In the late 1980s after prices of old Jazzmasters and Jaguars had stepped onto the same ladder which Stratocasters and Telecasters had been climbing for years, one way to get hold of a vintage Fender guitar on the cheap was to track down a 1960s ‘student’ model or a derivative thereof. These were built as budget instruments, but with costs cut by making the guitars smaller and more basic – not by shifting production out of the main Fender factory, dropping the quality control, or importing inferior parts on the cheap. In the ‘80s, and going into the ‘90s, these lesser-eulogised guitars could be bought for less than the price of a brand new Japanese Fender – even the pre-CBS ones, in fine condition, with classic vintage cellulose finishes!
The true ‘student’ models were introduced in the 1950s. The single pickup Musicmaster and twin pickup Duo Sonic were simple, and had very short scale lengths suitable for very young guitarists. In 1964, these two models were joined by the Fender Mustang, which was like the evolved Duo Sonic, but with an added vibrato assembly. Initially, like the purely ‘student’ guitars it stemmed from, the Mustang had a ‘slab’ body with no comfort contouring. Body contouring was implemented at the end of the 1960s.
This example I believe comes from 1965. It was sold to me as a ’65, and it has the correct patent numbers (and pat pend stipulation) on the headstock for a pre’66 Mustang, plus a slab body. The serial number and other external details are all compatible with 1965. The only thing which makes me slightly suspicious is the sunburst finish. I’ve read that the early models were available only in three solid colours, and sunburst isn’t mentioned. The finish looks original though, and sunburst tends not be a popular selection for a refinish, so I’m assuming this is a genuine sunburst ’65 Mustang. Sadly, it’s not mine anymore, so I can’t whack the neck off and ferret around beneath the scratchplate for further date evidence.
The neck of this instrument has a 24 inch scale length, which removes it from the ‘student’ designation. The scale is still shorter than the traditional Fender 25.5 inch, but longer than the ‘student’ length, which was 22.5 inches. The Mustang was, incidentally, also available as a strict ‘student’ guitar, with a 22.5 inch scale length.
The standard-issue scratchplate in the ‘60s and going into the ‘70s was white pearloid, but depending on body colour, a dark tortoise version could be fitted instead. The pickup switching system on these things was interesting. Two black switches were provided on the scratchplate – one for each pickup. However, rather than being simple on/off switches, they were three-position on/off/ons. With the switch set in its middle position, the pickup was off. Set forward, the switch engaged the pickup with normal polarity. And set backward, the switch engaged the pickup with reverse polarity. It was a cumbersome system which in a worst case scenario could result in the player accidentally setting both pickups to off and getting no sound at all. However, it did facilitate a true out-of-phase sound (like a single coil version of the distinctive Peter Green Les Paul tone) with the pickups combined using alternate polarities. That’s actually my favourite thing about the Fender Mustang, and it’s something none of the more ‘eminent’ Fenders – including the switch-littered Jaguar – could do.
The pickups themselves were typical Fender single coils, which had plastic-covered as opposed to exposed poles. This probably subtracted a little high treble, but in truth these pickups are so trebly anyway that this was quite welcome. I always liked the way both pickups on the Mustang were slanted for better bass too. On the Jaguar not even the lead pickup was slanted. I preferred the Mustang arrangement in that respect.
So how did the Mustang compare with other vintage Fenders? Well, in terms of build quality, I could find no real discrepancies. It couldn’t be said, in my experience, that more expensive Fenders were better made than the lowlier Mustangs. In fact, as I mentioned in my 1965 Jazzmaster retrospective, sometimes the range-toppers were sloppier than the range-proppers. So what you get with a 1960s Mustang is a real, American Fender guitar, built alongside the classic models of the time, probably by the same people, and generally to the same standard, using the same production methods. I’ve had two 1960s Mustangs (the other being a white one, also from the mid ‘60s but probably a year or so later than this one), and both had pretty slow and awkward neck profiles – even taking into account the short 24 inch scale. I found them harder to play than the more illustrious Fenders, but not everyone has the same hands as me.
One benefit with Mustangs over Strats and Teles from the same period(s) though, is that they’ve often seen much less use over the years. Whereas a mid ‘60s Strat or Tele may have been battered senseless, or refinished, and refretted a couple of times, a Mustang would not so typically be used as a player’s main guitar. A lot of guitarists bought them as backup instruments, or just because they were (once) so cheap for a slice of guitar history. Therefore, many Mustangs retain their original finishes, frets and parts, and are generally easier to find in good original condition than the classic models, which are more likely to have been hammered into the ground.
Even today, it looks like the odd Mustang can be found for a reasonable price, although certainly not as reasonable as they were twenty-odd years back. It should be remembered that whilst these are genuine USA vintage Fenders, less is widely understood and documented about them than is the case with, say, Strats. This makes them harder to verify, and if you’re parting with a fair sized sum of cash there’s also the issue of what else that money could get you.
Fender Mustangs might be a nice bit of history, but there’s a reason why they don’t have the status of Strats and Teles (or even Jags and Jazzmasters), a reason why they’re cheaper, a reason why hardly any pro guitarists use them, and a reason why they’re commonly subject to less wear and tear than other models. I remind you that whilst construction standards were high, these were still budget guitars. They’re great if you want a retro trinket to pin on the wall of your restaurant/pub or something. But if you want a guitar to play, in my view they are significantly harder work than modern alternatives, and they don’t have the looks of higher-end Fenders, and the amount you’d now spend on an old Fender Mustang would buy you a much better designed (not to mention non-budget) instrument.
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