Time to step up and face it: the ‘relic’ trend isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, it seems to be picking up steam as the ‘technology’ (mainly scrapin’ stuff and bangin’ junk, I bet) becomes more cost-effective. And that’s just fine by a lot of guitarists. We can’t all afford sweet vintage goodies with decades of grit, grime, love, hate and passion hammered into them, but relic’d guitars make it possible to tap into some of that same vintage vibe, along with the associated playability benefits. Now, ESP is no stranger to the relic biz. Witness their blindingly precise Kirk Hammett aged model, or George Lynch’s GL-56, the James Hetfield Truckster and Iron Cross models, and various other designs over the past few years. One of the more recent entries into the catalog is the LTD TE-202, a guitar which isn’t exactly shy about wearing its inspirations on its sleeve – it’s pretty much ESP’s take on a Telecaster.
Let’s put aside the relicing for a moment and look at what the TE-202 has to offer from a structural perspective. It features a heavy-duty Alder body (a tone wood prized for its rich midrange, tight bass and airy treble as well as a pretty damn decent dynamic range), with a satisfyingly vintage-tinted maple neck and fretboard, historically-accurate 25.5″ scale length, bolt-on construction and a traditional flat-mount bridge with six individual saddles.
The controls consist of a single volume pot, a single tone pot and a three-way pickup selector switch offering bridge, bridge plus neck, or neck options. All pretty standard. The pickups themselves are your first real hint at some kind of custom vibe: the bridge unit is a single coil model (An ESP LTD-120), while the neck is a beefy LH-150 humbucker. Adding a humbucker to the neck position of a Tele-style guitar was one of the first customisations that really caught on back in the day, before you could pick and choose every little aspect of a guitar from a custom shop or by buying individual bits and pieces.
The other hint that this isn’t your grandpa’s Telecaster is the fretboard: it features 22 extra jumbo frets and a wide, flat radius, making it much more friendly to modern playing styles such as bending, hammering, tapping, sweeping and what have you. Obviously 22 is one more than the traditional 21, and extra jumbo frets offer a very different playing experience than thin, low vintage frets, while the traditional Telecaster fretboard is very curvy. While a more contemporary fretboard like this is a common feature for more blatantly modern takes on the Telecaster design (y’know, high-output humbuckers, thick poly clear-coat), it’s not something you often find on instruments that lean towards a more old-school presentation such as the scuffed-up TE-202. From a distance it looks like an old axe: up close it’s designed to play more like a new one.
I plugged the TE 202 into my Marshall DSL50 and got down to business. The bridge pickup has oodles of treble and rather tight bass, making it great for dirty, filthy rock, spanky country and sharp, stabbing blues of the Albert Collins variety. Because it’s a single coil you’ll get a bit of noise when you turn up the gain, but when you find the sweet spot between clean and dirty it sounds great. It also maintains this definition when you tune down, and it’s an especially rockworthy drop D axe. Chords ring out quite nicely, thank-you-very-much, while single notes have a lot of cut. The bridge pickup faithfully reproduces a lot of ‘string sound’ too, which sounds great with an axe as immediate in attack as this.
The neck pickup is much fatter, fuller, louder and more powerful than its bridge counterpart, and there’s much fun to be had in setting the amp to the brink of overdrive with the bridge pickup engaged, then flipping to the neck unit for a solo that pushes it into meltdown. Y’know, the old ‘virtual overdrive pedal’ trick. This humbucker also tracks very well for high-speed picking licks, so shredders with a flair for traditional looks, take note.
As for that relicing job: up close it doesn’t look as authentic as a real walloped-to-heck model from the 50s, but it does do the job quite convincingly from a distance; it also makes the guitar a little more pleasant and ‘earthy’ to play. There’s a reason people prefer roughed-up necks like those found on old guitars, and that’s one big strength of the relicing trend: the physical rather than visual benefit.
The TE 202 doesn’t quite capture the feeling of playing an actual 40, 50 or 60-year-old instrument, and thanks to its more ergonomic neck it doesn’t actively try to do so, but it has a charm all of its own thanks to a few (but not too many) modern appointments and the tactile benefits of the relicing process.