Fender Mustangs: underappreciated offsets

The first real blog on this page! Huzzah!

The Fender Mustang: most people have never tried one or were quickly scared away by its shortscale size or somewhat confusing/annoying pickup switching system. Introduced in 1964 as a redesigned student model guitar by Fender it followed the lines of the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic as Fenders entry level guitar. Despite its humble beginnings major players like Adrian Belew, David Byrne, the guys and gal of Sonic Youth and many other (alternative) rock musicians played Mustangs at one point, albeit somewhat modded by most. Popularity of the instrument peaked when Nirvana became one of the biggest bands in the world in the early 90s, Kurt Cobain playing several Mustangs. The most iconic one being the late 60s Competition Blue (with matching headstock) Mustang played in the ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ video. Still popular with students or people with smaller hands (and Nirvana fans) the Mustang is not as prized as other offsets like the Fender Jaguar or Jazzmaster. Vintage prices for a 60s Mustang are steadily climbing, but nowhere near the price point of a Jag/Jazzmaster from the same era. The reason I bought my first Mustang (also my first guitar) was because I couldn’t afford a 60s Jazzmaster.

Everyone knows how a Strat or Telecaster sounds, but how does a Mustang sound in comparison? A quick YouTube search of ‘Fender Mustang’ gives you some idea of the sounds capable with this guitar, although I might add that hearing a Mustang in person is much better. Of course the Nirvana ‘craze’ is still attached to this guitar, one to many bad ‘Come as You Are’ cover on YouTube isn’t doing the Mustang any favors (nothing against Nirvana by the way!).

What are some of the pros and cons of these offset guitars? The things I’m listing are my own opinions based on the Mustangs I have played, not everyone will agree of course. The shortscale neck and the pickups give the defining sound characteristics that make a Mustang sound like a Mustang. The shorter scale gives the strings a lower string tension and a more ‘elastic’ sound (for lack of better terminology). The pickups are less hot than those in for instance a Stratocaster. Especially with an overdriven amp or any type of overdrive/distortion or fuzz pedal the pickups show some of their magic. The clean sound is perfect for any style of ambient music, from 60s surf music to shoegaze. The pickups out-of-phase also work nice for funk or with distortion. Why they added this feature in 1964 still remains a mystery to me… I am not that much of a vibrato user, but the Mustangs vibrato system works great if adjusted properly.

Everything I just listed can be interpreted as weaknesses of Mustangs, but do make up your own mind whether you agree or disagree. The Mustang is one of these polarizing guitars, you either like or despise them. One thing I should mention that strikes me as a bad design choice is the pickup switching system. Although not complicated to understand, (the amount of professional guitar channels explaining it wrong is somewhat embarrassing…) the location of these switches above the pickups is just infuriating if you don’t properly adjust your playing technique. A regular 3-way toggle switch like a Jazzmaster seems more appropriate, but lacking the out-of-phase option.

If you have never tried one yourself I suggest doing so. They really are comfortable guitars despite the obvious quirks! Mustangs are also very easy to mod to your wishes, the easiest being the pickups. Maybe even get a vintage one while they are still somewhat cheap. Tip: 60s Mustangs have a slimmer neck profile, while 70s ones have a thicker neck. If you have larger hands but want to try shortscale I suggest taking that into account. The reissue Mustangs also have varying neck shapes, so do take that into account if you’re shopping for one.

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As of lately I own not one but two vintage Mustangs. The photos above are of my own Mustangs (plus a ’67 Coronado XII). My first guitar was this black ’67 Mustang. The body was painted black over the original white paint which is now peaking through at some places. Could try to remove it, but it looks great as is. Pickups have been replaced. No idea what specific brand, probably Fender reissues. The rest is stock. Plays and sounds great. Despite me having ‘large’ hands (I am used to playing P-basses and 34 1/2″ Gibson basses) I haven’t had any problems adjusting to a shortscale guitar. The second Mustang is a ’70 Competition Blue with matching headstock which has been stripped of its finish somewhere in the 70s. The original blue paint is still underneath the pickguard (lazy hippies right?). The guitar is all stock, minus a few minor replacements (it was missing a tuner bushing somehow). The refinish gives this guitar a real unique look, the matching headstock Mustangs were only made for about 2 years. It also plays great, definitely a win-win.

Next blog will likely be about one of my guitar projects. A tribute guitar to one of my lesser known guitar heroes.

 

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