RESUSCITATING A RUINED ’ 56 FENDER ESQUIRE BY JOHN BROWN
Never have I seen a rare guitar come to us so completely destroyed. This ’ 56
Esquire—a real piece of Fender history—
had been mangled beyond comprehension.
Someone had drilled screws (some as
long as 4") into the body to hold previously
broken sections of ash wood into place, and
then added insult to injury by slapping deep
wads of grayish-blue Bondo putty on it.
The body was stained shamrock green, and
it looked as if the original finish had been
removed using a power sander and 60-grit
paper because the Esquire’s distinctive edges
were rounded over. Despite all of this, I still
could not bring myself to throw out the
body and trade it in for a replacement.
The original bridge and neck pickups
were intact, but they too were in need of
in-depth restoration. Admittedly, I was
getting some odd looks in the shop. The
general vibe was, “Are you really sure you’re
making the right call taking this project?”
But the client brought the guitar in to get
restored, so that’s just what we did.
Over the years, I’ve set aside old, small
scraps of ash at the shop, and they sure came
in handy for doing grafts into the damaged
areas of this broken-down body. The original
body routes from the early ’50s were definitely
smaller compared to any templates in production today. I did not want to enlarge the pickup routes and other channels to today’s standards, so I took a ’ 51 Fender Esquire, carefully
measured it, and designed a full-body acrylic
routing template from material I purchased
at Home Depot. My reference ’ 51 was in
mint condition, so as you can imagine, I used
extreme caution as I measured each route.
After the ash grafts were glued into a
laminate, I used a plunge router to finalize
the cut and then feathered in the new wood
pieces. Once I’d repaired the body, I knew
it needed to be finished in an opaque color
to cover the grafted sections of wood. We
chose black, and decided to spray a nitrocellulose finish to mimic what was used in
’ 56. I got my finishing supplies and tools
from Stewart McDonald ( stewmac.com).
We couldn’t save the bridge pickup coil
because the inner wire was corroded around
the magnetic pole pieces. So we rewound it
and then cosmetically aged the solder joints
to make them appear vintage. As a final
touch, we rewrapped the original outer rope
around the coil to give it that “never been
1. To repair the hacked-up body of this ’ 56 Esquire, I cut replacement pieces from old ash and
shaped them to graft back into the guitar.
2. Today’s commercial routing templates have larger
pickup and channel holes than Fender used in 1956, so I had to make my own custom acrylic
template using a mint ’ 51 Esquire as a reference.
3. The ’ 56 body after patching and routing.
We auditioned compensated brass replacement saddles, but returned to these original, non-compensated steel saddles. They just sounded better on this guitar.
5. Back from the dead: The
restored ’ 56 Esquire in all its vibey glory.
There were a few issues with the neck.
Its frets were destroyed, it needed a new
nut, and the fretboard had a couple of 1/4"
holes drilled into the wood. The final step
to restoring the neck was finding the correct year of decal that was accurate to the
very last detail. With patience and tenacity,
and by addressing the challenges one by
one, we finally revived the neck as well.
Here’s an intriguing tonal insight:
When the client came in to check out the
completed guitar with a few of his guitar
guru friends, they were pleased with the
visual and sonic aspects of the resuscitated
Esquire. Both acoustically and amplified, it
had a full, yet chimey bell-like tone.
The client wanted us to try replacing the
original hardened-steel saddles with pre-
compensated brass saddles to improve into-
nation. So we did, and the sonic result was
a real eye-opener. The brass saddles altered
the guitar’s tone in a major way, compress-
ing the midrange and giving the instrument
a generic sound. In the past, I’ve had very
good results using the compensated brass
saddles, but when all of us were in the
room and heard the tonal change, it was
100 percent unanimous—the original hard-
ened-steel saddles needed to go back on.
JOHN BROWN is the inventor of the
Fretted/Less bass. He owns and operates
Brown’s Guitar Factory, a guitar manufacturing, repair, and restoration facility staffed
by a team of talented luthiers. His guitar-tool
and accessory designs are used by builders
all over the world. Visit brownsguitarfactory.
com or email John at email@example.com.