The Telecaster since 1950s has become the default instrument for the whole genre and “the sound of country”, as demonstrated by the likes of James Burton, Waylon Jennings, Brad Paisley and so many other Tele icons.
Today, we’re going to take a quick look at some of the titans of the genre, from Nashville and beyond, who helped define the sound of country with a wide array of decidedly non-Tele guitars.
As a general disclaimer, a lot of players on this list were studio musicians who likely played whatever the gig demanded. So inevitably, every player we’ve included played a Telecaster at some point or another. But today, we’re focusing on the guitars that these musicians are best-known for playing.
Merle Travis – easily ranks as one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century. For proof of this claim, just look to “Travis picking” a style he took from Western Kentucky to the radio mainstream, which has become one of the most commonly used picking techniques across the whole guitar-playing world.
He played a number of different guitars throughout his career, including a famous early solid body he helped develop with his pal Paul Bigsby in the late 40s. for guitar nerds, the Bigsby-Travis guitar is the stuff of legend. It currently resides in the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Les Paul’s Log, and is arguably the most important single electric guitar ever built, at least in terms of impact and influence.
Beyond the historically significant Bigsby, Merle also played a particular Gibson Super 400. This guitar – also in the Country Music Hall of Fame, has Merle’s name inlaid on the fretboard, an aesthetic flourish that is hopefully poised for a comeback.
Chet Atkins – was a close friend of Merle’s and eventually helped revitalize his career when the two released a Grammy-winning collaboration, The Atkins – Travis Traveling Show in 1974. Of the two, Atkins was far more successful in the music business. First arriving in Nashville as part of an early 50s incarnation of the Carter Family, Atkins rose to the very apex of the Nashville music scene, helping to architect the “Nashville Sound” as a producer and executive, while recording a large discography of his own guitar work.
There’s a lot that can be said about Atkins’ hugely influential career. When it comes to his guitars, though, obvious attention must be paid to his work with Gretsch from the 1950’s through the end of the 70s. as an endorsee and consultant, Chet worked with Gretsch on dozens of different models in what is perhaps the single most important artist-brand relationship in the history of guitars.
Joe Maphis – another associate of Travis’ in 1950s California was Joe “King of the Strings” Maphis. Wielding an instantly recognizable Mosrite double-neck, Maphis dazzled audiences with tunes like “Flying Fingers” that showcased his prodigious fingerboard dexterity.
While not as famous as Chet Atkins, Maphis was still a widely known musical personality in the ’50s, owing to his presence on a television broadcast called Town Hall Party. Performing with his wife Rose and a rotating lineup of musicians and special guests, Maphis’ guitar trickery was an inspiration to a generation of young country pickers.
Grady Martin – while players like Travis and Maphis certainly had a definitive style, Grady Martin considered by many of his peers to be the finest Nashville guitarist of his day, was defined by his versatility.
A member of Nashville’s fabled “A-Team” – think country music’s Wrecking Crew, Martin provided parts for hits like Marty Robbins “El Paso” while also backing up Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Roy Orbison, to name just a small selection. He was an arranger and producer, and, according to some, deserves a similar standing to Chet Atkins as one of the key forces in the development of the Nashville Sound.
Like Travis, Martin played an early Bigsby solid body in the ’50s, as well as a Bigsby double-neck in the spirit of Joe Maphis’ Mosrite. Martin also played a number of hollowbody archtop electrics from Epiphone, Gibson, and Gretsch – a common choice for ace session players in both Nashville and L.A.
Hank Garland – another member of the “A-Team”, Hank ranks right up there in the list of prolific Nashville studio players. Working alongside Grady Martin and others, Garland recorded hits with the likes of Elvis and Patsy Cline and even laid down the famous lead lines to “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms.
Tragically, Garland was in a horrific car accident in 1961 and sustained injuries that robbed him of most of his playing skill. While the incident effectively ended his recording career at the age of 31, his influence on countless players since continues to this day. Garland may be most known to Gibson collectors as one of two endorsees behind the Byrdland (the other being Billy Byrd). Released in 1955, the Byrdland was the first Gibson thinline model, paving the way for the ES-335 that came out three years later.
Glen Campbell – passed away last year on August 8th, but his impact as a guitar player, musician and singer transcended genre categorization. That said, for many, he’s considered a country star first and foremost, and one that was a bonafide master of the 6-string.
Glen played a ton of different instruments throughout his career, and, as with other entrants on the list, his collection included at least a few Telecasters. At his peak, though it was Ovations (both acoustic and electric) that would most frequently be seen in Glen’s hands during his concert tours and television appearances.
Earlier in his career, he also played a number of Mosrites, including the flashy red electric resonator seen on the cover of “Hey, Little One”. Later, he sported various Hamers and G&Ls.
Roy Clark – as the co-host of Hee Haw and a mainstay on broadcast television for years, Roy was an extremely visible ambassador of country music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. and while many know Clark for his TV work first, that shouldn’t diminish his very real abilities as a guitarist.
Clark’s first solo release, 1962’s The Lightning Fingers of Roy Clark, is a through demonstration. While not a country record per-se, the instrumental album showcases Clark’s abilities as a soloist with a cover that has him holding a Jazzmaster. Later in his career, Clark would primarily play a signature model made by Heritage guitars of Kalamazoo, Michigan.