Foiled again: We've been playing Fender's new gold-foil Telecaster
Fender has released a whole range of guitars that come set up with quirky, 50s-style "gold foil" pickups – a nod to old-school pups you'd need to dig out of a vintage guitar or go to the aftermarket for. And they certainly have a unique vibe going on!
While the history of these things gets pretty murky, most folk seem to agree on a few things about gold foils: firstly, they hit the market around the middle of the 20th century, embedded in cheap guitars from Harmony and Teisco. Secondly, they've got some gold-looking foil on them. This is purely cosmetic, it seems; according to the pickup gods at Lollar, the foil does nothing to the sound. Thirdly, they're very much in fashion over the last few years, thanks to the fact that they've got an interesting vibe to them.
That's about it; as Stringjoy points out; "Though most are single-coil, some are double-coil, and that’s just the tip of the dissimilarity iceberg. The only things that really unite all the different editions are their metallic covers and base plates, and of course, gold foil. That aside, the magnet type, the gauge and coiling of the wire, the presence or absence of polepieces, the mounting style, and the size all vary widely from pickup to pickup. It’s been that way since they were first developed and remains the same now."
Lollar's 50s-style gold foils use rubberized ferrite fridge magnets behind their fancy covers, like 50s pickups from Teisco did. Fender, on the other hand, has stuck with bright, powerful Alnico V magnets in a mini-humbucker configuration, so the art deco aesthetic is really all that connects the two.
They look remarkable – and indeed, people remark. The Telecaster shape already has aeons of history wrapped up in it, and these gleaming additions rhyme nicely with the brass saddles to create a unique twist. I can see how some would see it as Gucci-glam, and how others would see it as Vegas-trashy, and both the White Blonde and Candy Apple Burst versions – as well as the saucy red Jazzmaster – seem like guitars you probably need to dress for.
Our review unit arrives in White Blonde, with a meaty mahogany body, a 60s-era C-shaped maple neck with a skunk stripe on the back and an ebony fingerboard on the front. The headstock gets some matching white paint too, which looks tops and is a touch often reserved for higher-end production models like the American Ultra Luxe. The fretboard radius is a very modern 12 inches, so it's pretty flat as far as Teles go, and it runs medium-jumbo frets – a nice setup for easy articulation and bending. Off the headstock hang vintage-style slotted single-line tuners, which I reckon I might like even better than lockers; they're super quick and easy to use.
Otherwise, well, it's a Telecaster: black pickguard, three-way pickup selector, big knurled volume and tone knobs. The human body has scarcely been figured into the shape, it's a traditional plank of a thing without belly cuts, rounded heels or other ergonomic considerations. Tele-vangelists like Josh Smith seem to find this part of the charm, like the three brass saddles that make intonation an eternal compromise, but look "right" and are allegedly a critical part of the tone and mystique that have kept this thing in hot demand since it first made its debut as the Broadcaster in 1950.
I can't claim to have grown up eating Telecasters for breakfast, but I'm getting to know what I like. Whether it's the simplicity, the shape or a pinch of Leo Fender fairy dust, Teles seem to have some magic tones in them. I've been playing Strats a lot lately, and coming back to the Tele I'm reminded how much I love the simple layout, the solid feel, the deceptive flexibility in tone despite the fact the switch only goes three ways, the resonance, and how nice it is not to have to tune around a tremolo system.
The difference between this Made-in-Mexico Gold Foil job and my own single-coil American Pro Tele, though, is vast. Be it the mahogany body, the ebony fretboard or these gold foil mini-humbuckers, the character of this guitar is something else altogether. It hits the amp harder, naturally enough – somewhere in between the level of a single coil tele and a flat-out chog machine like the Washburn N2 I keep around for the purposes of shameless Nuno worship. It beats both on sustain, ringing long and clear.
The Gold Foil's tone is thicker and chestier across the board than a standard telecaster – like you'd expect moving to humbuckers, I suppose. But the high frequencies are where the unique character of this guitar reveals itself most to me. There's a lot of 'em – I feel like this is a machine you'll actually use the tone knob on. Leave it wide open, and the treble end can feel small and crystalline and delicate, or crackly, crispy and airy, or rowdy, explosive and searing, depending on how you're playing and the rig you're running it into. Roll the tops off a little, and with some amps the way the sound degrades from the mids outward at the edge of breakup is almost like a built-in fuzz circuit.
Across the three pickup positions, it's a flexible and highly dynamic beast. It's happy enough to come with me into grubby low-fi jazzy places if I use my fingers, and that top-end bite makes it an articulate and fun machine to play skin on wire, with a lot more presence at a given amp setting than the single coil.
Dial up a rockin' crunch tone, though, and it feels like it really enjoys being slapped about. There's a ton of snap available, manifesting as a funky gut-punch out of the neck pickup and an edgy snarl on the bridge, but you've gotta hit the strings with some mustard to get to it. I've had a ton of fun beating this pretty thing up – to the point where I've dinged up the new-guitar plastic covering the pick guard pretty good. Sorry, Fender!
I'm a little saddened to find that the volume knob rolls off high frequencies as well – I love the way my AmPro leaves volume and tone separate, but treble bleed circuits are a personal thing, I guess. There's no coil-split function to open up single coil-style tones – but those never feel quite the same anyway. And for whatever reason, the Gold Foils seem to take off into feedback earlier than anything else in my rack, so you might want to make sure you test it at the kind of volume you're gonna play it at.
Tuning stability on this tester hasn't been terrific. The weather has been pretty varied, and I've run the air con a bit here and there, but the Gold Foil has reliably been a quarter tone sharp on the bottom two strings pretty much every time I've picked it up after leaving it alone for an hour or more. Maybe the nut could do with some graphite.
But those are about the only criticisms I've come away with. This is not a replacement for an old-school, single-coil Telecaster in my books; those have stuck around 70 years for a good reason. The Gold Foil is something other, with an entirely different look, feel and sound. I've heard it described as a bit trashy, garagey, old-school and lo-fi, and that's certainly the way the trebles from these pickups sound through the lovely springy Silverface reissue amp in Fender's demo video below.
But running it through a Deluxe Reverb modelling rig confirms for me that the amp is doing a lot of the sepia tinting work there, even if the chiming high harmonics from the pickups are definitely pitching in. Through my distinctly non-vintage, tremolo-free Blackstar HT Club 40 MkII amp and the more modern-style modeling setups I tend to lean toward, I've found the Gold Foil Tele much more versatile than it might look.
These may not be genuine fridge-magnet reissue pickups, but Fender has created a curious, dynamic and crispy sound here that's a lot of fun to explore. Everyone I've handed this guitar to has found it charming and intriguing. If this quirky new range of Teles, Jazzmasters and Jazz Basses, with their arresting looks and unique tones, call to you from the wall of a music store, I reckon they're worth experiencing for yourself.
The White Blonde Gold Foil Telecaster we tested retails for US$1,199 in the USA, or AU$2,199 in Australia.
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