There is quite a bit of debate over who gets to claim bragging rights for creating the first Spanish-style solidbody electric guitar. Lap steel or "Hawaiian" style instruments had been around for a while, and a few people and a couple of companies were experimenting with various prototypes as far back as the early 1930s, but they never went into large-scale production with a commercially viable model. The one fact that nearly everyone agrees with is that the guitar we now know as the Fender Telecaster was the very first commercially successful solid body guitar. Over sixty years later, it's still hugely popular, and it remains one of the best loved guitars in the world.
By the end of the 1940s, Leo Fender's new manufacturing company was producing a popular range of Hawaiian-style lap steel electric guitars and instrument amplifiers; the two were often sold together as a package. Shortly after the end of World War II, Leo began experimenting with solidbody Spanish-style guitars as an offshoot of his lap steel pickup design work. The first one and two pickup prototypes were called Esquires, and these early solidbody guitars, which date from the late 1940s and early into 1950, were only made in very limited numbers. Fender sought feedback from working musicians, and put several of them into the hands of gigging and touring guitarists. Input from these players was used for an improved model called the Broadcaster. Unfortunately for Fender, Gretsch, who made a drum kit at the time called the "Broadkaster" complained about the name, and in order to avoid a trademark dispute, Fender decided to rename their guitar the Telecaster. For a brief six month period in 1951, the guitars were shipped with no name other than Fender on the decals. These "Nocasters" are extremely rare -- probably fewer than 200 such guitars were made.
Even the early prototype guitars had much in common with modern Telecasters. The classic Tele ingredients include a 25.5" scale maple neck with either a maple, or on some later models, a rosewood fretboard, blonde finish on a solid ash body (alder and other woods and colors are also used on some models), two single-coil pickups, a three way pickup selector, and master volume and tone controls. The Tele (as it is popularly known) also has what was at the time a groundbreaking modular design and a removable bolt-on neck. Fender's thought was that it would be simpler to replace the neck rather than re-fret it when it needed service.
Over the years, there have been several different versions and options offered. Taking a cue from car companies, custom colors were offered as an option starting in the late 1950s. Around this time, rosewood fingerboards became standard. Today, maple and rosewood are both available. Some models received binding on the bodies, others had humbucker pickups added, and the first solidbody guitar was later even offered in a semi-hollow body "Thinline" model. Many of these models have been re-introduced and are still available today, along with Custom Shop and modern models.
The Telecaster has been the weapon of choice in the hands of many musicians. Tele players represent a large range of of musical styles -- jazz, rock, R&B and especially country musicians have all relied on the Telecaster. Some famous Tele fans include Albert Lee, Albert Collins, Roy Buchanan, Buck Owens, James Burton, Steve Cropper, Merle Haggard, Keith Richards, John 5, and Jonny Greenwood.