Fender’s product blurb for the Richie Kotzen signature Tele begins, “Once only available in Japan, the Richie Kotzen Telecaster is now available to a worldwide audience”.
This is a rather extraordinary understatement. Fender have always seemed, to me, rather unwilling to admit to the massive demand for this guitar from the very off. It’s pretty clear that this Japanese built Tele, combining vintage looks and traditional feel with contemporary performance, hurt sales of the American Deluxe (now renamed American Elite) range.
After banning Japanese dealers from exporting brand new Domestic market Fender Japan guitars to the West in the mid 2000’s. I guess Fender hoped they’d killed off demand for the Kotzen. But if you’ve perused EBay and any of the smaller grey import guitar dealers out there. The Kotzen Tele is the one Japanese Fender instrument people are very curious about. Not just Kotzen fans, but everyman guitarists wanting a quality Tele that combines traditional looks with a modern high performance feature set. Originally launched in the late 1990’s it’s taken Fender nearly 20 years to make the model more widely available.
It’s rumoured that the origins of the model are when Fender sent Kotzen a rather traditional 40th anniversary Tele in the early 90’s. Hence it’s somewhat conservative vibe.
First off the RK Tele is not a light guitar. The 3 piece ash body is topped with a flamed maple cap. It weighs in at around 8lbs. The polyurethane brown sunburst finish is tasteful & well applied. Like modern American Deluxe/Elite Tele’s there’s a belly cutaway for the more ahem, portly among us
The silky satin eurethane finish maple neck is what Fender call a “big C profile”. But at half an inch deeper at the back. The neck is probably a lot closer to a traditional 50’s U shape than it’s Stratocaster sibling. There’s a rosewood skunk stripe at the back of the neck and I suspect the truss rod is in a plastic tube.
The build, fit and finish on the guitar are top notch. Some people may baulk at the cost of what is a non American made Fender. But in Japan this guitar has a 3 digit model number, to suggest its quality way above the various spec reissues that form the mainstay of the Fender Japan only range.
Sitting atop the neck are 22 polished super jumbo Dunlop 6100 frets. The fingerboard is a 12″ radius like a Les Paul. In some ways this guitar feels more Gibson than Fender. It’s a real bruiser strapping it on. The headstock features a scratchy Richie Kotzen signature and a set of Gotoh machine heads. The sort of high performance tuners you’d find on an Ibanez Prestige range guitar.
Getting used to the meaty baseball like neck is perhaps the biggest challenge of this guitar. originally many Guitarists bought these instruments from overseas internet retailers without the chance to play one and assumed with Kotzen’s reputation that the neck would be a shredder friendly proposition like a Suhr or Tom Anderson. Unfortunately for them it isn’t.
But the two big benefits of this are a fat tone and tuning stability. The sheer mass of wood coupled with the well cut plastic nut and Gotoh tuners, means the Kotzen is a guitar that stays with you into big bends and complex riffs. Acoustically the guitar lacks the traditional Tele twang and instead has a fat beefy midrange voice, and that’s before we’ve even plugged it in.
As mentioned before in our review of the Fender Kotzen Stratocaster. Mr Kotzen seems to like his gold plated hardware. However here it’s pared with a more traditional finish and a cream scratch plate. The vibe of this guitar is classy and understated. I had to carry out a deblinging operation on my Kotzen Strat in order to enjoy the guitar, by changing the scratchplate. Here there is no such problem. The guitar looks expensive and upmarket. As someone whose gigged a Kotzen since 2005 I can safely say that the gold hardware ages nicely and has taken on its own patina over time.
Richie Kotzen has done a superb job here. While the neck pickup is a non more traditional Dimarzio Twang King, the bridge unit is a Telecaster version of Dimarzio’s Chopper single coil sized humbucker. Both units are medium gained. So while there is a punchy fullness to the sound. It’s not over gained like many modern high output pickups. The single coil sized humbuckers seem to have their own kind of compression, that makes for a more articulate playing experience especially at higher gain settings.
Controls are a traditional Tele 3 way blade and a volume, however the Kotzen’s biggest surprise is its absence of a tone control. Instead we get a series or parallel switch for the rear humbucker. In the middle position this gives either a beefy fat sound perfect for adding a Sabbathesque Fuzz to, or a jangly thin tone that is incredibly useable for clean arpeggios. The Kotzen isn’t the only Tele to do this. Ace session man and Hall & Oats guitarist G.E Smith’s signature Tele has a similar 4th tonality, as does the Mexican made Baja Tele.
By combining the jangly thin tone with a pair of delays I was able to get a fantastic epic anthemic riff that had a hypnotic quality. Usually I’m cynical of extra sounds or versatility on a traditional electric. But the Kotzen just nails it.
While the neck single coil doesn’t disappoint. The Dimarzio Chopper-T is brilliant at any gain level. The ceramic magnet pairs nicely with its vintage Alnico V voiced neck sibling. So cleans are fat and full ranged, while distorted tones all very useable without any of the traditional shriek you’d potentially get with single coils at very high gain.
The guitar is sympathetic at low to medium drive tones & has a fullness to it which is more Gibson like at times. But still with its Fenderish spank.
The Ownership Experience
In Japan the guitar comes in a rather awful gigbag. In the U.K. Dealers seem to skim over the lack of a case for a guitar with a price of £1815.00, which seems a lot for a Japanese made Fender until you look at the build quality and fit and finish. This is a guitar that comfortably goes up against an American Deluxe/Elite Tele. However, I do wonder if Fender have deliberately overpriced the guitar in order to make it sit more in line with other US made artist instruments. In Japan both Kotzen signature Fenders cost a more wallet friendly £1450.00, so the Tele does seem somewhat pricey. But grey importing a new guitar from Japan would be somewhat impossible.
Price aside I think the Kotzen’s feature set has just enough of a vintage modern vibe to make the guitar highly desirable to any player wanting a well made traditional looking Telecaster with a high performance feature set. But £1815.00 is a lot of cash, the Kotzen is encroaching into boutique guitar territory. So a used Fender Custom Shop may give you a vintage neck with bigger frets, as might a plethora of other high end T type builds.
If you desire a more shred friendly smaller neck. I suspect an American Deluxe/Elite Tele or perhaps a guitar from the likes of Suhr or even Tom Anderson may be a better choice. But for this reviewer, the Kotzen still has a certain coolness in its clash of old and new.