fender forensics

Catching sight of a well worn, stained and threadbare tweed case makes my heart skip a beat. The possibilities run the gamut from “it’s empty!” to “Is that really an original blackface Tele?” This particular case opened to reveal what to all appearances was an early to mid fifties Fender Telecaster with a Bigsby. So begins the process of analysis to reveal the truth of the matter.

Let me back up here and reveal that I was not going in completely blind. The owner, not a guitar guy, had provided a serial number and a brief description, “Custom Telecaster, condition: beat up, color wood”. A quick search of the serial number showed it to be consistent with either a ’52 Reissue, which would make sense in regards to the “wood” description. The other possibility was enough to make my heart race. The serial number, along with the “beat up” descriptor, could also put it as a 1961 Custom Telecaster.

To see what to all visual cues was a blackface Tele was a bit of a surprise. Many details looked completely correct for it’s age and style; well worn butterscotch finish, worn in a way consistent with actual use, flat pole pieces on the bridge pickup, well worn and darkened maple fretboard, baseball bat neck profile, domed knobs that along with the other hardware had a nice amount of oxidation, five screw pickguard. The bigsby looked original and the body had not been drilled for string-through, indicating a factory job. Astute viewers may notice the Mustang bridge.

At this point, I will let you know that this was not, in fact, a Blackguard Tele, but a very well done replica. Following is the story of doing the forensics to determine exactly what was going on with this instrument.

The clues that I should have seen, but did not due to my initial excitement, were obvious in retrospect. The first was that the waterslide decal on the headstock looked to be original, but indicated Fender “custom Telecaster”, which would indicate a model that would not see the light of day until the late 50’s, and then with a double bound body, sunburst finish, and rosewood fretboard. This, along with the well worn and patina’d neck plate serial number indicating a 1961 vintage, should have thrown up red flags immediately. Also, I was under the impression that Fenders with factory Bigsby’s had “Fender” Bigsby’s. This one said Bigsby, not Fender. Hmmm. Next, although the neck looked to have legitimate wear and subsequent oil staining and darkening from use, it had a consistent thin finish everywhere, front and back. It was conceivable that someone had put a new coat of varnish over the worn neck, but it’s hard to imagine why. No player would ruin the feel and playability of a well worn maple neck.

So with these niggling little details working their way into my brain, it was time to pull it out and get a hands on closer look. First, plug in and see what’s what. The output jack was loose and shorted out easily, and aside from the wicked hum, felt and sounded really excellent. A bit brash, but that would be consistent with early fifties Teles, whose pickups were wound considerably hotter than later issues. Taking a closer look, I also noticed that the neck was not really aligned all that well and that there was a serious excess of space around it in the neck pocket. Not exactly what you would encounter form a factory Tele on it’s worst day. So I feel I had enough doubt at this point to justify opening it up. If I believed it was legitimate at this point, I would not take it apart. I would have gotten it into the hands of someone qualified for authentication.

Upon removing the neck, I was immediately confronted with an AllParts “licensed by Fender” brand on the neck with two sets of drilled holes. The neck pocket had no marks, so it was time to dig deeper. removing the pickguard revealed a plastic version as opposed to the original Bakelite. Both pickups sported cloth cover, vintage looking lead wire, although one was yellow/black, the other white/black. Each one was marked 7.3 ohms, but are of unknown provenance. No markings were evident in either pickup route, but the way the body was routed was consistent with the earliest Telecasters, with a round hole directly from the neck pickup route to the bridge route straight along the line of the neck and middle of the body (as opposed to the diagonal independent route used since).

Moving on the control cavity. The pot codes dated the electronics to at least 2006. Nice quality with the exception of the problematic output jack, which was Japanese and obviously had issues. Once again, no markings of any sort.

Deciding what to do at this point was the next issue. Most importantly, I really liked how this guitar felt, played, and sounded. The fact that you had to look awfully hard to know that it was not an early fifties Fender was not a hardship either. I payed the owner an amount based on the cost of parts and a small premium for the quality of the finishing and aging that really was stellar. The build quality, not so much. I am a fan of partscasters, but I also know that as an investment, they truly suck. I bought this based on the fact that I’m certain it will become one of my go to instruments. It fills a hole in my small collection of players, it has a Bigsby, it has a more raw sound than my ‘64 replica Tele, and it can be dialed in to be a ‘53 replica which is the year my wife was born (I have an unreasonable thing about birth year guitars).

So now comes the part where I decide how much time and effort to pour into a guitar that I will never be able to sell for what I have into it. It will do me no good if it is not reliable and has issues that cause me not to pick it up regularly. Any issues at all and it will not make the cut for playing out. So first thing I did was order a new wiring harness from Emerson Electronics. I could have ordered the parts and done it myself, but for a few dollars more, I get their excellent capacitors and the cleanest soldering and layout I’ve ever seen. I ordered a two screw output jack from StewMac to secure the output properly. I’m not sure why these have not become stock an all new relevant instruments. Next, in an effort to quiet the hum, I installed copper foil with conductive adhesive into the cavities, being careful to do a good job of it and properly ground it all. The neck is exactly the fat chunky profile that I love and the finish is really cool and authentic looking, so I felt I couldn’t/shouldn’t replace it. Drilling, dowelling, and re-drilling was the call. That job was relegated to local guitar tech Terry.

I now am the happy owner of a really cool, authentic looking and sounding Blackguard replica with a Bigsby. Most importantly, it sounds and feels just as I like. And some day, someone else will have the initial rush of a possible discovery, then the disappointment of finding it to be a replica, and then hopefully, the enjoyment of a really nice Telecaster built in the style and vibe of an early fifties blackguard.