A guitar is a good friend. If you want it to be. Perhaps lover is a better word. (Lovers tend to cost more money than friends.) I fell in love with the Fender Telecaster somewhere around 1980. It seemed to be the right guitar for so many different situations. Keith Richards played one; Waylon Jennings, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Joe Strummer, Jimmy Page, Andy Summers, Chrissie Hynde, George Harrison, Ray Davies, Buck Owens, Bob Dylan, and Muddy Waters have all played one. The list is endless. I knew I wanted to write songs, and I made up my mind that the Telecaster was a songwriter’s guitar, a troubadour’s guitar. I didn’t know that they could be trebly angry housewives in the wrong hands. I was a very angry young man. I really wanted to beat up on something, and if you really want a guitar that can take a beating, the Fender Telecaster is the one you want. Lord knows I’ve beat on mine.
When I got my first Telecaster in 1983, I took it home and looked at it as much as I did play it. It was beautiful. I learned things. I learned that CBS bought Fender in the late ’60s and, basically, pre-CBS was good and post-CBS wasn’t.
The stock pickups in my post-CBS Tele were never going to be more than thin-sounding imitations of the real thing, so I bought EMG Tele pickups in 1986, and I had a spot routed out in the middle to put an EMG middle Strat pickup in. It was immediately a whole new guitar. Then I learned that the bigger the strings the better the tone, and the bigger the frets, the easier it is to bend bigger strings, so I had jumbo frets put in in 1987. Then I learned that if the strings were routed through the guitar instead of straight across it, the tone would be beefier, so sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s I had six holes drilled under the bridge so it would become what they call a bottom-loader.
And then I learned that even Teles break if you hit them hard enough for long enough; in this case the bridge got damaged beyond repair one night when I was banging the poor thing onto the stage floor repeatedly out of either anger or joy (I can’t remember, maybe it was both), so I replaced it with a vintage pre-CBS Telecaster bridge that my fellow guitarist in Govertment Cheese, Viva, had, with the promise to give it back to him if he found a buyer for this precious part, which he did, which led to bridge #3, which still resides on the guitar. It’s had so many nuts (the piece with string slots at the end of the neck between it and the headstock) I’ve lost track. Nuts wear out but it’s hard to actually break one. I managed to, though. On more than one occasion.
It’s beat all to hell now. There is a burn mark on the headstock from where I used to wedge my cigarettes. There is a gash in the third fret from when I fell off a table in mid-lead at the Big Apple Café in 1988 or ’89. I don’t remember ever actually chipping any paint; just one day the chips were there when the day before they seemingly weren’t. Most of them are small chips but one on the bottom curve is two inches long and looks like Cuba. On occasion it’s been flecked with blood from when I’d try the Pete Townshend windmill strum (which hurts like hell if you do it right), doused in beer, and on one occasion, vomit. (I’m the only member of Government Cheese who threw up onstage in mid-song, and I played a flawless lead while I did it. In the Cheese, puking was no excuse for slacking off.)
And that’s my lover. It sounds better than ever, even if the relationship has been strained by domestic violence and public abuse. Two things I wonder about it, though, after all these years: how did it go from being off-white to tan? And why is there a neck pickup? No one ever uses it. Its name — Bruce. That embarrasses me. I wish I’d chosen something a little more exotic and less obvious, like Theophilus or something, but I was 20-years-old at the time. You do things like that when you’re 20.
Tommy Womack is a singer-songwriter and author. His latest book, dust bunnies: a memoir is available at Grimey’s, Parnassus, and tommywomack.com. His new 45-rpm vinyl single and commentary of the times, “We’ll Get Through This Too”, is out now on Need to Know Records.