Legendary Guitar: Jeff Beck’s 1954 Yardbirds Esquire
It’s arguably the ugliest Legendary Guitar of all — yet nonetheless one of rock’s most widely influential, the instrument that produced the landmark sounds of such widely influential Yardbirds tracks as “I’m a Man,” “Heart Full of Soul,” “Over Under Sideways Down” and the future-shock classic “Shapes of Things.”
With a body partially ground down to ape the contours of an entirely different model, its broken neck replaced by a well-worn second-hand substitute, and a face so scuffed, gouged and scarred it looks more like the boards of a minor league hockey rink, Jeff Beck’s 1954 Fender Esquire might well be rock’s original Franken-ax.
But while Beck was with the Yardbirds barely 18 months, his Esquire’s tenure was even briefer (he’d switch over to a Les Paul early in 1966). Indeed, Jeff admits he didn’t even acquire the instrument until after he’d joined the band. “We were on the road constantly and I didn’t even have my own guitar,” he explains. “I [initially] used Eric’s red Tele, which I think belonged to the Yardbirds.”
“I think they leased it to him. Oh, they were bastards!” Beck adds with a telling chuckle. He’s still on good terms with the Chris Dreja/Jim McCarty-helmed modern incarnation of the band, and recorded a track for their fine 2003 album, Birdland.
What attracted him to an instrument that was a much-beloved, if primordial version of the more popular Telecaster?
“I think it was the transitory period where Fender started using a rosewood fingerboard,” Jeff explained.“(But) I didn’t want that, I wanted a maple neck. And the only one I ever saw belonged to John Walker (aka John Maus) from the Walker Brothers. As luck would have it, the Yardbirds went on tour with the Walker Brothers early in ’65, and I bought it. He wanted 75 pounds, which was a lot of money — it was only about 10 quid cheaper than a brand new one. But he wouldn’t shift, and I dug out the 75 and gave it to him.” The Esquire is also featured in this rare 1964 Walker Brothers clip from American TV.
Beck had joined the Yardbirds early in ’65 when Eric Clapton bolted, disgusted with the ‘pop’ direction he perceived the Yardies to be taking with their successful “For Your Love” single. Jeff had been their second choice, recommended when first choice Jimmy Page declined because of a burgeoning session career; a year later Beck and Page would briefly share guitar duties in the band (with Jimmy even occasionally playing bass), before Jeff finally succumbed to the mounting pressures of the band’s grueling tour schedules.
What Beck and his battle-scarred Esquire accomplished in 1965 alone established the roots of everything from psychedelia and heavy metal to punk and jam bands. Yet the Yardbirds’ recorded legacy — especially in America, where their “albums” were generally cobbled together from unrelated singles and U.K. LP tracks — was as haphazard and piecemeal as Jeff’s fabled ax. His fuzztone intro of “Heart Full of Soul” became a sensation amongst guitarists of the day, including a young Seymour Duncan, the modern pickup guru who’d eventually acquire the legendary Esquire. Ironically, Jeff had developed “Heart Full”’s distinctive sound by imitating the sitar used on the session for the first, long-unreleased version of the record.
With Beck now pushing their guitar envelope, the raw, raving Yardbirds sound was quickly snagged by seemingly every nascent garage band in America. On the West Coast, San Jose’s Count Five quickly channeled the Yardies’ manic reworking of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man” into “Psychotic Reaction” and a sizable regional hit, while David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars acknowledged the debt again in the ’70s with “Jean Genie.” When Bowie and the Spiders played their last gig in ’73, they invited Beck to take the momentous evening’s only guest turn.
In 1965, the Yardbirds played 200+ shows in the U.K. and America, made over two dozen radio and TV appearances, and recorded some of their most influential records — often under the most trying of circumstances. Giorgio Gomelsky, the manic Soviet Georgian-born impresario who variously managed the band and owned London’s famed Crawdaddy Club, came up with the idea of recording in some of America’s most famous studios — often in hastily arranged sessions — whilst zig-zagging cross-country in a pair of rented station wagons between TV appearances and live venues that ranged from ballrooms to high schools and skating rinks.
Thus the band came to cut “Mr. You’re a Better Man Than I” and “Train Kept a Rollin’” at Sun Studios in Memphis (which had since relocated from its fabled Union St. address) and “I’m a Man” and “Shapes of Things” at Chicago’s fabled Chess Studios, home of much of the nascent rock and South Side blues they were reinventing with a vengeance, fueled by Beck and his Frank-Esquire.
Typical of rock lore, Jeff and Seymour Duncan have different recollections about how the Esquire came into the pickup designer’s possession. Jeff says he gave it up during the Blow by Blow sessions, while Duncan recalls he’d received it after gifting Beck with the “Tele-Gib” (a Telecaster refit with humbuckers) during the sessions for BBA’s second, unreleased album in London, when Beck’s then-manager came by “with a cloth bag with three guitars in it (saying) ‘Jeff wanted you to take your pick.’ In the bag was a ’51 Telecaster, a mid-’50s Stratocaster and my favorite guitar, Jeff's ’54 Fender Esquire guitar he used with The Yardbirds. I picked the Esquire because Jeff used it!”
Seymour offered a detailed “guitar-topsy” with some fascinating insights about the legendary instrument in a 1994 Jeff Beck fanzine. “Several years ago John [Maus of the Walker Brothers] visited my shop in Santa Barbara and he said he contoured the front [forearm] and back of the body to make it feel more like a Fender Stratocaster,” Seymour said of the Esquire’s body customizing. “He carefully shaped the wood leaving the original paint and exposed Swamp Ash body.”
“When Jeff first got it from John Maus it had a white vinyl pickguard as can be seen in earlier Yardbirds videos and photos. Jeff replaced it with a black Esquire pickguard (no slot for rhythm pickup) with a 5 hole pattern and two distinctive chips on the top edge and lower neck slot. Jeff liked the contrast and it looked like the Teles made just a year earlier. The ’54 steel bridge saddles were completely rusted and were replaced with ‘52 Telecaster brass saddles from another Telecaster belonging to Jeff. The rhythm pickup cavity is routed for a neck pickup but was not drilled to hold one. The body is well worn with nicks and gouges and the nitrocellulose lacquer blond finish has turned various shades of yellow and orange.”
“Jeff could manipulate the volume and tone controls giving it a wah-wah effect as in ‘Train Kept A Rollin'’ or ‘Still I'm Sad.’ The lever switch would give full treble in the bridge position, variable tone control in the center and full bass in the front position. (See schematic.) The bridge pickup has slightly staggered poles. The body was made in 1954 and the neck (the original was broken) was replaced with one made in 1955. (The guitar weighs) 5 lbs. 10 oz. This is a very light instrument and would weigh a little more if there were no cutaways or contours.”
Fender reissued a Jeff Beck Tribute Esquire edition in 2006, a painstakingly gouged and scratched replica of the original. Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, one of rock’s premier player/collectors, was spotted wielding one on-stage over the holidays, dryly informing the audience with a smirk, “I got this from Jeff Beck …”