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Behind the Guitar: The Story of Bruce Springsteen and His Tele

For most of us here at Wildwood—myself included—the concept of guitar monogamy is hard to grasp. It almost seems heretical! With so many unique and inspiring six-strings out there, it seems impossible to choose just one. In a weird way, I’m jealous of guitar monogamists because they’ve reached the end of the tonequest. They’ve found the proverbial One Guitar that suits their personality perfectly, and they are cured of Gear Acquisition Syndrome.

Plenty of guitar players have put a ring on their number one, but of those partnerships, there are none more iconic than that of Bruce Springsteen and the Tele-Esquire hybrid he posed with on the cover of Born to Run. Bruce even put a line about his betrothed in Thunder Road. When he sings “See, I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” he is talking about that specific guitar.

The hearts never stopped dancing in Bruce’s eyes, and it remained his main guitar for an astonishing four decades until he had to retire it in 2005. Its story is as fascinating as the man who wielded it, and it has become one of the most valuable instruments in the world. It was recently appraised for over a million dollars, but good luck getting Bruce to part with it—he once told the Los Angeles Times that he plans to be buried wearing it!
But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s zip back in time to Phil Petillo’s guitar shop. The year is 1973, and a young Bruce Springsteen is looking to swap out his Les Paul for something more suitable for the funky, soul-inflected rock noises he’s making with his E Street Band, and he didn’t have a whole lot of cash. Mr. Petillo, a widely-respected builder and repairman, had just the thing: a Frankenstein guitar with a fifties Telecaster body and a fifties Esquire neck. It was love at first sight, and Bruce walked out the door with the guitar for a hundred and eighty-five bucks.

Bruce got a honey of a deal on his number one because, well, it had been mangled. In the sixties, an unscrupulous session musician had routed it for four pickups with four different outputs. He’d bring the Tele to the sessions and play the solo once with each pickup going to a separate amp, then bill the record company for four slightly different-sounding “takes” of the same solo.
Mr. Petillo had removed all of the superfluous pickups and output jacks, but the guitar was still missing huge chunks of wood under the pickguard. Bruce didn’t care, though. The hollow area made the guitar significantly lighter and gave it acoustic-like resonance and responsiveness. For a person who frequently plays for more than three hours, shaving off a pound is a big deal, and that’s part of the reason why it remained his main stage guitar for so long.

Though Bruce cherished the guitar, he was never particularly precious with it, and he asked Petillo to modify it many times over the years. Over the years, it received hotter single-coil pickups, titanium and stainless steel hardware, silicon gaskets, and Petrillo’s patented triangular Precision Frets. He also never babied his it, and his habit of throwing it to his roadies certainly contributed to its worn appearance!
Speaking of which, it’s easy to see why Springsteen posed with the guitar on three of his album covers: Born to Run, Wrecking Ball, and my personal favorite Springsteen album of all time, Live 1975-1985. Few guitars are more iconic than a butterscotch fifties Tele that’s been worn down to bare wood in several places. It’s the six-string equivalent of an old GTO, and it’s as American as cold beer, yet it doesn’t scream machismo, and it has a certain rustic, weathered elegance to its appearance.

For evidence of this guitar’s titanic sound, you don’t need to look far—he’s played it on almost every single one of his recordings. But, my favorite example is the intro to this live version of Prove It All Night:

 

Listen to that thing scream! From the way Bruce plays, you can see and hear how dynamic the guitar is—it’s so lively that it practically talks back to him! It almost makes me understand guitar monogamy.

Sadly, Bruce had to retire his old standby in 2005 because it was starting to fall apart under the stress of constant touring, and he plays replicas live now. But, he still plays it on records, and he brings it out for special occasions like his iconic Super Bowl halftime performance:


Bruce Springsteen – Superbowl Halftime Show HD 2009 XLIII NFL

 

My favorite part is when he tosses his beloved guitar to his tech right at the beginning. It almost seems like he throws it at a weird angle on purpose just to mess with his tech, who is clearly sweating bullets at the prospect of dropping one of the most valuable instruments in the world during the most-watched televised event of the year. He makes the best grab of Super Bowl XLIII, and Bruce cracks up at his nervousness. That utter nonchalance is why Bruce and his Tele are so cool. After all, there’s nothing more rock and roll than flirting with disaster!

Bruce has every right to be buried with his iconic Tele, but I hope he changes his mind, because it belongs in the Smithsonian so that future generations will know what the apex of cool looks like. The story of Springsteen and his Tele is proof that you can forge a special relationship with your instrument if you invest the time and effort. Springsteen said it best in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame interview: “when I put it on, I don’t feel like I have a guitar on. It’s such an integral part of me.” The moral of the story is that if you play your guitar regularly enough, you can form such a strong bond that it feels like an extension of you.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make my guitar talk.