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Fender’s Gold Foil Telecaster is unique

Jun 17, 2023

Fender's pawn shop-inspired range promises 60s catalogue guitar vibes and teases an accessible route into the hottest pickup fad of the last few years. But be careful – all that glitters is not necessarily gold foil…

Jack White has a lot to answer for. It's been over 20 years now since the White Stripe (with a fair bit of help from his nemesis Dan Auerbach) made the guitar world realise that Golden Era guitars from brands like Teisco, DeArmond, Kay, Harmony and Airline were not just for clogging up the guitar racks of pawn shops – in the right hands and with a bit of elbow grease, they make sounds that can shake the very fabric of contemporary music.

Key to the sound of many of these old catalogue electric guitars were the pickups they sported – with their trademark gold-coloured mesh covers these ‘gold foils’ as they became known in the common vernacular offered a unique sound that was altogether different from the lineage of the Fender and Gibson-derived pups found in the vast majority of instruments.

Even after Jack, Dan and co sent prices for vintage catalogue guitars skyrocketing, the special sauce that is the gold foil had remained very much under the radar until a few years ago, when online guitar guys looking for something a little bit different cottoned on to the unique qualities of the gold foil, leading to a spike in demand for vintage coils from the likes of Teisco and DeArmond, while also prompting modern boutique makers such as Curtis Novak and Mojo Pickups to release well-received replicas. It wasn't just an aftermarket fad either, as the reborn Harmony and Supro companies also began producing instruments sporting GF-vibed pickups as standard.

All of which brings us to Fender – a brand that is never shy about capitalising on a current fad, especially when it comes to leftfield twists on its classic designs. It's a lineage that goes all the way back to 2011 and the first Pawn Shop guitars, which sought to bring a bit of eccentricity into the Fender line-up and continued later in the decade with the Parallel Universe series.

Both of those ranges might have looked a bit different, but sonically they were broadly Fender guitars, the new Gold Foil Collection – made up of a Jazzmaster, Jazz Bass and the Telecaster we have before us – promises to go one step further, offering very un-Fendery looks with very un-Fendery materials and tones. At least, that's the idea.

Before we continue this review, a brief explainer of why vintage gold foil pickups have that elusive ‘third way’ sound that players have come to love so much – this is important and you’ll see why in a second.

Original gold foil pickups were not designed the way they were because of the unique tone – they were designed to be cheap, and this is a key part. While the most beloved vintage Teisco and DeArmond gold foils are ostensibly constructed in a similar fashion to a classic single-coil pickup, they’re actually very different. Most importantly, many classic GFs use a rubberised ferrite magnet as opposed to the alnico or ceramic bars used in most guitar pickups. Now, if you want to know what a ‘rubberised ferrite magnet’ is, head to the kitchen – see the old fridge magnet you got on that holiday to Alicante when you were 17? Yup, it's basically the same thing.

As you might expect, this magnet has a much weaker magnetic field than a regular alnico magnet, and as such GF pickups are often described as having a less punchy sound than normal pickups, but with the added bonus of giving more of a balanced tone across the strings thanks to the magnet's long thin bar.

Indeed, it's this cheap-ass fridge magnet that's considered a key part of the gold foil's tonal recipe by most modern replicators – much more so than the gold foil itself, which is broadly considered to have little or no impact on the guitar's tone.

All of which brings us back to the Gold Foil Telecaster we see before us – and you have to admit it's a very handsome beast. With its extremely Teisco Candy Apple Burst finish applied to the mahogany body, a nicely matted maple neck with very un-Fender ebony ‘board and a black-painted headstock sporting Kluson-style tuners with white buttons, it certainly looks the part of a 60s pawn shop curio.

Mercifully it doesn't play like one. With a fine factory set-up and an enticingly playable and svelte ’60s "C" profile neck, this Tele feels as good as it looks, with the 9.5" radius giving more consideration to upper-fret excursions than the catalogue guitars of the golden era ever did. Tuning and intonation is rock solid even with uncompensated brass barrel saddles on the chopped ashtray bridge.

It's all going very well indeed – too well perhaps… and thus we’re forced to deal with the elephant in the room, which on this particular instrument is lurking stompily underneath that oh-so-attractive gold mesh atop the pickups.

You see, despite appearances, these units aren't gold foil pickups in any traditional sense. For a start, they’re mini-humbuckers, which while not unheard of in the wildly inconsistent world of catalogue guitars, is certainly not what most people think of when they think about gold foils. What's more, these mini-humbuckers also use alnico magnets, which, as-discussed, is a bit of a red flag when it comes to authentically replicating the unique sound of those original gold foils – has Fender missed a trick?

Well, yes. There's no escaping the fact that no matter how you set them, there's very little of that gold foil magic at play here – despite the mahogany body and the ebony board, there's more than a small helping of Tele twang on tap, but rather than mixing that with anything discernibly GF-esque it sounds more like what it is, which is a mini-humbucker wearing gold foil pyjamas.

Now, it should be stressed, this is no bad thing – mini-buckers are wonderful pickups and if you’ve ever wondered what a glorious match between a Tele and a Les Paul Deluxe (as opposed to a Firebird pickup that uses two magnets in a rail formation instead of the one here) would sound like, well step right up ladies and gentlemen, this is the guitar for you.

There's bags of character and subtlety to play with too, and versatility to boot – even with just the standard Tele three-way switch to work with. Add a bit of dirt to proceedings and things get even more raucous and fun, with bags of oomph to play with without losing any of that character and clarity.

But there's no getting away from that name. If Fender had called this guitar the Pawn Shop Telecaster (paging 2011) or something like that we could have happily excused the decision to opt for pickups that are gold foil in appearance alone – after all, the pickups themselves are wonderfully musical and expressive units that sound like nothing else in the Fender catalogue.

But they didn't – they called it the Gold Foil Telecaster, and that sets a certain level of expectation that this guitar simply does not live up to. Calling it such is misleading – it's like calling a guitar the ‘PAF Telecaster’ only to hide P-90 pickups in humbucker-sized casings and not expect people to be mad. It's a real shame, because this is a genuinely impressive guitar that has a unique sonic place in Fender's current range, and will be a truly inspirational instrument for many – just not the gold foil lovers.

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