Brass saddles and a thin steel bridge plate play an integral role in classic Tele twang.
Last month, we began exploring the Telecaster and simple modifications to enhance its fundamental tone [“PrimaryTone Mods for the Telecaster,”February 2012]. Before we heat up the soldering iron and launch into more complex projects, let’s continue on this path and get a solid grasp on Tele tone.Hardware has a huge influence on the primary tone of any guitar, and it’s here that different materials can really make a difference. For example, it’s worth experimenting with nut material. For me, nothing beats a good bone nut, but others prefer brass, wood, stainless steel, plastic, or other synthetic materials. Whatever you settle on, changing the nut material really affects the tone. Bridge saddles are another area to explore. If you have die-cast saddles on your Tele, consider replacing them. Die-cast saddles tend to dampen your guitar’s primary tone and should be replaced with more vibrant and resonant materials for a better and faster tone transfer. The original Tele saddle material from the ’50s is brass, and cold-rolled steel followed in the late ’60s. These materials will noticeably influence the tone, so changing saddles is an easy and inexpensive way to explore mods. Try steel saddles on a guitar lacking highs and brass saddles on a guitar with too much high end. For a good vintage Telecaster tone, brass is the right choice. There are many options—stainless steel, titanium, and aluminum, for example. Believe it or not, tuners affect your tone, too. Heavier tuners, such as most Grover machines, will give you more sustain and a stronger and louder primary tone. The old Kluson tuners will make your Tele sound more open and transparent with a faster attack— perfect for a vintage tone. The material and thickness of your Telecaster bridge plate is also crucial. For a vintage blackguard tone, you should use a thin metal bridge plate, preferably loaded with brass saddles. But bridge plates are also available made out of die-cast stainless steel, aluminum, brass, and titanium. The choice has never been better, so you can experiment with this, too. Underneath the bridge pickup you’ll find a copper-plated base plate that makes a very important contribution to the classic Telecaster sound. These plates are also available in other materials, including zinc (the original material from the ’50s), sheet metal, and brass. If you buy a new bridge pickup, pay attention to this detail. I don’t recommend changing the base plate yourself, however, because chances are good you’ll damage the pickup. The metal cover on the Telecaster’s neck pickup influences its tone. Cheap covers are typically made from steel or other metals that will kill some high end. If you want to avoid reducing high-end twang, use a pickup with a German-silver cover. (Despite its name, this material actually contains no silver and is usually composed of 60 percent copper, 20 percent nickel and 20 percent zinc.) Replacing the cover is an option, though you have to know what you’re doing to avoid damaging the pickup. Naturally, the most important factor in a guitar’s primary tone is the wood used to construct it. Leo Fender used pine for the very early models, followed by ash, and sometimes swamp ash—the latter mostly because of its visual appeal when covered with his preferred butterscotch finish. This is the classic Tele body wood. Together with a one-piece maple neck, it creates that vintage blackguard and Bakersfield sound. Alder bodies sound noticeably different, as do necks with rosewood or ebony fretboards. There are other discussions I don’t want to voice an opinion on, but should mention so you can decide if you want to experiment. On some forums, there’s a lot of “nuts and bolts” tech talk about how the screws, neck plate, pickguard, control plate, and the string ferrules influence Tele tone. Many companies have jumped on that bandwagon, offering these parts made from a variety of materials. There’s a lot to explore if you’re so inclined. Increasing the mass of your guitar will have a noticeable affect on the tone, and this can help eliminate dead spots on the fretboard. A classic trick is to clamp or screw some metal to the headstock. I recommend checking out the Fatfinger clamp from Groove Tubes. The difference is subtle, but audible. You can use a metal capo to test this out—Kyser’s Quick Change works great. New tuners made out of a heavier material will have a similar effect. It makes a big difference to Tele tone whether or not you use string trees, and where they’re located if you do. String trees change the string pressure against the nut, and the higher the pressure, the stronger the tone. I use metal “butterfly” string trees on the top four strings. Because I do a lot of behind-the-nut bends, I don’t have the string trees too near the nut. Putting a drop of lubricant on the string trees will result in better tuning stability, especially if you have a Bigsby tremolo on your Telecaster. In closing, here are a few other tips for your pursuit of great Tele tone:
- Check your guitar’s internal wiring—it’s not unusual to find a lot of crappy wire connecting the components. If so, get some high-quality hook-up wire from a luthier supply company and completely rewire the electronics. It’s almost unbelievable how this can improve your tone.
- Check the pots, pickup selector switch, and output jack. If you find some poor quality offshore parts, swap them for better replacements. A little online research will turn up quality brand names like Switchcraft, CTS, and Bourns.
- Restring your guitar with pure nickel strings and hear details you never heard before from your pickups. This will work on a lot of guitars, but not all.
- Try different flatpick materials and discover what you like best. From my experience, tortoiseshell celluloid picks provide the best Fender tone with a percussive attack and a lot of twang.
Dirk Wackerlives in 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 website—singlecoil.com—on the subject.