Telecasters, Bunnyhugs and Vico: Why Fender's First Guitar Became A Sask Indie Icon
Updated: May 14
By Will Yannacoulias
In 1950, Californian radio repairman Leo Fender launched the Fender Telecaster, which would become the first commercially successful solid body electric guitar. The Telecaster redefined the role the guitar could play, arguably facilitating the birth of modern music. Unfortunately the Telecaster was simple and unattractive, completely optimized for ease of mass production with little concern for aesthetics. Once solid body electric guitars were a confirmed success the designs were improved upon, made more comfortable, attractive, versatile, powerful. Within a decade new models from both Fender and competitor Gibson had supplanted the Telecaster, relegating Leo’s ugly yellow duckling to second class status.
Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty first the story was always the same; stylish alternative songwriters adopted art-deco offsets with quirky electronics such as the Jaguar or Mustang. Psychedelic blues rockers broadened consciousness with the bell-voiced tones and expressive tremolos of their Stratocasters. Gibson guitars with their powerful output and gorgeous finishes became permanently attached at the hip to the loudest, sexiest and most aggressive rockers. The Telecaster, always paired with icky adjectives such as “quacky” and “twaaaang”, was relegated to the blue-collar ranks of Nashville session players.
The rules are unwritten but universally understood. If an electric guitar is a sex symbol, the Tele is an end-of-the-date handshake. While every other electric guitar is a middle finger at the establishment, the Tele more closely resembles a short fat thumbs-up. The Stratocaster’s headstock, all dramatic waves and curves, has achieved iconic status in the collective consciousness of modern pop culture. In contrast, the headstock of the Telecaster projects the snowman silhouette of old peas in a pod. The body profile of the Les Paul is concentric circles, a Golden Ratio that subconsciously connects with the sacred geometry ingrained deeply in the human psyche. The Telecaster's lumpy lines suggest a flat bum and an upper bout that juts out like a beer belly, a dad bod immortalized in alder and ash. Everywhere in the world it’s known that Teles just aren’t cool…
…except in Saskatchewan. Like a John Hughes plot twist where the popular kid takes the bespectacled nerd to prom, an inexplicable trend exists in the local indie music community, where rock and roll players have confidently embraced this dumpy wallflower. We spoke with eight local guitarists about their questionable taste in musical instruments to better understand this particularly Saskatchewan statement.
Nicole Sanderson (Man Meat)
“One of the guitars I play is a thin line 1960’s re-issue hollow body. It’s a Squier and not a Fender - because I’m a semi-broke ass musician. But I’ve actually played the Fender version of the same guitar and while I think the pickups do sounds better, the neck was found to be wanting, and no I’m not just saying that out of penniless spite.That thin neck makes it easy to play, since I have small hands, with breakfast sausage fingers. Some people like those… they’re an okay size I’ve been told okay? Point is, I need all the help I can get when fretting with these hooves, and a thin neck reeeeeally helps when it comes to playing some of them gnarly chords.
I love the cut of the body and thin almost dinky headstock. Telecasters are simple and minimal looking. They don’t require a fancy shiny person to play them. They allow the person to stand out behind the guitar, no bells and whistles in the front, just honest you see what you get, just like me. Business in the front party in the back if you will. I’m the party. And no I don’t have a mullet - yet. But really if you want to get into the thick - it’s the sexy semi hollow body f-holes. Everyone loves a good F hole, don’t care who you are.
The thin line I have is a semi hollow body. It’s twangy as hell and I do constantly have to dial back the highs which can be challenging to find a good balance in tone for noisy but retain clear riffs. It’s definitely not what you’d expect a guitarist that plays on the heavy- ish side to traditionally rip on. It allows the jangly pretty parts to stand out but can pack a punch. I play a telecaster because I AM the end of the date handshake. You have to know how to pull off a twang ass country guitar if you’re gonna play it in a heavier band, and if you can’t, thanks for trying.”
"In the early / mid 2000s I was very much into British indie rock. Bands like Bloc Party, Razorlight and The Libertines interested me greatly and I enjoyed not only their fashion choices but their taste in guitars as well. Kele Okereke was an idol of mine. He is the lead singer and guitarist of Bloc Party. His guitar of choice is a Telecaster. I was intrigued by his charisma, and raw effortlessly cool energy. This is I believe when I became a Telecaster fan. I wanted to be cool like Kele. Later on in life I saw a blues rock band at Amigos Cantina called The Coppertone. The lead singer and vocalist, a red headed beautiful bad ass woman, played a seafoam green Eastwood Airline. That’s when I fell in love with the seafoam green colour. To me, the Telecaster became cool when indie rockers were playing them everywhere. And the colour had a classic, vintage style which added another level to the fun. So say what you will about Teles, but in my experience they don’t just sound great - they look great as well and will remain a classic in the Fender family."
John Antoniuk (Smokekiller)
“I’ve always liked the look of the Telecaster, but never thought they were for me. The first time I remember noticing one was with Guns & Roses; Slash played a Les Paul and Izzy played a Tele. Then I noticed it was a Stones thing too.
Being left-handed I have always struggled to find good quality guitars in any model. Over the years I was a big Epiphone fan with my Les Paul and my 335 Dot. I eventually got into a Gretsch just by chance and really loved what it brought to my music. I realized after some time that I was just gathering all of the different flavours, all of the different sounds, to re-create and create the tones I needed for live performance and recording.
When I had my first child in 2017 I wanted to get a new instrument to celebrate, and mark the year of her birth. I decided to have something special made. My thoughts fell to a Telecaster, as it was the one thing that my sonic collection was missing. As a big dude, I had always felt that a tele was too small of a guitar, visually, for me.
Darcy Windover, a musician I had met in our travels and become great friends with, suggested that he could build me a guitar to help celebrate becoming a father. His suggestion was a replica 1951 Fender NoCaster. Nocasters are interesting, 1951 was the year that Fender was not allowed to use the Gretsch owned “Broadcaster” name, so the headstocks just had a Fender Logo. In 1952 they came up with “Telecaster” and the rest is, well, you know.
I was so excited to see this guitar. In my mind was the “ultrasound” of what it would be and I couldn’t wait to play it. When I finally got the chance to hold it, all I could say was that it was perfect. From the weight, to the neck size, I couldn’t believe how much this particular instrument spoke to me. And when I finally took it live, I remember clearly thinking, “I wish I had this guitar my whole life”!
One day at a Smokekiller rehearsal, where I usually played my 335, my drummer, Billy Daniel, asked my why I didn’t use my Tele on my Smokekiller material. I told him that I use it on my roots material but hadn’t had the chance to really rock with it. So I strapped it on and, that growl, that sound, set my soul on fire. Since then my replica ‘51 Nocaster has become my main Smokekiller guitar.”
Erica Maier (The Garrys)
I have a number of reasons why I like playing a Telecaster, some reasons with more merit than others.
Aesthetically, I love the shape, how they look, and honest to god, I hate a big headstock. They are so versatile! You want twang, jangle, bright or clean? Teles really have it all. I like that you can seriously change up the tone to suit the song or your mood. Maybe us telecaster-players are in a moody guitar club together?
I don’t often tend to nerd-out over the gear that my favorite musicians use, but there are most definitely a few guitarists that I really look up to who play telecasters: Dallas Good, George Harrison, Andy Beisel, and my first big inspiration - my sister and bandmate Lenore Maier, who actually owns the telecaster that I play and has generously loaned it to me since we formed our band. Coincidentally though, the guitarists that I really love tend to play with dynamics or shared guitar lines in a song and Teles can be so versatile that they seem to be a great option for the type of music I gravitate towards.
Seth Peters (Elephant Seal)
“I was a Strat guy until quite recently. For writing songs and jamming the Strat pretty much did everything I wanted, and it was just the guitar I was the most used to playing. It wasn’t until my band was in the recording studio that I had a chance to play an actual nice Telecaster. I fell in love with it immediately. Its single coils were so snarly compared with what I was used to, and my first thought was “This would sound way better live”. We used the Tele to track the most distorted portions of the songs on the album, and after playing the Tele it made perfect sense to me why the producer would choose it over the Strat or another guitar for that job. It’s probably worth mentioning that after I had the experience of playing that guitar, I started to notice them everywhere. It suddenly dawned on me - “Almost all of my favourite bands use this guitar” and locally it was the same. Telecasters seem to be the weapon of choice for most alt-rock bands in Saskatchewan, so my decision to switch to the Tele was absolutely influenced by that realization as well. I think it makes a lot of sense why Saskatchewan alt-rock bands go for this instrument. If you look at the American Midwest and the post-rock/emo stuff that was coming out of there in the early 2000s – bigger bands like Jimmy Eat World, American Footballor The Get Up Kids, etc. – they’re all situated out west (like Saskatchewan) and they’re all using a Telecaster. It’s like we all collectively decided to take the quintessential country instrument of previous western generations and give it an angsty makeover.”
Ryan Peekeekoot (Black Rain)
“Ok... I used to be a Les Paul player, cause my hero Slash played one and I played a few over the years. Then I got into SG's and I owned a couple of them, but the last one I owned was stolen right off the stage at a gig in Prince Albert. The next night we had a gig in Beauval and I needed a guitar, so on the way there I stopped in at Don’s Pawnshop in Debden and they had an assortment of guitars. The only one I liked was a $50 no-name starburst Tele. It was beat right up, scratches and dents everywhere, but when I plugged it in at the gig Jesus... did it ever sound great!!! I played that guitar for at least three years, including on the album Under The Gun, until it was later stolen from me too!! I noticed the difference between Les Pauls and Fenders right off the bat! Les Pauls don't seem to have any dynamics in them, but when you strum a Tele, the harder you strum it the louder it gets! Strumming them through a clean channel (no distortion) they just sound way cleaner and clear and bright. I love Les Pauls... but I prefer my Telecaster now, I think they're a beautiful looking guitar!!!”
Kevin Stevens (Seven Mile Sun)
”I only recently started playing a Tele. I had never owned one until this past spring, always wanted one but hadn't found one that felt right. But being on Kijiji at the right time, brought me my 2016 American Standard that is now one of my favorite guitars. It plays like a warm cup of coffee and can sound that way too, but if you wanna dig it will scream bloody murder. When paired with a Fender tube amp (as it should be), it just won't let you down when it comes to tone, playability, and versatility. You can almost always tell when you hear a strat, or a Les Paul, but a tele will keep you guessing.”
Matt Stinn (Greenwing)
"Why a Telecaster? Because Leo Fender got it right in the early 50’s and there is zero reason to fix what's not broken. Over the last two decades I've owned well over 30 different electric guitars and there's only one guitar that has stayed with me that whole time, My Fender Telecaster. When I first started playing guitar in my teens I was infatuated by Gibson Les Pauls and SGs; out of reach works of art wielded by the rock gods I idolized through the pages of Guitar World Magazine. Then I grew up and realized that broken headstocks, muddy low mids and a G string that never stays in tune just isn't where it's at. I Still remember the first time I played a Telecaster through a Vox AC30 cranked to ten. The Search was over. I Still dable with cool old guitars from brands like Harmony, Supro or National as well as some modern offerings from Fender and Gibson but 99% of the time, whether touring or recording, my Telecaster is the guitar I reach for."
So there you have it. From g-strings to f-holes, from pawn shop scores to first born children, the tales of the Telecasters on Saskatchewan’s stages are as varied and unique as the artists who play them. As with so many things in our great province, asking questions brings no real understanding; like the Cochin Lighthouse, the watermelon helmet or a homemade Dick Assman t-shirt, the Tele awkwardly yet unapologetically stands as yet another proud Prairie peculiarity.