A Blackguard Named Micawber: Keith Richards’ No. 1 Fender Telecaster

Photo by Fin Costello / Getty Images

Most bands traditionally play to a drummer, but The Rolling Stones have always been different. Instead, the band follows Keith Richards, their human riff machine. Charlie Watts, drummer for the Stones, has said on numerous occasions that he and the band take all of their cues from Keith who commands the stage with his rhythm and riffs.

With a career spanning over 50 years and counting, Keith’s arsenal of guitars has grown quite massive. While researching and writing my book, The Rolling Stones Gear, I had the pleasure of examining, cataloging, photographing and even playing some of Keith’s guitars.

As a fan, the act of holding and playing Keith’s guitars sent chills down my spine. But the most magical guitar I laid my hands on was the Fender Blackguard Tele named Micawber – the guitar Keith received on his 27th birthday from Eric Clapton.

Exiles on Main Street

The 1954 Fender Telecaster first arrived in the Stones’ camp during the band’s infamous 1971 Exile On Main St. recording sessions held in the south of France. It was a tumultuous time for the Stones, as they had just left England as tax exiles.

At the time, the British government had a staggering 90% tax on earnings over £15,000 per year. Keith looked at the situation as a way for Great Britain to rid itself of this troublesome lot. “We went to France because the British government had got a hard-on about a rock and roll band,” he said bluntly.

“A very strange time. Before we started Exile, I guess we hadn’t realized quite how fragile civilization is. The full weight of the British Empire came down on us. First, they thought they would just come after us for the dope and pills and stuff. That didn’t work, so they put the financial screws on. In a way, it was a great thing for the band because everybody had to look each other in the eye and say, ‘All right, we’ll do it in exile – in France.’ Mind you, we were pretty pissed off. They made quite a lot of money, the British government – 98% of every pound.”

The group made a formal announcement that they and their families were going to leave Great Britain and settle in southern France, where they planned to write and produce new material for their upcoming album, Tropical Disease (later changed to Exile On Main St.).

Keith rented Villa Nellcôte in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a low-key town on the Côte d'Azur, about four miles east of Nice and six miles southwest of Monaco. Nellcôte (nicknamed “Keith’s Coffee House”) became the group’s de facto headquarters.

The Stones’ mobile recording unit was brought across the channel and set up at Nellcôte in June. Recording ran from early July through mid November with producer Jimmy Miller and engineer Andy Johns, both of whom had also established residence in France.

Photos taken during these Exile On Main St. sessions show Keith with his ‘54 Fender Blackguard Tele with the butterscotch blonde finish and maple neck still in its original factory stock condition – fitted with standard Tele pickups and electronics with a stock Telecaster bridge.

It was during these sessions that Keith transformed the guitar into a 5-string by taking off the low E string and putting the guitar into an open G tuning (low-high: G – D –G – B – D). He used the guitar this way during the Exile session, which yielded a double album of such Stones classics like “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “Tumbling Dice,” and “Happy,” to name a few.

The Stones set out to promote their new record on the road with their mammoth 1972 tour. Keith used his 1954 Blackguard Tele in its factory stock condition for the beginning of the tour before his guitar tech, Ted Newman Jones III, replaced the neck position Fender pickups on the Telecasters with Gibson PAF humbuckers.

He also replaced the bridge pickup on the ‘54 Tele with a Fender lap-steel pickup, which was similar to the Fender Broadcaster’s pickup. Jones set this Tele up as a 5-string for open-G tuning, and Keith described it as, “my main Tele five-string … a ’54, with the humbucker in the front.”

Micawber is Born

In the 1980s, Keith nicknamed the guitar “Micawber” after the irrepressible Wilkins Micawber character from Charles Dickens’s novel, David Copperfield. It’s also known simply as Telecaster No. 1.

Keith, who is a self-described “voracious reader” and Dickens fan explains, “There's no reason for my guitar being called Micawber, apart from the fact that it's such an unlikely name. There's no one around me called Micawber, so when I scream for Micawber, everyone knows what I'm talking about.”

Though Keith has a few very similar Teles in his collection, Micawber can be easily identified from afar by a small but obvious dimple or gouge on the front upper left bout of the guitar opposite the cutaway.

Keith continued to use his Micawber blackguard Tele on countless Stones recordings and endless tours. It wasn’t until the Stones embarked on their 1981 Tattoo You tour that Keith’s next guitar tech, Alan Rogan, made another modification to the guitar.

Rogan explained, “You see, I had discovered the Schecter Telecasters for Pete [Townshend], so I knew where to get a solid-brass Telecaster bridge. That was the time period of all of the part companies – like Mighty Mite – making better parts for guitars. Better machine heads, like Sperzel, for example.

The [Stones] had been rehearsing up at the Long View Farm, and I showed up for the last three weeks. That’s when I made all the modifications to the Teles so they would sound better and stay in tune. I got the bridges from Schecter and got the tuners from Sperzel. I worked on all the guitars to try to make them better for the tour.”

Micawber Today

For more than 40 years, Micawber has been Keith’s go-to Tele for almost any Stones song in open G tuning. As a result, it’s seen its fair share of road wear.

When recently examining Keith’s Micawber, it was interesting to see the wear on the last seven frets where the neck meets the body on the bass side. Keith aggressively strums his guitars at an angle near the bottom of the fingerboard, and you can see how Micawber’s last seven frets are scalloped from his pick wear.

The butterscotch blonde finish also shows signs of heavy pick wear, especially on the upper bout of the body. There, the finish has worn completely off – even the exposed ash wood body has been worn down considerably.

The Humbucker pickup with its black mounting ring is still in the neck position, and the worn brass bridge only has five saddles to accommodate the 5-string open G setup. If you look closely at the lap steel bridge pickup, you’ll notice that it’s mounted with only two screws.

The guitar is fitted with a new set of Sperzel tuners and is strung with a custom gauge 5-string set of special Ernie Ball “Keith Richards” nickel wound strings (.011, .015, .018, .030 and .042). The well-worn neck has very little finish on it, and the black fret marker at the 17th fret is missing.

Take one look at Keith’s Micawber today, and you’ll immediately recognize its mojo. And when you stop to think about all of the songs Micawber was used on in the studio and all of the stages around the world this guitar has been played on, its historical importance becomes overwhelmingly clear.

Other players might feel the aura around the guitar when holding it, but it is Keith’s playing that brings Micawber to life. Without him, it would be just another guitar.

About the Author:

Andy Babiuk is the author of the definitive books Beatles Gear, Rolling Stones Gear, and The Story of Paul Bigsby. He is also the owner of Andy Babiuk's Fab Gear music shop in Rochester, NY. Explore his shop on Reverb or see more about his books below.

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