The Birth of the Telecaster

Saturday, February 28, 2009| by Will Chen

The year was 1949 and Leo Fender and just built his first prototype guitar named the Esquire. The production version was offered in single and dual pickup configuration with the dual verions initially dubed the Broadcaster. In 1951, a law suit was filed claiming the Broadcaster name infringed upon the trademark of Gretch’s "Broadkaster" drum kit. Fender renamed the guitar the Telecaster in late February of 1951. The rest, as they say, is history. But was that early design sheer genius, pure luck, or the powers of the universe culminating in a historical singularity? Perhaps it was a little bit of each.

It was 1920’s Los Angeles and lap steel player George Beauchamp was searching for a louder instrument to make his mark in the highly competitive entertainment industry of the time. His searches lead him to John Dopyera, who at the time was a violin repairman, to build him a louder instrument. Several attempts led to the design of an aluminum resonator attached to a metal guitar’s bridge. The duo formed a partnership which later became Dopera Brothers' National Resonator Guitars.

The metal resonators were a huge hit with Hawaiian guitarists, a style which was popular at the time. The company built a new factory near the tool and die shop of Adolph Rickenbacker who was soon hired by Beauchamp.

By late 1928, disputes within the company were beginning to rip it apart. John Dopyera was becoming frustrated with George Beauchamp fruitless experimentation and quit the company and formed the Dobro Corporation. Ironically, one of those experiments Beauchamp was working on was the initial concepts behind the magnetic pick-up.

By 1930, the concept of the magnetic coil for use in amplifying sound was wide spread and used commercially in phonograph pickups. Along with Paul Barth, Beauchamp wound the first electric guitar pickup using a washing machine motor. The design utilized a large two “horseshoe” shaped magnets surrounding the strings and a single coil blade.

When testing proved successful, Beauchamp built a crude neck and body for it. Excited with his new creation, he immediately asked Rickenbacker to begin mass producing a metal version which hit the market in 1931 as the famous aluminum ‘Frying Pan’ model A-22.

Gibson which was a leading manufacturer of acoustic guitars and mandolins at the time had been experimenting with electrifying its instruments. Loyd Loar is noted to have built several prototypes as early as 1924. However, the design was based around an internally mounted electrostatic design which was more closely related to a microphone than a pick-up. Gibson didn’t see any commercial potential at the time and didn’t mass produce the models.

After the success of Rickenbacker’s Frying Pan, Gibson decided to give it another shot and in 1933 assigned Walter Fuller the task of making an electrified Gibson. Fuller opted against the earlier electrostatic design instead choosing a coil wrapped around a magnetic bar which sat perpendicular to the strings. In 1935, Gibson introduced the L-50 electro-magnetic acoustic guitar. The guitar was renamed the Electric Spanish (ES) 150 in 1936. By the 1940’s, Gibson had a full line of ES guitars at a variety of price points which were proving widely successful with guitarists.

Capitalizing on the burgeoning market to become electrified, Leo Fender of Fender’s Radio Service began building amplifiers based on RCA radio designs and Gibson styled electromagnetic pickups for musicians. Fender had an idea for an improved pickup design using individual magnetic pole pieces rather than the bar or horseshoe magnet designs of the day.

He and his partner Clayton “Doc” Kauffman, a former eclectric guitar designer at Rickenbacker, built a very crude wooden to house the prototype pick-up.

In 1949, Fender and Kauffman collaborated to produce the first Esquire prototype borrowing many of the most innovative ideas of the day. Don Randall, manager of Fender's distributor, the Radio & Television Equipment Company (known popularly as Radio-Tel), immediately recognized the commercial potential of a wooden solid body guitar and began promoting the product. The following year, the Esquire (single pick-up) and Broadcaster (dual pick-up) went into full production becoming the first mass produced commercially available solid body electric guitar.

To celebrate the official birth of the Telecaster, has round up some affordable import versions of the classic instrument. Click here  to read the reviews.

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