more than a grand, they add up to a very good value in a genuinely versatile and different instrument.
Mod-Mad Mash Up
The American Performer’s mix of vintage, slightly less vintage, and contemporary elements sometimes feels like a mutation of Telecasters from many decades somehow made into a cohesive whole. And apart from the finish and shiny new hardware, it also has the cool, customized feel of a guitar that’s been chopped, routed, tweaked, and slimmed to suit an individual player’s evolving tastes over time: jumbo frets here, vintage brass saddles there, a push-pull tone pot, and a 9.5" radius neck that feels like it was expertly planed to facilitate some rocker’s Jimmy Page string-bending fantasies.
Attention to detail is evident everywhere. The finish is impeccable, the fretwork is excellent, and the maple neck is shaped with a nice roll at the edges—eliminating the sharp-edged feel you experience on some flatter-radius necks. The neck profile is a shape that Fender calls the “modern C,” and it’s a fairly significant deviation from vintage norms. Compared to a 7.25" radius vintage C, it’s wider, flatter, and perhaps a little bit less thick. For players with smaller hands, the profile might make complex chording more difficult than on a vintage Fender. It might also feel odd to players who prefer the profile of a ’60s Fender and the many vintage reissues that emulate that shape. But there is no denying the bend-happy playability derived from the combination of the flatter radius and jumbo frets.
The American Performer’s capacity for sonic sleight-of-hand is impressive. Plug it in, start picking, and you’ll hear scads of sounds you wouldn’t hesitate to call classic Telecaster. Play the American Performer alongside a ’60s-spec Telecaster, though, and you’ll hear profound differences. The Yosemite bridge pickup, which uses wax-potted alnico 4 magnets in place of vintage-style alnico 5 magnets, is airier with just a bit less body, growl, and aggression than the ’60s-spec pickups in my own alder, maple-neck Telecaster, and other vintage specimens I have played. But it’s a great tone profile for pedal-happy players, lending headroom for overdrives and fuzz and a less boomy voice that helps highlight overtones and harmonics in heavy delay and reverb blends.
The alnico 4 DoubleTap humbucker, meanwhile, is mellow and even-tempered in terms of both output and tonal-spectrum balance. It’s not too hot—presumably to better blend with the airy Yosemite single-coil—and it’s less loud than modern PAFs or Fender’s own original Wide Range humbucker. In coil-tapped mode you hear less low end, but the output doesn’t sound considerably thinner or exhibit the almost out-of-phase sounding fragility that plagues some coil-tapped humbuckers. In both modes, the neck pickup blends beautifully with the bridge unit, creating a jangly, wide-screen tone picture that ranges from jazz-mellow to spanky, depending on how you set up the Greasebucket tone circuit. Output balance between the pickups is excellent too. (Resistance measurements for the two pickups are nearly identical: 7.9k ohm for the Yosemite bridge and 8k ohm for the DoubleTap.) And the relative civility and high headroom of the pickups make the American Performer a great match for big amps that magnify the bloom and nuanced overtone picture from both pickups.
Though many of the American Performer Telecaster Hum’s outward visual cues suggest a vintage alignment, this is very much a modern player’s instrument. The tones and switching all seem designed to accommodate the needs of contemporary effect-centric playing. And the neck profile, fretboard radius, and jumbo frets make the guitar feel much different than a ’60s or early-’70s Telecaster.
But for all the differences, the American Performer Telecaster Hum does all the things a Tele traditionally does very well. And again, most of the deviations from vintage norms are refinements of mods that players have been making to vintage Telecasters since the ’60s. Where the American Performer Telecaster Hum fits into your world is really down to how strongly you align with rawer vintage tones and how the neck feels in your fretting hand. Either way, the American Performer is an intriguing alternative in a ever-evolving Fender line that admirably offers options for many kinds of players.
Watch the First Look: