Weekend Mod Project: Frequent Flyer-caster, Part 1

My day job requires quite a bit of travel, with the frequency having gone up significantly in the past year. Until recently, the travel has created a conflict with my resolution to get back into music. As anyone who plays an instrument knows, constant on-and-off gaps in a practice routine do not facilitate progress. Unfortunately, getting anything oddly shaped – like a guitar – onto an airplane these days is a challenge. I see other travelers doing it from time to time, but the idea still makes me nervous. It only takes one stubborn gate agent to relegate your number one axe to the hold and the mercy of the baggage “throwers.” So I needed a solution for getting a playable (and ideally gig-able) guitar with me from Point A to Point B.

I’ve played Fender guitars since I was seventeen, and part of the draw has always been their utilitarian construction and mod-ability. The bolt-on neck, interchangeable hardware, and solid construction allow the tinkerer to experiment with endless variations on the basic theme, facilitated by an extensive selection of aftermarket parts. This also makes Fenders – and particularly the simple and rugged Telecaster – potentially well-suited to travel. If chucked into the belly of a 737, they have a better chance than most of surviving a collision with Grandma’s 1960s vintage Samsonite suitcase. They can also be disassembled and crammed into an appropriately sized suitcase, as pictured above.

It’s an imperfect solution, and it should be noted there are a number of well-executed travel guitars on the market. My buddy and singer-songwriter-guitarista extraordinaire Jana Pochop recently blogged about one of the acoustic options. These instruments tend to be some combination of smaller and/or de-constructable, often leading to compromises in both form and function. Truly playable, gig-worthy travel instruments are also not cheap. I’d rather spend serious cash on standard spec instruments, if possible, so this mod project was aimed at assembling a road warrior on the cheap.

Enter the Squier Affinity Telecaster, in vintage-approved butterscotch blonde. These guitars go for about $180 new, and significantly less used on Craigslist, where I found mine. The Chinese-manufactured guitar includes all the essential Telecaster elements – alder body, 21-fret maple neck, and two single-coil pickups.

Fender Affinity Telecaster (fender.com)

The guitar has a couple features that although intended to save manufacturing costs, also lend the guitar some interesting vintage vibe. First off is the top-loader bridge. Most Telecasters are string-through-body, requiring six carefully drilled holes and ferrules. The Squier factory bypasses this step by using a string-through-bridge design. Some purists find this to be minor heresy, diverging too far from Leo Fender’s original blueprint. However, there actually was a period in 1959 when Fender briefly switched to the top-loading format on its classic era instruments. ’59 Teles have been played by some of my favorite guitarists, like Jimmy Page and Jim Campilongo, so the idea of a top-loading Tele was intriguing.

The other feature worth noting is the alder body, which is thinner than standard by about a quarter inch. Besides shaving off weight (I don’t like heavy guitars), the dimensions actually harken back to Leo Fender’s earliest production run Esquires from 1950, which used pine bodies a little over 1 1/2 inches thick. Again, a cost-saving measure for Squier’s entry model, but not one without precedent in Fender history.

In stock form, the Affinity Tele is actually a pretty solid instrument and probably would have served my purposes without further work. However, I was aiming for a certain vibe – and certain functionality – with this guitar that necessitated some modding. Plus it’s just hard for me as a tinkerer to leave well enough alone. So keep an eye out for Part 2, in which I turn convert my budget Craigslist special into a respectable twang machine.

Follow the links for Part 2, Part 3, and Frequent Flyer-caster Redux.

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