In 1995, a nearby music shop picked up a number of special guitars from BMF’95 – that year’s British Music Fair. They were instruments the shop didn’t normally stock, and since this was a (comparatively speaking) massive music shop, there wasn’t much they didn’t keep as standard. One of the products among the purchase was a Fender MIJ Vintage Reissue 1950s Esquire. It was actually the first time I’d seen this particular model of Esquire, and trust me, I was in that shop every week, whether I was in a position to buy anything or not. I’d always wanted an Esquire, so I got my deposit down, and excitedly picked up the guitar on 25th August 1995, a week or two after first seeing it. I subsequently saw the model billed (not officially by Fender) as a ’54 replica, but I think it's closer to a ’55. It has steel bridge saddles, and in 1954 Fender Esquire saddles were still made from brass. Other features seem in keeping with 1955, but the scratchplate has too many screws for any early or mid '50s model, so there are anomalies whatever the chosen year.
The finish is blonde, but differs significantly from the butterscotch colour of the ’52 Telecaster. This is the honey-blonde which was standard for all Teles and Esquires in the mid 1950s – paler and more yellowy than the earlier version. The scratchplate is single-ply white plastic. I prefer black on a blonde Tele/Esquire, but I wouldn’t want to destroy the relative period authenticity by changing the plate. The neck is maple and has a lovely profile. It’s thicker than both the MIJ ’62 Tele Reissue neck and the MIJ ‘50s Tele Reissue neck, but very comfortable. It’s substantial without descending into baseball bat territory. The body is beautifully light in weight and resonant. I very much doubt it’s made of ash (staple wood for real Esquires of the time). It could be alder but I suspect from the tone that it’s basswood.
THE ESQUIRE’S PLACE IN HISTORY
Contrary to what was believed for years (and indeed still is believed in some quarters), the Esquire was Fender’s first production solid guitar, coming before the Broadcaster, and the later Telecaster. Much of the misinformation regarding the timelines (if not all of it) came from the press’s willingness to take as gospel everything key company figures such as George Fullerton and Leo Fender said. Fullerton and Fender said for years that the Broadcaster first appeared in 1948, and this was relayed to the public without any cross-referencing, in a huge variety of written accounts. However, in the 1980s, the white Fender solid body prototype was examined. This pioneering artefact, which would obviously have predated all Broadcasters and Esquires, featured electric components which were traceable to summer 1949. The components were dated via manufacturing codes, from which their production dates could be ascertained. The new information immediately dispelled any semblance of Broadcasters being built in 1948. You can’t have a production run before you’ve built the prototype!
In the light of this, letters, memos, catalogues, price lists and other records were duly revisited, and greater attention was paid to the early guitars themselves. In keeping with the new findings, no Broadcasters or Esquires could be found dating back before 1950.
The first electric solid to appear in a Fender catalogue was a black Esquire, in spring 1950. It was a single pickup model – and this led to the discovery of incontrovertible evidence that the Esquire came first. After further ferretting through Fender records, it transpired that the dies necessary to manufacture the Broadcaster/Telecaster neck pickup were not even purchased until late June 1950. So no twin pickup guitar could have been made before then. There categorically could not have been a Broadcaster before the early 1950 Esquires.
From summer 1950 some Esquires appeared with two pickups, and it’s thought these also pre-dated a name change to ‘Broadcaster’. All of this production was, however, very small scale. Including both single and twin pickup models, it’s thought that total production amounted to somewhere in the region of 20 Esquires before the birth of the Broadcaster in November 1950. Some Esquires were black, with a single layer light greenish nitrate scratchplate, but it’s believed the greater number were blond with a black plate. These guitars may still to an extent have been considered a prototype run by Fender, hence perhaps Leo’s assertion that the Broadcaster was the first guitar the company introduced. Make no mistake, though. The Fender Esquire was the instrument that started it all.
I know that when I first saw a single pickup Esquire, I thought: “What does the selector switch actually select?” Initially I even wondered if there was a second pickup with a horrendously strong magnet underneath the scratchplate or something. Well, if you haven’t previously used or explored the Esquire and you’re thinking along the same lines, here’s how it all works…
Firstly, there is only one pickup, in the bridge position. It’s a regular single coil, with a copper base plate, the same as you’d find on a bog standard Telecaster. With the selector set to the back position, you get the pure sound of the pickup, completely bypassing the tone control and linking straight to the volume.
In the middle position, the pickup links to the tone control, which you can set to taste. If you turn the tone up full, there’s not a lot of difference between the middle position and the back position selections. But if you do set the tone somewhere other than full, you have a nice, instant method of disengaging your tone setting and flicking straight to full treble.
In the final, front position on the switch, the pickup is severely low-pass filtered straight through a capacitor. This aims for the bassy sound which players of unmodified pre-1967 Telecasters will know well from their front position setting. However, because with the Esquire it’s a bridge pickup rather than a neck pickup being filtered, it doesn’t have anywhere near as much bottom end. No setting on the selector switch gives a sound which can’t basically be derived from the tone control alone. The idea is to provide instant, one-click changes in tone. You’re flicking between presets, rather than flicking between pickups.
I’ve fitted a Seymour Duncan Alnico II Tele pickup, plus a high quality switch, and I’ve fully rewired with cloth-coated wire. 1990s MIJ reissue wiring and electric components were poor, and let down what in every other respect were most often extremely well made guitars. Fender Japan did cut the ‘right’ corners, so the sound was still there. But with a guitar like this, for the cost of a single Seymour Duncan lead pickup (about £50), you can make a really good guitar sensational. For anyone concerned about any lack of versatility in a single-pickup guitar, this Esquire is living proof that one fantastic tone goes a lot further than fifteen average ones.
And the one tone is indeed fantastic. It’s snappy but full, and sustain is excellent. Country lead breaks with fast picking absolutely blaze along on this guitar. In fact I can’t imagine any other guitar rendering that kind of material more impressively. I’ve had a lot of Telecasters, including a 1990 American Standard, various MIJ reissues, a Thinline, a JV series Squier, an ’88 Squier, a USA ’52 reissue, and high-end non-Fenders such as an early Levinson Blade. This Esquire has more country twang than any Tele I either do own, or have owned. I wouldn’t say it’s got my very favourite Tele sound, but it’s very near the top of the list, and it’s certainly got the sound which most implores you to fingerpick.
In truth I do prefer this design of guitar to have a neck pickup as well as the bridge unit. But I've never run into another one of these MIJ '50s reissue Esquires, so since it's something a bit different, with a twang to end all twangs, there's no way I'd consider letting it go. I could add a neck pickup I suppose, but then there'd be no point in having an Esquire, and I really like the idea of using the selector switch to engage preset tone registrations with the bridge pickup. That's something you can't do on a standard Telecaster, or a twin pickup Esquire. This has always been a special guitar, and so it will remain. It's not a Telecaster, and in my lifetime, it never will be.
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