Often forgotten amongst Fender’s many classics, the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic were conceived to capitalize on teenagers taking up the guitar in droves as Bill Haley and the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” rode the Billboard charts for 10 weeks in the summer of 1955.
Fender’s Sales division was acutely aware that nobody would be using a Champion lap steel to emulate Danny Cedrone’s guitar solo, so it asked president Leo Fender – known for his ability to devise a new product in as little as three months – to round out their Spanish-guitar offering with two beginner models. Leo responded, and the first run of single-pickup Musicmasters was ready in early May of 1956.
Dubbed “3⁄4 instruments,” Musicmasters had much shorter scales and other features to attract a younger, more-frugal student player. Today, collectors are intrigued by these little guitars because they were made with the same care as their siblings even if, compared to the Stratocaster, they were an evolutionary step backward. Here’s a year-by-year look at their history.
Production began in April on the single-pickup Musicmaster. Sales manager Don Randall chose the name because he thought it “sounded kind of cute” and fit with the Stringmaster and Bandmaster monikers. Early examples differed in several ways, including having slightly thicker bodies made of ash, and some have areas that were hand-chiseled to fix mistakes in the initial tooling. Pickguards were aluminum, which may have been chosen for its durability, but ironically, the black paint Fender applied did not wear well. So after the initial run, guards were made of plastic.
To compensate for the first-run missteps, by May, the guitars were being made with the more-familiar ’50s appointments – one-piece, 21-fret, bolt-on maple neck with 221/2″ scale and a nut width of 15/8″. Like other Fender necks of the era, the truss rod was installed through a rout in the back of the neck, and a walnut “skunk stripe” filled the channel. And, Fender’s 3⁄4 neck profiles mirrored the chunky V shapes of the Telecaster, Esquire, and Strat of the era, as well as the standard narrow fret wire.
The 3⁄4 guitars also had the exact headstock dimensions of the Strat, with a single butterfly string retainer and six-on-a-side “single-line” Kluson Deluxe tuning gears with white plastic buttons. The earliest examples (March through June of ’56) were fitted with the “no-line” Kluson machine heads. A silver “spaghetti” logo decal was affixed to the headstock of the Musicmaster, while the later Duo-Sonic would get a gold logo. The model name appeared under the logo, slightly to the right, in small upper-case letters framed in quotation marks.
Bodies were solid poplar or similar wood, usually in two or more laminated pieces, always routed for two pickups (regardless of final configuration). These were finished in the beige Desert Sand, as used on many Fender steel guitars. And because they were not sealed with a clear coat of lacquer, they were less prone to yellowing compared to other Fenders of the era.
Each Musicmaster had a small, rectangular, chrome-plated metal bridge. Strings were installed from the top, and rested on three adjustable steel saddles (same found on Teles and Esquires) and topped by a removable chrome-plated bridge cover. A gold-anodized aluminum pickguard/control plate replaced the black-painted guards; this harnessed the Volume and Tone potentiometers, the 1/4″ jack, and the angled neck pickup (on the Duo-Sonic, this plate also housed a bridge pickup and three-way toggle on the upper treble bout). The pickups (also used on the Champ steel) were black-bobbin single-coils with polepieces milled flat. The control panel was finished with chrome barrel knobs, as seen on all Fender guitars except the Champ and Strat.
The first known production run of Duo-Sonics began in June.
Throughout ’58, Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic necks gradually became narrower at the nut until they reached the “A width” of 11/2″. The saddles became threaded, a clear lacquer made the anodized finish more durable on the pickguard, and Fender offered a “utility case” for $10 less than the standard hardshell.
In the late spring, maple necks on all Fender guitars were fitted with a slab (milled flat on the bottom) rosewood fretboard and clay-dot position markers. The truss could be installed through the top of the neck prior to gluing the fretboard, making it unnecessary to route the back.
At the same time, the standard color was changed from Desert Sand to a darker tan with a pinkish hue, the name of which was never heavily promoted by Fender. Also, the body routing was altered slightly (a hump appeared in the control cavity) and four more screws were added to secure the pickguard. The metal guard was replaced with cream-colored single-ply plastic with beveled edges with a thin aluminum shield on its bottom to guard the pickup assembly against electronic interference and simplify grounding. The white plastic pickup covers were changed to a dark brown, a color used exclusively on Musicmasters and Duo-Sonics.
A letter sent to dealers in July announced that Musicmasters and Duo-Sonics would be finished in sunburst only. This apparently was a request from dealers, who perhaps believed it’d be easier to up-sell or transition a customer to a Jazzmaster or Stratocaster if their little brothers looked a little more like them. However, sunburst on the 3/4 guitars was different in that it was yellow in the middle and transitioned to red, then maroon with no black on the outer edge. And it was fairly opaque compared to the standard Fender sunburst of the time. Most (if not all) of the early sunburst 3/4 guitars were sprayed over a tan finish, suggesting leftover paint was used as an undercoat. These were fitted with a white one-piece plastic pickguard with beveled edges, and the same brown pickup covers.
In mid ’62, the slab rosewood fretboard was replaced by a curved, veneer rosewood that became thinner as the year passed.
In ’63, Fender began making four variants of 3/4 guitar. Sunburst was dropped mid-year in favor of white and “Red-Mahogany” – likely a cost-cutting measure (spraying one color takes less time) as even these colors would have looked pretty dull compared to something like a Gretsch Princess or a TV-finished Gibson SG Junior.
White Musicmasters and Duo-Sonics were fitted with a nitrocellulose tortoiseshell pickguard and white pickup covers. Another variant was produced in the autumn with a single-ply dark brown pickguard. Today these are scarce, as they were produced for only a month or two.
Red-Mahogany was probably Fender’s answer to Gibson’s Cherry Red. This translucent finish appeared sporadically in ’63 and ’64, and was initially offered on mahogany-bodied guitars, but by ’64 was also applied to the regular woods like poplar. These were normally fitted with white guards and black pickup covers.
Mahogany as a body wood was uncommon at Fender, but examples have turned up on most models from this era, perhaps an attempt at going head-to-head with Gibson’s SG Junior and Special. Red-Mahogany 3⁄4 guitars were not produced in large quantities, and the properties of the paint made it more susceptible to checking and cracking, so it’s difficult to find a guitar today with the finish intact.
In the spring of ’64, a major re-working of the “student guitar” was afoot, and August saw the debut of the Mustang – essentially a Duo-Sonic with a vibrato bridge. The Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic received an extensive face lift to make them match the Mustang cosmetically, and all three were offered in “full-scale” (24″) and short-scale (221/2″) versions. These “II series” had a body with a slightly offset waist and a headstock with a new size and shape unique to the 3/4 guitars.
The bridge plate was noticeably enlarged and modified such that it could no longer hold a chrome cover. It remained top-loading, though, with the same three-saddle arrangement. The redesigned bridge accommodated intonation for short- or long-scale necks.
Body routings were changed to accept the redesigned pickup and control layout (and the Mustang’s vibrato), and a total of 15 screws now held the pickguard/control plates in place. The thin metal shielding was discarded in favor of four metal ground plates inserted at the bottom of the body routings.
The bridge pickup was slanted to align the polepieces with the strings, and the neck pickup was moved slightly toward the neck; this may have been another concession for the long scale. The pickguard was separated from the control plate, and it received an outward-rounding curve on the low-E side.
The two-pickup 3/4 instruments received a pair of slider switches in the low-E side of the pickguard. Controlling each pickup separately, they turned the pickup off in the middle position, and changed the phase of the pickups. Several combinations of pickups and phasing were possible.
The separate control plate was chrome and housed the Volume and Tone pots, as well as the input jack. The knobs were changed to a skirted/seven-sided hard-black-plastic type already on the Jazz Bass, Jazzmaster, and Jaguar. And at some point in ’64, the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic were shipped with a thicker gold “transition” Fender logo, with model name in slightly bolder print.
All redesigned Duo-Sonics and Musicmasters were part of the II series, regardless of scale length. It’s a common mistake to refer to only long-scale examples as II series, but Fender never made that distinction.
White guitars still came with tortoise pickguards, but pickup covers were initially changed to off-white, slightly translucent plastic. Fender also introduced red and blue as color options with the II series; these instruments were equipped with “crushed pearl” (white/black/pearloid) guards and black-plastic pickup covers.
In late ’64, the clay-dot position markers were replaced with pearloid dots; overlaps occur where pearl top and clay side markers appear. Pearl dots were slightly larger than the clay, but the spacing of the double dots at the 12th fret remained the same. Double-line Kluson Deluxe tuners with white-plastic buttons appeared at the end of ’64. Finally, the nitrate pickguard, which had proven prone to shrinkage, warping, wrinkling, and discoloration disappeared at year’s end, replaced by plastic.
The versatility of optional scale lengths, a design feature of the II series, ultimately doomed the 3⁄4 scale neck, as players expressed a strong preference for the 24″ scale length, which Fender offered at no additional cost.
The Mustang, meanwhile, proved an instant hit, and ironically, its popularity suddenly made the Duo-Sonic an odd fit in the lineup. It was discontinued in ’69. The Musicmaster lasted until 1980.
Plenty of guitarists and collectors have turned to the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic as an affordable connection to Fender’s golden era. For the purist, they offer a lot of history and plenty of vintage feel, tone, and vibe.
Terry Foster and Tim Pershing are avid collectors of all things Fender. Foster is a noted authority on the Musicmaster, Duo-Sonic, and Mustang. This feature originally appeared in the July ’06 issue.
This article originally appeared in VG’s November 2021 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.