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More Primary Tele Tone Mods

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——on the subject.