Dating a guitar is not only a useful and interesting thing to be able to do, in financial and historical terms it is vital. Even if you are not planning to sell your guitar knowing a bit about when it was made is a fun thing to do, from there you can read about the history of the company and work out just where your guitar fits into the story. If you are looking to buy or sell your Telecaster then the date is vital, this helps provide a provenance or authentic record for the guitar in question and that is one of the key factors which dictates its value.
The Fender Telecaster sits at the start of the evolutionary path of the solid bodied electric guitars and therefore has gone through many changes as the breakthroughs and new developments, technological advancements and revolutionary new ideas were applied to the art of guitar making. Therefore, there are many considerations regarding dating your Telecaster but what follows is a comprehensive general guide and a table of dates and the features and specifications which identify that period in the lines history.
The first Fender solid body model, the Esquire, lasted (in name only) from April 1950 to October 1950 before it was replaced by the "Broadcaster", which lasted (in name only) from the October 1950 to January 1951. The majority of Broadcasters are dated November 1950. A sure way to tell these two early guitars apart is that Broadcasters have truss rods, whereas all 1950 Esquires have no truss rod.
In 1937 Gretsch had trademarked the name "BroadKaster" for a line of drums and after advertising the Broadcaster in music trade papers in February 1951, Gretsch took notice and sent Fender a telegram asking them to change their name. Therefore Fender was forced to drop the name Broadcaster. Starting in February 1951, Fender removed the word "Broadcaster" off their headstock decals. These models (February 1951 to summer 1951) are known as "NoCasters". Starting in the summer of 1951, Fender adopted the name "Telecaster" for this model, and started using new decals after all the old clipped decals were used.
Note that whilst the above dates are accurate, be aware that Fender was a month or two ahead in making body parts so that the date of the decal style might be slightly out of step with the guitar it was applied to. Therefore, you can find NoCasters with December 1950 neck dates, even though they didn't clip the decals and do final assembly till February 1951 (decal application was the last assembly step were always applied over the finish). Making the body and neck (and dating them) was the first assembly step, and hence these dates can be a couple months before the instrument was finalized and shipped.
All Telecasters basically have the same features: single cutaway slab body, 2 chrome knobs, 3 position toggle switch, 3 paired adjustable bridge saddles, strings anchor thru body (except in late 1958 to 1959).
Period specific details are as follows:
October 1950 Fender Broadcaster
Ash body with Butterscotch Blond finish.
Maple one piece neck, all with truss rods.
Round button string tree (1st month models don't have one).
Flat pole pickup in treble position.
Chrome covered pickup in neck position.
Black fibre pick-guard, clear coated with lacquer.
Serial number on bridge plate.
Round switch tip.
Steel bridge saddles till November 1950, then brass with flat bottoms.
Body date in neck pocket.
All screws have slot heads.
February 1951 "NoCaster"
Fender decal with "Broadcaster" cut off.
Summer 1951 Telecaster
After all cut "NoCaster" decals used, "Telecaster" decals appear.
Gradual use of Phillips head screws replaces slot head screws (this change was not complete till 1953).
Early 1954 Telecaster
Serial number on neck plate.
Late 1954 Telecaster
White Blond finish replaces butterscotch finish. White single layer vinyl pick-guard replaces black pick-guard. Bridge saddles change from brass to small steel smooth saddles.
Mid 1955 Telecaster
Staggered pole pickup in treble position.
"Top Hat" style switch tip replaces round tip.
Sunburst finish available.
Body date moved from neck pocket to under lead pickup (late 1955).
Mid 1956 Telecaster
String tree changes from round button to "butterfly" clip.
Bridge saddles change from smooth to threaded saddles.
Strings anchor at bridge ("top loading") instead of going thru the body (late 1958).
Mid 1959 Telecaster
Slab Rosewood fingerboard.
Single layer thick white pick-guard (custom color Telecasters used 3 layer celluloid mint green pick-guard).
Tele Custom introduced with 3 layer celluloid mint green pick-guard.
Starting in 1959, Fender introduced a new model, the Telecaster Custom. It was the same as a standard Tele except it came in three color sunburst, and the body is bound.
Strings anchor thru the body again.
Mid 1962 Telecaster
Veneer Rosewood fingerboard.
3 layer celluloid mint green pick-guard on all models.
Fall 1964 Telecaster
Pearl fingerboard dots replace "clay" dots.
White plastic three layer pick-guard.
Late 1965 Telecaster
Gold Fender decal thicker than previous "Spaghetti" logo.
Maple fingerboard available as an option (black dots).
String ferrules on back now stick out, no longer flush.
Pink paisley and blue floral finishes available 1968 & 1969 only.
Tele Thinline was introduced.
The Telecaster Thinline, much like Gibson's 335, has a solid center with hollow "wings" and a single "F" hole. Although there were several deviations from the original Tele Thinline, the only generally sought after model is the one with standard Tele-style single coil pickups. This variant was made from 1968 to 1971 and was marked "Fender Telecaster" only on the peg head (as per regular solid body Telecasters), the truss rod adjusted at the butt-end of the neck, and had a pearled pick-guard between the neck pickup to the tone control.
In 1971, Fender changed the model to use Humbucking pickups, a "bullet" truss rod (adjusts at peg head), and the peg head decal was changed to read "Fender Telecaster Thinline". The original Telecaster Thinline was reissued by Fender of Japan in the early 1990’s.
The Rosewood Telecaster, introduced in 1969, had a neck and body made from solid rosewood. This guitar was reissued by Fender of Japan in the late 1980's and is a very close reproduction.