To create my guitar, I conducted extensive research on Joe Strummer’s Fender Telecaster guitar, including examining hundreds of photos, watching hours of concert footage and looking at various sources on the web and in magazines and books. I have researched not only Strummer’s guitar, but also material on vintage Fender Telecaster guitars. Finally, I have sought the advice of people who were close to Joe Strummer and intimately familiar with his most famous guitar. Based on this research, I am fairly confident of the specs on Joe’s guitar.
Based on everything I have reviewed, the following is a chronology of the development of Joe Strummer’s guitar:
Sometime in 1966 - The Fender Musical Instruments Company in California produces yet another Telecaster electric guitar, the ubiquitous instrument favored by country, rock and blues musicians. First introduced in 1951 by Leo Fender, the Telecaster model was one of the first electric guitars, and it is noted for its distinctive twang and, when necessary, the growl of its large single coil bridge pickup.
The stock 1966 Fender Telecaster with a three color Sunburst finish on an alder body, white 3 ply (WBW) pick guard, and rosewood fingerboard on a maple neck. Other standard features include pearl dot inlays, "two line" Kluson tuning machines, a single "butterfly" string tree, and a bridge fitted with three individual brass saddles. The head stock has a "transitional" Fender logo and a twin patent number decal. The serial number engraved on the neck plate reads "148XXX" above the capital "F" logo.
At this time, 14 year old John Graham Mellor, "Johnny" to his family, was living with his parents and brother in Blantyre, Malawi, where his father had been posted as a diplomat in the British Foreign Service. Johnny had become interested in the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and, importantly, their affection for American rhythm and blues, as well a the local Malawian music. After returning to England after the country obtained its independence from Great Britain, Johnny Mellor would enter a public boarding school student, where he was far more interested in art and music than his studies, and he would become increasingly disaffected.
Mid-1975 - John Mellor, now known as "Woody" Mellor, is the lead singer and guitarist for the 101ers, a "squat rock" band playing pubs in London, when he acquires the slightly used – but still totally stock – sunburst Telecaster. Contrary to reports that "Woody" Mellor acquired a Telecaster to emulate the pacifist Woody Guthrie, the future punk rock guitarist known as Joe Strummer was actually inspired to play a Telecaster by Wilko Johnson, the guitarist for the British punk prototype band Dr. Feelgood, who wielded his Telecaster like a weapon.
Mellor pays £120 for the Tele, which replaces a Gretsch White Falcon and Hofner six string as his main guitar. Mellor, the perpetually broke "starving artist," acquires the money to pay for this grand purchase by accepting a fee to marry an acquaintance from South Africa so she can obtain British citizenship.
April 10, 1976 - The 101ers follow the Sex Pistols at a show at the Nashville Room in London. The Sex Pistols are described by one reviewer as "a band of incompetents." He goes on to say, "The 101ers, by comparison, are perfectly glorious." Mellor, who now prefers to be known as "Joe Strummer," likely played his newly acquired Sunburst Tele during this show.
May 1976 - After seeing the 101ers, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon persuade Joe Strummer to leave the 101ers and join The Clash. Strummer already believes the 101ers have no future after seeing the Sex Pistols, and that punk rock is the way of the forward. Jones and Simonon, both art school refugees, decide The Clash need a"look" similar to the Sex Pistols (who were shills for Malcolm McLaren’s clothing store "Sex"), so they begin to design clothing with statements stenciled on them. The Clash’s manager, Bernie Rhodes, arranges for the band to take its instruments and clothing to an auto body shop where everything, including Joe’s guitar, is painted and stenciled.
Joe Strummer's playing style in the Clash was juxtaposed to that of Mick Jones, who was more technically proficient. Jones recently described their combination of styles to Gibson's Backstage magazine: "With my playing and Joe’s playing, it was the sweet and the sour. See, Joe was a left-handed player but he played right-handedly, so his most dexterous hand was the opposite. That contributed considerably to his strumming style. That’s why it is so specific to him."
By the end of 1976, Strummer’s guitar body, including the pick guard, has an extra coating of grey primer and black automobile paint. The word "NOISE" is stenciled in white paint above the pick guard, with a thick white block line under the "E," while three small stripes (the colors of the rasta flag, black, white and red?) are added to the base of the horn on the pick guard. Strummer also adds the silver, red and blue "IGNORE ALIEN ORDERS" sticker above and behind the bridge. Strummer affixes the "ash tray" bridge cover behind the bridge, so it’s not known whether there is a sticker placed here. Finally, the guitar has a white Stratocaster-style pickup selector switch tip.
The guitar remained in this configuration from the end of 1976 through 1977, during the recording of "The Clash" album and the band’s participation in the Sex Pistols’ ill-fated "Anarchy" UK tour in November and December 1976. By late 1977, Strummer is also using a late 1960s Telecaster with a black body, black pick guard, maple neck with a "skunk stripe" and maple fingerboard, as well as an early to mid-60s white Fender Esquire with a white pick guard and rosewood fingerboard.
1978 - By the time The Clash releases Give ‘Em Enough Rope and the band is touring extensively, Strummer has modified his original Tele as follows: a bridge is fitted with six individual saddles - one for each string, a second "butterfly" string tree is added, and the original Kluson tuners are replaced by six "F" style tuners (these came as standard equipment on ‘67 to ‘72 Telecasters). A large question mark ("?") is painted on the back of the guitar in white spray paint. The guitar remains in the same configuration, with the addition of various stickers behind the bridge, until The Clash eventually breaks up in 1985. 1985-1988 - Very little changes are made to Strummer's Telecaster, as Joe goes into a fallow period. He works on the occasional movie soundtrack and does not tour for almost three years. The only apparent change is the addition of a "flying eyeball" sticker behind the bridge.
1988 to 2002 - Strummer adds the "TRASH CITY" sticker behind the bridge in 1988, after the release of his soundtrack for the movie Walker. The guitar is used occasionally for the next decade, as Strummer throttles back. He uses it to record Earthquake Weather, to tour with the Pogues as a replacement for Shane McGowan, and then in the late 90s for the recording of two Mescaleros albums and supporting tours. Strummer does not begin touring extensively again until late 2001 and 2002.
December 2002 - Strummer dies suddenly of a congenital heart defect at the age of 50. His last show is in mid-November 2002, at the Acton Town Hall. During his second to last show, at a benefit for firefighters a few days earlier, Strummer is joined on stage by Mick Jones for the first time in nearly 20 years, fueling rumors of a Clash reunion when the band is inducted into The Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame in March 2003. Sadly, the reunion is not to be. Meanwhile, the phenomenal Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros album Streetcore is finished and released in late 2003.
As of today, the guitar shows signs of heavy useage. Frankly, it's pretty beat up. The rear of the body is heavily scratched and worn from contact with studs and buckles. There is an interesting spectrum of colors on display from the black overcoat, through the grey primer to the browns and yellows of the original sunburst and, finally, the bare wood. The back of the neck is also heavily worn along its entire length. (Strummer was a lefty who learned to play guitar as a right-hander.) A square patch of black paint survives close to the center of the back of the body, where some of the question mark is still visible. This patch is where Joe used to tape his set list. The Fender logo on the headstock is nearly invisible.
Joe Strummer’s Fender Telecaster was on display as part of the Clash exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum in Cleveland, Ohio through October 2007, after which the guitar was presumably returned to Strummer's family in England. The Fender Custom Shop released a Joe Strummer "tribute" Telecaster at the July 2007 NAMM show. However, the guitar looks nothing like Joe Strummer’s actual Telecaster. Reviews of the guitar's tone and playability were good, but sales were apparently disappointing. The "tribute" model has been discontinued.