The Delta Snake Review

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Monday, September 24, 2018

Guitar Review: 2016 Fender MIM Standard Telecaster (review and essay)





I remember my first Telecaster, purchased from a friend for it's new price, 250.00. It was a 1971 CBS era Standard that had fret work done, and a rewound front pickup. The back pickup produced a typical CBS era ice pick sound, but that wasn't a concern as I preferred to use the front pickup with the treble cranked up (which has been my preference since then).

It wasn't my first guitar, which was an old Gold top Les Paul that I hated, but it was the one that created a connection that lasted 20 years and to this day, my primary guitar is always a telecaster. That could change if Gibson ever creates an affordable SG with a shorter scale that won't neck dive. But even then, a tele would always be kept on hand.

One of the things guitar shop salesmen said back then (and was described in reviews) was that the Fender Telecaster was the cheapest "pro-level guitar" you could buy. For 250.00, a musician had a "serious" gig quality instrument. 

That wasn't entirely true. A professional quality big amp was also necessary in an age with lots of underpowered PA systems, but the psychological effect was real. If you played a Fender, you had graduated from playing with toys.

Whether a Fender was made in America wasn't as big an issue as it is now. The main controversy was whether CBS buying the company was a good thing or not, and there was plenty of criticism of the stock pickups, neck quality, and various QA issues. All of which have been subject to revisionism in today's vintage loving age.

There was a short period when the only new Fenders available were made in Japan, and those are esteemed to this day as excellent values even at collector prices. That's because Fender was never viewed as a premium product by most of it's customers, and where it was made was a secondary issue by a small minority.

Leo Fender designed the telecaster to be a cheap appliance guitar that would make it possible for the masses to own a decent instrument. The parts were standardized, designed to be easily replaced to keep the guitar operational for a lifetime, and just as importantly, could be easily repaired or modified by it's owner.

I'm sure that even the first Ford Model T cars were constantly tinkered with due to the ingrained restlessness of the American character, though with the electric guitar, that urge to modify it didn't truly become possible until the advent of a third party parts market.

Fender moved the guitar away from the concept of a crafted piece that reflected a central artistic philosophy (or price range of course) and into the realm of industrial design and mass production, and customizable to even the smallest whim of the customer. 

The telecaster is perceived differently after a few decades. One remarkable thing is that Fender guitars that were designed to be more expensive models, like the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, are now considered to be esoteric. It's also seen as equal to the later Stratocaster model, which was created to be the next big thing.

It's been said that the true test in the marketplace is survival, and the tele has certainly met that test. It's no longer seen as an entry level guitar for the pro market, which is reflected in the current price of an American made version. Even if it's still costs less than a Gibson or a PRS, it's not a cheap guitar anymore.

That is, unless you buy one of the Mexican or Asian made models. Then a telecaster can be had new for a couple of hundred bucks, and even cheaper if you buy an off brand.

There was quite a bit of debate when the first Mexican Fenders came out. Part of it was concern (and criticism) about quality, but a lot of it was the perception that it diluted the brand. In retrospect, it was a great move. It kept the price of a Fender down and helped boost the third party parts industry that kept it an affordable guitar that could be played as-is, or modified into the perfect vision, however long that took.

Which brings up the question, what is a real telecaster?

That was an easy question back in the early days, and now, after over 60 years, it's still clear that if it looks like a tele, it is one. People can argue what it takes or costs to create a "good" one, but there's no doubt what one is. In my case, if it has an alder body, and a maple neck, then it's a tele.

The Internet and the vintage market (or the nostalgia market to be more exact) has created a sense that cost is a factor, and that's certainly true to an extent. There is a difference between a good wine and a cheap bottle of Night Train, and that holds true with guitars. There is certainly a qualitative difference in materials and construction in the various price ranges.

Whether that truly makes one guitar sound better than another is open to debate and if the discussion boards on the Internet are any indication, always will be. We're talking about sound, and that's as individual a thing as wine tasting. 

The pleasure will always be a mix of cost, packaging and mojo. If a person has the perception that a thousand dollar guitar is better than a six hundred dollar version, it will sound better. That's a scientific fact, at least how it applies to that person.

If you ask a bunch of telecaster lovers what the perfect one is, there'll be an endless variety of answers. 

The one thing that's hard to change is the very human notion that money denotes quality. Many Fender guitar owners will say that the headstock means nothing and that the guitar itself and how it sounds and plays is what counts. Like most concepts, it's true when it is true, and not when it isn't. There'll always be a perception that American made Fenders are superior to Mexican or Asian versions.

I've owned American made teles, the best being a '66 Esquire and a 2013 Standard. There was a 2010 American Special and a 1976 Standard modified with a B Bender that I never could connect with, and being American made didn't make any difference. 

The 2016 Fender MIM Standard Telecaster being reviewed here is better than another tele I own, a Squier affinity, but not because it has better components or better finish.

The fact is, both are good players that are a pleasure to play. I like the front pickup of the MIM Standard a lot more, and that's important because, as I've said earlier, that's the one that's used (by me) the most.

I actually had gone into the Guitar Center to try out the slightly cheaper Modern Player Nashville style tele with the Strat pickup in the middle position, and didn't like the feel. There happened to be a used 2016 MIM Standard there and I couldn't put it down. That it was cheaper sealed the deal. 

A bargain price has a lot of mojo in the Fender world.

I once said in an earlier review that decades of existence had made the notion that there is a definitive or "traditional" telecaster sound almost meaningless, and it's true here. I bought this Standard because it had a great sound with various levels of gain, and a great front pickup, so it's a nice complement to my Affinity, which has a great middle (both pickups) sound (but a so so neck pup).

I did due diligence and checked the back pickup, which with the stock ceramic had a nice chimey tone, which is the most usable sound in my case. There's some twang and spank there, but whether if it's sufficient for country or chicken picking is a question for a different kind of player.

It has a nice tone in clean, and sounded loud and musically clear unamplified, which I like in a tele. It's a bit heavy, but that's not an issue to a sit down player who'll mainly use it to record with. I was able to test it on the same amp model it would be played on at home, so that was a real help in determining how it'd sound. It's fun to try out a new guitar on a high end Marshall or Fender twin, but always try to play on an amp that's similar to the home unit.

A lot of what will make this tele good for you depends on what will be played on it. The prevailing wisdom is that the stock ceramic pickups here are best for higher gain sounds in blues and rock, and should be replaced with alnico type pickups for a more traditional sound (whatever that means). 

The main thing for me was that I could get the front pickup sound that seems to come come out on any telecaster I've owned when playing blues. There's other sounds of course, but that one has to be there. If a ceramic pup does the job, then there's no need to replace it with alnico.

I'll be using this tele to play blues, alternative rock, and electric fingerpicking pieces, and so far, so good.

Another question is if an MIM Standard is worth six hundred dollars new when a used American version can be had for around that price.

Again, that's a yes or no...if that American tele sounds better, but one can't know that until one comes along at that price range. If having an American tele is important from an emotional point of view then it's better to wait. The fact is, owning a guitar is all about fun and pleasure, what dreams it gives you, and so yes, what's on the headstock can be important. It's your money.

I got this one for 370.00, in new-like condition and fully returnable. Since I was in the market for a mid-priced tele, it was a no brainer for me. However, I'd have passed on it at even 200.00 if I didn't like it. Any dollar spent on something you don't like is a wasted dollar on a guitar that won't be played. That's empirical wisdom from a guy who did a lot of GAS buying when younger.

The most important advice you'll hear from the majority of Fender owners is that your ears are the most important way to judge a guitar. It's also a very good idea to like the stock guitar being played and not what you think it'll sound like in the future after modifying it. The often vocal minority of players who think all stock parts are crap, that this or that guitar will need this or that change to be good are sometimes right, but not often enough to bet a few hundred dollars on.

This 2016 MIM Fender Standard Telecaster isn't the same as my first, in many ways it's better. I like the slimmer modern necks with better frets, and the slightly hotter pickups give me the same sound that rewinding produced back then. The fit and finish is better, though I think that's more of an aesthetic judgement. My '71 got pretty beat up, and I didn't notice any drop off in sound quality.

The beauty of a telecaster is that the right one gives you the sound in your head. I've owned some nice ones in the past, including that great '66 Esquire, and while there's some wistful regret at their loss, thanks to Fender consistency, I've never lost the sound. You'll find that after all is said and done, telecasters are much more similar than different.

Given the way this one has sounded so far, yes, I'd have passed on the Modern Player and spent the extra hundred on this one. That I got it cheaper just confirmed it was destiny.

-Al Handa

Note: I did make some practice recordings with that original '71 Tele back in the 80s that were digitized and put on my Electric Fog Factory Website. The transfer from analog is a little primitive, but check those out if you'd like to hear how that tele sounded. It was mainly the front pickup, treble cranked, with high gain on a nice little Peavey amp.

The cuts are: Internationals Rock The Blues (you should be able to tell which parts are done by a tele), VJ Hook, Rocking Juke Joint Shuffle, Night Train, and Texas Jook Blues.

Specs (as stated on Internet:

Body:

Body Type: Not Specified
Cutaway: Single Cutaway
Top Wood: Not Specified
Body Wood Back and Sides: Alder
Body Bracing Pattern: Not Specified
Body Finish: Gloss
Orientation: Right Handed

Neck:

Neck Shape: C modern
Nut Width: 1.65 in. (42 mm)
Fretboard: Maple
Neck Wood: Maple
Scale Length: 25.5"
Number of Frets: 21
Neck Finish: Satin

Other:

Headstock Overlay: Not Specified
Tuning Machines: Die-cast sealed
Bridge: Not Specified
Saddle and Nut: Not Specified
Number of Strings: 6 String
Case: Not Specified
Accessories Included: Not Specified
Country of Origin: Mexico