Twenty years ago or so, a friend of mine owned a Squier Telecaster. I’d only owned a Japanese E-Series Japanese Squier Stratocaster, a cheap Lyon Strat copy, and a $99 Les Paul Special II. I was as versed in cheap guitars as a kid in the late 90s could be
I hated that Telecaster and so I hated all Teles. I hated the headstock. I hated the “not quite Les Paul” single cutaway. I hated the silver neck pickup. I hated the control plate. It wasn’t a Strat and therefore it was inferior.
For years, that Tele shaped my opinion of all things Tele until I had the opportunity to buy one SUPER cheap.
Yeah. I wasn’t a smart kid.
This story is where you point to your kids and say “Kids, this is how NOT to do things. This is how to be dishonest and swindle a pawn shop” and I’m sure I’ll field emails telling me I’m going to a very fiery place.
I used to stop at random pawn shops to see what they had. There was a chain that used to have a very particular pricing system and even displayed it on the price tag. Someone I knew told me the code and I used it to score some killer deals.
My wife and I were coming back from doing something I can’t remember over in Dallas and we stopped at a pawn shop in that particular chain. We walked inside and there sat a beat up Mexican Tele. It was a three color sunburst and had a black pickguard.
I picked it up and noticed it had a Fishman VT Powerbridge. I had my first iPhone and so I googled what it was and learned it was a piezo bridge. I had a high level, surface understanding of what it did. It also had a couple of Rio Grande pickups. I had no idea what that brand meant, but it didn’t have the silver cover on the neck pickup, so that was a win.
I looked at the tag and the pricing scheme told me they had paid $50 for it. They wanted $300. I didn’t plan on paying that, but maybe the guitar would blow me away.
The sales rep went off to retrieve a cable for me after asking if they could help and I decided to strum a few chords. The guitar had a great acoustic tone and the neck was one of the nicer necks I’d played on at that point in time. When the rep arrived with the cable, I kept playing unplugged because I was kind of caught up in the moment of just playing a really comfortable neck.
I eventually plugged the guitar up, turned up the amp a little, and strummed a chord expecting the worst.
It was the sound a guitar with active pickups makes when the battery is dead. I turned the guitar over for the first time and saw a battery component. I didn’t realize the Fishman VT Powerbridge ran off of the battery. I took the battery out and put it to my tongue (yeah, yeah…eww!) and it was dead as a doornail.
I pulled my wallet out. I had $85 in cash. I called the rep over, explained that the guitar was broken, plugged it in and showed them the “bzzzt-grrrch” noise, and offered $85 on the $50 they had in it.
The rep went over and asked the manager. The manager came over, I showed them the same noise, and he agreed to $85 out the door. For the price of $75.83 plus tax, I walked out of the pawnshop with a beat up Tele.
We got home and I put a fresh 9v battery in, and strummed the most beautiful chords I’d ever strummed. Normally, Telecasters are on the brighter side, but the Rio Grande pickups (Muy Grande and Halfbreed, if I recall correctly) really tamed that.
It was a really nice guitar, even if it was beat to hell and back. There were so much chips, scratches, dents, and damage to it, but I thought it gave it character. I eventually swapped the pickguard for a tortoiseshell pickguard.
Unfortunately, as things sometimes go, money became tight and I ended up selling for the guitar for $450. I was sad to see it go and a month later, I got a major bonus that would have kept it home.
Life is full of quirky twists and turns.
As luck would have it, a few months after that, I saw the same guitar come up on Craigslist, emailed the guy, and it was the same guy I’d sold it to. I immediately offered to buy it back for what he’d paid me for it, he accepted, and the guitar was back home.
I eventually swapped the pickups out for a set out of a ’96 American Standard before working with John Oliviera of Big John’s Guitars. That dude does some amazing work. The guitar went a MAJOR overhaul.
John installed a set of GFS Power Rock pickups. These are stacked humbuckers that he suggested because they still sound fairly Telecaster-ish but with increased, noiseless output. They are wired in the following setup on a 5-way switch:
- 5 – Neck in series
- 4 – Neck in parallel
- 3 – One coil from each pickup in parallel
- 2 – Bridge in parallel
- 1 – Bridge in series
Positions 2 and 4 offer this really mellow sound. I REALLY like it for playing cleaner songs that I still want a little bit of overdrive on. I actually used position 4 to record the Skylines and the Horizon version of “Goodbye”. If you mix in a little bit of the Piezo bridge, you can get some REALLY interesting sounds. Of course, the straight humbucker sounds of positions 1 and 5 but with the alder body make for something that differs from my Gibson Les Paul and Midtown.
We replaced the volume knob that controlled the magnetic pickups with a concentric knob so I could have both a tone and volume control. The Piezo bridge knob retained its single knob.
Shortly after I brought the guitar home, I bought some Wilkinson vintage-style tuners and installed them myself. I’ve always been fond of the way those looked and thought it classed the neck up a bit. The tuners pretty much covered up any holes from the previous tuners, which I sold and made the money back I spent on the Wilkinsons. I eventually bought a set and installed them on my youngest kid’s Squier mini. I love those things.
John completely refretted the neck with stainless steel frets, changed out the clay fret markers for abalone circles, and sanded the neck. After sanding, he applied a spaghetti-style Fender waterslide decal and restained it in a vintage amber. If the neck played nice before, it plays absolutely amazing now. He also completed a setup on it and when I took the guitar back to him, almost a decade later, all it required was a VERY minor tweak.
With the serial number wiped away due to the neck refinish, I had a local shop in the mall engrave it on a new neckplate. It’s the one part I want to get redone with a MUCH better engraving/etching.
I will probably be corrected and I welcome the correction, but to my understanding, in the early ’90s when this guitar was made, the Fender plant in Mexico didn’t have the hardware available to make their own necks and bodies yet. American made necks and bodies were shipped down and the guitars were then assembled with the normal hardware and electronics found in the Mexican-made Fender line at the time.
Some people believe that finding quality electronics and pickups is harder to do as you move down Fender’s different lines, with the greatest consistency being the American line. Although GFS pickups are anything but boutique, these Power Rock pickups sound great to my ears, record really well, and perform as well as, though differently than, the Rio Grande and ’96 pickups that were previously in this guitar.
Until I bought my Gibson Midtown Standard, the Tele was my go-to guitar to play and travel with. Telecasters can take an amazing beating and still be playable. The fact that the paint is beat to hell and back only helps. Maybe I’ll have it repainted one day, but for now, the character of the Tele is a staple of the tones I’ve captured for Skylines and the Horizon. I have used the Tele on every solo track on the EP and as the primary guitar on “Goodbye”. Pictures will come around at some point in time before the end of the year.