Hardware has a huge influence on the primary tone of any guitar, and it’s here that different materials can really make a difference.
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.
Taken together, very small
changes can make a huge tonal
difference. Most of the tweaks
we've discussed here are easy
to do and not too expensive,
so I encourage you to try some
of them—you might find the
signature tone you've always
wanted. Next month we'll ease
into some “warming up" Tele
mods, so stay tuned. Until then,
keep on modding!
Dirk Wacker lives 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.