I was 16 years old when I first saw it in the front window of a local music shop in Richardson Texas. I had already been playing guitar for six years by then and was playing in a rock band in our high school. My current “axe” back then was an electric guitar my mom found at a garage sale — an unknown brand with red sparkle paint, three pickups and giant rocker switches. But the guitar in the window was different. It was incredibly simple, very functional-looking, its overall design almost homely. Bright yellow, white pick guard, light maple neck and fingerboard. Something about it reminded me of a popsicle. I suddenly started to obsess about it. My family and I went on a cross-country driving trip that Summer and that guitar was all I could think about day and night. I liked the slab-like thickness of it, the fact that the cord plugged into the side of the guitar, not on top like the garage-sale guitar. I loved the control knobs with no numbers printed on them. Who needs numbers on a control knob? What is this rocket-science or rock n’ roll!? I liked the big pickup selector switch — reminded me of the kind of big electric switch you’d see on a Saturday morning cartoon. Then there was that mysterious removable chrome bridge cover that no one ever seemed to keep on the guitar. The guitar was called a “Telecaster”. I learned that the company that made the guitar, Fender, also made another guitar, the “Stratocaster”, which was spoken of, amongst my teenage rock n’ roll peers, in hushed tones — the super-guitar (super, in this case, spelled with an “$”).
About that time, I read an interview with the legendary blues guitarist Roy Buchannan in Guitar Player maganzine, I think. He talked about the Telecasters he owned, techniques he used, about memorizing the neck and scales, circle-picking, controlling the Telecaster’s volume with your pinky while playing, about the wonderful tone and sustain it has. I became more obsessed as I read it.
Finally I went to the big guitar store in East Dallas with the intent to somehow get one. It became painfully apparent that I couldn’t afford it unless I put the guitar on “lay-away”, which meant the guitar was taken off the shelf and I had to make payments until it was paid off, then I could have it. Being a teenager, I could only afford a used instrument, which, thankfully, they had in abundance. The first one I saw was black, fairly beat up, with a dark rosewood neck and a Bigsby whammy bar. No, I wanted something pure, unaltered; I wanted that yellow Telecaster I had seen a year before in the shop window. In another room there was a nine-year-old Telecaster: maple neck, yellow (or as Fender calls it, “blonde”) — exactly right, perfect. It was $275, including its rectangular wooden case. That was more money than I had ever spent on anything. An insane amount of money. To make matters worse, I had to give them my garage-sale electric guitar and my Sears acoustic guitar as the down payment. In other words, I had no guitar to play until I managed to pay off this crazy debt.
The next month I emptied my life savings account for the second payment, and worked weekends for my father to scrape together the third; but there was no way I could make the last payment of $70. I was depressed, freaking out that it would go back up on the sales shelf for someone else to buy. My parents took pity on me and supplemented the last payment. Finally the used Telecaster was mine!
The guitar played like a dream. It was three times easier to play than the cheap guitars I learned on. A simple truism occurred to me: the higher the quality of the tool, the easier it is to use. Playing those other, inferior guitars was like running track with weights on my legs. This guitar, by contrast, was running without weights, in fact, flying. It was a relief and a joy to play barre chords — somehing that used to give me hand cramps. And I loved the sound of the guitar. The neck pickup sounded soft and mellow, switch to the bridge pickup and it became harsh and bright and cut through the air like a buzz saw. When the volume knob on the guitar was cranked all the way up (I would say to “10″, but remember — no numbers) and run through my Peavy tube amplifier the sound got fat and fuzzy; turned down just a little and it became bright and sharp again. Back then I played with a guitar pick, and I could store an extra pick, should I drop one, behind the pickguard for quick access while performing. We played a lot of hard rock when everyone else was playing disco, and the time I spent playing my Telecaster was pure heaven.
Two years later I sold the guitar back to the big guitar store as a down-payment for a new Rickenbacker 4003 bass guitar, which I still own and love. But I’m haunted by regret for getting rid of the Tele. Interestingly, the 1969 Fender Telecaster I paid $275 for in high school is now worth about $6,000 — that’s more than a 2000% appreciation!
Sometimes I think about getting a new one, but that ship has sailed. My interest these days is in acoustic finger picking style blues guitar, not electric ear-bleeding rock (although many great blues musicians have played Telecasters: Muddy Waters and Albert Collins being two fine examples). For now I’m just happy for the glowing memory of having once owned a really fine instrument. Maybe if I still owned it I would take it for granted.