This is an extract from an interview I did with Bill Kirchen for The Telecaster Guitar Book. Bill was in Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen in the 70s and used his Telecaster to play the fine lead on the group’s 1972 hit single, ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’. Since then he’s been a solo artist who still puts his Tele front and centre – as on his 2007 cut ‘Hammer Of The Honky Tonk Gods’. That one’s all about the Telecaster, which Bill delightfully describes therein as “born at the junction of form and function”. Indeed.
TB: Was there one player who steered you to the Tele?
BK: Well, I started on folk guitar, then I borrowed a friend’s Jazzmaster. I still don’t know how those pickups work. Then an SG, but I started hearing Roy Nichols and particularly Don Rich. Then I heard other players who I thought were playing Telecasters but probably weren’t. So these Bakersfield records with Don Rich, I thought well, I gotta get a Tele. It was the late 60s and I’d just moved to San Francisco, brought my motorcycle with me, and Pete Townshend had just come through San Francisco and busted his SG. This guy sitting next to me wanted an SG and I wanted a Telecaster. I wanted to be like Don Rich and he wanted to be like Pete Townshend, so we traded. Bingo! And I still use it today. I’ve had it for a third of a century.
It has a factory three-colour sunburst Telecaster and its serial number when I got it, on the bridgeplate, was 2222. It was pretty much unsullied when I got it. It had a seven-screw pickguard, not five, a string tree, not a round thing, but it did have the three-position switch set up in the old style: bridge, neck, then neck with capacitor to give you that woof-woof sound. No visible neck date. People have told me it may have been a factory refinish; some say it could be a late-50s.
TB: Tell me some more about Don Rich and the Bakersfield sound.
BK: I grew up in the North, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I didn’t really get to hear any pop music until The Beatles hit. I graduated from high school in ’65. I got into the old Cody band and I immediately got into all the old country records: we started doing tons of Hank Williams, and I had Red Foley records with Hank Sugarfoot Garland doing all this swing and stuff. We also discovered Bob Wills: nobody I knew in the North knew who Bob Wills was at that time! The stuff that grabbed me was Don Rich’s big low end [sings low twangy line], all that picky stuff he would do.
My turf on the Telecaster has always been the low three strings below the fifth fret kind of thing. In fact people would say oh, Bill gets a nosebleed above the seventh fret. I love that big twangy roar. Don Rich had a real clean sound, for one thing. And then Roy Nichols had all that crooked bending stuff that appealed: you know, start the note bent and then [makes beoooww! noise]. Then later I found out it was James Burton on some of the Haggard records: I think that’s him on ‘Working Man Blues’.
I saw Buck Owens in those days, in Detroit, late 60s, both Buck and Don were playing Teles. Buck was a session guitarist with his Tele before that, so when they played ‘Buckaroo’ they both played in harmony. That sound of the two Teles just got me. Don’t remember if they were sparkly Teles, but they certainly had Nudie suits on.
TB: And Bakersfield?
BK: Well, I suspect most of the records were cut at Capitol in Hollywood, so it’s probably a bit of a misnomer.