You know, when I think of Keith Richards, it’s kind of like this surrealistic stereotype of 60s rockers, well, 60s rockers who survived. Keith looks ancient, seriously, but he’s just 73 years old. Are you kidding me? 73?! No way, that ain’t right. I have to say, I like affecting a Keith Richards’ mumble, this rich, raspy timbre that sounds like it should be coming out of a rock giant from Dartford (Richards birthplace). Urk, wait….where was I? So, the guitar, the 5 string 6 string Telecaster, the source of sooooooooooooooo many songs I love, is a 1953/54 Fender Telecaster and its’ name? Micawber. I can see your face, like ‘what is the name?’ but yeah, that’s the name.
Wilkins Micawber is a fictional character from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield. He was modeled on Dickens’ father, John Dickens, who like Micawber was incarcerated in debtors’ prison after failing to meet his creditors’ demands (source is WikiPedia). I cannot tell you what drove Keef to pick that name as I am certain this Tele has paid any debt it might owe. My favorite song that I know Micawber is all over is Tumbling Dice which may very well be my favorite overall Stones song. It’s probably a toss up between that and Little T & A from Tattoo You.
There are few that match Richards in what he has done for rock and roll. No other guitarist (as of 2017) has more top Billboard hits than he does. The Rolling Stones hold the record for most albums by any band in the Billboard Top 200 at 37. Think about that for a second, 37 albums in the top 200. Over the years they’ve had 8 #1 songs and countless others in the top 40. Many of these were composed on the battered Telecaster Eric Clapton gifted to Richards on the guitarist’s 27th birthday. When asked if there was one guitar he could have, which would it be? Over the Gibson ES-3xxs, over his Broadcasters (an early version of the Telecaster) or other Teles, the ’53 Blackguard Fender won without hesitation. So, what about the guitar?
In 1953 Fender had begun production at a new facility and was churning out larger and larger numbers of guitars. Micawber originally looked a lot like the ’52 Reissue pictured here. An ash body with a butterscotch blonde finish, maple neck and maple finger board. Fender tuners (made by Kluson who happened to also make Gibson’s tuners), Fender bridge with brass saddles (you know, the strings go over them) and the black, bakelite pickguard. Steel domed controls for volume and tone and a 3-way pickup selector. The pickups on a Telecaster are both single coil and are very low output.
Micawber looks JUST a little different outside the cosmetic. The first thing is the lack of the low E and the inclusion of individual brass saddles for each string. Richards removed that low string because it can cause some dissonance if struck in the open G tuning (G-D-G-B-D) that Keith prefers. Since he got rid of the string, he got rid of the saddle though for some reason, the tuning peg is still in place, really Keith?
The cost of dropping that string, however, is that a five string guitar cannot be tuned to other tunings. In the photo to the left, look at the upper bout, above the neck, from Richards’ picking stle he has literally started to chip away the wood, probably pulling splinters every time he digs in. The next alteration was the swapping of the stock Fender bridge pickup in favor of a pedalsteel pickup. A pedal steel pickup has more winds on the bobbin and are higher output.
In the neck is an inverted PAF (the magnet screws normally are closer to the neck) where the lipstick (so named by their resemblance to the cosmetic) pickup was. A PAF in the neck gives a warm and smooth tone where originally a much thinner and nasally tone had been. Of note, though minor, the pickup select switch tip was swapped from the blade type Telecasters are made with to a white tip pulled from a Stratocaster. Rounding out the modifications are a set of Sperzel tuners on the headstock, obviously not when recording the earliest Micawber material but since Richards tours today with this guitar, having locking tuners is certainly helpful. Please take a look at Reverb.com’s great write up on Micawber, they were my fact checking source and they go a bit farther than I do. Good stuff.
Since the Rolling Stones have been in my life as long as I have been alive, I kind of lose track of how big an impact they had. It’s a bit like having a kid and one day, at a family reunion, an aunt says, “Look how big your son has gotten” and I nod stupidly as if I agree but I actually didn’t notice, he was growing a little every day, I saw the incremental, not the whole thing, the big jump. To realize how big Keith Richards, Micawber, Jagger and the rest of the lineups over the years are, you have to imagine a world without those 37 albums on the Billboard 200. No Let it Bleed or Exile on Main Street, No Tattoo You or Steel Wheels. A world without Get Your Ya-s Ya-s Out or Sticky Fingers is not a world I want to be a part of. I think they are the last of a breed. A set of bands like the Beatles, the Kinks and the Yardbirds. Talented and lucky British kids who were in the right place at the right time to help reshape the world and the music in it. That’s all for Micawber, next time I dive into some history, trademark violations and the nature of the headstock. Thanks for stopping by.
KSK January 2017