In a way, a Fender Telecaster seems an odd choice of guitar for Richie Kotzen. As frontman, singer and only guitarist for melodic hard rockers The Winery Dogs, alongside bass legend Billy Sheehan and former Dream Theatre drummer Mike Portnoy, he has a lot of the audio spectrum to fill up, despite Sheehan’s huge contribution. He also plays without a pick, which could lead you to think that his sound lacked attack and power. Not so. Not only does he fill up the space with aggressive licks and tapped fills, his signature Richie Kotzen Telecaster does what all Teles do. It cuts through the mix like a chainsaw through saplings, with plenty of midrange in attendance and with less drive and distortion from his amps and pedals than you’d expect.
Although this made-in-Japan Telecaster is already loaded with modifications and features that Kotzen has specified from Fender’s design team, for his own stage guitar he takes the production model and modifies it further; sanding the satin urethane finish off the back of the neck to create a bare-wood look, adding drop-D tuner to the bottom string and installing an N-Tune under his volume control which he switches on or off with a mini toggle on the control plate.
Straight off the rack the guitar feels a tad heavier than a standard Tele and initial impressions are firstly, you can see that this is a heavily customized instrument and secondly, it’s probably going to set you back a decent amount of wedge, despite being a non US built guitar. Kotzen has specified a bound-edge ash body with a 2-piece maple top – probably where the extra weight come from – and a larger than normal ‘C’-shape maple neck with a flatter fingerboard radius and jumbo frets. The neck profile has been specified to accommodate Kotzen’s large hands rather than for any sort of tone enhancement although the extra timber can’t hurt in that department. Fender has managed to ‘bookmatch’ the maple top as well as it can and the flame is well visible through the vintage-style sunburst finish, giving the instrument a really classy appearance. Strat-like comfort contours further enhance the guitar’s customized looks as does the all-gold finished hardware and dual-rail bridge pickup. The guitar is very reminiscent in appearance to the 40th Anniversary Telecaster that was released in 1989 but whether that guitar was the inspiration for the Kotzen model is unknown.
Kotzen has specified Dimarzio pickups; a DP173 Twang King in the neck position and a Dimarzio DP384 Chopper T mounted on the flat bridge plate. The Twang King is designed to respond to pick attack and playing dynamics and it doesn’t disappoint; when digging in hard the pickup reacts accordingly and is powerful enough to slightly distort a clean amp while a gentler approach yields jazzier tones or clean rhythm when required. Switching pickups allows the Kotzen Telecaster to really get animated and with your lead channel fully awake, the twin-bladed Chopper T is allowed to breath its own brand of fire, concentrating the mids and low end to produce the fatness yet cutting tone that is the artist’s trademark. An extra dollop of midrange can be had with the 2-way series/parallel rotary tone control, which takes the place of a regular tone knob, providing a little extra ‘push’ – ideal for when it comes to kicking in with your solo.
Gold hardware can sometimes look too ‘blingy’ on Fenders; they’re supposed to be workaday instruments with more invested in functionality than decoration. But it works on this guitar; the bridge, saddles, machine heads, control plate, knobs, strap buttons and rhythm pickup complementing the single-ply cream pickguard and sunburst colour perfectly and putting everything in balance visually.
The Richie Kotzen Telecaster is a striking looking guitar and furthermore feels like a pro instrument with carefully chosen pickups and flatter neck allowing huge bends and alternative modern playing techniques. The big neck won’t be for everybody and Fender wouldn’t be out of order in offering a version with a modern ‘C’-neck profile as found on the American Deluxe Tele, but fans of the artist will want the real thing – however much harder it is to play. A class instrument for a class player. Recommended.