Without question, the much loved ‘Tele’ is one of the founding fathers of modern guitar-based music.
Along with the Strat and Les Paul, the awesome ‘Tele’ has helped to forge modern guitar-based music. Countless devotees include Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, all the way to Blur’s Graham Coxon and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood
If you’re looking to buy one of these design icons, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we give you all the info you need to know before purchasing one – and the good news is you don’t need to drop a ton of cash to get a half-decent one.
At a Glance: Our Pick of the Best Telecasters on the Market
- Squier Classic Vibe 50’s
- Fender Modern Player
- Limited Edition Tribute Bluesboy by G&L
- ESP LTD TE-254 Distressed 3TB
- Fender Vintera Modified Telecaster
- Fender American Elite
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
- Telecaster Design Features
- Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
- Product Round-up & Mini-Reviews
- So, Which is the Best Telecaster for the Money?
Leo Fender released the world’s first Tele in 1951, with little idea his design would still be kicking butt 70 years later.
He initially named it ‘the Broadcaster’ but had to rename it due to copyright reasons when Fred Gretsch informed him he had a drum kit with the same name.
For a period of time (6 months or so) it actually had no name – and was called the ‘No-Caster’ – before it found it was christened with its current name.
Telecaster Design Features
The Telecaster is a workhorse of a machine, and everything about it is simplicity and power. So what makes it unique? Let’s have a look:
The Tele is fitted with two single-coil pickups in the bridge and neck position, which give it that famous bright twang. In contrast to its sibling the Strat, the bridge pickup is wider and longer.
The bridge pickup is what gives the Tele its distinctive sound. You’ll see it’s mounted on a metal bridge plate (known as the ‘ashtray design’) which has weighty, chunky saddles (especially on vintage models where they’re made of brass) which gives you a ‘ballsy’ bridge pick up sound, with more bite and output.
A three-way switch lets you toggle between the two pickups (or both if you put it in the middle position).
These guitars were the first to have a body made from a piece of solid wood (typically alder or ash) which is a light and well balanced ‘closed-pore wood’ with a resonant, balanced tone that gives you sharp attack and brilliant sustain. Modern versions often use alternative woods such as pine (for example, the Classic Vibe 50’s in the reviews below).
It is a single-cutaway body, with no contours (in other words, flat as a pancake).
Fender decided against a traditional set neck, opting for a bolt-on one (although later on they did release a few set-neck ones). This also meant that if it gets damaged, it easily replaceable (which can’t be said for set-neck guitars such as the Les Paul).
The original necks were made from a single piece of maple, and occasionally mahogany, however, these days it’s not uncommon to find them fitted with rosewood fingerboards to improve playability.
It has a full-sized scale length too, which, like it’s sibling the Stratocaster, gives you plenty of neck length to work with as opposed to say the Les Paul which has a much shorter scale length.
The headstock features six, single side tuners on a particularly thin headstock.
Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations
Now we’ve covered the basics of its design, we’ll now look at some of the things worth considering if you’re looking for purchase one.
Telecasters come in a variety of body woods depending on the particular model and manufacturer. More expensive versions are most likely going to have a body made from ash or alder like the original, for bright, long sustaining notes.
Pricier models may also come with a maple, ebony or rosewood fretboard. Maple is excellent if you want a bright tone, whereas rosewood will give you extra warmth and resonance and ebony is ultra-smooth, for seamless chord changes and arpeggios.
On the other hand, cheaper Copies usually have pine or basswood bodies, which are easier to manipulate during the manufacturing process but tone-wise, don’t produce the lows or highs quite as well.
Nowadays, there are plenty of alternative designs out there. Some vintage models have a nitrocellulose lacquer, for that retro look, whereas modern alternatives have a thicker, more protective polyurethane or polyester finish.
Different models come with various fretboard radiuses. For example, vintage Teles have a 7 ½ inch fretboard radius, whereas modern versions usually have a 9 ½ inch radius.
People with smaller builds will most likely find a smaller radius more comfortable to play with; on the other hand, large folk would be better off with a larger radius.
Telecasters are manufactured in either the US, Mexico or Asia. Most fans of these guitars praise the US and Mexican models the most, due to the high-quality materials and craftsmanship involved in their making. But, saying that, some great guitars still come off the production line in Asia.
Asian versions are often slightly cheaper too, so would perhaps suit a beginner guitarist, looking to get a feel for whether they take to the Telecaster or not before spending a load on a more expensive, American made model.
As we’ll see next, there are some great Copies out there too. ESP, Harley Benton, and Chapman Guitars produce some great versions.
Product Round-up & Mini-Reviews
Squier Classic Vibe 50’s
The Classic Vibe range from Squire (which also includes a Strat which we review here) are reproductions of 50’s style classic Fender guitars, at a budget price.
As for this Tele, it’s the butterscotch blonde and black scratchplate design (the classic finish).
The best thing about Squier’s design here has to be the pair of custom made, vintage alnico 5 pickups. These single-coil pups ensure that your tone is sparkling bright for badass solos, but also warm and rich enough to play blues, classic rock, and jazz styles.
However, these pickups aren’t made to sound that great with loads of distortion, and if anything, gain seems to mask the musicality of the instrument, but this is the case with most Teles – except perhaps those with humbuckers.
The body of this instrument is made from a beautiful, solid piece of pine, which has a retro-looking butterscotch finish, to please all the 50’s fanatics.
There’s also a C shaped maple neck, for that extra tonal clarity and 21 medium jumbo frets, which means most builds of guitarist will find this guitar comfortable to use.
The has a bolt-on neck with a lacquered fretboard which won’t be to everyone’s taste.
As for tone control, it’s pretty straightforward. There are just one master volume dial and two-tone controls, so even beginner players will be able to set this guitar up the way they want it. The ‘through body’ bridge and barrel saddles will also mean you can restring this thing easily.
Who is this ideal for?
This one is arguably the best telecaster for the money we review here; you get some fantastic features. It would particularly suit a beginner looking for their first vintage guitar to play blues and 50’s rock n roll on.
- Price – Decent enough electronics and tonewood for your dollar.
- Neck – The neck here is thin and nicely rounded, with mid-sized frets so that the average guitarist will find it comfortable to use.
- Body – solid pine and very light, and looks remarkably like ash.
- It’s a Squier – ok, it’s not a Fender, but this is Squiers top of the line (and try finding a Fender for the same price).
- Probably needs a set-up – like most guitars, will need a proper set up to get the tension and intonation right before you use it.
Take a listen:
Fender Modern Player
The Modern Player by Fender is currently selling for a slightly higher price than the Squier we mentioned above, but it’s still very affordable compared to the other models in our round-up. So, what exactly do you get for the money?
Well, I’d say the best thing about the Modern Player has to be its set of pickups. There’s a Humbucker on the bridge, a Strat middle single coil pickup, and a Tele single-coil neck pup. There’s also a 5-way switching system and a coil-splitting toggle to select between them all. So, as you can imagine, this model is way more diverse in regards to tone compared to the Vintage Squier.
It also has 22 jumbo frets, which allow for faster playing techniques. The neck itself is made from high-quality maple, for extra tonal clarity, and has a well-finished, glossy fingerboard for smooth chord changes and licks. So, already the Modern Player seems to be more fitting to meatier styles of music than the Squier, thanks to its beefy pickups and slick neck. It sounds a little bit like a Gibson SG when you select the Humbucker.
Overall, for the price, there is a lot of high-quality electronics and design going on, so we think that any guitarist looking to play a variety of musical styles will love it.
- Pickups – There are two types of single coils and a humbucker pickup going on here, so you get a very versatile sound production.
- Jumbo Frets – These are wide so that you can play arpeggios and scales faster.
- Noisy neck pickup – This is noticeably loud on a tube amp and even on some solid states.
- Doesn’t metal – While it’s true the Modern Player can get meatier than the Squier, it still won’t be quite enough for metal styles.
Here’s how it sounds…
Limited Edition Tribute Bluesboy by G&L
The gorgeous looking (depending on your taste) Bluesboy by G&L is the second most expensive Tele we take a look at today, but it’s certainly worth the money if you’re after an instrument of fantastic quality. We think the best aspect here has to be the warm, rich tone that the Bluesboy kicks out. This is achieved thanks to the guitar having a classic humbucker in the neck position, a G&L Alnico humbucker in the bridge and a high-quality, solid swamp ash body.
That said, there’s still a single-coil G&L bridge pickup thrown into the mix, for a touch of crisp brightness when you need it. The fretboard itself is maple, so it should survive plenty of action and will sustain notes for a reasonable amount of time.
The neck is also bolt-on, so if damaged you can replace it easily, and there are some well-made brass saddles which allow you to refine the instrument’s intonation to meet your taste.
Aesthetically, it’s the most ‘out there’ we’ve seen so far, with its baby blue lacquer and gleaming white, 3-ply pickguard, so it’s guaranteed to get you noticed on stage.
If you hadn’t clicked already, the Bluesboy is going to be the best for blues artists, looking for warm, rich tones thanks to its meaty, warm humbuckers.
- Full-bodied tone – The combination of humbuckers here really beefs out the sound this thing kicks out.
- Aesthetic – This guitar is pretty cool looking and is guaranteed to get you noticed at a show.
- Price – Check that you can’t get something similar for a little less cash. Why not have a look at Fender’s Modern Player for example.
- Not so bright – If you’re looking for twang, the Bluesboy isn’t going to be for you. Its all about warmth.
Here it is in action…
ESP LTD TE-254 Distressed 3TB
If you’re a fan of grunge music and guitars that look beaten up, then this thing is definitely for you, you could see Kurt Cobain smashing up one these during a live set. The TE-245 is selling for a similar price for the Squier too (see above), so it’s very affordable considering the technology you get.
The best aspect of here has to be the specially designed pickups by ESP. There’s an LH-150 in the neck position and an LTS-120 in the bridge, both of which provide sonic versatility with a higher than average output. Thanks to these pups, the overall tone this instrument brings is aggressive and full when used with distortion, but capable of producing those classic twangy clean notes you’d expect from a high-quality Tele.
Another great thing about this model is its well-made ash body and maple neck. The single piece of ash helps to give your sound warmth and richness, while the maple neck and fingerboard allow for that extra touch of chime and clarity. With that in mind, the neck itself is a lovely, thin U shape build, so even petite guitarists shouldn’t struggle to finger chords comfortably.
There are 22 extra-jumbo frets, specially designed to allow for fast arpeggios and licks. Overall, the TE-254 will suit guitarists looking for excellent playability with plenty of drive and distortion. For the price, you won’t be disappointed.
- Handles gain well – the TE-254 works particularly well with distortion and extra gain.
- Price – At a similar price to the Squier we mentioned above, you get some fantastic technology here.
- Aesthetic – While the beaten-up look is pretty cool, it might not be to every guitarist’s taste.
- Neck – While an ultra-thin neck is excellent for smaller builds, guitarists with a larger handspan may find it a little too compact between strings.
Fender Vintera Modified Telecaster
Combining the best of the old and the new, here’s Fender’s Vintera Modified Tele features many of the design features of the original, but with a modern twist.
For a start, it comes with a custom shop vintage-style single-coil pickups for a full, warm tone, and like the original. The series wiring makes this Tele sound fat, like you’re playing through a humbucking pickup, even though it’s using single-coils.
The 3-saddle ‘strings-through-body’ bridge with chrome barrel saddles gives it a great characteristic twang too, and the 4-way switch gives you plenty of tonal variety too.
To add to that, the ‘thick soft V’ shaped neck has a 9.5″ radius maple fingerboard with 21 vintage style frets makes it useful for those of us with small hands and gives you that classic bright sound and fantastic note sustain.
- Characteristic twang from the bridge with three brass saddles
- Superb selection of single-coil bridge pickups
- ‘Thick soft V’ shaped neck offers great playability
Check it out >>
Fender American Elite
The American Elite by Fender is the most expensive Tele on the list, and for the price, you pretty much get the best technology out there. The best thing about this guitar has to be its pair of noiseless single-coil pickups in the neck and bridge position. These pups are constructed using Alnico V magnets and shielded wire, which guarantees that any unwanted hum is non-existent while retaining that vintage, Tele punch, and definition, for ultimate tonal clarity.
The second-best aspect here is the choice of tonewood used in the body and fingerboard. There’s a single piece alder body for tonal warmth within a convenient, lightweight package. The fingerboard is made from ebony, for a seamless, gliding touch and beautiful chiming highs.
The neck itself starts off as a modern C shape at the headstock and becomes a broader D shape towards the neck heel. This is quite a rare design, that’s been thought up specifically for fast chord changes and extra comfortable playing. As with most Teles, the neck remains bolt-on, so if you break or damage it while on tour, you can rest assured there’ll be no problem getting it fixed.
Overall, although the American Elite looks reasonably similar to the Fender Modern Player (see above) with its black polyurethane finish, the quality of pups, fingerboard, and neck is far superior. Just remember you’ll need some extra savings to be able to afford one.
- Noiseless pickups – These single coil pups are completely hum-free while retaining all the twang you need for a classic tone.
- Ebony fingerboard – This feels like velvet and ensures you’ll be able to solo at high speeds.
- Price – This thing is expensive, but you get the highest quality technology out there for your dollar.
- Plain – Just like the Fender Player, it doesn’t stand out, it’s more about having a professional, classy look that will blend in with others in your band.
Here’s how it sounds…
So, Which is the Best Telecaster for the Money?
Just remember, there’s no correct choice when it comes to buying a model, it depends on what you need as a musician and how much money you’re willing to fork out.
With that in mind, if you’re looking for that classic Telecaster tone, then the Fender Vintera Modified Telecaster is selling for a mid-range price and has a classic single-coil pup for that bright twangy tone. If you’re on a budget, then the Squier Classic 50’s Tele is a fantastic, affordable option if you’re a fan of 50’s rock n blues.
If you need a guitar with versatility, then the Fender Modern Player is your best bet. This model features three different types of pickup – one Humbucker, one Strat single coil, and one Tele Single coil, for varied tone production. On the other hand, if you’re into heavier genres of rock, like grunge, then the ESP LTD Telecaster will suit your band. It comes with a custom made LTD Humbucker pickups, for a beefy edge that works well with distortion.
If you’re into blues and want something that looks stylish, then the Bluesboy will give you a tremendously rich tone and a funky aesthetic, which is sure to turn some heads!
Finally, if you’ve been saving up and want to invest in the best that money can buy, then the American Elite by Fender is your best option. This guitar has noiseless pickups and a velvet ebony fretboard, for ultimate playability and tone.
Best of luck!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.