16. Blonde 2003 Squier 51
FOR almost as long as I’ve attempted to play guitar, I’ve also attempted to play slide guitar, with varying degrees of success. It started, of course, with Automatic Slim. My hero, Dr Feelgood’s frontman, Lee Brilleaux played very effective, but rough-and-ready slide, tuned to open D. However, the regular slide numbers which became an integral part of the Slim set weren’t Feelgood tunes, but from the canon of Muddy Waters, George Thorogood, and Bob Dylan, the latter, “Highway 61 Revisited”, having more words in it than any sane person can remember!
For most of those years by guitar of choice was my old faithful 52 reissue Tele and tuning-wise I’ve always favoured open A – two-steps-up brother to the more popular open G used by country bluesmen and, of course Keith Richards (who, apparently, learned it from Ry Cooder).
The A tuning has always worked for me as it means the strings are tighter, which on my old Tele pulls the neck a bit harder and makes the action a tiny bit higher – usually a positive benefit for slide playing.
When I started, I was pretty hopeless. My cack-handed early attempts with an idiotically heavy brass slide left some pretty horrible grooves in two or three of the frets on that unlucky Tele. I did get better, though – a bit better, anyway – and I soon started looking at other guitars suited to the job.
My blonde Squier 51 is one of the tiny handful of guitars in this list that I bought brand new. Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s the best £120 I’ve ever spent. I generally gig with three guitars – one in standard tuning, a spare in case of string breakage and one set up and open-tuned for slide.
Of all the guitars I’ve owned, none has found so regular a place in the bags I take to gigs as this Indonesian-built 2003 Squier 51 . It’s my number one slide machine, the guitar I instinctively pick up first whenever I find a bottleneck on my finger.
The first time I saw a picture of one in a magazine I thought it just looked SO right! Tele neck, Strat-shaped body, funky pickguard and control plate inspired by Fender’s 51 Precision Bass (hence the name), a slanted Strat pickup at the neck, a humbucker at the bridge, hardtail bridge, one volume, one rotary pickup selector switch – no tone control. Elegant and simple – an almost perfect study in style and ergonomics. And certianly perfect for slide.
The 51 is a cheap guitar. The body is a thinner than a Strat, but still heavy. Not sure about the timber, but it’s clearly quite dense and I’m guessing Squier had to make it thinner to keep the weight down. The top-loader bridge isn’t the neatest thing and the tuners are big and ugly, but it’s a great platform for tweaking – and mine has been tweaked to perfection down the years.
The most significant change I made was fitting a Hipshot Trilogy* multiple tuning bridge, an amazing bit of hardware that uses levers and cams to allow instant access to a wide range of tunings at the flick of a lever – perfect for slide. The Hipshot was expensive – it cost more than the guitar! But strung with a decent set of Newtone Michael Messer 13-56s, I can swiftly and accurately get standard tuning (not that you’d find it terribly playable), A major, A minor, G major, G minor, E major, E minor and a host of open tunings that don’t even have names. Genius!
Of course, all that would be pointless if the guitar wasn’t up to scratch. Fortunately it is – and then some! The neck is one of the strongest and straightest I’ve ever encountered. It never moves – even with those fat old strings in the “rest” position in my chosen starting-point tuning (low to high, E-B-E-A-C sharp-E). That’s a LOT of string tension!
Those original, stock Squier pickups sound monstrous and are beautifully well balanced. Along the way, I replaced the tuners with a nice set of small-buttoned Wilkinson EZ-loks to help keep it in tune through all the changes, and added a graphite string retainer.
My guitar also sports a chicken-head knob on the rotary pickup selector and a matching black metal volume knob – for no other reason than because they look damned cool! I also later cheated and squeezed a mini-tone pot between the other two controls.
It’s been like this without any significant change for 15-odd years (I did switch the black pickguard for a white one at one stage to match Rob’s 72 Tele Bass, but soon changed it back)
It’s as perfect a tool for the job as I’ve ever come across. I actually have two 51s – the other, a very fetching sunburst (so gorgeous I removed the pickguard, the better for it to be admired) was given me by my dear old Automatic Slim bandmate, Howard Bills when he moved onto a narrowboat and no longer had space for it, bless him. That one’s totally stock except for the knobs and it lives in open D – one of the few tunings I can’t quite reach with the Hipshot.
In my opinion, the Squier 51 is the single best guitar design Fender have produced in the past 30 years. They were never a massive hit, while they were on sale in the shops, though, and the Indonesian Cort guitar factory stopped making 51s after just three years because they weren’t selling – guitarists can be incredibly conservative sometimes! Ironically, at that point the market became flooded and a couple of the big American music shop chains were offering brand new Squier 51s for as little as $60, simply to clear their stocks. This made the 51s super-popular with modders and hot-rodders and for a while in the 2000s, modifying 51s became a real thing, with web forums and groups dedicated to the pursuit.
Fender revived the concept a few years later with a rather more upmarket Fender Japan version in its Pawnshop series. Oddly, I’ve never played one, nor have I any particular desire to. They got so much of it right first time around for a retail price roughly a quarter of the Japanese version.
Fender Japan also produced a rather fantastic-looking Thinline variation with a rosewood board, an f-hole and two Wide Range humbuckers, called the Pawnshop 72. That guitar genuinely intrigued me for years and I did own a very eye-catching example in Surf Green for a very brief period. (More of which later – No 41, to be precise.)
*I recently discovered that for some inexplicable reason, Hipshot recently appears to have discontinued the Trilogy bridge. Baffling, unless they’ve managed to come up with something even better. Watch this space and if I find out, you’ll be the first to know. 🙂