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Iconic Mods: Springsteen's 'Boss' 1950s Esquire
Actually, is it a Telecaster or an Esquire? Can it be both?
By Mike Duffy
One of the most recognizable instruments in the world is Bruce Springsteen’s 1950s Fender Esquire. It may look unassuming, with its transparent butterscotch blonde finish and black pickguard, but this guitar is as iconic as they come.
The Fender Esquire has remained close to Springsteen’s side throughout his rise to the apex of rock and roll superstardom, having played it both in the studio and on stages around the world. Oh, and you might have seen it on the cover of albums like Born to Run, Wrecking Ball and Human Touch.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding the Esquire. Fender debuted the Esquire in 1950, and Springsteen’s techs have indicated that his model was from 1953 or ’54. Shortly after signing with Columbia Records in 1972, Springsteen came across the instrument at a New Jersey guitar shop owned by a man named Phil Petillo.
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“I wanted a Telecaster because I had played a Telecaster when I was younger,” Springsteen said in an interview with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “I picked one up somewhere along the way, and Jeff Beck was one of my great guitar heroes and I think Pete Townshend played one in the Who also for a while. [It was] a guitar that was a good mixture for playing soul music a la Steve Cropper and James Burton, and they were also good for rock music like Jeff Beck.
“It was a versatile instrument. It was a light instrument. I wasn’t playing heavy rock and roll anymore. I was playing something that was tilting more to soul music, and so I wanted a guitar that could handle the funk and that feeling.”
Boasting a Telecaster body and Esquire neck, the guitar had already undergone significant modifications by the time it landed in Springsteen’s hands (for $180!).
As the story goes, it was originally owned by a record company and rigged with four pickups that could all be plugged into the sound board—giving session players the ability to earn four times what they typically would with four different versions of a guitar track.
As such, there was a generous amount of wood routed out from under the pickguard, which made the guitar much lighter and perfect for “The Boss’” epic concerts.
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After the Springsteen bought it, Petillo added hot-wound single-coil pickups and his patented Petillo Precision Frets, which were triangular, in addition to a titanium six-saddle bridge.
Springsteen has used many guitars throughout his lustrous career, but he always seems to come back to his old faithful. Unfortunately, he retired the Esquire from road duty, so these days Springsteen plays clones on stage, even if he still records with the original.
Of course, it does come out for special occasions, like the Super Bowl XLIII halftime show in 2009. Truly, this Esquire/Tele mutt is a one-of-a-kind piece.
“It still is unique amongst all my guitars the way it sounds,” Springsteen said in that Hall of Fame interview. “For me, when I put it on, I don’t feel like I have a guitar on. It’s such an integral part of me.
“I’ve held it aloft to the audience on thousands and thousands and thousands of nights, I suppose with the idea that it says something about the power of rock and roll and the power of us."