If you know the music of Bruce Springsteen, chances are you have a very specific image in your head. Maybe it’s the bearded beatnik with a gigantic floopy hat singing ‘Born to Run’ in the mid-1970s. Perhaps it’s the leather-clad Springsteen that adorns the cover of Darkness on the Edge of Town, or maybe the headband-rocking muscle-bound Born in the U.S.A Springsteen. Perhaps it’s the grizzled veteran who still looks better than most rockstars half his age. Whatever image it is, there’s probably something else strapped around his shoulder: his trusty Fender guitar.
It’s not hard to picture in your mind: worn in natural wood finish, black pick guard, a charmingly beat-to-shit quality emanating from the sweat-soaked fretboard from the near-constant gigging. Truly Springsteen’s Fender has earned its place within the pantheon of legendary and iconic axes, if for no other reason than Bruce has stuck by the guitar through all his changes and stylistic shifts throughout his nearly 60-year career. It appears on the cover of Born to Run, but also 1992’s Human Touch and 2012’s Wrecking Ball. It’s intrinsically linked to every song, every album, and every facet of Springsteen’s entire career — and nobody knows exactly what to call it.
Springsteen himself calls it a “mutt”, or what guitarists might call a “parts guitar” since it has an Esquire neck and a Telecaster body. Springsteen describes it thusly in his memoir Born to Run: “I strapped on my new guitar, a 1950s mutt with a Telecaster body and an Esquire neck, I’d purchased at Phil Petillo’s guitar shop for one hundred and eighty five dollars. With its wood body worn in like the piece of the cross that it was, it became the guitar that I’d play for the next 40 years. It was the best deal of my life.”
The guitar was instantly identifiable through its rough and ready appearance. During a time where Stratocasters and Les Pauls were the go-to six strings for most rock stars, Springsteen gravitated towards what was usually considered a country instrument. The Boss wasn’t gentle with the instrument either: there are moments where, to this day, Bruce will heave his guitar across the stage to either his guitar tech or to no one in particular. Whether it always gets caught is another story.
But most of the guitar’s decomposition was the result of constant use, not misuse. From his bar gigs at The Stone Pony in New Jersey through world tours and now broadway residencies, the Mutt has been with Bruce for the entirety of his fame and success. Even as he began to incorporate acoustic guitars and pianos into his playing, there was only one electric that Springsteen could make talk.
For any guitar nerds out there, the neck is most likely a 1957 maple Esquire, according to luthier David Eichelbaum. Esquires had one single-coil pickup in the body while Telecasters had two, but the Mutt’s has four pickups wired into it, apparently as part of a record company’s payola scam where session guitarists could get four times as much money for playing a solo four times with four slightly different pickup configurations.
Those pickups were originally stored under the pick guard but were removed before Springsteen bought the guitar. The lighter weight probably helped the guitar’s staying power, as Springsteen needed something that he could lug for three-plus hour shows.
Petillo continued to modify the guitar well into Springsteen’s rise to acclaim. He waterproofed it to allow it to survive rainstorms and massive sweat the drips from Bruce during his shows, change frets and pots when needed, and generally kept the guitar as playable as humanely possible. If it broke, Petillo was the only one Springsteen trusted to fix it.
However, no guitar can last forever; even one made to last like the Mutt.
Springsteen pulled the guitar out of his touring rotation in 2005 and only occasionally brings it back out, mostly for special events like the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Today, Springsteen makes do with an army of clone guitars, modified to mimic the original Mutt’s sound and weight as closely as possible. Still, there’s only one Mutt. In a tongue in cheek letter to the Los Angeles Times, Springsteen explained: “When that big Rock N Roll clock strikes twelve, I will be buried with my Tele on!” Accept no substitutes because he will be buried with the Mutt.