While I was at the guitar shop buying some strings, I decided to test drive a few guitars. Even though I knew full well I was not going to buy one that day, I was on a quest to find a really nice one. Due to time constraints and wanting to keep it somewhat realistic, I narrowed my search to Telecasters under $1,500.
After a half hour of playing a total of ten Teles, I was torn between a Made in America Tele priced at $1399.99 and a Made in Mexico Tele priced at $519.99. It is also interesting to note that the runner up to these two was actually another MIM and was priced at $449.99. This might seem like a WTF? moment, but I have run across this situation before with some Strats. The situation being a MIM Fender rivaling a MIA Fender that is more than twice the price.
There was nothing about the MIM Tele that would have made me hesitate to gig with it once it received a proper setup. The body itself had a decent translucent butterscotch finish that when inspected very closely I could see it consisted of three pieces. The neck fit tight in the pocket and there were no hairline stress cracks. There were some frets that stuck out the sides a little, occasionally snagging my thumb, but all-in-all I would consider it a great bang for the buck.
The unplugged sounds on both guitars were similar, lively with lots of “thunk” on the low strings and good sustain on the high strings. When strumming an open E, the bodies resonated to the point that my belly felt a decent vibration. The MIA appeared to have a two piece body versus the MIM three piece, but there is still much debate about how the number of pieces effects tone. The MIA did have several advantages such as better fret work, more vintage sounding pickups (the MIM had noiseless single coils that sounded OK, just not my Tele pickup of choice), and the pots felt more solid. The bridge on the MIA Tele also seemed a bit more sturdy, personally I tend to like a vintage style bridge which neither had.
The bottom line is , even if I was prepared to spend the $1399.99 for a MIA Tele, I believe I would actually purchase the MIM anyway. My reasoning is that if I were to invest the $880 difference in price into it, I believe I would have a guitar that would exceed the MIA Tele in every area. Because I am such an avid guitar parts window shopper, I created sample list of just how far that extra $880 dollars can go.
Complete Fret Job – The last time I had a complete fret job was about three years ago. It cost me $350 and included my choice of fretwire (I chose stainless steel 7150′s), setting the fingerboard radius to my choice (I get mine with a 10-14 inch compound radius), rolled fingerboard edges, a new nut and refinishing the fretboard due to it being made of maple. If you have never had a complete fret job done before, I can tell you that it is truly amazing what it does for a guitar’s playability. I know that a brand new replacement neck can cost less, but if you know a top notch guitar tech, what they can do for your neck will be superior to a replacement neck (given your neck isn’t complete junk).
New Pickups - Don Mare makes some of the best vintage spec Tele pickups out there. They do come at a premium at $220 a set, but if true vintage Tele tone is what you seek, there are none better IMHO. There are many other pickups to choose from that are also excellent choices that cost much less, so I consider the $220 to be a high estimate.
New Bridge – I have used Callaham hardware on my guitars for years. He makes his parts with an amazing attention to detail and only uses the highest quality metal. His vintage style Tele bridge with enhanced compensated saddles has the cool old school look but eliminates the intonation and playability issues associated with Fender made vintage style bridges. At $120.00, it is a worthy tonal and playability investment for any Tele.
So far I have spent $690 of my $880 budget. The changes that have been made already puts this guitar leagues above its $1399.99 MIA competitor at only $1180. Lets keep spending.
Electronics – The only other issue I really had with the MIM Tele is that the pots felt kind of cheap and didn’t really taper off to my liking. Recently, I have been preferring Bourns pots over my usual CTS, and at $2.50 each they are a good deal. While I’m in there, I might as well throw in a higher quality CRL pickup selector for $15.00 too.
At this point, I couldn’t find anything else that I would change. The tuners were sealed and felt fine and the rest would have been purely cosmetic. The total comes out to be $1232.50 dollar, or $172.50 less than the MIA. Not bad for a guitar that now has a pro fret job with a custom radius neck and my preferred fret size, top shelf pickups, probably the best bridge you can find, and upgraded electronics. If I still feel the need to blow the extra cash, I could buy a new strap, strings, and a gross or two of picks.
Guitarist tend to have their own reasons for buying the guitars they do, and I am by no means going to end this long winded post with “this is how you should shop for guitars.” I just know that personally, I like to look at all of my options and not overlook guitars that are considerably below what I am prepared to spend. If I take my time and keep an open mind, I have a good chance of finding a guitar that has a great foundation to build upon and has the potential to be better than an off the shelf guitar priced at my maximum budget.