We can’t talk about the Fender Telecaster and its relationship with rock guitar without speaking to Francis Rossi. The Status Quo guitarist is synonymous with the Leo Fender-designed workhorse. Who better to go deeper and down into its appeal?
And yet, as Rossi explains here, maybe not. Rossi loves the Tele. He has stuck with it through thick and thin. But he’s no purist. Here he explains why he has no time for the purist sensibility, why he put a tune-o-matic on his, and decided that Lace Sensor were the aftermarket electric guitar pickups he needed to augment his sound.
We’re talking to a series of great guitarists about the Telecaster…
“Well, I’ll find you someone who can play one! You really need to be a shit-hot player to make a Telecaster sound good. Particularly when playing lead. I never thought I did. I still don’t. People think I’m looking for compliments: ‘Oh no, you’re a player.’ I fuck up so badly. I know a lot more than I did, but I still look at the fretboard when I’m in the midst of the gig and think, ‘Oh God…’”
How did the Telecaster come into your life?
“We were touring with Badfinger. Pete Ham had this Grimshaw and he said, ‘Do you want to swap?’ So I swapped my Gibson Stereo for this very average Grimshaw. Within a week or so, the bridge collapsed. We were in Scotland somewhere and the [tour manager] got two Telecasters brought in. Three days later, I had to make up my mind which one to keep. There was a blonde one and a sunburst. And I kept the sunburst.”
In the late ’60s, you bought your iconic ’57-bodied green Tele. How did it end up looking like that?
“I sanded it down because I thought I’d like just the wood colour. Within a few weeks, I’d painted it matt black. You know, you’re at that age where you’re like, ‘Black! Yeah!’ It looked fabulous. But then it had dried out by the time I got to the gig, and I got it out and thought, ‘Oh, it looks fucking horrible.’
“So I sanded it down again and painted it with this green Ronseal that you could see the grain through. I think it was a kind of rebellion: ‘Oh, I’m wild, look at me, I’ve painted my guitar and drilled holes in it, I don’t care…’”
You made a few mechanical changes, too?
“One time in Belgium, a pickup had died, or dropped half its output. So I put in another one and then I wanted to go for the five-way switch to get that slight out-of-phase thing. I like to mess around with different tones. So I went for Lace Sensors. The real Tele hardcore were saying, ‘Oh, it’s sacrilege what you’ve done there.’ But that’s just going to make me do it all the more!
“I put on a Gibson tune-o-matic bridge, first off, which added to what I call the ‘nuttiness’ of the sound. It wasn’t so spiny. But later I went to metal saddles – one time I used a brass nut as well – so I was making it screechier and screechier. Obviously, you’re losing top-end off your ears as you get older.”
What made you so loyal to that Tele?
“I got used to it, I think. I liked the maple neck. I liked the way it looked. I’m not a person that gets much satisfaction from change. And the reason that Tele went in 2015 was because it wouldn’t stay in tune.
“I could not get the fucker to stay in tune. It just wouldn’t have it any more. I don’t know why. Subsequently, I hear it now occasionally on certain records or on live things that come up on YouTube, and I think it sounds lovely.
“However, there is a myth that Rick [Parfitt] and I played Teles all the time. Various albums, various songs, we used lots of different guitars. I even had some punter arguing with me. I told him it’s a Stratocaster on Down Down. ‘No, it’s not.’ Yeah, it fucking is! But I don’t wish to break the myth. That Telecaster served me very well.”
In your opinion, what’s the defining Quo song featuring that green Tele?
“The one that comes to mind is Don’t Waste My Time. It’s as a rhythm guitar that I always found that Tele was particularly nice-sounding, and that’s what I wanted to play. I’ll be lying in bed tonight after the gig thinking, ‘Shit, I should have told him a different song.’ But let’s go with Don’t Waste My Time.”