11. Chandler Custom Tele with Joe Barden Pickups
AFTER going Strat-crazy for a while, the pendulum was swinging back to the Tele.
Not sure why. I think it had something to do with the hour I had to kill one Saturday, sitting in Automatic Slim’s van outside Langford Village Hall, waiting to collect one of the kids from a birthday party. I can’t remember exactly why I was in our blue Renault Master rather than the car, but I was. To pass the time, I grabbed a guitar from the back of the van.
It was Cundo’s spare, a beautiful 50s-style maple-board sunburst Tele he’d found secondhand for not much money in Honky Tonk Music in Southend. There was no name on the headstock, but it had “Tokai” stamped on the bridge plate and I’m happy to believe it really was a Tokai. It was easily good enough and played beautifully – so much more easily than my 51 reissue, which by that time, was strung high and heavy for slide. I wanted it… I think I even asked Ian to give me first refusal if he sold it, but somehow, he did manage to let it go not long afterwards without giving me the option.
I had – absolutely HAD – to find myself another Tele!
Soon after this, Owen, myself and our friend Jamie (he crops up in a good few of these tales from aroudn that time) found ourselves in Chandler’s guitar shop in Kew, for no particular reason other than to look at guitars, the Tele bug gnawing away at me.
There, in the shop, was this rather interesting example, built, I think by the shop’s repair guy from high-end parts – Warmoth, I think – and featuring a impressive set of super-high-output Joe Barden picks, as used by astonishing American Telemaster Danny Gatton. If it was good enough for Danny Gatton, surely it’d be good enough for me…
Somehow, mysteriously, it made its way back to Burnham. Funny that – a credit card and complete lack of self-control may have been involved.
What happened after that is a little hazy. I’m not even sure I ever even played it out. I do, however, remember playing it through one of the first blonde Fender Vibrokings in the country, which Jamie brought down to Burnham for us to try one day – Jamie used to bring down all manner of exotic amps and guitars for Owen to appraise. What a terrible fellow!
The Barden pickups were so hot they drove the front end of that amp absolutely crazy – and not really in a very musical way. It had a fender Tube Reverb circuit built in front of the the amp and the springs didn’t like too much wallop from the guitar.
I also remember, for some reason, the neck joint not being terribly stable – one of those thoroughly disconcerting necks where you could get a vibrato effect by pushing forward on it, always a tad fearful the damned thing might actually break off! It was something to do with the way the heel had been shaved away to improve top fret access (not that I play up there all that much anyway.) I suspect that was why this Tele’s sojourn with me was so short and relatively unmemorable…
12. Fender Mexico Contemporary Telecaster
I’VE long been of the opinion that (with the exception of the Custom Shop and the odd reissue) throughout the 90s, Fender was practically incapable of making a decent American Tele. Lord knows, I played enough of them during that time – and not one of them really did it for me. Those ugly, functional, flat bridges with the cast saddles looked all wrong. So did the big, clunky modern tuners they insisted on fitting – to my mind, absolutely nothing looks right on Leo Fender’s slim, elegant Telecaster headstock but a set of Kluson Deluxes! The big thing, Fender got wrong, though, was the neck. Flat, shallow and with nasty, sharp edges to the fingerboards – horrible!
Meanwhile, in Mexico, Fender was doing quite a lot of things right. I remember thinking this as I played a particularly sweet copper-coloured Tele with a humbucker at the neck, Keef-style, in a little music shop in Chelmsford’s Moulsham Street. I happened to mention it to Len Tuckey, a blues jam buddy by that stage, and a man who knows a thing or two about guitars. Lenny also knows a lot of people in the business, and he suggested a visit to his mate at the Fender Europe artist showroom near Gatwick Airport.
I came back through the Dartford Tunnel with a nice black Fender gig bag containing this rather fine Olympic White maple neck Mexican Contemporary Tele. Almost everything about this guitar (except, perhaps the weight – a bit on the heavy side) was right. The bridge pickup – I’m told the early Mexican guitars were fitted with USA electrics – was the clincher. Just the right combination of power and bite, without the brittleness Tele pickups sometimes have. From the go-get, was a struggle to wrest it from Owen’s hands!
It had a five-way switch, which did various coil-tappy/phasey things with the covered PAF-style humbucker. Our only quibble was that the humbucker tended to overpower the bridge pickup. You could set up the amp to get great sounds from one pickup or the other – but not both. If ever a guitar should’ve been an Esquire…on reflection, that’s what I probably should have done with it. In fact, I might yet to do. 🙂
What I did instead was to switch out the humbucker for a very nice Seymour Duncan Firebird pickup. The brighter, lower output was a far better match and the tortoishell pickguard I bought to take the mini-humbucker looked even cooler than the original mint green. At this point, something about the way I wired it meant the front position of the five-way switch muted the guitar…no idea why. So I made up a little metal stop and screwed to the switch – now it’s a 4-way switch!
It’s the guitar I dig out if I’m in an Albert Collins frame of mind, or often, if I want to good rock sound and don’t fancy playing a Les Paul – I’ve long believed Teles are the most versatile of guitars. A Strat will sound like a Strat, whatever you do, but you can literally play anything on a Tele and make it work.
This old Mexican Tele is a much-loved instrument, a much-played guitar and a much-travelled one, too. Aside from all the gigs and jams when I used it, it was one of Owen’s staples when he and Rob had a rather good rock band called Fakie.
It was his axe of choice when he returned from California for the weekend to play with a reformed Armadillos at his sister, Alice’s wedding. Oh, and he took it back to LA with him, the bugger. I didn’t see it for some time – and even ended up buying another Mexican Tele to make up for losing it. In the end, I had to go out there and bring it back – and yes, I still have it!
It was a pretty fundamentally sound instrument – not a patch on the one Owen had lifted from me – but a decent beast. It wasn’t without its issues, worst of which was some viciously-rough fret ends above the 12th fret, and a very indifferent set of pickups. I never did get the fret issue sorted out (a big part of my eventual decision to let it go) but a set of DiMarzio Area Ts and some compensated brass bridge saddles made a huge difference to the sound. While I was changing the pickups I realised this red Tele was essentially similar to the (also Mexican) Muddy Waters Signature Tele. It simply had to be done – a couple of Fender amp knobs later and nobody would know the difference! A seriously cool-looking guitar.
I reckon I had it nine months before I went out to the States and ended up bringing back my original Mexican Tele – at which point I decided I really didn’t need both. Truly a case of easy come, easy go. (More of which next time…)