Outlaw of Tone: Merle Haggard's Telecaster

Thanks for reading the Guitar Sun, Sunfield Music Store’s weekly take on gear, music history, tone tips, and more.

At Sunfield, we take pride in producing instruments that keep the spirit of the electric guitar alive. For us, that means making high-quality instruments. Our core customers want gig-quality electric guitars. You could call them “cheap electric guitars,” but Sunfields aren’t just beginner’s guitars. They’re simply priced differently—for parts and labor—in a bloated instrument market that caters to prestige and huge marketing budgets (all paid for with musicians’ dollars).

In the past several weeks, we’ve taken a look at Jimi Hendrix’s guitars beyond the Stratocaster and examined some of the unique models employed by Prince and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Today, we take a look at another utter legend of the working man’s approach to guitar: Merle Haggard.

We tend to focus on rock artists (though we’ve written about musicians like Charlie Christian in the past). Today, we’re focusing on an all-time great country player. He may play country music, but it’s hard to find a much more “rock and roll” character than Merle Haggard.

He also happens to be the inspiration for one of our most beautiful replica guitars. We’ll explore the history of that guitar’s inspiration, along with some of Haggard’s other gear choices.

The Outlaw Sound: The Gear of Merle Haggard

Growing up hard in Oklahoma, Haggard still manage to acquire his first guitar (a gift from his older brother) at the age of 12. Like so many greats, he taught himself how to play listening to country greats like Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams on the radio. Haggard’s father died when he was young, and his motherworkedr long hours to support the family. This situation left Merle largely unsupervised, and he quickly turned into a young rebel. Suffice it to say the classic song “Mama Tried” is a bit autobiographical.

 

 

At 14, Haggard was assigned to a juvenile detention center after shoplifting. He subsequently escaped and fled to Texas. He later returned to Oklahoma, was assigned to the same facility, and escaped once again—this time to Modesto, CA. At that time California, like Oklahoma, was a quintessentially “Western” state and huge center for the country music scene (the famous “Bakersfield Sound.”)

He was arrested in California, served over a year in prison, and was then released again (only to be arrested soon after as part of a burglary attempt). They don’t call Merle’s music “outlaw country” for nothing. Finally, he found his big break: Lefty Frizzell heard Haggard sing a few tunes backstage prior to a performance. Frizzell then refused to perform until Haggard got a chance to open for him. Merle got a raucous reaction from the crowd  A legend was born, but still had to be arrested one more time before he achieved fame.

Always hounded by financial problems, Haggard tried to rob a roadhouse, was sent to Bakersfield jail, was caught attempting to escape, and was then reassigned to the famous San Quentin prison. There, close friendships with multiple death row inmates finally convinced Haggard to straighten out his life. He was further inspired by actually seeing Johnny Cash live, while incarcerated, in one of his famous prison performances. We wonder how long a sentence would be worth a free Johnny Cash show. 

 

The career of one of the all-time great country artists could finally truly get off the ground. That said, Haggard would remain a true rebel in the country music scene, always forging his own path as a true working man’s guitar hero.

Like so many country greats, Haggard favored the Telecaster for his electric playing. He’s most typically seen playing butterscotch blonde or sunburst models in earlier photos. Of course, he eventually earned a special, signature model. We think it’s the perfect contrast to his music and personality: a beautiful, almost aristocratic take on the Telecaster to accompany Haggard’s rough-edged outlaw music.

It was also jam-packed with unique aesthetic and tonal features.

Haggard Signature Guitar

The guitar moves away from some tradition Tele features, moving to a set neck and maple top (like a Les Paul). Based on the Telecaster “Thinline,” it’s semi-hollow. The centerpiece of the guitar is maple. Two acoustic-chambered “wings,” made of ash are attached to both sides.

The gold-plated hardware offers a final trick: the pickup selector, unlike traditional Teles, is a four-way switch. In addition to the three traditional options, a fourth puts the pickups “in series” (for a thicker sound; “in series” is similar to the two coils on a single humbucker).

On the acoustic-side, Haggard favored Martin Guitars (often D-28’s). For amps, he favored Fender Tweed Twins or Bassmans (thick mids, but cleaner than classic tweed amps like the 5E3 Deluxe).

Thanks for reading! We hope you have time for a great jam-session this weekend. Throw in a country lick or too for Merle.