Telecaster And Stratocaster Output Jacks - A Short History

Strat, Stratocaster, output jack, jack boat, cup, Fender, cable, screw on plug, 1950s vintage cable

    Ever since I first picked up a Fender at age 15 and plugged it in, I've had a love - hate relationship with Telecaster and Stratocaster output jacks.  Well, no - that's a lie: I neither hate nor love them; sometimes, though, their design can be mighty irritating.  A few years ago I got a Boss Tone plug-in fuzz box in a trade, and I really wanted to use it that night at a show, but when I tried to plug it into my Tele it didn't work with that damned recessed jack "cup":

Boss Tone Fuzz, Bosstone, Boss-Tone, fuzz, Tele, Telacaster, jack cup, output, jack, 1950s, vintage

Not only was I irritated, but so was the rest of the band, since I was holding up the show switching guitars unexpectedly.  The next day I got a Les Paul jack plate and replaced the Tele's jack cup (the example shown below is of a recent sunburst Parts-o-caster build of mine, not the blonde '68 Tele that I had at the time):


And before you get all like huffy and have a hissy fit and accuse me of "defacing a fine vintage collectible Fender" or something, consider the following: back in the early '80s you could still buy a late '60s Tele for a hundred bucks, and besides - it was my guitar, so sue me.

I also used an Orange Squeezer compressor, which sounds ultra, ultra cool with a Telecaster, but you can't plug it, or any of the original series Dan Armstrong boxes, into a stock Tele:

Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer, compressor, compression, plug in, effect, box

A Short History:

During the late 1940s and early '50s when the follow up to the Telecaster, eventually to be called the Stratocaster, was being developed, input from working players was solicited from Fender, both by Mr. Leo himself, and also the company's reps in the field.  It's no secret that Country And Western, as it was called in those days, was Mr. Fender's favorite music.  And all throughout central and southern California (where Fender's factory - and Leo's office - was located), as well as in many other parts of the country, there were scores of roadhouses, dance halls, and honky tonk taverns rocking to the sounds of live country music on Friday and Saturday nights, and Teles could be seen on every one of those bandstands.

Buck Owens At The Blackboard Cafe, Bakersfield, California
Buck Owens At The Blackboard Cafe, Bakersfield, California
There were no rock concerts in those days (there was no rock and roll yet), and very few nationally known touring acts were playing the kinds of music that real people were actually listening, and dancing to.  Kept away from the artificially hyped "pop" charts were the diverse, dynamic, and ever evolving forms of the true popular music of the people - country, bluegrass, and country swing, blues and jump blues (soon to become rhythm and blues), Tejano and norteño, Cajun and zydeco, polka and schottische - and local dance halls and bars were where the action, and the players, and their early Fender guitars, were at.

I've had the good fortune to meet, and play with some of the younger pickers whose fathers, aunts, and older friends were playing at the roadhouses and taverns in Bakersfield and around the central valley of California in the early 1950s, and it's well known among them that Leo Fender actively sought out feedback from those working musicians on how the Telecaster could be improved upon.

A body comfortable enough to hold throughout those grueling 5 hour bar gigs?  Check: forearm and "beer belly" cuts.  Easier access to the entire fretboard?  Check: the "horn" that shifts the whole guitar toward the right hand when on a strap.  Faster replacement of broken strings, often in the middle of a song?  Check: slotted tuning machine posts.  More reliable and easy to repair guitar to amp cables, with easier to grip plugs?  Check: bulletproof solderless screw-on plugs machined, and knurled, from solid nickel, that can be re-attached to the cable in seconds.

Some way to keep the cable plugs from busting off when the skinny shoulder strap breaks, or the guitar gets knocked sideways or stepped on when it's resting up against the amp on a 15 minute break (no guitar stands in those days)?  Check: a jack plate on the top of the body - also angled downwards to keep the cable out of the way when you're strumming.

Here's another shot of the Stratocaster jack plate, also known as a jack cup or a jack boat; in this picture, that's a real live 1950s Fender plug - still solid, and still functional after a lot of use and abuse over the years - plugged into friend Ron's black Strat:

Strat, Stratocaster, output jack, jack boat, cup, Fender, cable, screw on plug, 1950s vintage cable

As you can see, the combination of a recessed and angled jack plate, along with a smaller form factor plug, makes for a compact and unobtrusive package - rising no further off the top of the guitar than the knobs and switch - that doesn't get in the way of playing the guitar.  And playing is what it's all about - since there were no guitar collectors back in the 1950s and early '60s, and very few "enthusiasts" or hobby players, almost every single one of the Stratocasters sold back then were actually in use, and actually being played - by real players.  Imagine a world with no guitar collectors - Heaven must be a lot like that.

Some Early Strat Players:

Howlin' Wolf, Strat, Stratocaster, band, early 1960s, Kay electric bass, Fender, vintage
Howlin' Wolf

Telecaster And Stratocaster Output Jacks - A Short History, Origami Night Lamp
Eldon Shamblin
Telecaster And Stratocaster Output Jacks - A Short History, Origami Night Lamp
Dick Dale
Telecaster And Stratocaster Output Jacks - A Short History, Origami Night Lamp
Play A Strat, Get Popular - Unknown Guitarist With "The Light Crust Doughboys" Texas Swing Band

Note Dick Dale's Strat mod above: no knobs on his gold metal flake 'Caster!  Also, check out Wolf's bassist playing that cool made in Chicago Kay bass.  And it's hard to make out in the photo, but Eldon Shamblin's Strat is also gold.

A Jack In The Boat:

I've always been a fan of the original '50s style Fender solderless cable plugs and grey coax cable, as well as the later variants, such as the machined brass cable ends from Bill Lawrence:

Play A Strat, Get Popular - Unknown Guitarist With "The Light Crust Doughboys" Texas Swing Band

However, switching between multiple guitars during a set or show, with one of them a Strat, sometimes it was frustratingly fiddley grabbing that small knurled vintage Fender plug handle nestled down inside the jack cup.  Which is why I started using Lawrence cables after a while, since they have a bit larger, but not too large, plug with a well designed, easy to grip reverse taper at the inner flange - way to go, Bill.

And even with a larger cable end, unless a Strat is all you ever use and you're totally familiar with the feel of the jack boat, it can be weird poking around inside that recess a couple of times, until the plug finally slides home.  Not to mention noisy - I'm talking about really quick guitar changes on stage here, between songs, no time to reach back to the amp and turn the volume down.  It's so easy to grab the bottom curve of a Les Paul or a Danelectro or a Rickenbacker and pop that plug in, almost noiselessly; but Strats?  Not so much.

And, just like a Tele, you still couldn't use a Boss Tone fuzz or Orange Squeezer with the stock Stratocaster jack boat.

Alternatives:

In the 1970s and '80s, replacement flat jack plates were available:

Play A Strat, Get Popular - Unknown Guitarist With "The Light Crust Doughboys" Texas Swing Band

The problem with having a flat jack plate is that the usual large Switchcraft type "telephone" plug, and the arc of the cable, sticks way out there in front of the guitar - possibly a hindrance to playing, and certainly every bit as susceptible to breaking off as a jack on the side of the lower bout.  One solution was to use a cable with a right angle (90º) plug.

One Stratocaster player in Montana in the 1970s replaced the bottom tone knob with an output jack, and kept his contraband herb stash under the unused flat jack plate.  True genius at work, and one very aromatic Strat.

Also in the early '70s, Alembic introduced the fat sounding Stratoblaster preamps with flat jack plates; here's a shot of one of the late, great Lowell George's Strats (also note the Telecaster bridge pickup, Tele volume knob, reversed neck pickup, and unusual switch tip):

Play A Strat, Get Popular - Unknown Guitarist With "The Light Crust Doughboys" Texas Swing Band

Alembic continues to make that preamp; now it's called a Blaster, and the plate is still flat, but now made of brass:

Play A Strat, Get Popular - Unknown Guitarist With "The Light Crust Doughboys" Texas Swing Band

Back when I had my first Stratocaster, I learned a cool trick from a picker who had grown up playing in the honky tonks in and around Bakersfield - which is to flip the Strat jack boat upside down.  I still do that to every Strat I've had since, even though I no longer do roadhouse gigs or long shows - it's a handy thing at a jam session or even on your sofa:

Play A Strat, Get Popular - Unknown Guitarist With "The Light Crust Doughboys" Texas Swing Band


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