I am building a custom “partscaster” that is based on a 1955 Fender Esquire. This is a bit of a tribute to Luther Perkins who provided Johnny Cash with his “boom-chicka-boom” sound with his iconic whiteguard Fender Esquire so many years ago.
Luther was a member of Cash’s original Tennessee Two (eventually the Tennessee Three when they added drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland). Even though his Fender guitar only featured one pickup, he became an important figure in what would become known as rockabilly. He was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
With Johnny Cash singing in a low baritone and playing rhythm guitar Perkins and Marshall Grant on standup bass, devised a back up sound that was new and different. Luther used palm muting to deaden the three bass strings and cross picked the bass line with each chord change like Merle Travis. By playing the same notes as Marshall’s bass runs the “boom-chicka” style was born and would become synonymous with Johnny Cash’s sound. The haunting drone of Perkins’s guitar style with his signature reverb would quickly be embraced by rock-a-billy and early rock and roll guitarists.
Unfortunately, Luther Perkins died in a fire at his home in 1968 at age 40. His career was cut short, but he was highly influential leaving a huge mark for all guitar players. Especially Esquire and Telecaster lovers. Luther was also known to play Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars, but it was his 1955 Fender Esquire that is most remembered. Especially when playing “I Walk the Line.”
Luther Perkins was one of the first masters of electric country guitar. He has remained an influence on countless guitarists throughout the decades. He was a Fender guy and used Fender guitars and amps pretty much exclusively. He was known to have owned four Esquires. His favorite 1955 Esquire with the neck plate stamped 08844, got the most use and he played that one into the 1960s.
Some say play an Esquire if you can’t afford the other pickup!
Other famous Fender Esquire guys are Jeff Beck (Yardbirds era), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Joe Strummer, Steve Cropper (used on famous Green Onions) and even BB King played one in his early days. Bruce Springsteen plays a modified Fender Esquire with an added neck pickup.
The Esquire was introduced in 1950 and was Leo Fender’s first stroke of guitar genius and many say “Leo got it right the first time.” The Esquire preceded the Broadcaster and is NOT simply a one pickup Telecaster. The Esquire has its own unique voice due the wiring and some guitar aficionados say that not having a neck pickup reduces the magnetic pull on the strings. This is said to change the harmonic overtones and gives it a different percussive attack.
The Esquire bridge pickup was very similar to the pickup Leo developed for his early lap steel guitar. The 3-way switch was brilliantly used with some capacitors and resistors as a tone shaper that bring lots of versatility to this one pickup guitar.
Leo Fender did later craft a two pickup Esquire that used a 3-way switch, volume control and a “blend” control. The blend control was different than a tone control. It allowed for a mix between the pickups, a little or as much of the neck pickup as you like, using the blend control. This design was also used on the very early Broadcaster guitars in 1951.
Some Fender History
The first solid body prototype for the “Spanish” style Fender Esquire was completed by Leo Fender in the fall of 1949. The first version of the Fender Esquire lasted (in name only) from April 1950 to October 1950. While the Esquire pictured in the catalogue was painted black and had a white pickguard, most all of the Esquires produced at that time were painted semi-transparent “butterscotch” blonde and had a black pickguard starting the “blackguard era.” Unlike the pinewood prototype, the bodies (thinner than the later Broadcaster was 1.5 inches instead of 1.75 inches) were made of solid ash. The dual pickup version was first manufactured in June 1950.
The Esquire was replaced by the “Broadcaster”, which lasted (in name only) from the October 1950 to January 1951. The majority of Broadcasters are dated November 1950. All Broadcasters have truss rods, where all 1950 Esquires have no truss rod. The Esquire was reintroduced with a truss rod in January 1951.
In 1937 Gretsch had trademarked the name “BroadKaster” for a line of drums. After Fender started advertising the Broadcaster in music trade papers in February 1951, Gretsch took notice and sent Fender a telegram asking them to change the name of the guitar. In those days no expensive court battles followed. Fender, then a small company, just agreed to change the name.
Starting in February 1951, Leo Fender used a scissor to just cut the word “Broadcaster” off of their headstock decals, so they only said Fender. These models (February 1951 to summer 1951) are known as “NoCasters” by collectors. Leo just called them Fenders.
Fender received the trademark in April of 1951, for the new adopted name “Telecaster” influenced by the new Televisions people were starting to buy. Leo not a man to waste anything, only started applying the new decals after all the old clipped decals were used in August 1951. That is when the Telecaster was officially born.
Because Fender was a month or two ahead in making body parts you can find NoCasters with December 1950 neck dates, even though they didn’t clip the decals and do final assembly until February 1951 (decal application was the last assembly step were always applied over the finish).
The initial rationale for reintroducing the single pickup Esquire in 1951 had been to offer a more affordable option for musicians who could not afford the two-pickup guitar. However, with the introduction of cheaper student models such as the Mustang, the more expensive Esquire became a less attractive option, and it was sold in smaller and smaller quantities. Consequently, Fender discontinued the Esquire in 1969. Fender Japan first started shipping Esquires again in 1986.
Single-ply white pickguards on Esquires and Telecasters were introduced in 1954 along with the debut of the Stratocaster. This was the beginning of the “whiteguard” era.
Below are some pictures I took recently at the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville of Luther’s guitar and amp.
Luther Perkins 1955 Fender Esquire at Christie’s website.
This project will be sporting a Seymour Duncan Custom Shop Lead Stack BG-1400 which is the same pickup that is used in the Fender Custom Shop Esquire guitar. Billy Gibbons favorite Esquire pickup. So my concept is Luther Perkins meets ZZ Top!
Billy Gibbons has long been one of my favorite players. He is one “sharp dressed” guitar player that knows a bit about tone. Billy Gibbons has been playing Esquires for most of his career and he owns an amazing bunch of vintage ones along with his famous ’59 Les Paul.
The Fender Custom Shop built Billy Gibbons a Fender Esquire with this BG-1400 stacked pickup which is actually a hum-cancelling beast. Think of it as a “Pearly-Gates” for Esquire.
Seymour Duncan Custom Shop Lead Stack BG-1400 specs:
- Application: Telecaster® bridge position
- Price: $150
- DC: 29-30K
- Magnet: Alnico 5
- Spacing: E-to-E 2.20″
- Lead wire: Four-conductor
- Color: Black
- Notes: Lead Stack® for Telecaster®. Also known as the Pearly Gates™ Esquire® pickup, this brute was built for maximum output and hum-cancellation. This is one of the Custom Shop’s most popular Tele™ replacement pickups. Note: because this is a Stack, make sure your guitar’s pickup cavity has at least .83″ clearance.
The diagram (click for larger picture) was found on the Internet and information from websites like TDPRI that is invaluable. Thanks to all the folks on the TDPRI forum that freely share their passion, knowledge and experiences. Every time I go there I learn something new.
When Leo Fender created the early Esquire it was before he had invented the electric bass guitar. In those days musicians only had acoustic standup fretless basses. Leo envisioned that the Esquire might be used as to play the bass parts when bands were going electric. Therefore the Esquire position 3 was a very bassy sounding setting. Basically, the sound of an old “doghouse” upright bass was the tone Leo had in mind.
Soon after Leo created the first electric bass, the Precision Bass (named because it had frets therefore was precise). Leave it to Leo Fender, a non-player himself to understand and fill this need!
Fender stayed with this bassy sounding position 3 on Esquires (and Telecasters) for many years. Some jazz cats do find this setting appealing for the darker overtones they are looking for. But most guitar players find this setting unappealing today with many changing the wiring themselves. Fender now offers a modern wiring option for the re-issue Telecasters and the modern Telecasters no longer use the original bassy position. Opting for just the neck pickup alone in position 3.
The wiring I will be using is based on the Mike Eldred (Fender Custom Shop) Esquire mod that includes the “cocked-wah” sound in the 3rd position. Named because it sounds a bit like if the guitar was plugged into a wah pedal that is “cocked” half way. This replaces the very bassy sound that the traditional Esquire had in position 3 (closest to neck). With this wiring scheme it will make this guitar quite a bit more versatile while keeping with the simplicity of the single pickup. Most players would agree this wiring scheme makes position 3 more useful and a big improvement to the Esquire.
Mike Eldred Esquire Wiring Positions:
- Position #1. Same as standard Esquire. The pickup is routed through the volume control only, bypassing the tone control for a hotter, louder lead sound with extra highs.
- Position #2. Same as standard Esquire, with the pickup routed through the volume and tone controls. Sounds a bit warmer than position #1.
- Position #3. Pickup is routed through a single, small capacitor and volume control with the tone control bypassed. Some call this the “cocked-wah” sound. Standard Esquire would have a very bassy sound most players find unusable today.
The capacitors will be a .0033 Poly Film (position 3) and RS GuitarWorks GuitarCap .047 – 100v – 5% Tolerance (used with tone control). I can always change these to different values if desired. From my research this is what Fender used in the Custom Shop Esquire (see video below) that has the same Duncan BG-1400 pickup.
The body was purchased on eBay from MJT Custom Aged Guitars. Mark and Matt Jenny do amazing work and are also a total pleasure to deal with. Their bodies are well built, light and the “vintage nitro” finishes are awesome. The “blond” body I purchased is a ONE piece swamp ash that weights ONLY 3 lbs 9 oz.
Many Fender Esquire’s are actually routed for two pickups with the Esquire pickguard covering the neck pickup route. This body is also. Makes it a bit lighter and gives the option to make it a two pickup Telecaster if desired.
The vintage style Fender Telecaster licensed neck was ordered from Musikraft and is being made from my specs. The neck profile is a soft 57 V @ .85 X .95. The finish will be done by MJT Custom Aged Guitars. Musikraft offers a 10% discount if you drop ship to MJT.
- Custom 1 Piece Limited Supply QuarterSawn Flame Select
- Scale: 25.5 Standard Fender
- Number Frets: 21 Fret
- Nut Style: Fender Flat Bottom
- Nut Width: 1.650 (41.91mm)
- Heel Width: 2-3/16 (55.56mm) Standard Fender
- Tuner Holes: 11/32 Vintage Kluson
- Truss Rod: Vintage Single Acting Adjust @ Heel
- FB Radius: 9-1/2
- Top Dots: Black Synthetic Dots
- Fret Wire: Medium 6105 Nickel Silver
- Side Dots: Black 2mm
- FB Edges: Heavy Rolled
- Back Profile: 57 V .85 X .95
- Slotted Bone Nut
This will be the first Esquire I have owned. I am trying to make this project as period correct as possible based on the 1955 model. But I will take a bit of creative license for a few features I would like to make this guitar more playable and to my personal taste. Isn’t that what a custom build is all about?
I found Kluson “no-line” vintage style tuners like they used in 1955. The Kluson tuners used in 1955 had no Kluson name on them. Hence the “no-line.”
Later Kluson tuners had the name Kluson on one line or Kluson Deluxe on two lines. Vintage Guitar Collector website is a fantastic resource for learning Fender history and specs. The picture below is from this site.
- 1952 – 1956 – “no line” Kluson tuners
- 1956 – 1964 – “one line” Kluson tuners
- 1964 – 1967 – “two line” Kluson tuners
- 1966 – 1977 – “F-logo” Kluson tuners
Fender Esquire waterslide decal from Croxguitars will be used on the headstock to give it the needed vibe. Croxguitars hails from the UK and makes authentic Fender and Gibson restoration waterslide decals.
Found a vendor on eBay that has modified Fender bridge plates. The bridge plate is modified by “notching” the upper and lower Flanges for right hand picking clearance near the bridge pickup. The notched-areas are polished smooth to match the rest of the bridge plate. Looks like an ashtray cover might still fit. Keeps the Fender look while making the guitar more playable.
Planning on using Callaham enhanced vintage compensated steel saddles for better intonation. The white vintage style pickguard and some of the hardware will also be from Callaham including a custom serial number neck plate with 08844 to match Luther’s.
I will be using standard Telecaster/Esquire jack cup instead of the electro-socket ones I usually use. Now that I own the special Stewmac tool to install these. Ordered a standard control plate, Fender domed knobs and “top hat” switch tip. Wiring will be done with old style cloth covered wire, Fender 3-way switch and CTS 250k pots.
Callaham offers CTS pots that have been degreased and the spring tension reduced. I have used these before and they are great for volume and tone swells.
UPDATE: The parts have started to arrive. The MJT body is awesome, but I do have some work to do on the bridge pickup cavity to allow the Seymour Duncan BG-1400 Lead Stack pickup to fit.
The Seymour Duncan says the guitar’s pickup cavity has have at least .83″ (21.082 MM) of clearance as the BG-1400 is “stacked” pickup and is deeper than a standard Telecaster style pickup. Unfortunately, the bridge pickup cavity is less so the pickup will not fit unless I do some routing. I need to remove a bit of wood to allow the pickup to fit.
This will have to be done carefully as I do not want to damage the finish. I will need to take out probably a 1/4 inch or more of wood to make the bridge cavity deep enough for the “stacked” pickup.
I picked up a 1/4 inch router bit for my Dremel tool at the local Sears Hardware (last one in stock). First I used some sharp wood chisels to put in a deep score all around the existing pickup route.
Then I used the Dremel tool with the router bit to remove the wood needed to make the cavity deep enough. Then after getting the measurement I used a sanding bit on the Dremel to smooth it out. Worked great and was easier then I would have guessed. The body was already pretty light. It’s probably about an ounce or so lighter now.
Pickup fits perfect now with plenty room to raise and lower as needed when setup. Bridge is now installed.
Installed the Fender string ferrules and the Callaham Enhanced Vintage Steel Saddles. These saddles allow for a more modern intonation so you can play in tune and still give you the look of the “old school” Fender saddles they used in 1950s.
I picked up a brand new vintage reissue 1953-1954 “flat-sided” Fender Telecaster Poodle Case made by G&G for this Esquire project. These replicate the cases that Fender issued after the 1951 Thermometer Shaped Tele cases. These flat sided poodle cases debuted in 1953 and Fender used them until late 1954 before switching to the Tweed center pocket cases for the 1955 production guitars. I really am not fond of the center pocket cases and it is not inconceivable that a 1955 Esquire would be in a “flat-sided” poodle case. This one is brown with a nice red plush interior.
All the hardware has arrived. Installed the Fender jack cup using the Stewmac Tele Jack Tool. Sure makes this easier.
UPDATE: The Musikraft custom neck has arrived from MJT Custom Aged Guitars. Looks great with a nice flame. MJT finished it with just the right amount of wear to match the body.
I have applied the Fender Esquire waterslide decal. Need to wait about 24 hours before applying the nitro clear finish to protect it. Usually about three coats works well. Once this drys I can clean up the frets, bone nut and install the Kluson tuners.
This neck is not made by Fender, but this project needs the decal for the vibe to be a proper tribute. Usually I would not recommend putting on a Fender decal on a non Fender part. The Fender Esquire waterslide decal is from Croxguitars who makes very authentic decals for restorations.
I applied several layers of ColorTone Aerosol Clear Stain Nitro Lacquer to the headstock to protect the waterslide decal. I allowed to dry over night with each coat. The lacquer is available at Stewmac and requires no sanding.
The front side of the headstock required a light reaming of the tuner holes to allow the ferrules to fit as some of the finish gets in there. You want the tuner ferrules to fit snug so just need to clean out the holes lightly.
Mounting the Kluson tuners. In order to drill the screw holes correctly and keep the tuners perfectly straight I have found this method works great.
Small piece of tape of the drill bit for a depth gauge. Carefully drill holes.
Kluson “no-line” vintage style tuners like Fender used in the early 1950s all mounted.
Time to mount the white pickguard.
Using the same method of putting some masking tape on drill pit as a depth gauge, drilled all the screw holes and mounted pickguard and control plate.
I completed the wiring and did the setup. All done. Weights in at a light 6-lbs 7-ozs.
Plugged it in for the first time and it sounds and plays awesome! First thing I noticed is how quiet this guitar is. No hum as the pickup is a stacked humbucker, but still sounds like a hot single coil. The Mike Eldred Esquire wiring adds some nice additional “usable” sound. Many people (myself included at one time) think the Esquire is just a single pickup Telecaster that would lead to less versatility. They fail to realize that the three-way switch and capacitor network are actually a nice eloborate tone control. Basically I can see how I would not miss the neck pickup on this guitar.
The neck looks great on this body. Neck is nicely flamed maple. I would put this guitar up against a Fender Custom Shop anytime even though it cost a fraction of that amount. My first Esquire and I am already amazed how versatile the tone controls make a “one” pickup guitar.
Here are some pictures of the finished Esquire Tribute project.
Here are a few pictures with the bridge cover plate. Called an “astray” cover by most players and collectors as that was all they were considered good for. Most players feel they get in the way. Leo Fender was likely looking for a cleaner look for his guitars.
The bridge cover real does not stay on this guitar due to the notched Fender bridge plate. No issue as I would never use it anyway. Just wanted to see what it looked like as this is how Fender would have shipped the Esquire back in the day.
Overall, I could not be happier the way this guitar turned out. Already one of my favorites.
Custom Shop Esquire and some videos. Enjoy!
I like the Fender Custom Shop Esquire (shown in video below), but wanted a more traditional looking Esquire. So I opted to build a “tribute” 1955 Esquire guitar like Luther Perkins played with the similar electronics as the Custom Shop.
The Fender Custom Shop’s Mike Eldred gives you a detailed look at the Limited Release ’50s Top Bound Esquire® Relic® guitar. Esquires did not look like this in the 1950s.
Billy Gibbons playing at Fender NAMM 2008 Gala with the Esquire. Features GE Smith (with GE Smith Tele), Jimmy Vaughan and Cindy Cashdollar on Lap Steel
Luther Perkins Through the Years
Marty Stuart Tribute to Luther Perkins
Jeff Beck playing Esquire with Yardbirds
George Gruhn on Fender Esquire and Telecaster