“You’re up there without a net!”: Brad Paisley on Esquires, hidden pickups and his new signature Fender
The country music superstar has a new signature Fender guitar – an Esquire with a secret weapon. We caught up with the man himself to find out more.
If you wanted to sit down and reel off Brad Paisley’s various achievements, honours and awards one by one, we might well be here all day. Over a two-decade career the country singer-songwriter has shifted over 11 million records, set the record for the most consecutive No 1 singles on the Billboard country chart (10, if you’re interested), has won enough Grammys, CMA and ACM awards to sink a fairly substantial boat, written songs for Disney movies, turned up on TV shows as diverse as South Park and The Voice… oh and he also happens to be a bona fide, strap-in and hold on tight, monster guitar player.
If you’re not yet aware of what we mean, stop reading this immediately and give Paisley’s 2009 Grammy-winning instrumental Cluster Pluck a spin, and watch your jaw drop as the West Virginian goes toe to toe with a laundry list of country guitar icons – including James Burton, Albert Lee, Vince Gill and Brent Mason – over three and a half frenetic minutes of fret-melting brilliance.
Given all that, it was no surprise at all back in 2017 when Fender honoured Paisley with a signature model of his beloved Fender Telecaster, but one that had some interesting stuff going on underneath the Road Worn Silver Sparkle finish.
“The silver Tele was done really well and I’m really proud of it,” Paisley tells us. “Especially given the price, I think it’s a life-long professional instrument that offers great value. I think it’s worth way more than they’re charging – and that’s exactly what I was hoping for!”
Three years later, however, the time has come for a follow up – and while it would have been easy enough to offer what was a hugely popular guitar in a more generic finish, Paisley was determined to offer something a bit unusual – say hello to the Brad Paisley Esquire.
“You know it’s very common, when an artist has a signature model, for more options to be offered further down the line – custom colours and so on,” Brad explains. “But when Fender asked if I wanted to do a new variation on the model, I really wanted it to be something that would go with the existing guitar, not ‘instead of’. So I asked Fender if we could do a guitar with a different personality. If you love the silver Tele then the black Esquire should be the perfect guitar to accompany it.”
The Esquire and the Telecaster are of course very similar instruments, but Leo’s first solidbody has a certain something even beyond the blue-collar workhorse nature of its twin-pickup little brother. As a lifetime Telecaster devotee, it’s something Brad is all too aware of, especially in the context of the wider Fender family.
“The thing about the Tele is it’s a cutting board with a neck,” Brad says matter of factly. “You can literally turn the thing over and chop up chicken on the back of it with no ill effects! It’s an unforgiving guitar. The Stratocaster is such a wonderful, sensuous shape and its contours hug your body and caress you – it’s a masterpiece of ergonomics.
“You can literally turn the [Tele] over and chop up chicken on the back of it with no ill effects! It’s an unforgiving guitar”
“The Telecaster though, everywhere your arm goes there’s a corner, and where your hand goes there are those screws that stick up, and on the 60s models some of those bridges still have very sharp edges, and the neck just bolts on and it’s kind of square… and that’s where I find such beauty in it. The Esquire is on another level altogether. You know all the amazing luxuries of having two pickups, which makes life so beautiful? Well, you can forget that! That’s not there any more!”
“I play a lot of Esquires in concert and the thing I love about that guitar is the purity of the focus of this hunk of wood with that one pickup down by the bridge without that tall pickup with the chrome cap pulling down on the strings by the neck. Even if you’re not using it, just having a neck pickup does change the sound of the guitar.
“And there is something about the look, the beauty of an Esquire and when you see someone playing one you think ‘Wow, that guy has one pickup to choose from, he’s up there without a net!’ And with this new guitar you still get that look, but you’ve also got something extra in your tool belt – you’re a spy!
Under the hood
The “something extra” Paisley is referring to is a hidden neck pickup stealthed away beneath the Esquire’s paisley pickguard – dubbed the Secret Agent, he developed with Seymour Duncan in response to his Esquire love tripping him up on stage now and then.
“The Esquire is a magical thing but there are times in concert when I didn’t plan the setlist right and I’m wearing an Esquire when there is an unmistakable neck pickup thing that needs to happen and now it can’t!” he exclaims. “Going to the tone cap on an Esquire does not cut it at all…
“[the secret agent] reminds me of a really well-set up Stratocaster with the neck pickup dropped as low as it will go”
“So I had been busy developing a new pickup with Seymour Duncan called the Secret Agent, that I’d pre stuck in a couple of my older Esquires. I went over to the Seymour Duncan factory one day and asked if they had a neck pickup that could be really effective when hidden under the scratch plate of an Esquire – we worked the whole of that day experimenting with windings, magnets and voicing, it was really fun!”
When the time came to make the Paisley Esquire, then, it wasn’t hard to determine that what was good for his vintage guitars would be good for his signature model, though it doesn’t necessarily make the guitar sound like a Telecaster when you flip to the neck pickup.
“The Secret Agent is not your typical neck pickup,” Brad says. “It’s a single, extra tall ceramic bar magnet with just the right amount of impedance. It has a really woody, resonant quality to it because of the distance from the strings. It reminds me of a really well-set up Stratocaster with the neck pickup dropped as low as it will go. It makes the Esquire feel like an entirely different instrument to the Telecaster.
“If you are a player who likes modded Tele’s with humbuckers in the neck then this is not for you, it’s the exact opposite. When I go to the neck pickup on a Tele I like the volume to go down not up and with the Secret Agent there’s a drop of about 3-5dB. It’s not muffled, there’s still a lot of sparkle you can do anything with it. It’s perfect for that Stevie Ray Vaughn barely over-driven neck pickup sound. You know, for me, the neck pickup is about sensitivity and intimacy – I go to that high output 8k tele bridge pickup when I want to shout! That’s the same pickup that’s in the silver Tele and I love it.”
“You know, for me, the neck pickup is about sensitivity and intimacy – I go to that high output 8k tele bridge pickup when I want to shout!”
With a screaming bridge unit and the polite neck coil, finding a balance in the middle position was key, and one that resulted in a suitably distinct sonic offering with both pickups engaged.
“One of the things I love about the original silver Tele is that the neck and bridge pickups were actually really well balanced and in the middle position it really works well,” Brad notes. “This is a different thing and it’s cool for different reasons. In the new Esquire the middle position is like 70/30 – there’s a heavy bridge pickup presence but you get a more Stratty sound. That makes sense when you consider where is the centre of gravity between the two pickups.
Against the grain
One of the most interesting facets of Paisley’s original signature Tele was the woods used in its construction – rather than alder or ash, the guitar used a slab of sustainable paulownia sandwiched between a spruce top and back. It’s an unconventional recipe that has been retained for the Esquire, after Brad was thrilled with how it came out first time around.
“I don’t know where the wood came from originally but one of the magical things about the first Tele was the way the paulownia and spruce body works,” he enthuses. “You just can’t find swamp ash now, especially not in the quantities we would need to be consistent. That said, this combination of a paulownia body with a top and back of spruce is really reminiscent of a great piece of swamp ash, perfectly cut and dried.”
“I don’t know where the wood came from originally but one of the magical things about the first Tele was the way the paulownia and spruce body works”
Guitar players are nothing if not creatures of tradition and habit, and Paisley understands that making a Tele this way might be off-putting for some, but he insists the proof is in the playing.
“Think of it this way, if a friend of yours told you, ‘Hey a buddy of mine has a ’53 Tele and it’s six pounds…’ you’d want it,” he insists, “I’d want it. In fact I wouldn’t even have to play it! I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I want that! If he’s selling it let me know!’ We all know those are the guitars that have the magic – they resonate, they’re full of music. In this case Fender have captured that same magical formula with this combination of wood. It works beautifully on this Esquire just as it did with the silver Tele.”
The doctor is in
When it comes to plugging his new guitar in and taking it for a spin, 2020 has meant that he’s been limited to a few smaller scenarios than the sold-out stadiums to which he’s become accustomed, though he has at least found some fun new playmates for the Esquire.
“I did a couple of drive-in shows this summer and a live stream or two though, and I just recorded a little video with Fender about this new guitar,” he recalls. “For that I used a great amp by Dr Z – it’s a new version of the Z Wreck called the Z Wreck Jr and it’s pretty remarkable. It’s an 18-watt version of the original amp. So in the video I’m using that and my favourite amp that Fender ever made which I pulled out of storage – the Vibro King!
“I took a couple of Vibro Kings that I had and changed the baffle board to a 12-inch and a 10-inch and put two Celestion speakers in it. The 10-inch is a gold and the 12-inch is a Red which is their new version of the Blue, but it’s 30w watts not 15, so it’s woodier and dark in a really great way. When you put those two in a Vibro King it’s very special, it makes me wish I could tour right now because I would throw that thing out there!”
On the effects side, he likes to keep things appropriately stripped back when he’s playing something in the Telecaster family, and the Esquire is no exception.
“I like to keep things simple, maybe just an old delay pedal,” Brad says. “Apart from that I’m going right into the amp, I don’t even use a compressor when I’m playing live. When you turn the amp up loud enough you don’t need one!”
Paisley is clearly a man who thinks deeply about the finest of detail when it comes to his gear, so it should come as no surprise that as we round off our chat, he wants to explain the significance of one more thing on his new guitar – something that’s often overlooked as a purely aesthetic choice.
“The last thing I would like to say, the colour of this guitar is very important to me,” he says of the Esquire’s Black Sparkle finish. “It looks like coal dust, and coming from the state of West Virginia, with its mining history, that’s a fascinating and meaningful thing for me. I love the contrast between the silver on Telecaster and the black sparkle on this Esquire. It’s just such a bad boy looking guitar, I love it!”
To find out more about the Fender Brad Paisley Esquire visit fender.com.