Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s musical resumé is as long as it is impressive. He’s been Beck’s bass player since 1996. He’s played with Nine Inch Nails, Ima Robot, Garbage, Air, and 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, been on national television countless times, and 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 the vintage 1966 Daphne Blue Mustang that Justin has been playing onstage and in the studio for years. With all the wear and tear, dings, dents, and beauty marks replicated from his original bass, the signature model is a true relic of a classic. We checked in with Justin to discuss his signature bass and to learn more about his love and obsession with Fender Mustangs.
You have an extensive collection of rare, unique, and soughtafter vintage basses. Why did you choose your 1966 Mustang as the model for your signature bass?
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. 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 she used the Mustang only for a certain portion of her career, and even then, her bass was soon customized with additional pickups. But the 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, among others.
What is it about the Mustang tone 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.
What made you want to have this bass distressed to resemble your original?
Just taste, I suppose. Why not? It’s just more fun this way.
How true is it to your original bass?
It’s extraordinarily close. Every detail was considered.
What was it like working with Fender?
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 are some great guys there that I simply must acknowledge specifically, total unsung heroes and awesome dudes who live and breathe this stuff: Alex Perez, Justin Norvell, Matt Farrar, and Sterling Doak, among 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.
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 a producer, 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 bass?
I don’t prefer one over the other; 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.
Where does having a signature bass rank on your life-accomplishment list?
It’s huge. Being able to share this with people is both totally surreal and uniquely satisfying. Part of me is always going to feel surprised when I see someone out there playing one of these basses. I’m really grateful for all of it.