Tool of Twang: Luther Perkins’ 1955 Esquire
The “it” is Luther Perkins’ 1955 Fender Esquire. While Luther owned a number of electric guitars over the years, mostly Fenders, this particular Esquire, which he acquired in 1958, was reportedly one of his favorites and was used live and in the studio backing the legendary Johnny Cash during one of his most productive periods.
This iconic guitar came up for auction on December 3 at an auction of Country Music Memorabilia at Christie’s in Rockefeller Center. Thanks to my friends Kerry Keane and Katie Banser I was able to get up close and personal with this important instrument before it was sold.
Viewed from across the starkly elegant all-white display room at Christie’s, this guitar is a thing of beauty in its own minimalist way. While blackguard Telecasters are justifiably coveted, whiteguards have a subtle beauty all their own. Some of the earliest whiteguards, like this one, have a very subtle “whiteburst” where the finish is quite translucent in the center, showing the grain of the swamp ash body, but becomes more opaque around the edges.
Get a little closer and it’s clear that this particular Esquire is very much original. From the bridge saddles to the control plate to the Phillips head screws holding it all together, this guitar seems very much as it left the factory. Even the white pickguard is still bright and lies flat. I didn’t disassemble it to check for intact solder joints, but on this guitar, that level of originality hardly matters. Evidently, Luther, like so many of us, thought Leo got it right the first time.
The originality of Perkins’ Esquire stands in stark contrast to two interesting but decidedly non-original guitars also up for auction at Christie’s. Waylon Jennings’ 1950 Broadcaster is entirely covered in tooled black leather, and virtually all the visible metal parts have been replaced with rather questionable substitutes like a gold-plated six-saddle bridge and gold plated Schaller tuners. The guitar is shockingly heavy—I’m guessing 15 pounds –in a way that the leather cover only partially explains. Only the slot head screws holding the plain neck plate hint at this landmark guitar’s pre-Waylon pedigree.
On the next pedestal is a circa 1944 Banner Gibson J-45 that used to belong to Buddy Holly. This guitar also wears a tooled leather cover. Buddy evidently saw Elvis’ leather-covered Martin and using skills he learned in shop class, fashioned his own leather cover. This Gibson, which sounds better than it ought to despite its tone-damping spats, was once owned by actor Gary Busey, which only adds to its considerable provenance.
While these other guitars are notable primarily because of who owned them, Luther’s Esquire would have been a remarkable and very desirable specimen if it had been owned by Marlin Perkins. But as you get closer to this guitar, it becomes apparent that this was owned by a player. There’s a lot of honest wear on the fretboard in all the right places: all the way across the second fret, at the fifth and seventh frets with lighter wear across the 10th fret. The playwear provides a virtual fretboard map to Luther’s preferred playing positions. The finish is also worn through on the back of the neck, almost entirely in the first position, where he grabbed hold of the open cowboy chords that were part and parcel of his rhythm playing.
On the body, there’s moderate finish wear around the edges, more around the treble side than the bass side, and more on the lower bout than the upper, the kind of wear that just happens when you put down a guitar finished with a thin and fragile nitrocellulose lacquer a few thousand times. On the back, there’s an area of rather mild buckle rash in the middle and a separate patch of button wear just north of it. In the middle of the back is a single “worm” hole, which is deep, but still has the finish inside. There’s probably a story behind that one.
But the front of the body—the part that’s visible to the audience–is notably clean, with just a few minor dings, to attest to more than a half century of use. There’s even a faint outline where the ashtray bridge cover used to sit. Similarly, most of the hardware, with the exception of the tarnished steel saddles, has some patina, but it’s not rusty or otherwise abused. The overall effect is that of a well-used guitar that was also well cared for but not babied. Even the center-pocket tweed case is exceptionally clean, except for a single black cigarette burn on the tan leather at the end. In short, this is one of those rare guitars that appeals to all factions on the closet classic/heavy relic spectrum. It’s been ridden hard, but never put away wet.
Then it comes time to play it. I drape the well-worn, hand-tooled “Luther Perkins” strap over my shoulder, which is a singular thrill in itself. As I set the Esquire on my lap, my first impression is that this is a very light guitar, indeed. There’s no postal scale handy, but I’d guesstimate it at well under seven pounds, more due to the old wood than the lack of a neck pickup. The neck has a surprisingly modern feel, with a super soft-V profile, neither notably chunky nor particularly skinny with little taper from the headstock to the body. I’d call it just right, and I think most players would agree. It’s currently strung with rather heavy flatwound strings, and the action is medium low, leading to a nice balance of playability and tone. This guitar is a pleasure to play unplugged. Strum an Open E chord and the neck resonates in your hand, and the body vibrates against your leg. With a fresh set of strings, you might not even need an amp.
Then I plug it in to a Fender Blues Junior that Kerry kindly brings out from the back. This is a very public area at Christies, and just down the hall they’re selling Picassos and the like, so a little restraint is in order. I flick the switch to the treble pickup in its purest state, and crank up the treble on the tone pot. I lay my hand across the saddles where Luther once did and heel damp the bass strings. I hit the flatwound strings hard with a thumb pick, and move through the twangy bass riff from “I Walk the Line.”
I’m startled by what comes out of the tiny amp. While my playing lacks Luther’s rock solid rhythm and signature syncopation, the tone is, well, Luther. As I play a little longer, I discover that the low E-string on this guitar just pops with volume and presence and power. The A-string not so much, while the D and G strings were downright subdued. The high E also had some of that same kind of power and twang. Is it the resonant frequency of the wood? Maybe. The flatwound strings? Could be. The fact that the pickup was cranked up so high that it almost touched the strings, especially on the bass side? Worth a shot, since it can be achieved with a screwdriver.
As I settle in with this guitar, it’s clearly versatile enough, twangy when it needs to be, surprisingly jazzy with the tone rolled back and played with the right touch. But I keep coming back to the full-bodied twang of those bass strings. Folsom Prison Blues. Get Rhythm. Cry Cry Cry. This guitar begs to be boom-chucka’d. If Luther’s uber-damped and twang-infested bass intros are among the best and highest uses of the electric guitar—as I believe they are—then Luther’s old Esquires seems like it was born to play these classic riffs.
Did the tool drive the tone or the tone drive the tool? When the gavel came down last Thursday, some lucky picker paid almost $75,000 for the pleasure of finding out.
Allen St. John is an award-winning journalist and the author of Clapton’s Guitar: Watching Wayne Henderson Building the Perfect Instrument.