As far as sound, this is absolutely one of the most versatile guitars I've ever played, and I've been playing for over 30 years. I play a very wide range of music including "classic" rock (Hendrix, Santana, Allman Bros, etc), blues, jazz-funk, and more recently ambient electronic and Robert Fripp-style soundscapes.
I have about a half dozen other electric guitars and I've swapped the pickups on all of them for Seymour Duncan's, Lace Sensors, etc. Before I even got this guitar, my plan was to swap out the pickups, not only for tone, but because I wanted chrome covered humbuckers instead of the creme colored open coils. But after playing it with it's factory installed DiMarzios, that idea is on the back burner. They may not be the ultimate pickups I could have in there, but they sound really good, and I plan to hang with them for a while. I also think the DiMarzio logo on the pickup gives the guitar a more customized look.
Here's an interesting note on the pickups, based on some research I did. In the advertising I've seen for this guitar it mentions DiMarzio pickups that are "specially wound for Fender". I'd also seen mention of them as being a DiMarzio Tone Zone in the bridge and Air Norton in the neck. I wondered if the "custom-wound" thing was advertising hype, so I contacted tech support at DiMarzio to find out. I was told that they were indeed custom made for Fender and that they are very similar to the Tone Zone and Air Norton, but ¿a little brighter and cleaner¿.
So how does the guitar sound? Obviously, with humbuckers installed, it's not going to have the typical Tele sound - we're definitely in the "no twang" zone here - although it can get fairly close on the bridge in single coil mode. But all in all, I've never heard one guitar that can sound so much like a Les Paul, Strat, or Tele. It really gives you the best of all worlds. And with the built-in coil tap, you can go from one to another with the flick of a switch. In humbucker mode, it's more Gibsonish than Fender. Maybe even more SG-sounding than Les Paul, but could pass for either. Even visually, it's got elements of all three, with the familiar Telecaster shape, the thinner contoured body like a Strat, and the gold-top with two humbucker- look of a Les Paul.
The neck pickup in single coil mode is extremely Strat-like, nice and glassy, and can get close to an acoustic-electric sound with the right EQ. But in humbucker mode it¿s very warm and rich ¿ perfect for jazz. The middle position with both pickups is almost like the 2 and 4 position on a Strat pickup selector. Not quite what Strat players call "spank", but good for funk rhythms. As far as the bridge pickup, I generally use that one the least, but on this guitar running through distortion, it's the way to go. It really cuts through with lots of bite without being harsh or "ice pick in the ear" trebly like so many bridge pickups. Rolling off the tone gives that nice fat early Clapton or "American Woman" sound that people often refer to. In single coil mode, you can easily get into chicken picking or ZZ Top pinched harmonics, and it comes the closest to a traditional Tele sound. However, if an ¿authentic¿ Telecaster sound is what you need most, I¿d say to look elsewhere.
I've tried this guitar with a variety of amps and effects as well as direct into the mixing board. I've got a Mesa Boogie Studio 22+, a Fender Blues Jr. and a Marshall 60w. combo (solid state). It sounds great through all of them, but best through the Boogie, partly because it's got a built-in graphic eq that allows for more precise sound shaping. However, my secret tone weapon is a Mesa Boogie V-Twin pre-amp that really adds a lot of tube mojo to whatever you are using it with. Also in the chain are an Ernie Ball volume pedal, Boss V-Wah, compressor, Tonebone Classic tube distortion, TC Electronic G-Major or Boss SE50 multi fx, and BBE Sonic Maximizer. The guitar sounds fine plugged straight into an amp, but I hardly ever play with out effects. However, going through that signal chain, it's absolutely incredible. From clean and chimey, to warm and jazzy, or soaring hi-gain leads, I can find every sound I need in this guitar. In humbucker mode, it's very quiet, although in single coil mode, there is some of the expected noise, especially as you go to higher levels of gain. But I really bought this to use more as a humbucker guitar as I already have a Fender Strat w/ Lace Sensors to cover single coil sounds. Sometimes I use an e-bow with lots of delay for more ambient music, and the neck humbucker is perfect with it. This guitar is very harmonically rich. I¿m also thinking of adding a push-pull to the volume knob for series/ parallel switching on the humbuckers.
I have two other humbucker guitars that I've done some comparison testing with: a 92 Gibson Les Paul Studio Lite with Seymour Duncan Seth Lover in the neck and Gibson 490r in the bridge. Also a Paul Reed Smith Santana SE with Duncan Jazz in the neck and Duncan Custom Custom in the bridge, with 3-way coil taps. The Tele compared very favorably to the Les Paul in practically every way, and is a way more versatile axe. It sounded almost as good, but didn't quite have as much note clarity and articulation as the PRS, which is the best sounding guitar I have. (reviews of both those guitars here on Harmony Central).
I haven't gigged extensively with this guitar yet, but I see no reason why it wouldn't stand up to the demands of life on stage. It seems very solid and well made. However, I wouldn't gig without a backup guitar, no matter what I was playing.
As I mentioned, I've been playing for over 30 years and have owned lots of guitars,including pre-CBS Fenders. I'd rate this guitar very highly especially in the bang for the buck department. It's incredibly versatile, as all the reviewers are saying, and is a great playing and sounding guitar with a fantastic look. For the price, you'd be hard pressed to find a better deal.
As far as whether I'd buy another one if it were lost or stolen - I've actually considered buying another one and just keeping it sealed in the box in case that happened. These are limited edition models and when they are gone, that's it, as far as I know. It's very rare to find a Tele with features such as carved top, body and neck bindings, and contoured back at any price, let alone $399 - and especially in a gold-top. Maybe Fender will come out with other models in the future with similar features, but I haven't seen much that compares with everything this guitar has to offer.
It's definitely not ¿your father's Tele¿, and won't appeal to purists or people looking for that traditional Telecaster sound. It's also not a heavy metal guitar, although Tele's never were, even though its¿ humbuckers have plenty of crunch for hard rock. The only thing I wish it had was a vibrato bar, which is also not traditional Tele. Although, I do have the option of installing a Bigsby tremelo at some point. Also, separate volume and tone knobs for each pickup would be nice, instead of one set for both.
As far as ratings, I don't hand out 10's very easily, as something has to reach a very high standard (in it's class) to merit it. But,in my humble opinion, certain aspects of this guitar rate a 10. It's definitely a Telecaster of a different color, so to speak, but for those who want something different than the traditional Telecaster with the ability to cover Strat and Gibson sounds as well, I recommend it highly.