Legendary Guitar: Bruce Springsteen’s Fender Esquire
Countless electric and acoustic guitars become legendary simply by being the instrument of choice of one guitar hero or another. Others, in addition to being played, are elevated to a higher level by virtue of their appearances on classic album covers. One of the most deserving of Legendary Guitar status of any electric on the planet, Bruce Springsteen’s ’50s Fender Esquire is both a cover star and a lifelong “No. 1” pick for this rock and roller. Springsteen has played other guitars, and naturally takes plenty of spares on the road with him, but the image of The Boss will forever be linked with that blackguard maple-neck Esquire, a guitar that he has consistently stated is the best he has ever played. Its initial appearance on 1975’s Born to Run arguably turned on more budding rockers to the simple pleasures of the Esquire and Telecaster than any other influence, and it has subsequently made a showing on the albums Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live 1975-85, Human Touch and Greatest Hits.
Plenty of authorities have been quoted on the vintage and specs of Springsteen’s instrument, but the “Erector Set” nature of Fender electrics makes it virtually impossible to determine the precise year this guitar was made, and whether its main ingredients even came off the assembly line together. Springsteen has stated in live concert footage from the mid ’70s that he purchased the guitar in the early ’70s from New Jersey-based luthier Phil Petillo, who also cared for the instrument in the early days. Other reports indicate that Petillo purchased the Esquire from a liquidation sale at a New York recording studio, and that the guitar was already somewhat modified when he acquired it, most notably having a considerable amount of wood routed from beneath the pickguard to accommodate extra pickups, in addition to the factory route for the neck pickup.
Past interviews with Springsteen and his guitar techs indicate that the Esquire was a 1953 or ’54 model (note that the post-factory addition of a neck pickup makes this normally single-pickup Esquire look like a two-pickup Telecaster), and its — heavily worn — transparent butterscotch blonde finish and black pickguard would seem to uphold that notion. The neck, however, wears the “butterfly” string guide for the B and E strings positioned roughly in line with the A-string tuner post, which replaced the round guide that was more distant from the nut in mid-’56, along with the logo decal at the far side of this guide, a change made at the same time. Myriad interviews also indicate that the neck has the soft-V profile that came back into fashion at Fender in late ’55 and remained largely through ’57 (early ’50-’51 necks were also V’d, or “boat necks,” but were thicker overall). All of this points at a neck made later than ’53 or ’54, and although an earlier neck could have been modified to these specs, the correct answer is usually the simplest: a later neck was added to an earlier body (just guessing here folks, but logic dictates that there might be something in this speculation).
Certainly there’s some funny business going on with the pickguard on Springsteen’s guitar, too. These early black guards were mounted with five screws rather than the seven that Springsteen’s Esquire appears with, as were the white pickguards that replaced them in late ’54. Two extra screws could have been added, perhaps to keep the guard from warping, but the original guard would have to have been changed anyway, if extra middle pickups had once been added, as indicated by the non-standard body routes. The Born to Run cover shot also shows an unidentifiable sticker of some sort on the pickguard between the bridge and neck pickups, a sticker absent from later photos, so either this was scraped off, or the entire guard was changed again. Another quirk arises with the photo on the Human Touch cover, which shows a white-edged pickguard, indicating one made from a typical three-ply black/white/black plastic. Examine the guitar itself circa 2009, however, which you can do by visiting the new Bruce Springsteen exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, and you’ll see that it once again wears the original single-ply guard, or one like it. Take all of the above into consideration, particularly the fact that the pickguard was undoubtedly replaced even before Springsteen purchased the Esquire from Petillo, and it’s even possible that this guitar was born as a white-guard model.
Other, later modifications are beyond speculation: the Esquire already has replacement tuners in the Born to Run photo, although it still wears a three-saddle ’50s or early ’60s bridge with stamped steel base plate. Some time later, it received a titanium six-saddle bridge from Petillo, along with a set of the luthier’s own patented Petillo Precision Frets, a fret wire with an inverted-V-shaped crown for precise intonation. Not so easy to detect is the fact that Petillo also added hot rewound single-coil pickups, which this Esquire retains to this day, despite Springsteen’s use of Joe Barden dual-rail single-coil-sized humbuckers in his other Telecasters.
Ultimately, who cares … whatever kind of mutt of an instrument the thing had become by the time it landed in Springsteen’s hands, it has been the driving force behind some of the most compelling rock anthems of the past 35 years. Just listen to the searing solos from “Prove It All Night” or “Candy’s Room,” and you don’t need to worry about the details — scorching hot-rodded Tele, four to the floor, and that’s all we need to worry about.