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In the early ’60s, Fender discontinued its existing Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic guitar models, originally made for students, and replaced them with the Mustang guitar that debuted in 1964.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!