Little Deuce Coupe. T-birds. Cars and the California lifestyle are inextricably intertwined… and of course, guitars figure in, too – just flash back to those mid-’60s Fender ads showing surfers and guitars on the beach.
So it should come as no surprise that Fender would market a guitar – entry-level, of course – to potential buyers with high testosterone levels excited by the thrill of Monte Carlo and Formula I reflected in the Fender Competition Mustang. If you can’t have a flametop, racing stripes aren’t a bad alternative!
The Mustang was, in a way, a collision between cars and guitars. Rooted in Fender’s introduction of “student models” in 1956, a pretty optimistic move well before the triumph of the electric guitar was by any means a sure thing. Indeed, Fender was competing with companies like Harmony and Kay. These guitars were the “three-quarter-sized” Musicmaster (one pickup) and Duo-Sonic (two pickups), slab-bodied offset double-cutaway guitars with maple fingerboards, gold anodized aluminum pickguards, and small, adjustable bridge/tailpiece assemblies. The models did well enough that they acquired rosewood fingerboard options by 1959. By ’64 they were offered in either a really short 22½” or 24″ scale. Colors evolved from a yucky beige to an ugly sunburst to red, white, and mahogany.
In the early 1960s, acoustic guitar sales surged under the influence of folk music, and in ’63 the pop music world began to hear a new sound coming out of Liverpool. Neither had a thing to do with cars or California. In February, 1964, the Beatles arrived in the U.S., appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and nothing was ever the same – and electric guitars were the surest of sure things.
But Fender was in California, where cars ruled. And while it was busy upgrading its student models, Ford Motor Company was busy upgrading its sports car offerings under the leadership of Lee Iacocca. In ’62, Ford raced the prototype T-5 sports car driven by Dan Gurney, built on the very plebeian Falcon (the automotive equivalent of an entry-level guitar). In ’63, the design was refined and displayed as a concept car (with 271 horsepower). On March 9, the first Mustang rolled off the line, and on April 17 it was unveiled at the New York World’s Fair.
To meet the escalating post-Ed-Sullivan demand for electric guitars, in August of ’64 Fender introduced a new student model based on the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic, called – ta-da! – the Mustang.
Essentially, it was the Musicmaster/Duo-Sonic with two pickups, a new pickguard shape (metal extension to hold master volume and tone knobs), rosewood fingerboard, two scale options, and vibrato. For a “student” guitar, the Mustang was pretty sophisticated. Each single-coil pickup was controlled with a three-way sliding switch above the strings. Middle was off. Either end changed polarity so you could get six different in- and out-of-phase tonal combinations. Really a pretty nifty system. They were available in red, white and blue finishes.
Like the Ford, the Fender Mustang became a mainstay of the line, albeit at the lower end. Early Mustangs, like the other student models, were slab-bodied, although they soon acquired a backside contour.
Again, the Ford Mustang debuted as a racing car. When it hit the street as a road car, it was immensely successful and Ford saw it as a possible challenger to the dominance of the Chevy Corvette in racing circles. In ’65 they hired a Texas hotshot auto engineer named Carroll Shelby to take on the Corvette. The result was a legendary series of customized race-worthy Shelby Mustangs from 1965 to ’70. Car guys will tell you more about the specs of these, like fiberglass hoods, etc., even an amateur enthusiasts could pick it out because of its – ta-da – racing stripes!
The Fender Mustang already had an automotive connection. But the introduction of the Competition model in ’69 solidified the relationship (competition, racing, Shelby). And of course, its racing stripes were very similar to those found on Shelby Mustangs.
Fender Mustangs were offered with Candy Red, Burgundy, and Orange finishes, with color-coordinated stripe decals running diagonally across the lower bass bout. While information isn’t reliable regarding sequence, it appears that with the Competition model, the Mustang acquired a slight front-side arm contour. The axe was available in two scale lengths – short and shorter – with the 24″ being more popular. Its pickups aren’t particularly impressive, but modern amplification can compensate. The vibratos are smooth, and the barrel saddles match the curve of the fingerboard. As with most ’60s guitars with sliding switches, consistent electrical contacts are sometimes a pipe dream.
Competition Mustangs lasted into ’73, a few years longer than the Shelby Mustangs. By then, the Beatles had parted and the culture of the ’60s transmogrified. The Orange example shown here dates from January, 1973, toward the end of the original line. The regular-issue Fender Mustang continued to be produced into ’82, and some versions were produced thereafter by Fender Japan.
Mustangs never were meant to be professional-grade guitars, though a few big names used them, including Jimi Hendrix. Kurt Cobain favored pawn-shop prizes and revived interest in the early ’90s by playing a Mustang and a hybrid Jaguar-Mustang that led to an official “Jagstang” model. In recent years, the Mustang has been reissued.
You won’t likely be attracted to the Mustang in any form if you’re into Strats or Teles, but taken in context with other beginner guitars of the time, they’re pretty “competitive” in terms of playability, tonal versatility, and performance. Get one, and you’ll have “fun, fun, fun, ’til daddy takes your T-bird away.”
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July 2006 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.