Wilko Johnson Fender Telecaster. Neck meets body, and some early preparatory work

In theory – this should be just about the simplest project I’ve ever undertaken. But then it’s not as if original examples of Fender, “Wilko” Teles aren’t already readily available on the second-hand market. Surely – if I wanted “the look” that badly – I could always just go out and buy it off the shelf?

But building “replica” or “inspired by…” guitars is, for me, much more about trying, in some way, to get closer to the artist and the actual practicalities of making their individual “sound”. The research involved along the way is almost as rewarding, in itself, as finishing and eventually playing the finished instrument. Tracking down and sourcing individual parts, which echo or reproduce significant elements on the original, has it’s own fascination too. Ultimately however, the best bit is always taking the finished instrument, and then learning a song or two, in (whatever approximation I can achieve of), the style of the original artist. Trying to get to grips with the same, (or similar),instrument, in roughly the same style – I think that’s how the whole thing gets passed down from generation to generation. For decades now, popular music has evolved as each generation has taken what has gone before, and changed it subtly with their own experience of the music and technology. It’s the story of the Blues, of Rock and Roll…

For me, the whole process is as much about musical appreciation, as it is about the design technicalities, the sound, or even “the look” of the instrument.

Fender Neck and body – the starting point

And my cataract wrecked vision is still limiting a lot of what I can do. A simple bolt-together job, although technically less ambitious than most projects I’ve undertaken, will give me something to concentrate on while I wait for the weather to warm up. It seems that most of my other projects require some elements to be spray painted, and I need better weather for that. It’s generally feared that waiting lists for “non-critical” surgical procedures might soon extend to several years. Maybe I’d better get used to the idea of these simpler, “bolt together” projects. I’ll have to see what I can do with my “Mr Magoo” vision.

I’ve done some initial research on Wilko’s original Telecaster, and in his autobiography, “Don’t Leave Me Standing Here”, he provides most of the detail I need, in just a few paragraphs. His famous black, (with red scratchplate), Tele was originally bought to stand in for his earlier white Telecaster which, itself, had been bought with money loaned from his wife Irene. They’re really the only two guitars Wilko has ever needed. The black Telecaster was, like the original white example, a 1962 Tele. (The red pickguard was added later on in Wilko’s career, and was supposed to echo a black and red shirt Mick Green used to wear on stage). Of course – the black Telecaster has had plenty of use over the years, and when Fender first approached Wilko, with an intention to produce a run of “signature” Wilko Johnson Teles – he was apparently well pleased with the replicas. In a few online clips – he even suggests that he plays the Fender signature replicas on his recent tours, rather than dragging out his old, road-worn icon.

Wilko is pretty definite on the basic specification. Stock. Black. Fender. Telecaster. 1962. He, according to his memoir, “uses only the bridge pickup, with the volume and tone all the way up” and, in terms of the tone and feel of an instrument is, “always looking for something as close to that original ’62, as possible”. For my build – I can’t afford to go down the original parts route, so I’ll see what I can find using components from the contemporary but “Vintage style”, Fender “Classic 60’s” and “American Vintage” lines. The “Classic 60’s” line is mostly made in Ensenada, Mexico – but it features a period correct profiled body, and a maple and rosewood neck with the correct, 7.25″ radius. I think the 2014 Fender signature Wilko Johnson Telecaster is made in Mexico, (MIM) – so the “Classic” line is probably already close to Wilko’s signature spec, and will provide a good base to build around. I’ll look to improve and upgrade some of the other components, (the pickups especially), with hardware selected from the USA built, “AVRI” and “American Vintage Custom” lines, wherever I can source them. The pickguard will have to be custom made separately, and I’ll probably source that from WDMusic, (pickguards.com).

Fender “Classic 60’s” components. 2016 neck, 2020 body

The body for my build was purchased new, and is a Fender “Classic 60’s” replacement Telecaster body (Fender parts number 099-8006-706). It’s a 4lb 4oz alder blank, which has been painted black and finished with a thin, gloss polyurethane coat. These are getting a little harder to find these days, and the price direct from Fender authorised suppliers has been going up markedly over the last couple of years. This one was actually sourced and imported from the USA, and came in cheaper than anything I could source over here – even allowing for the additional shipping, customs and VAT costs.

The neck is actually a “slightly used”, 2016 Fender “Classic 60’s” neck, which I originally sourced for my Jimmy Page “Dragoncaster” build. I have upgraded that guitar, and the specification just happens to fit with what I’m trying to do here, perfectly. The neck has a super-dark, 7.25″ radius rosewood “slab” fingerboard, and I bought it with some vintage style tuners already fitted. It’s as close to a real ’62 Fender neck as I’ll get, without taking out a mortgage for a real, vintage original. I previously swapped out the existing, “butterfly”, string tree for a late 50’s style “button” example, and I’ll leave that in place for this project. Personally, I always prefer the old-style “disc” trees and – besides – it’s one more slight nod to “vintage”, and one less fiddly thing, to have to attend to.

Having recently repaired my Nashville Telecaster, and having seen what damage an over-tightened neck plate can do – I’m sold on having thicker plates on all of my builds from now on. They’re much less prone to distortion. Furthermore – I have a spare HOSCO neck shim, which will help pad the plate in place, and spread the pressure even more. I’ve had a neck plate custom-stamped with a 1962, Fender-correct serial number. 1962/63 Fenders usually have a 5 figure number beginning with an “8”. I got to thinking how the “8”, sort of looked a bit like a “W” on it’s side. A “1” could easily be an “I”. A “7” for and “L”… you can see where this is going. (W-I-L… K-O). OK – getting from a “4” to a “K” is stretching it a bit – but my chosen serial number for this build, 81740, comes from a sort of abstraction of “WILKO”, and there’s a certain satisfaction, even in simple things like that.

Fender strap buttons

Before the neck and body are joined – there are a few bits and pieces to pick up on the body first. It’s much easier to handle and manipulate on the workbench, with the neck off. First are the strap buttons. A pair of Fender “Original”, vintage style buttons (Fender parts number 099-4915-000) are tapped into the pre-drilled holes on the body, using stainless steel screws from a full Telecaster screwset, by Charles Guitars. Each button gets a protective, black felt washer.

Fender “thru-body” string ferrules

Next up – a set of Fender “Original” vintage style string ferrules, (Fender parts number 099-4918-000), are pushed into place on the back of the guitar. The holes are already drilled out, and the edges are stepped slightly so that the ferrules recess nicely, into the body. The ferrules are a tight fit – but press in most of the way with a good shove. I use the rounded heel of a rubber-handled screwdriver to fully press them home. It’s rather gratifying to see just how well they fit into place – but it also feels a bit of a “cheat”, somehow. Maybe I tend to overthink things sometime – but I really like getting absorbed in small details like this. When things fly together this well – it’s all too easy. And then I usually begin to suspect that things might be going together “just a little bit too easily”.

Priming the cutouts

Turns out, in this case, I’m not wrong. I want to line the pickup and control routs with copper foil. It’s ideal to do this with the neck still unattached, and normally – I’d expect the foil to stick in place, with no problem. However… this is different. I can’t get anything to stick to the bare wood on the insides of those control cavities. It’s almost as if they’ve been oiled, or perhaps sprayed with something silicone-based. Normally, on polyester finished guitars – there’s a sort of mist of polishing compound residue, or polyester powder, or something – accumulated around the inside edges of the openings, and the routs usually have traces of finish overspray inside them. Whatever it is – my usual conductive copper foil sticks easily to it, without any problem. These routs are super-clean and sharp. It’s all been cut after the body has been finished, and the cutouts are showing the bare wood of the body…

…and none of my adhesive tapes will stick to it. Sellotape, Gaffa tape, double-sided or copper – nothing will hold. I try and wipe the recesses out with some naptha on a cloth, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference. In the end – I have to admit defeat, resort to first principles, and begin to think about priming the wood. Some white wood glue, let down with a little water, should just soak into the outer surface of the bare wood, and seal it. It goes off quite quickly, and I don’t use too much water, to avoid the wood swelling and shedding any paint around the edges. Once the priming coat has dried clear, I apply a second, thin coat – just to ensure there are no gaps anywhere. It’s touch dry after just a few hours. A few spots where the sealer has lapped over onto the finished face of the body, clean up easily with a cloth which has been dampened with Fender Guitar Cleaner. A quick test with a small piece of self-adhesive copper foil demonstrates that the seal has been effective.

Shielding a Telecaster body with conductive Copper foil

I can now lay some conductive wires between each compartment. Each conductive wire is fashioned out of cloth covered hook-up wire, and the short runs are held in place with small patches of copper foil, where the ends of each wire are stripped back, and the twisted wires at the core splayed out. I like to apply a sort of base patch under the splayed out wires, and then stick them in place with more small pieces over the top. This ensures maximum contact with the conductive adhesive on the copper foil. All of the pickup and control cavities are interconnected via pre-drilled conduits. Once physical links have been laid, and continuity confirmed with a multimeter – the rest of the cavity surfaces can be covered with overlapping strips of copper. Unfortunately – I only have one sheet left over, in the workshop. I’ll have to order some more in, and finish shielding the body on another day.

Installing the neck plate with stainless steel bolts

So – I can move straight on and join the neck and body. The heel of the neck is quite loose in the neck pocket – but since all of the holes have already been pre-drilled by Fender, I’ll go with the flow, and check the alignment properly, later on. The neck and body are joined, using my custom stamped plate and a black plastic shim. Four stainless steel bolts are lightly waxed, and driven home, through the body and into the neck heel. The bolts are tightened diagonally across the plate to avoid distortion – although the thicker plate is certainly more sturdy than some of the 1.5mm thick, Fender plates I’ve come across. With the bolts pinch tight – the neck and body appear to be well-joined, and some vibration transfer appears to be evident in the neck, when the body is lightly struck with a knuckle. Promising…

Fender “Wilko Johnson” Telecaster – build in progress

And another project begins to take shape…

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