If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that vintage guitar designs never go out of style. Major manufacturers regularly celebrate their past by bringing back models that were considered cutting edge in the ’50s and ’60s, and newer companies routinely tip their hats to the classics by incorporating their key elements into fresh designs. Two new guitars from Fender and Malden highlight how this kind of thinking can benefit players who are looking for either an affordable relic, or a custom hot-rod guitar with vintage aesthetics.
Fender ’50s Esquire
When it debuted in 1950, the Fender Esquire introduced the world to the new frontier of solidbody guitar design. Embodying the essence of post-war functionality and modern minimalism, its design couldn’t have been simpler—or more controversial. While the meticulously carved archtop electric guitars that preceded it could trace their lineage to finely crafted violins, the Esquire’s slab body was more closely related to a kitchen cutting board (not to mention Fender’s previous lap-steel guitar designs). Would the world accept such a radical departure from conventional guitar wisdom? More than a half-century later, the answer is obvious, and the Esquire can rightfully claim to be one of the most paradigm-shifting and historically significant guitar designs of the 20th century.
Initially, guitars bearing the Esquire moniker were available with either one or two pickups, but by the end of 1950, the two-pickup version had been renamed the Broadcaster, and then in 1951, the Telecaster. By 1970, the Tele’s sales greatly exceeded its single-pickup sibling, so Fender halted production of the Esquire. The model was revived briefly in the mid 1980s as a Japanese-made reissue, and more recently with such updates as mahogany bodies, flashy paint jobs, and humbuckers. Excluding these exceptions, Fender’s latest reintroduction of this authentically vintage Esquire marks its first official return to the standard line (a more costly version has been available from Fender’s Custom Shop for quite some time).
With its white pickguard, flat-pole pickup, and stubby switch tip, the new model closely resembles the Esquires made in Fender’s Fullerton, California, factory from late 1954 to early 1955. The new model (which is built in Fender’s Ensenada, Mexico, factory) sports a pale-white polyester finish, vintage-style tuners that closely resemble the original Klusons, and, as with early Esquires and Teles, a single round string-retainer adjacent to its G-string tuner. While some ’50s Fender necks had a pronounced V-shaped cross-section, the new Esquire neck sports a comfortably modern-feeling C-shaped one-piece maple neck. A walnut “skunk stripe” fills the neck’s rear trussrod route, and removing the pickguard allows access to the rod for adjustment.
Like most Esquires, the pickguard conceals a hidden secret: the Esquire’s body is just like a Tele’s, with routes for a neck pickup and a diagonal channel between the pickups for the wiring. To convert an Esquire to Tele specs, all you need is a neck pickup, a new pickguard, and a little time to rewire the controls.
Speaking of controls, you might be wondering why a single-pickup guitar would need a 3-way toggle switch. From the beginning, Esquires were equipped with a very unusual control scheme. With the switch all the way back, the pickup is only connected to the Volume pot (the Tone pot is disconnected). This minimal circuitry provides more top-end extension than a Tele. A standard tone control circuit is activated when the switch is in the middle position, and, in the first position, the tone control is again disengaged, but a very unusual tone-shaping network is added that rolls off a lot of the top and some of the bottom. This scheme produces an exceedingly dark tone along with a slight volume loss. Fender lore has it that this was intended to simulate a bass (remember the Esquire was designed before Fender introduced its first bass). The new Esquire’s pickup is also an authentic repro, with early-’50s-style alnico V magnets that are level with the top of the bobbin. The windings are even wrapped with white string for protection, just like the originals.
With the toggle in the third position, the new Esquire can chirp like a bird and—thanks in part to its treble-enhancing steel saddles—cut like a finely honed Ginsu knife. If you dig Teles, you’ll find the extra sweet top-end produced by a good Esquire intoxicating and addictive. Activate the Tone control circuit by flicking the toggle into the middle position, and you soften some of the stinging attack, allowing the high notes to sound a bit warmer and less urgent. With the toggle in the first position, the Esquire sounds a bit muffled. While this quirky setting could be useful in some situations, I was much more attracted to the electrifying sparkle provided by the third position. Pure, unencumbered brilliance—that’s where an Esquire’s true magic lays.
Malden has been on the scene for barely two years, but in that brief span, it has become obvious that this company is seriously committed to raising the standard for imported guitars. With fresh yet familiar designs, intelligently chosen features, and exceptional attention to detail, Malden has succeeded in capturing the elusive and intangible feel-
factor that emanates from instruments built by folks who are sincerely concerned about quality. In the past, American companies could feel smugly secure knowing they had a lock on the handcrafted mojo, but now it’s clear that others have begun to crack the code. Combine this level of craftsmanship and custom-shop feel with an extremely inviting price, and you have a tough act to follow.
As the most recent addition to the Malden line, the Korean-made Mozak gives off a kitschy-cool retro vibe with its jaunty asymmetrical body and a tasty sunburst finish that’s complemented by a tight-grained rosewood fretboard and a mother-of-toilet-seat pickguard. Its pickups are faithful recreations of familiar themes, and its cast-bodied tuners feel solid and smooth. For authentic twang-factor, the classic chrome-plated steel bridge is fitted with three brass saddles. For quick and painless neck adjustments, the trussrod is easily accessible at the headstock.
I’m especially impressed with the smoothness and depth of the body’s sunburst lacquer finish, and the way the red hue gracefully emerges from the black outer edges, morphing into a warm yellow toward the center. The neck feels great, too, with its hand-rubbed feel and a seductively contoured C-shaped cross-section. The fretwork is top-flight—every fret is nicely crowned and tightly seated, with consistently rounded and polished ends that further enhance the Mozak’s luxurious feel—and the perfectly slotted nut allows each string to sit at the optimum height. No matter how closely I scrutinized the Mozak, I simply couldn’t find any detail issues to quibble about. Okay, maybe the three-piece basswood body doesn’t have the most attractive figuring, but there’s nothing about this instrument’s workmanship that even hints at its budget price tag. And dig the extra touches like the little felt pads that are placed between the strap buttons and body. What more could you ask for?
Some of you might be thinking, “Well, how about some really good-sounding pickups?” If you’re used to automatically swapping out an import’s pickups, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised when you hear the Mozak’s alnico V magnets that are carefully wound to vintage specs. The bridge pickup sounds authentically vintage and appropriately twangy, with a seasoned upper-midrange and treble complexity, and the neck pickup is rich, dark, and smooth, with a breath of acoustic-like detail. The 3-way toggle switch selects both pickups when set to the middle position, which produces a combined tone that’s sweeter and airier than either of the pickups soloed, and I found this position’s veiled jangle complemented the sound of EL84-powered amps especially well.
I was even more impressed with the Mozak after playing it on several gigs. Teamed with a ’66 Ampeg Reverberocket II, I was able to coax a convincingly warm jazz tone from the neck pickup that blended well with the band when comping, and sounded colorful, expressive, and dynamic for solos. I usually play a fancy archtop guitar on these straight-ahead jazz gigs, but the Mozak’s swanky looks and cool tones fit right in. A drunken, late-evening request for a Hank Williams tune (along with a $50 bill) had me quickly switching to the bridge pickup for some twangy fills and biting faux-steel-guitar riffs. My old archtop could never approach the Mozak’s broad range of tones, and I think I’ll be playing this guitar on many more gigs in the future. With its impressive craftsmanship, vibe, and value, the Mozak easily earns an Editors’ Pick Award.