Telecaster Tuesday – the Brilliance of Leo

While a small army of musicians work on their versions of future Telecaster Tuesdays, I thought I would add my two cents. During a visit to Fender amp guru Skip Simmons shop, he mentioned that Leo Fender was a brilliant industrial designer. I have felt this way for years. but Skip was the only person I have heard articulate it. While Skip was mainly talking about amps at the time, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on the subject. I am not saying I know what was going on in Leo’s head, but it’s fun to guess why certain decisions were made.

Look at the shape of the Telecaster. It’s a guitar shape with a cutaway. OK. Not earth shattering design, but the proportions are right. The lack of a longer top-“horn” required that mass be taken off the headstock to balance the guitar when you use a strap. So the Tele has a small headstock. The neck was bolted on, saving countless luthier hours and ultimately making a guitar with a neck issue repairable by just about anybody. Get a new neck and put it on. Done. If you use six on one side tuners. You only have to buy one kind of tuner. This saves time and in the event of tuner failure, you aren’t left with an uneven number. Waste was minimized. Leo must have been very thrifty, evidence of which are the vintage solid color painted over sunburst bodies that must have been not quite right.

Perhaps one of the most brilliant designs of Leo’s was the fretting machine. It slid the frets in sideways, instead of the top, taking advantage of the tang design to keep the fret down on the board. It still took skill, but no were near the skill and time it takes to do the job with a hammer. Ironically, an ad for the Fender Custom Shop shows a luthier putting frets in with a hammer. Good thing Leo is not around to see that.

Bill Carson, an early employee at Fender, said that the Tele was ugly. So they designed the Stratocaster. It occurred to me that the Telecaster is ugly. Like a truck is ugly. Form dictated by function. But sometimes function can influence how we feel about design. No matter how pretty an instrument is, if it doesn’t work, it won’t get used. Guitar builder Scott Walker said it best after he finished putting a new nut on a 1963 Fender. He shook his head in obvious respect for the design: “Leo got it right.”