Instant Vintage: Justin Meldal-Johnsen Discusses His Fender Signature Bass

We caught up with Justin Meldal-Johnsen to talk shop about his new Fender signature series and to learn more about his obsession with Mustang basses.
By Jon D'Auria ,

Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s musical resume is as long as it is impressive. He’s been Beck’s bass player for the entirety of his career. He’s played with Nine Inch Nails, Ima Robot, Garbage, Air, and a slew of other legendary bands. He’s produced hit records for M83, Paramore, Jimmy Eat World, Tegan and Sara, and Young The Giant. He’s played on the biggest stages around the globe, on national television countless times, and he’s won prestigious awards for his efforts. Now he’s been bestowed with one of the greatest honors a musician can receive: his own signature instrument.

The Fender JMJ Road Worn Mustang Bass is modeled after his own vintage 1966 Daphne Blue 4-string that he’s been playing on stage and in the studio for years. With all the wear and tear, dings, and dents, and beauty marks replicated from Justin’s original bass, his signature model is a true relic of a classic. Its short 30” scale and 9.5” neck radius makes for fast action and immense playability. Its custom-spec single-coil pickups give it a huge and diverse tone. In the studio it is cutting and diverse, on the stage it boasts a massive presence.

We caught up with Justin to discuss his signature series and to learn more about his love and obsession with Mustang basses.

You have such a phenomenal and extensive collection of rare, unique, and sought after vintage basses. Why did you choose your 1966 Mustang Bass as the model for your signature series?

Over the last eight or nine years, that bass just kept getting more and more playing time. I’d find that artists, producers, front of house guys, and even audience members would comment on how good it sounded, or express a preference for it. Most of this started happening while on tour with Beck, and while recording, but also I’d be getting positive feedback while doing sessions or playing on projects I produce.

What are your favorite aspects of the Mustang basses?

How much fun they are to play and the visual aesthetics. I like the “underdog” aspect, as well as the vaguely punk ramifications of re-appropriating what originally began as a “student” instrument.

What is it that you love about short scale basses?

Mainly that it’s just so fun to rip on a smaller bass, plus all of its unique tonal attributes.

You’re a big Tina Weymouth fan. How much did that inform your love of these basses?

Quite a bit, though any Tina-phile like myself will admit that the Mustang was only in use for a certain portion of her career, and even then, her bass was soon customized with additional pickups. But the whole image and sound of Tina on a Mustang is totally iconic. There were several others who influenced me as a Mustang player: Holger Czukay, Richard Hell, Trevor Bolder, Chris Murphy from Sloan, Nicolas (Godin) from Air, Sharin (Foo) from The Raveonettes, Tom (Cowan) from The Horrors, and my friend Jason Falkner amongst others, for sure.

What is it about the tonality of the bass that you love so much?

The particular type of low-end it puts out. It’s big and warm and rubbery, but it’s also “compact.” I guess it has to do with the particular harmonics this bass presents on top of the fundamental. And you can get it to sound really fat and creamy as well. When you palm-mute with a pick, it sounds super punchy.

How surreal is it to have your own Fender Signature Bass? That’s huge!

Surreal, certainly, but with all the time and energy that went into it, the Fender folks and I also feel somewhat vindicated and just…happy. To achieve this balance of workmanship and detail at this price was no small feat.

What made you want to have this bass road worn to resemble your original bass?

Just taste, I suppose. Why not? It’s just more fun this way.

How true to your original bass are these? Is every last detail spot on?

It’s extraordinarily close. Every last detail was considered.

What was the process like of working with Fender in creating this signature series?

A dream, seriously. The Fender team’s level of interest and commitment was super deep. They left no stone unturned, and considered every whim and detail I presented – and brought forward many of their own. There’s some truly great guys there that I simply must acknowledge specifically, total unsung heroes and awesome dudes who really live and breathe this stuff: Alex Perez, Justin Norvell, Matt Farrar, and Sterling Doak, amongst others.

Which amp do you think pairs perfectly with this bass?

A late-’60s to early-’70s Ampeg B-15N. Equally badass would be an Acoustic 370 or Sunn 200S pushing either a Sunn or Acoustic cab with worn-out CTS or JBL speakers.

As a producer, what sonic properties do you love about recording this bass?

I’m always trying to find a satisfying way to make things fit into a given sonic landscape; and as far as producers, I am by no means a minimalist. I’m a self-confessed maximalist, for sure. I like tracks that are dense, when I can get away with it. But I also need elements to have articulation and intelligibility. A good Mustang with the right strings can often end up being the perfect tool for that interesting dilemma.

Do you prefer to pick or use your fingers while playing this?

I don’t prefer one over the other, and frankly I think both are essential. This instrument has a fairly high degree of sonic range and sensitivity, so both pick and fingerstyle sounds can give you their own versions of tight and spikey, to round and rich.

You’ve accomplished so many remarkable things and have touched so many people with the music you’ve created—both with your bass playing and being behind the board. Where does this rank on your life accomplishment list?

I mean, it’s huge. I guess being able to share this with people is both totally surreal and uniquely satisfying. Part of me is always going to feel totally surprised when I see someone out there playing one of these. I’m really grateful for all of it. 

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