‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s Fender Teles: What’s The Difference?

All you need to know about the three definitive decades of Fender Telecaster evolution. Woods, Fretboards, bodies, pickups and more covered below. Find yourself the perfect Tele...

Cian Hodge

Cian Hodge

A lot about the Fender Telecaster has changed over the course of its fruitful existence. Originally released in 1948 under the name “Broadcaster”, one constant throughout the first mass-produced electric guitar’s lifespan has been the iconic single cut silhouette. Its inventor, Leo Fender, continued to refine the neck shape and the sound of the pickups, as well as touch up a few aesthetic appointments during his time as head of the Fender brand.

Guitar builders of all different backgrounds have had a good crack at their own versions of the Telecaster. That’s why there really is something here for everyone. But those first 30-odd years – 20 of them captained by the legendary Leo – gave us the three defining models of the Telecaster, officially referred to by decade: the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Fender made small tweaks to the Tele each year as production grew, so nowadays it’s simpler to categorise these most noticeable features by a longer time period. That’s why you’ve got Fender and offshoot brand Squier referring to a handful of their ranges by decade, including the Vintera, Classic Vibe, American Original and Custom Shop lines.

'50s Telecaster

‘50s Telecasters

Following a trademark dispute with guitar building competitors Gretsch, Fender decided to refresh, rename and re-spec the original Broadcaster. The final outcome was the first recognisable Telecaster which we all know and love today. It’s a design we regularly rely on to make contemporary music. The classic “Tele twang” is a timeless sound that works brilliantly for pretty much everything, from pop through to rock and more niche genres as well as providing a blank slate for intrepid guitar effects.

The secret ingredient to ‘50s Tele tone is of course the single coil pickups. Each individual Tele made at the time sounded slightly different, so there was a bit of pot luck with which one you got to try out at the guitar store. Variables like magnet type and number of windings hadn’t been standardised across the production line. What we can say about them as a collective is that they sound warm, articulate and punchy, thanks in particular to the flat pole pieces.

One aspect a lot of players find tricky to navigate on a ’50s Tele is the old school neck. It might feel a little on the clunky side if you’re accustomed to a modern guitar setup. Saying that, many love the thicker neck shape filling out the palm of the fretting hand, and the rounded fretboard ideally suited to fretting chords and big string bends.

‘50s Tele Key Features

  • Ash wood body
  • Maple neck and maple fretboard
  • Two low output single coil pickups
  • 7.25-inch fretboard radius
  • Deep “U” shape neck pattern
  • Three-saddle fixed ashtray bridge

Featured '50s Teles

‘60s Telecasters

What came next was closely tied to the evolution of guitar-centric music. Both the Tele and sister Stratocaster needed an update by the turn of the decade, with playing feel one of the key issues they had to nail down. Guitarists were becoming more and more technical. The likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page were pushing the boundaries of the instrument and were in need of an even sleeker playing experience. To address this, the thick neck became a thinner “C” shape, while the fretboard radius was expanded to 9.5-inches to make those strings skips and legato runs far more manageable.

Telecasters now housed new pickups able to handle the force of higher gain levels and thick-sounding germanium diode fuzz popularised at the time. The introduction of staggered pole pieces allowed for a tighter frequency balance across all strings, while the switch to enamel wiring created a more defined, scooped voicing.

We also have Fender to thank for kicking off the debate over electric guitar tonewoods. They swapped out maple fretboards for the deep brown hue of rosewood and introduced alder bodies in solid colour finish models.

’60s Tele Key Features

  • New rosewood fretboard
  • Alder bodies for coloured finishes
  • Expanded 9.5-inch radius fretboard
  • Slimmer “C” shape neck
  • Tweaked pickups with staggered pole pieces

Featured '60s Teles

‘70s Telecasters

This was a difficult time for Fender. Leo sold the company to broadcasting corporation CBS in 1965, with the ’70s considered the “peak” of their reign – if you want to put it kindly. It’s no secret that they shifted marketing focus to getting guitars out the factory in larger numbers. As a result, production quality dipped in comparison to the relatively impressive standards pre-1965. Nowadays, we can all laugh and joke about it and enjoy the stylistic differences of the time thanks to consistent modern construction techniques.

One great thing to come out of the ’70s were the in-house wound Wide Range humbuckers. Up to that point, Telecasters were equipped exclusively with single coil pickups. The humbuckers provided a completely new dimension to the Tele sound and put it closer in line with other humbucking competitors. Humbucker-configurated Teles are great for heavier rock and that love/hate jazz fusion tone.

‘70s Tele Key Features

  • Introduction of Wide Range humbucking pickups
  • Options for single coil/humbucker and humbucker/humbucker pickup configurations
  • Independent volume/tone controls to reflect pickup changes
  • Options for six saddle bridges
  • Extended pickguard shape
  • More fancy finishes

Featured '70s Teles

Which Telecaster is best for you?

Fender give you a nice spread of price points to pick out a decade-specific Telecaster. At the top end, you can’t beat a Custom Shop. They’re some of the best guitars in the world and offer the closest likeness to their historic counterparts. The Fender Custom Shop team take extreme care to get every spec spot on in line with the originals. If you like a certain date-specific feature, for example a “U” shape neck, but prefer hotter’60s pickups, they’ll go out their way to get it done.

The USA-made American Original line boasts the best of the production line woods and hardware, a naturally ageing nitro finish and an option for heralded guitar pickup designer Tim Shaw pickups. The only major difference between these and an original Tele spec from the era is the updated modern fretboard radius.

Vintera guitars are your next choice floating around the £1000 mark. You’ve got a bit of thinking to do here; not only do you have ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘60s models, but also Modified, Deluxe, Custom and Road Worn models with tweaked pickups, neck shapes and finishes.

Fender-owned brand Squier is the choice for you if you’re shopping on a smaller budget. Their Classic Vibe series gives lots of different visual delights and sounds to explore. You’ve got a selection of semi-hollow Thinline guitars, natural, sunburst and solid colour finishes, and limited edition FSR guitars with a handful of fun and unique quirks.

If you enjoyed this read, check out more of our Learn and Industry articles!

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Cian Hodge
Cian Hodge
Cian is a writer for the Andertons team. He shares his birthday with Muse frontman Matt Bellamy and believes he will one day reach the same level of stardom. Cian is a big metal fan so naturally loves Bare Knuckle pickups and pointy guitars.

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