Why Does a Fender Esquire Have a Pickup Selector Switch?

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 18 May 2020 |


The wonderfully simple single-pickup Fender Esquire, in its early 1950s format with butterscotch blonde finish. Why did this one-pickup guitar get a pickup selector switch? Brace yourself...

Before I began to study electric guitars, I remember being baffled by the Fender Esquire. Here was a model with just a single pickup, and yet, just like its slightly younger two-pickup sister the Telecaster, it had a selector switch. Why was that switch there? What did it do?

Even once you’ve found out what the Esquire’s selector switch does, the question of why it appeared on the model in the first place takes some explaining. The prototype for the entire Telecaster family only had one pickup, at the bridge, and there was no selector. And the Esquire was actually the first Fender solid Spanish guitar to emerge from that prototype template. The Esquire predated the two-pickup Broadcaster, which in turn predated the Telecaster. So the question is: why put a pickup selector switch on your first guitar, if it only has one pickup?

This question will lead us to one of the most profound possibilities you could imagine. But let’s start by looking at what the switch does…

WHAT THE ESQUIRE’S SELECTOR SWITCH DOES


On the Fender Esquire, the 3-way selector functions as a tone modification router. All three positions select the bridge pickup. It’s where the output of the bridge pickup goes that differs…

  • In the back position, the pickup is routed directly to the volume pot. This bypasses the 250K resistance of the tone pot, for a brighter sound than the Telecaster circuit would produce at its max brightness.
  • In the middle position, the pickup is routed through the volume and tone pot, so you get what a regular Telecaster provides in the back position. The only difference with an Esquire here is that it doesn't have a treble bleed capacitor to preserve the highs when you reduce the volume.
  • In the front position, there’s a heavy filtering arrangement, achieved through a 3.3K resistor and two 0.05 microfarad capacitors. The result is a rounded comp tone that could perhaps be considered to have jazz organ characteristics if you took away the transients and decay.

For the player, the Esquire’s selector is a lot more useful than it might sound on paper. The tone control governs only the middle position, and is inactive on the other two selections. Careful setting of the tone control is the key to creating a middle position ‘preset’ that sits nicely between the bright back position sound, and the filtered, super-round front position sound.

If you roll the tone down to halfway or even a little lower, you can use the selector to toggle between three distinctly different tone levels. Once you’ve set the tone control, you don’t really need to mess with it at all. You can get the variety you need via the switch. But if on the other hand you want to use the guitar like a Telecaster set to its bridge pickup, you can keep the selector permanently in the middle position, and tailor your top end using the tone control.


The Esquire's wiring was fairly convoluted for a single-pickup guitar, with a resistor and a total of three separate capacitors.

WHY DID THE SELECTOR SWITCH APPEAR ON THE ESQUIRE?


Had the Telecaster family’s two-pickup guitar come before the one-pickup variant, the answer to this question would be straightforward. Leo Fender would have been aiming to provide something approaching the versatility of the two-pickup guitar, in a lower budget, single-pickup instrument. But the two-pickup guitar didn’t come first. The single-pickup guitar came first, and that forks the question. Did Leo Fender design the Esquire circuit as a concept in its own right? Or had he already developed the two-pickup guitar prior to introducing the one-pickup Esquire, then adapted the circuit to approximate dual-pickup functionality, but for some reason chosen to ‘hide’ the two-pickup model until after the Esquire went public?

For the answer, we have to dig deep not only into the very early history of Fender’s first Spanish solid, but beyond, into a period before even the proto-Tele was built. A period when Fender’s main business was the lap steel guitar.

There’s one fascinating and telling piece of evidence that appears in the spring 1950 Fender catalogue, and Fender printed matter distributed in connection with the 1950 NAMM convention. A picture of the very first incarnation of the Fender Esquire. Firstly, we know that Fender did not buy the tooling to manufacture the neck pickup until 22 June 1950 (source Vintage Gallery, Oct 1994), so when the Esquire was catalogued in spring, there was no actual production of twin-pickup models in progress. A two-pickup Esquire prototype is said to have existed by June, but it did not exist in April when the first Esquire appeared. The one-pickup model categorically came first. And secondly, guess what... The Esquire in the spring catalogue doesn’t have a Tele selector switch. There’s something there on the control plate beside the tone and volume knobs, but it’s definitely not a 3-way Tele selector.

This very first publicised solid Fender Spanish guitar would have been a promo sample rather than a finalised production model. The instrument is black, with a white scratchplate, and unfortunately it’s wearing an “ash tray” bridge plate cover, so you can’t see what’s underneath. But you can see the control plate, and that’s the paydirt.

We’ll probably never confirm the function of the control located in place of the 3-way selector, but the author of the absolute Bible on Telecasters - A R Duchossoir – said in his unmissable book The Fender Telecaster, that the gadget occupying the position of the 3-way looked…

“Vaguely reminiscent of the “organ button” fitted to Fender lap steels until 1948.”


This is the early 1960s style of Custom Esquire with rosewood fingerboard and bound-edge body, but the very first Esquire - actually Fender's first publicised guitar - also appeared with an opaque black finish.

GUITAR ATTEMPTS ORGAN IMPRESSION?…


The ‘organ button’s function was to filter the tone of the lap steel, taking away its brightness and producing a harmonically-stripped sound meant to emulate a stack of tonewheel sine waves. Very similar in concept, in fact, to the round sound produced by the front position selection on a later Esquire’s 3-way. If the gadget on the first Fender Esquire WAS an ‘organ button’, that would almost certainly indicate that Leo Fender did indeed plan a switching or toggling system for the single-pickup guitar before developing the twin-pickup version.

This, in turn, throws up an even more historically important question. As I mentioned in the late ‘sixties Telecasters article, prior to 1967 Teles were wired so the front position on the selector gave a round, heavily-filtered, bassy tone. It was bassier than the Esquire’s front position tone, because on a Tele the source of the sound was the neck pickup – not the bridge pickup. But setting the sound source aside, the filtering was achieved in a very similar way.

It’s been assumed by many that Fender included this sound on the pre-‘67 Tele so the guitar could be used as a type of electric bass. And it was used for that purpose. I even used a Squier JV ’52 Tele reissue’s front selection for that purpose myself when I was a teenager doing my first multitrack recordings in 1983. But when Leo Fender included that sound on the original two-pickup Esquires, then the Broadcaster/Telecaster, was he thinking “let’s add electric bass!”, or was he thinking “let’s add the ‘organ effect’!”?

If you’re ahead of me here, you’ll now have an even bigger question. An absolute monster of a question. But before we pose it, here’s what we know…

  • We know the ‘organ button’ came first, in 1946/7, and we know from its name that it aimed to simulate the character of organ sounds.
  • We suspect that Leo Fender added the ‘organ button’ to the first publicised guitar in the Telecaster family. That was an Esquire, which didn’t have a neck pickup, and therefore didn’t really make bass sounds.
  • We know that Fender then added a very similar filtering system to his two-pickup Esquire/Broadcaster.
  • We know that with a bit of low string detuning, the two-pickup guitar’s filtered neck pickup could simulate the role of a bass.
  • And we know that immediately after these events in the timeline, Fender developed an actual electric bass guitar. The first electric bass guitar. Ever.



…AND LEADS LEO FENDER TO HIS MOST RADICAL INVENTION EVER?


So did Leo Fender pluck the bass guitar concept out of thin air? Or was the idea born only after a feature meant to simulate an organ on a lap steel, was added to solid Spanish guitars, and someone said: “You could use this as an electric bass…” Was that the lightbulb moment at which Mr C L Fender said: “Right then, let’s build it. An electric bass guitar”? We know the timing does precisely coincide.

The timeline of Fender’s early development reveals a train of thought. And whilst the Fender Esquire is routinely regarded as the scaled back relation to the more famous Telecaster, that’s not what it was. The Fender Esquire was the Telecaster family’s first-born, and its very early life tells us an enormous amount about how fluidly and progressively, not to mention how quickly, Leo Fender was thinking. The Esquire was of course the forerunner of the Telecaster. But did its ‘organ button’ feature – subsequently placed onto a 3-way selector switch – accidentally culminate in the invention of a completely new instrument: the electric bass guitar?

For me, the most compelling piece of evidence that Fender was going for an organ impersonation in the first instance, and then discovered it could approximate the role of a bass, was a capacitor update. Originally, the Broadcaster/Tele's wiring circuit passed that round front position selection through a 0.05 microfarad capacitor, the same as the one on the early Esquire's 3-way - and probably also the even earlier Esquire's 'organ button'. But he quickly updated that 0.05 to a 0.1.

That is massively telling, because a 0.1 is bassier than a 0.05. Fender knew electrical components and what they did. If his initial intention with the Tele front position was to simulate bass, why not just fit a 0.1 capacitor from the start? I strongly suspect that Leo Fender's original plan for all those early front position sounds, was organ territory. And that the old 'organ button' feature, in a new context, really was the catalyst for the development of the Precision Bass guitar. So gaze upon the Fender Esquire with reverence. It may have been trying to tell us a secret for all these years.

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