’49 Snakehead Esquire Prototype 1 Tribute light relic

'49 Prototype Snakehead Custom Build

’49 Prototype Snakehead Custom Build

I did not build this one. I was planning my own Snakehead project ever since I saw the Fender Custom Shop 60th Anniversary Series Snake Head Telecaster. At $6K, there was no chance I would be buying this very simple guitar for the price that the Fender Custom Shop Limited Edition was fetching. Even if it was a “limited” custom guitar.

Fender Custom Shop Limited Snakehead Telecaster sells for $6K

Fender Custom Shop Limited Snakehead Telecaster sells for $6K

I think it is a very cool guitar and the history behind it is significant. The prototype was designed by Leo Fender in 1949 and was likely his first serious try at an electric Spanish style solid body guitar. This prototype guitar was shopped around to musicians around California to gain feedback and knowledge for what they would want in an electric guitar. The ’49 Prototype was quite crudely built, but set the design for the Fender Esquire, Broadcaster, NoCaster and eventually the Telecaster.

Leo Fender and George Fullerton made two prototypes – both in 1949. The first one was the “Snakehead” model.

First Prototye - Snakehead model

First Prototye – Snakehead model

The original Leo Fender ’49 Prototype featured “pine” body with maple neck with no truss rod. Leo believed that a hard rock maple neck did not require a truss rod. The guitar has been nicknamed the “snakehead” due to the headstock shape and three tuners per side layout. The guitar was painted in a white enamel paint. This was the first Fender prototype.

The second prototype likely featured the familiar headstock that some say was influenced by Paul Bigsby’s solid body guitars. Leo probably thought that Paul Bigsby might decide to mass produce his ornate solid body guitars that he was making by hand for a few select players like Merle Travis and Grady Martin at the time. So Leo had to “step-up” the guitars he was planning to bring to market.

Paul Bigsby solid body guitar built for Merle Travis

Paul Bigsby solid body guitar built for Merle Travis dated May 25, 1948

These prototypes were super important for Fender to get things right. Notice the control panel ended up in a quite different location on the production models. The second prototype body is said to be made from laminated ash making it chambered. Since everyone was playing hollow body guitars at the time so they likely thought it should be built this way. Apparently, Leo Fender decided it would be too time consuming to make and went with the solid body instead. His lap steel guitars they were already making for a few years were solid wood.

Country guitarist Roy Watkins played and owned prototype 2 for many years. Originally prototype 2 was finished in white enamel paint like prototype 1. Later it was stripped of its color and had the original neck replaced. These are the only actual prototypes known to have existed.

Second Prototype - Broadcaster Model

Second Prototype – Broadcaster Model

Fender prototype 2 is in the Experience Museum in Seattle

Fender prototype 2 is in the Experience Museum in Seattle

When the first Fender Esquire was released into early production it featured maple neck with no truss rod, single pickup with now famous headstock shape and six tuners on one side that we all instantly recognize today. Fender also ditched the pine body for a slightly thicker ash body probably due to ash being a bit tougher wood that is less prone to dents. Ash also has a nice grain pattern that looks quite good under transparent nitro finishes of the day. Likely Fender picked ash as it was also inexpensive and was readily available in the qualities they needed in a desirable weight.

The solid body Fender Esquire only lasted from April 1950 to October 1950. Probably only 50 were made. Shortly into production, Leo added the truss rod to the necks (with an adjustment at the heal) due to pressure from his sales team led by Don Randall and renamed the guitar the Broadcaster. All Broadcasters have truss rods, where all 1950 Esquires have no truss rod. Broadcaster also featured two pickups.

Gretsch Broadkaster Banjo

Gretsch Broadkaster Banjo

Gretsch Brodkaster Drums

Gretsch Brodkaster Drums

Fender ended up in a trademark dispute over the name Broadcaster with the Gretsch Company which trademarked the name “BroadKaster” (in 1937) for drums and some banjos. So Fender just simply used a scissor to cut off “Broadcaster” from the waterslide headstock decals. Collectors call these guitars “NoCasters.” Leo just called them Fenders. Eventually the guitar was renamed the Telecaster and once the old decals were used up they started adding the new name to the headstock, not wanting to waste anything.

Funny how times change… Fred Gretsch owns Gretsch today and Fender has a deal to market and distribute the Gretsch brand. They even run the USA Gretsch Custom Shop. So the Fender Custom Shop is doing a “limited” release of the Fender Broadcaster announced at NAMM 2014. For the first time since 1950 they will be putting a “Fender Broadcaster” decal on a headstock of a guitar!

Actual photo of Fender Custom 60th Anniversary Limited Broadcaster headstock

Actual photo of Fender Custom 60th Anniversary Limited Broadcaster headstock

Later years saw Fender bringing back the one pickup Esquire as a lower priced model. These Esquires were routed for two pickups. Fender offered an option to purchase a second pickup and new scratch plate for two pickups. The player could easily add the second pickup to the Esquire like the Telecaster had anytime they wanted to. The interesting thing was that the single pickup Esquire was quite versatile and many players preferred the more simple guitar. Players like Luther Perkins (guitarist with Johnny Cash) was famous for his 1955 Fender Esquire.

There is no doubt just how important the ’49 Esquire prototype was to Fender for successfully moving from a lap steel and amp company to enter the electric guitar business. Leo was trying to create a guitar that players liked and could be mass produced at a good price point. The bolt-on neck was innovative and very controversial. Leo’s thought was when the frets wear out you could just put on a new neck eliminating refretting. Leo wanted a guitar that was easy to mass produce as well as repair. Since Leo Fender was not a guitar player he was not locked into any design. He was able to think outside the box. Make no mistake, in this era the Telecaster was pretty futuristic and innovative. A guitar that only could have been built by an innovative American company like Fender.

Leo Fender once told Guitar Player in an interview, “I guess you would say the objectives were durability, performance and tone.” The Telecaster and Leo’s designs changed the guitar industry forever. Telecaster is probably the most copied design or all time.

Fender built lap steel guitars in the late 1940s to cater to the Hawaiian music craze. Later played by Blues and Country players

Fender built lap steel guitars in the late 1940s to cater to the Hawaiian music craze. Later played by Blues and Country players as well.

If you look at the early Fender lap steels and the ’49 prototype it quite clear how it all started. Fender early lap steels had same pickup, wiring and knobs. The basic shape and features of the ’49 prototype are clearly present on the later Telecaster that has been manufactured continuously since the summer of 1951. Pretty amazing that anything has been in production this long with so few changes. How many other products from the early 1950s are still being built?

Fender Timeline
1938 – Clarence “Leo” Fender opens his first shop named Fender’s Repair Service offering custom made PA systems and musical instruments.
1945 – Leo Fender and Clayton “Doc” Kauffman form the K&F Manufacturing Corporation and produce electric lap steel guitars and amplifiers.
1946 – Kauffman departs K&F, and the Fender Manufacturing Company is born. “I didn’t see much of a future for electric guitars … I guess I was wrong,” Kauffman once said. The first Deluxe “Model 26” and Princeton amps were introduced.
1947 – The Dual Professional amplifier, Fender’s first tweed-covered model, is introduced. The Super and Pro amps are also introduced. Invention of the transistor at Bell Labs.
1949 – The first prototype of the Fender Esquire is built and shown to country guitarists followed by second prototype Broadcaster.
1950 – Fender introduces the single-pickup Esquire guitar with no truss rod.
1951 – Fender introduces the two pickup Broadcaster guitar with truss rod added. Leo Fender introduces his new invention, the Precision Bass, the world’s first electric bass guitar. Leo closes his repair shop to focus entirely on building solid body instruments. The Bassman amp debuts. After Gretsch informs Fender about their 1937 trademark the Broadcaster name is no longer used by Fender. Fender cuts the word “Broadcaster” off of their headstock decals. These ‘NoCaster” models were made approximately between February 1951 to Summer 1951. Starting in the Summer of 1951, Fender renamed the model the “Telecaster” and started using new headstock decals after all the old clipped decals were used up. Gradual use of phillips head screws replaces slot head screws (not complete till 1953).
1952 – The Twin amp makes its debut.
1953 – Fender’s Bandmaster and Champ amplifiers appear.
1954 – Fender introduces the Stratocaster. Leo thought the Stratocaster would totally replace the Telecaster and was surprised both models co-existed successfully. Telecaster white blond finish replaces butterscotch finish. Bridge saddles change from brass to steel smooth saddles. Serial number moved from bridge plate to the neck plate. White single layer vinyl pickguard replaces black fiber pickguard ending the “Blackguard” era replaced with the “Whiteguard” Telecaster era.
1955 – Telecaster now uses staggered pole pickups in bridge position. “Top Hat” style switch tip replaces round tip. Sunburst finish become available.
1956 – Telecaster string tree changes from round button to “butterfly” style clip.
1957 – Buddy Holly appears on The Ed Sullivan Show playing his Stratocaster guitar.
1958 – Telecaster Bridge saddles change from smooth to threaded saddles. First top loader appears where strings anchor at bridge instead of going thru the body (this did not last too long). Fender introduces the Jazzmaster guitar.
1959 – Fender introduces Telecaster Slab Rosewood fingerboard. Pickguards change to thicker single layer white one and custom color Teles offered three layer celluloid mint green pickguard. The Telecaster Custom in three color sunburst with bound body appears. The Vibrasonic and Concert amps are introduced. Buddy Holly dies in a plane crash along with Big Bopper and Richie Valens. Hank Marvin of the Shadows gets the Fiesta Red Stratocaster guitar, probably the first Strat in the U.K.
1960 – Fender introduces its famous Jazz Bass guitar and Showman amp.
1961 – Fender introduces the Bass VI guitar. White tolex comes to the Twin amp and Fender Reverb Unit comes to market. Dick Dale records “Misirilou.” Surf era starts.
1962 – Veneer Rosewood fingerboard on Telecasters. Fender introduces the Jaguar guitar.
1963 – Three layer celluloid mint green pickguard on all Telecaster and Stratocaster models. The Twin Reverb Amp is unveiled along with Deluxe Reverb, Super Reverb and Vibroverb amps. Fender begins production of their acoustic guitars. Fender-Rhodes electric pianos and Electronic Echo Chamber.
1964 – Pearl fingerboard dots replace “clay” dots. White plastic three layer pickguards. Fender introduces the Mustang guitar.
1965 – Gold Fender decal wider than previous “Spaghetti” logo. On January 5th 1965, Fender was sold to a subsidiary of CBS for $13 million. Golden era ends. CBS era begins.

I knew that parts for my own “Snakehead” project would quickly become available for my own version. So I was looking to gather parts and found this one, already hand-built by GuitarsByDesign. Seemed to fit what I had in mind perfectly at a very reasonable price. So I bought it. I figured I could modify anything I wanted.

Guitar shipped with a white PVC pickguard and a black Bakelite lacquered one. I like the black pickguard better as it is closer to the original ’49 Prototype Snakehead Fender did.

White PVC pickguard

White PVC pickguard

Black lacquered pickguard

Black lacquered pickguard

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Looks close enough for me to the $6K Fender Custom Shop version. Very much in the spirit of the original Fender prototype.

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GuitarsByDesign ’49 Prototype is lightly aged and features a super resonant pine body, nice 1 piece figured Birdseye maple neck with no truss rod like the original, soft med V back profile, all nickel slot head screws, handwound Alnico3 pickup (liked they used in the old days) paired with a vintage tropical fish tone cap, electrosocket jack and single-ply black bakelite pickguard.

Note that GuitarsByDesign and other makers offer Snakehead necks that do have a truss rod. So if wanted I could always swap out the neck.

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Nice Birdseye maple neck

Nice Birdseye maple neck

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Electrosocket jack

Electrosocket jack

Snakehead headstock

Snakehead headstock

Old style tuners

Old style tuners

Nicely carved heck has nice feel

Nicely carved heck has nice feel

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The fret work and build is very good, especially for a guitar at this lower price point. Quality components used. The custom parts are made well. Weights a very light 5-lbs 5-oz on my digital scale. Came strung with Regular 10g Slinkys. Pickup is pretty decent. Plays nice.

Most of these parts are handmade by GuitarsByDesign

  • 2pc Pine body 1-5/8″ thick
  • Mint under clear nitrocellulose
  • Custom made Raw steel narrow neck plate
  • Custom made Black bakelite pickguard
  • Custom made aluminum control plate
  • Custom made Birdseye 1pc Hard maple neck with no truss rod, maple doweled, small 1/8” dot markers/side dots, Stewmac 148 vintage frets, 10” radius, 1 5/8″ Bone nut, Soft med V back carve
    and clear nitro/amber tint
  • Fender Nickel Bridge
  • Custom made Alnico3 Pickup
  • Electrosocket jack
  • Custom made aluminum string ferrules
  • Nickel strap buttons
  • Fender “old style” Tuners w/creme buttons
  • Fender knobs
  • CTS volume and tone pots 450g – 250k
  • Vintage Tropical Fish Tone capacitor

Few things that are different from the Fender Custom Shop version are the bridge and the jack. This guitar uses a standard Fender style bridge plate and an electrosocket jack. I likely would have used the same parts that GuitarsByDesign used if I built my own “Snakehead” partscaster. Swapping these out or changing the pickup is easy enough to do if desired. Paying $6K for the Fender Custom Shop version was out of the question for me. Glad I was able to add a tribute to “one-of-the-first” Telecasters Leo Fender ever made… and it is a nice player as well!

If you are looking for a snakehead guitar like this I recommend contacting GuitarsByDesign. They sell on eBay as well.

My Tribute to Fender Early Guitars

'49 Snakehead Prototype, 1950 Broadcaster, 1953 Telecaster, 1955 Esquire Tribute Builds

’49 Snakehead Prototype, 1950 Broadcaster, 1953 Telecaster, 1955 Esquire Tribute Builds

Please note that none of these “tribute” guitars were build by Fender.

Mike Eldred from Fender Custom Shop talks about the Fender Custom Shop 60th Anniversary Telecasters and Fender history. Very cool!

Keith Urban talks about the Fender Snakehead Guitar

Musician Friend’s review of Fender Custom Shop 60th Anniversary Series Snake Head Telecaster Electric Guitar that sells for $6K