THIS TIME, I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE
cool to combine these two ’70s mini-Fenders into
one article, as they are definitely close relatives. The
Mustang Bass has the unique distinctions of being
the first short-scale bass ever produced by Fender
and the final instrument Leo Fender designed for
his namesake company before selling it in 1965.
The Musicmaster is its no-frills little brother.
At the heart of Leo’s groundbreaking 1951 Precision
Bass design was the 34" scale length, which
redefined the concept of the electric bass guitar
from the ground up. Meanwhile, almost all other
companies were still making electric basses by
using a slightly modified guitar body with a 30"
scale length. Th e longer scale length was one constant
as Leo refined the design of the Precision
throughout the ’50s and created the Jazz Bass in
1960. By the mid ’60s, Fender was well on the way
to being the dominant builder of electric basses
in the world, and other companies were scrambling
to keep up.
Despite the enormous success of the Precision
and Jazz Basses in the ’50s and ’60s, Leo’s restless
creativity and intuitive marketing sense must have
combined to point him in the previously untapped
direction of short-scale basses. For guitarists doubling
or switching over to bass guitar or for bassists
with smaller hands, the Mustang was a way to
get the magical Fender look and sound in a much
smaller, affordable package.
In the early ’60s, Fender discontinued its existing
Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic guitar models, originally
made for students, and replaced them with the
Mustang guitar that debuted in 1964. The Mustang
bass was first issued in 1966 as a companion to the
guitar series and quickly became a favorite for those
looking for a short-scale alternative to the standard
Fender basses. The body, usually made of poplar, is
a larger version of the classic Mustang shape. In
1969, back and front body contours were added,
and a “competition” version with racing stripes
and bright colors was issued as well, in a nod to the
Shelby Mustang cars of the time.
Mustang basses found their way into the hands of
numerous pop, rock, punk, and alternative players in
the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s. These include
Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, Bill Wyman of
the Rolling Stones, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys,
Deep Purple’s Roger Glover, John Deacon of Queen,
Holger Czukay of Can, and many more.
In 1971, the Musicmaster bass was introduced
as a low-budget version of the Mustang, made from
spare Mustang bodies and designed to sell at a low
price point. The main differences were that the
bridge was smaller, the electronics were contained
within a one-piece plastic pickguard, and perhaps
most important, the pickup was not a bass pickup
at all, but a six-pole Stratocaster pickup. Taking that
scary fact into consideration, it sounds quite good,
but string-to-string levels are somewhat erratic due
to the misaligned polepieces. More on that later . . . .
Despite its humble origins, there are many
influential players who spent considerable
time with a Musicmaster bass, including Dee
Dee Ramone, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and
XTC’s Colin Moulding. The Musicmaster was
discontinued in 1981 as Fender launched its
Squier budget line.
As you might expect, these basses sound
fairly similar, even though the pickups are
quite different. The solid Fender construction
gives both models a more solid feel and
better unplugged tone (which does matter)
than most short-scale basses. The mini split
pickup of the Mustang, predictably perhaps,
sounds very P-Like in its inherent midrange
bark. Combined with the Mustang’s smaller
body mass, the pickup delivers a tighter sound,
with less bottom and a softer top, than a longscale
Precision and pickup would typically
deliver, and is very useable in a lot of situations.
It certainly has a way of sitting comfortably
in a track and not taking up as much
space as a long-scale Fender might. It is also
very distortion-friendly as the added dirt is a
bit more mellow on the top end than a typical
grinding fuzz would be on a brighter bass.
The Musicmaster’s Strat pickup sounds
surprisingly good, all things considered. It
has a slightly thinner, more delicate tone
than its older brother, but still packs a
punch in the middle that is unmistakably
Fender. The slim neck of the Mustang/
Musicmaster-series basses make them a lot
of fun to play, especially with a pick or using
reggae-style palm muting. The Mustang has
been reissued a few times since being discontinued
in 1981 and is currently known as
the Squier Modified Vintage Mustang bass.
Some things never go out of style, and with
or without the racing stripes, this horse has
had quite a run. Until next time, groove on!