Best of 2021: During a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Bruce Springsteen decided to take his beloved, number one electric guitar out of storage for a round of show and tell.
Seen prominently on the cover of his star-making 1975 masterpiece, Born to Run, the guitar is a Fender "mutt" that has been in Springsteen's possession for almost 50 years and has, as Springsteen tells Colbert, "been in every club, theater, arena and stadium across America, and most of the world."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story of the guitar – an endlessly-modded six-string with a Telecaster body and Esquire neck – is like a Springsteen song itself.
At the age of 22, Springsteen headed to Belmar, New Jersey, where he purchased the instrument from local luthier Phil Petillo for $185. Aside from its famous appearance on the cover of his third album, the guitar became Springsteen's main stage instrument and eventually, he says to Colbert, "an extension of my body."
"Anything else I pick up, it's a guitar," Springsteen adds. "I've played this for so long that it just became part of [my] natural physique."
Featuring a swamp ash body, maple neck and black pickguard, the guitar features a neck that – according to David Eichelbaum, a California luthier – dates back to 1957. Springsteen's techs, however, maintain that the neck hails from either 1953 or 1954.
The guitar's Telecaster body has an even stranger provenance.
According to the late Petillo (reported by Rolling Stone, via Men's Journal) Springsteen's guitar had originally been owned by a record company and featured an incredibly shady installation of "four pickups wired into extra jacks that would each plug into a separate channel on the recording console."
Made by routing out a significant area under the pickguard, this mod would apparently ensure that session guitarists would earn four times typical union pay for playing four slightly different versions of the same guitar solo.
After Petillo removed the unusual electronics, the guitar became noticeably more lightweight than your average Tele, making it perfect for both Springsteen's famously lengthy and energetic concerts, and the horn-infused music he was creating with the E Street Band.
Aside from removing the quartet of pickups, Petillo made a number of other mods – adding hot-wound single-coil pickups, triangular Precision Frets, stainless steel and titanium hardware, and silicone gaskets to give the guitar extra road-ready reliability – over the years.
Springsteen used the guitar for almost every live performance for thirty years, until the wear and tear of the road began to catch up with it in the mid-2000s and he, in his words, "sort of put it out to pasture."
These days, the Boss prefers using meticulously detailed, custom-made copies of the Tele/Esquire hybrid onstage, bringing the original out for special occasions like the interview with Colbert, and his Super Bowl XLIII performance halftime show in 2009.
Oh, and the value of that weird $185 guitar Springsteen bought all those years ago nowadays? Recent reported insurance estimates of the instrument range from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000.