Your Telecaster Obsession : Mod Your Tele Part I
A friend of mine once told me that there are 2 types of people in the world: “people who believe there are two types of people in the world” and “people who don’t.” (Well said, Greg.) The “2 Types of People…” cliché can be found all over the land of guitar: acoustic or electric, Fender or Gibson, and of course: Strat or Tele. There’s no either/or in any of those matchups—plenty of us straddle those lines, but I’ll just lay out a cold fact*: The Telecaster is the Coolest Guitar Ever Made & Ever Played.
Okay, so I’m unabashedly biased towards Teles and have been from the day I first heard Jeff Buckley playing a Tele through his Fender Twin with the reverb cranked. I’ve owned a Japanese pink paisley RI, a ’72 custom, ’72 Deluxe, John 5 Triple Tele, and ’69 Thinline. Obviously I’m not exactly a traditionalist when it comes to Teles—I’ll happily rock humbuckers in a few of my Telecasters, but if I could only have one guitar, I’d grab a classically configured Tele (2 single coils) and just mod the hell out of it.
The Tele is a relatively simple instrument which makes it easy to mod. You can grab a Squier or Fender Modern Player and tweak a couple things to make a low end instrument play like a high-end one. Today we’re highlighting some popular internal mods to help you take your Tele to the next level. Of course, if you’ve already got a high-end Tele, some of these mods are still applicable/appropriate and will simply help make your already-perfect guitar a little more perfect!
Replacing your pickups is always the first, most-obvious mod and the mod that has the most effect on the sound of your instrument. The classic Tele configuration is 2 single coil pickups with a 3 way switch (allowing bridge/bridge+neck/neck pickup selection). The simplest upgrade you can make here is to simply replace the factory single coils with better quality pickups. If you like the snap and twang that the Tele is known for, the Fender Custom Shop Texas Special set is a great upgrade that gets you Custom Shop level quality and a hotter, increased output to make your Tele cut through the mix. There are several boutique pickup companies making fantastic Tele pickups—Lindy Fralin and Lollar are two of my favorites; both companies offer traditional Tele style single coils as well as some hot-rodded offerings… which leads me to another mod option for your Tele: HUMBUCKERS!
Most pickup companies offer a single-coil sized humbuckers that will drop in to your Tele with minimal hassle. I tossed a Seymour Duncan Little ’59 into the bridge position on my ’69 Thinline and added a push/pull switch to allow me to split the coils to get more tonal versatility—in single-coil mode, I still get a good amount of snap and in humbucker mode, I get great throaty tone that loves being paired with overdrive.
The discussion on pickup replacement leads directly to a discussion of upgrading/changing your electrical components—if you’re going to replace your pickups, it also makes sense to look at your instruments switching and pots.
A popular Tele mod is to ditch the 3-way switch in favor of a 4-way switch. Why add a 4th switch position to a 2-pickup guitar?! The majority of guitar pickups are wired in parallel, meaning the signal hits them simultaneously. When you wire pickups in series, the signal passes through one pickup and then through the other, resulting in a fatter, hotter tone.
While you’re playing around with pickups and switches, evaluate your pots. Upgrading your pots to higher quality components can’t hurt, but also think about your pots’ values. Typical Teles come with 250k pots – and for good reason: higher value pots have more treble response. Teles aren’t lacking in that department, so changing to a higher value pot doesn’t make much sense if you are sticking with a classic single-coil tone in your Tele. However, if you swap in humbuckers or P-90s to your Tele, you may want to consider swapping your 250k pots for 300k or 500k pots to help keep some brightness in your tone.
And lastly, if you (or your tech!) are already inside your control cavity, consider shielding it as well as the pickup routings. Shielding these cavities helps eliminate noise and hum and can be particularly useful for quieting the 60-cycle hum of single coils. Though this is probably more necessary on Strats, Teles can still benefit from shielding. There are a couple of ways to do this; there is copper shielding tape or conductive shielding paint available readily from Stewart McDonald or Digikey. An even more cost effective way to do this is with some good old fashioned tin foil glued down in the cavity and on the back of the pickguard. Using the paint may have a slight advantage in that it can’t come off and cause an unexpected short in your guitar’s circuit. While not necessarily a tone upgrade, the shielding will eliminate a lot of noise if done properly and is almost a requirement for anyone using a single-coil equipped guitar in conjunction with a lot of overdrive or distortion.
Next time we talk Telecasters, we’ll talk hardware—but in the meantime, as always, we want to hear your Tele mod success stories (or horror stories!) and any advice the hive mind has for ways to make the world’s greatest guitar even more great. Viva La Telecaster!
*not an actual fact