On page 185 of his new memoir, Bruce Springsteen pays brief but heartfelt homage to his oldest musical collaborator: his old Fender electric guitar. "I strapped on my new guitar, a 1950s mutt with a Telecaster body and an Esquire neck, I'd purchased at Phil Petillo's guitar shop for one hundred and eighty five dollars. With its wood body worn in like the piece of the cross that it was, it became the guitar that I'd play for the next 40 years. It was the best deal of my life."
Unlike most rock stars who go through instruments as quickly as they do groupies, Springsteen has been a monogamist in this area. He bought the guitar in 1973, around the time he released his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park. That same guitar was featured prominently the cover of Born to Run in 1975 (during Bruce's street-poet phase) on Live 1975-1985 (held by a clean-shaven pumped-up Born in the U.S.A.–era Boss) and on 2012's Wrecking Ball (as the high-mileage instrument of rock's elder statesman.)
"When he sings 'I've got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk' on 'Thunder Road,' this is the guitar he's talking about," says Christopher Phillips, editor of the Springsteen fanzine Backstreets.
With its swamp ash body, maple neck, and black pickguard, the guitar is not only iconic, it's also unique. Like Eric Clapton's Stratocaster "Blackie," Springsteen's favorite guitar is a composite assembled from parts from at least two other Fender guitars. The bolt-on neck seems to date from 1957, according to David Eichelbaum, a California luthier and Fender expert who has studied the guitar for decades. The Esquire decal on the headstock indicates that the neck came from the single-pickup variant of Fender's more-popular two-pickup Telecaster.
The heavily modified Telecaster body? That's another story entirely. According to Petillo, who passed away in 2010, the guitar had been originally owned by a record company and was part of the payola scams of the 1960s. It was jury-rigged with four pickups wired into extra jacks that would each plug into a separate channel on the recording console. With the Fender modded this way, the session player could collect four times union scale for playing four slightly different versions of the same guitar solo.
A huge area under the black pickguard was routed out to make room for those extra electronics, which were removed before Petillo sold the guitar to Springsteen. This missing wood had the unintended side effect of making an already lightweight guitar truly gossamer — and thus perfectly suited to three-hour marathon concerts. "It's one of the lightest Teles I've ever played" says Eichelbaum, who played it at Petillo's shop. "And it sounded almost like an acoustic because of the big hole in it."
That sound clearly connected with Springsteen at a crucial moment in his career. In the early 1970s he had been playing a Gibson Les Paul in hard rock bands like Steel Mill, Child and the Bruce Springsteen Band. In explaining its attraction, Bruce cites a number of influential Telecaster players, from Stax-Volt soul legend Steve Cropper to country twanging Elvis sideman James Burton to rock guitar icons Jeff Beck and Pete Townsend. The tone of the the guitar dovetailed with the increasingly eclectic sound of the E-Street Band. "It was a versatile instrument," he said, in an interview with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "I was playing something that was tilting more to soul music, and so I wanted a guitar that could handle the funk and that feeling."
Over the years, Petillo modified the guitar quite extensively in his basement shop in Neptune, New Jersey, adding his patented triangular Precision Frets, changing out the pickups and waterproofing the guitar with stainless steel and titanium hardware and silicone gaskets for reliability in the sweat-soaked environment that is a Bruce Springsteen show. "You could play [it] underwater," Petillo explained in a 1984 interview.
Bruce played the guitar in virtually every live show until around 2005 when it became clear that the guitar was deteriorating so badly it could no longer withstand the abuse of touring. Because of its provenance, the guitar also became seriously valuable, with reported insurance estimates ranging from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000.
"It still is unique amongst all my guitars the way it sounds," Springsteen said in that Hall of Fame interview. "For me, when I put it on, I don't feel like I have a guitar on. It's such an integral part of me."
Despite his affection for his number one, Springsteen has never been one to baby it. "He treats it like a tool," Eichelbaum explains. For example, during his rendition of "Promised Land" on the 2002 Live From Barcelona video, you can see Springsteen toss what is arguably the World's Most Valuable Guitar across the stage to longtime guitar tech Kevin Buell. On the other hand, when the guitar did break on tour in Germany in the early 1980s, then–guitar tech Mike Batlan hopped on a plane, couriered the guitar to Petillo's shop in the middle of the night, and flew it right back to Europe for the next show. "As a little kid, when my brothers and I would be awakened by the bedroom phone ringing in the middle of the night, it was usually a call for help with Bruce's guitar," recalls Phil Petillo's son David, himself now an accomplished luthier. "We would refer to my mom's bedroom phone as the Bat Phone."
With the Esquire retired from road warrior status, these days Springsteen, who once told the Los Angeles Times he would "be buried with [his] Tele on," plays the next best thing: clones. On any given night he'll cycle through a battery of heavily-modified Fender Telecasters with replaced pickups and v-necks carved to mimic the shape of the original. Some of them even feature a "relic" finish meant to mimic the abuse heaped on the original. Bruce still records with the original, and he takes his old friend out onstage for special occasions like the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
"I've held it aloft to the audience on thousands and thousands and thousands of nights," he explains. "I suppose with the idea that it says something about the power of rock & roll, and the power of us."