The brief but interesting history of the 22.5 inch scale-length Musicmaster & Duo-Sonic, the descendant Mustang, and the swan song Swinger.
By Tim Pershing
(This article originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, as a two-part article in 20th Century Guitar Magazine, December 1996 and January 1997)
To understand Fender's introduction of the 3/4 scale Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic guitars in the mid 1950s it is necessary to look at the aggressive development and marketing strategy of Fender Electric Instruments at the time. Fender established their presence in the electric (solid) guitar field at the start of the decade with the relatives of the Telecaster. They next released the Precision Bass, and followed that up with the Stratocaster. While all this was going on, Fender refined and added to their amplifier and steel guitar line as well. And right around the corner would be an update project for the P-Bass, the introduction of their electric Mandolin, and the development of the successor to the Strat, the radical Jazzmaster.
They were certainly one busy little company in the mid 1950s when, surveying their electric guitar line-up, they decided to add a low-end instrument to accompany their mid-priced workhorse Telecaster guitar and the high-end Stratocaster.
By all accounts the research and development of Fender's 3/4 size guitars (the one pickup Musicmaster and the two pickup Duo-Sonic) went very quickly. Unfortunately, extensive interviews with, and even full-length books from the key players involved (Messers Fender, Hyatt, Randall, Tavares, White and Fullerton) fail to shed much light on the inception of these guitars. Even Richard Smith’s astonishing "Fender: The Sound Heard ‘round the World" spares only a few paragraphs to the student guitars. Of course, given the astounding success of the three previous guitars (the Tele, P-Bass and Strat) it's understandable that the less prominent 3/4 scale instruments would receive little mention, but it is maddening that so little is known about the R & D side.
What is known is that the 3/4 scale Fender guitars were conceptually conceived in the latter part of 1955 as a result of a request from the Sales Department to produce an instrument for this niche. After a few prototypes were made in early 1956, Fender began advertising their 3/4 size guitars, and the first production runs for the Musicmaster were initiated in late April of 1956. The Duo-Sonic started rolling off the assembly line just a little more than two months later.
Why create a 3/4 scale length guitar? The Sales Department probably had three reasons:
FIRST VERSION: 1956 to 1959
The first version of 3/4 scale Fender guitars are characterized by the one-piece maple neck, the gold anodized metal pickguard, and the conservative beige color. These are classic '50s Fender appointments, applied to a design that was inspired at least in part by the timeless Stratocaster.
First version features:
A note on assembly-line frugality: the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic guitars shared many parts with another Fender product that predates their introduction, the Champ steel guitar. Among other things, the pickups and covers, the plastic-tipped Kluson gears, the knobs and even the Desert Sand finish were applied to both the Champ lap steels and the 3/4 scale student guitars!
An additional note about the very first production run of Musicmasters:
Enough examples have surfaced that we now have a pretty clear picture of the first production run of the Musicmaster. Neck dates have been noted with both m/yy dates (4-56) and with specific dates from the last two weeks (4-20-56, for example) of the month of April. The following features have been noted (for the first production run only):
Structural evolution during the 1956 - 1959 period:
During the course of 1958 the necks became narrower at the nut (1 1/2 inches wide) and more rounded in profile, becoming almost "oval" by early 1959. The solid steel saddles were replaced with the threaded style saddles. The anodization became a bit thicker and somewhat more durable on the pickguard.
A small number of instruments were produced in a color other than beige. At least a few Red examples (some with black pickup covers) from circa 1957/1958 are known to exist, but photographs that have circulated of several other color schemes are not convincing proof, in my humble opinion, that they are necessarily original.
In particular is a widely distributed photograph of an (implied) original sunburst Musicmaster that has appeared in many of the popular GPI books. This infamous instrument is CLEARLY a refin. In the case of any alleged custom color Fender, believe ONLY what you can see and verify with your own eyes.
In any event, "custom" colors on the early 3/4 scale Fenders are clearly very, very unusual and quite rare.
In the middle of 1959 the entire Fender line of guitars went through an overhaul, and the 3/4 scale guitars were no different.
SECOND VERSION: 1959 TO 1964
The second version of the 3/4 scale Fenders are distinguished, like all Fender guitars of that period, by the transition from maple necks to rosewood fretboards; by the introduction of new colors, and by terrific quality control and attention to detail. All the instruments produced by Fender during this era are highly prized by collectors and players.
Second version features:
During the summer of 1959, when the transition was made from the first to the second version of the 3/4 scale guitars, overlaps of materials were certainly possible, due to the assembly-line nature of the construction of the instruments. Parts in stock were always used up by Fender!
A few rosewood board guitars with metal pickguards, for example, would not be surprising. It is certain that Fender had an excess of the "old" bodies that were fitted to the "new" rosewood necks. These are easy to spot as they have only 11 securing screws holding the plastic pickguard to the body (the screw located roughly between the tone knob & the jack is missing; there's nothing underneath to screw into!).
Structural evolution during the 1959 - 1964 period:
Around the middle of 1962, the slab rosewood fretboard was replaced by a thinner curved "veneer" rosewood board. In the course of 1963 the spacing of the two position dots at the 12th fret became narrower. The profile of the neck gradually became fuller and more rounded, most noticeably towards the end of 1963. Headstocks became thicker. The Fender label on the headstock gained a patent number (PAT 2,573,254) in the middle of 1961. The Duo-Sonic began sporting the thicker gold "transition" logo in the Spring of 1964. The threading on the steel saddles became a bit coarser during 1963 as well.
By late 1961 (or possibly early 1962) a sunburst color option was added, and in at least one Fender publication it was referred to as "Shaded Sunburst". The 3/4 scale 'burst was different than the regular Fender style in that it ran, from the inside out, yellow to red to maroon; no black on the outer edge, and the center yellow area was fairly opaque (compared to the "normal" Fender sunburst). The sunburst guitars were fitted with a white one-piece plastic pickguard with beveled edges, and the same brown pickup covers. The tan color was dropped by early ‘62 and Sunburst became the standard trim. Most (or all?) of these early ‘burst guitars have been found with the sunburst finish sprayed over a tan finish. Left over tan paint was evidently used as an undercoat for some time to come. White was offered as a color option by mid 1963. The white guitars were fitted with a "nitro" tortoise (b/w/t) pickguard and stark white pickup covers. Sunburst was phased at this time. Another noteworthy color option appeared roughly at this time: "Red Mahogany", Fender's answer to cherry red (a see-through red finish that appeared sporadically in '63 and '64). Red Mahogany was initially offered on mahogany-bodied guitars, but by mid-'64 it was applied to the normal wood (poplar, etc) as well. Red Mahogany instruments were not produced in large quantities (by Fender standards) and the properties of the paint made it more susceptible to checking and cracking, so finding a guitar with the finish intact is difficult, though not impossible. The use of mahogany (as a body wood) was uncommon at Fender but examples have turned up on most models. At any rate, the Red Mahogany guitars were normally fitted with white guards and black covers, although tortoise guards could have been applied to some of the non-white instruments.
Caution: since the entire electronic assembly can be literally lifted off the guitar by simply unscrewing the pickguard, it would be a simple matter for anyone to install an assembly from one (color) guitar to another. Whether Fender actually produced (for example) white painted guitars with white pickguards is anyone's guess. In the booming, assembly-line world of Fender in the mid-1960's, anything was possible. However, in assessing the originality of a 30 year-old instrument today, it is best to be guided by what was probable.
A major re-working of the "Student Guitar" line was afoot in 1964, and in August of that year the Fender Mustang debuted (essentially a Duo-Sonic with tremolo). The Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic received extensive face-lifts (matching them in appearance with the Mustang), and all three guitars were offered in "full" and "short" scale versions. Thus, the 3/4 scale Fender guitar began its descent into oblivion.
THIRD VERSION: 1964 TO 1967
The so-called "II" series guitars featured redesigned appointments and changes to the classic headstock shape. Although the outline of the body remained relatively stable (the waist of the body was slightly offset) other features of the instruments were substantially altered. The versatility of optional scale lengths, a design feature of the II series, ultimately doomed the 3/4 scale neck, as most players evidently preferred the longer 24" scale length (at no additional cost). The Mustang was an instant hit, and ironically its popularity would shortly allow Fender to discontinue the Duo-Sonic.
Third version features:
Another note: all the newly redesigned Duos and MMs are considered "II" series guitars, regardless of scale length or label applied to the headstock. It is a common misconception to refer to only long scale examples as "II" series, a distinction Fender never made.
Structural evolution during the 1964 - 1967 period:
The clay dot position markers were replaced with pearloid dots towards the end of 1964. Overlaps do occur where pearl top and clay side markers appear. The pearl dots were slightly larger than the clay, but the spacing of the double dots at the 12th fret remained the same. Necks continued to grow slightly thicker in the headstock, more rounded in profile, and displayed less-smooth, more squared-off shouldering. Double line Kluson Deluxe tuners, with white plastic buttons, also appeared at the end of 1964. These became the standard trim for the remainder of the life of the 3/4 scale guitar necks.
Nitrate (or celluloid) pickguards also disappeared about this time (they were prone to shrink, warp, wrinkle, discolor, etc.) and were replaced by similar styled plastic guards. The earliest examples were slightly thicker than those produced later in the '60s.
Roughly concurrent with the introduction of the Mustang was the changeover from black bobbin pickups to a light gray fiber material (although the top bobbon remained black for a while), and by 1966 the bright copper formvar winding wire was replaced by a plain enamel wire. Black bobbin (top & bottom) pickups reappeared in 1967 on all the student guitars; it is not known to the author why this happened but I would speculate that they were left-over from an earlier era.
Noticeably heavier bodies began to appear as well, though "inconsistent" is the best way to describe guitar weight during this period.
A Daphne blue-like color option was added to the student guitar line in mid-1964, and a Dakota red-like color was added or in place at that time as well, making the standard color schemes for the new student guitar line red, white and blue. Patriotic with a purpose: a reminder to buyers that these instruments were made in the USA. Blue guitars received the same white pearloid pickguards and black pickup covers as the red instruments, while white guitars retained the tortoise guards and off-white covers.
From the latter part of 1963 well into the late 1960s, the entire Fender line of guitars began to show the negative effects of increased production. Loss of attention to detail; inconsistency due to an influx of new workers; a lessening in the quality of base materials; and other factors all contributed to the overall decline in quality that was witnessed during this period.
1967 would seem to a rather arbitrary year to signal the "end" of the regular production of 3/4 scale Fender guitars, since Fender continued to offer (in its promotional material anyway) the short scale option for its student guitars well into the early '70s. For the most part, Fender used a lot of surplus '66 parts to assemble their ’67 guitars anyway, and the popularity of the long scale neck option (combined with the bottom falling out of the electric guitar market) contributed to the disappearance of the 3/4 necks. They would not be seen again until 1969, when the vast majority of the surplus 3/4 scale necks were used-up on la dolce vita Swinger.
Note: a few 3/4 necks evidently found their on to Competition Mustangs (of all things) and this has been verified by the author. This certainly raises the question of whether a few made it out of the factory attached to a Musicmaster, Duo-Sonic (or even Bronco) body. Since no examples have as yet turned up, I’ll leave that as an open question.
FINAL VERSION: 1969
The final version of the 3/4 scale Fender guitar is the infamous Swinger. Swingers are noted for their "chopped off" features and relative scarcity. They serve as an example of what absurdities CBS Fender was capable of commiting.
Final version features:
The final structural evolution:
Fender was guitar happy in the mid- '60s, producing instruments as fast as they could. When the market slacked off (circa 1967) Fender found themselves with an abundance of parts for guitars that were never assembled and shipped; no one was ordering them.
As a consequence, in 1969 Fender unloaded their inventory of left-over parts by assembling the Swinger, and performed a similar disfigurement to create the Fender Custom. However, while the Custom did appear in Fender advertising literature, the Swinger was never officially promoted, and by all accounts was produced and then quickly forgotten in just a few months. It was apparently never Fender's intention to tool up for further runs of Swingers; it was just a way to profitably jettison parts in stock.
Oddly enough, Fender continued to advertise the 3/4 scale option for their Musicmaster and Mustang guitars into the 1970s. While it is certainly possible that Fender may have produced a short scale student guitar in the early '70s (as a special order perhaps) no example of any such instrument has surfaced. It appears that the original 3/4 scale Fender guitar was through.
Reissue Duo-Sonic: 1993 to the present:
It should be noted that Fender Musical Instrument Corporation reissued a short scale Duo-Sonic in 1993. Though not a faithful recreation of the original, these instruments do resemble in form the vintage Duo-Sonics of the '50s and '60s. Manufactured in Mexico, they do not however approach in any way the quality of the originals. They serve mostly as a reminder of the difficulties of satisfactorily producing an economical instrument in today's world economy. This reissue was discontinued at the end of 1997, only to be replaced by a nearly identical Chinese-built model under the "Squier" nameplate in 1998. That instrument remains in production as of the summer of 1999.
Like other Fender guitars from this period, the age of an original student Fender guitar can be approximated by the many dated parts that make up the whole.
Necks were consistently dated at the heel end, and offer the most widely accepted reference when discussing a specific Fender guitar's age. However, it must be noted that this date was applied fairly early in the neck construction cycle, and consequently pre-dates by weeks or even months the actual assembly of the guitar.
Neck dates were initially applied by the worker cutting or shaping the neck, and were hand-written in pencil as MM-YY. Neck dating was suspended from the late Spring of 1959 through the early Spring of 1960, but then returned in the same format and continued until early 1962.
At that point Fender began using an ink stamp that displayed a neck code, month & year, and neck width (at the nut). The stamp for the short scale Fender necks appeared, for example, as: 3/4MAY62A, where 3/4 = the neck code, MAY = the month of production, 62 = the year of production, and A = the neck width code applied to instruments with a nut width of 1 1/2 inches. Short scale necks were no longer offered in a standard width (1 5/8", code B) or any other width at this point.
In 1964, when the student guitar line was overhauled, a new neck code "9" was applied to the redesigned short scale necks, replacing the 3/4 code. The rest of the naming convention stayed the same for the brief remainder of the life of the short scale necks, for example: 9SEP64A.
Thus a neck code of "9" will appear on any 3/4 scale II series guitar regardless of model; short scale Musicmasters, Duo-Sonics and Mustangs (Swingers too) are all marked the same. Incidentally, the long scale student guitar necks initially received a neck code of "8".
Volume and tone potentiometers are also date stamped, but once again this stamp refers to the date the pot was manufactured and has little to do with the date a guitar is assembled (except that it would, by necessity, have to precede the assembly date). For many periods of production Fender was able to move parts through their supply bins quickly, so it is not unusual to find pot dates within a few weeks or months of neck dates.
During the period in 1959-1960 when neck dating was suspended, potentiometers are often the only other visibly dated part on Fender guitars. Original pots can at least tell you the outside maximum potential age the guitar; unfortunately Fender purchasing and production in the '50s often led to pots dates trailing neck dates by many months. Beware of the pitfalls of this method of dating.
Codes are stamped on the top or the side of the pot; there is usually a long string of numbers. Embedded within this string is a three digit manufacturer's code (137 and 304 are common on Fender products) followed by a three or four digit date code, which is read YWW or YYWW (year & week). The one digit year codes were used in the '50s, two digit year codes in the '60s and there after. Thus a code of 304-620 would be a Stackpole pot manufactured in the 20th week of 1956, and a code of 137-6645 would be a CTS pot manufactured in the 45th week of 1966.
Penciled body dates, which were fairly common on Fender guitars of the '50s and early '60s, are not visible on short scale Fenders due to the opaque nature of the finishes offered on these instruments (during that period). Body dates were phased out at about the same time the Shaded Sunburst finish was offered on the student line. Later, as production of all Fender guitars began to rapidly expand in the mid-'60s, body dates in the form of ink or impression stamps appear with some frequency.
By the beginning of the spring of 1964 Fender started to mark the bottom (and/or sometimes the top) of the pickup bobbin with a small yellow manufacture/inspection date stamp. The stamp featured initials, month, day and year, and read (for example): EP JUN 22 '64. By the end of the summer, when Fender began to use the light gray fiber bobbins, the stamp was discarded in favor of a hand-written date and initials, such as: 10-16-64 DM (although the yellow stamp may still appear on the black, top bobbin - at least into January of '65) .In the course of 1965 the initials were dropped and just the date was written, usually in pencil (or sometimes in a thick grease pencil or felt pen). Again, this date refers to the manufacture or inspection date of the pickup and is not the assembly date of the guitar.
As a general rule, when manufacturing was moving right along, the neck, body, pot and pickup dates are all pretty close (say within a few months of one another). On an original guitar however, the only real relationship between these dates is that all these disparate parts were pulled out of their respective holding places and bolted together to form the whole. The specific date of that procedure is not recorded anywhere on the guitar.
There are many other markings typically found on student Fenders; markings that generally reveal the assembly-line production and inspection nature of the beast.
Though often interesting (such as the first name of the worker assembling the pickup harness, penciled on the bottom of the pickguard) these markings are not at present useful in accurately dating a Fender guitar.
The subject of serial numbers, as applied to the neck plate of '50s through '70s Fender guitars, is difficult to do justice to in only a paragraph or so. Thankfully, James Werner (the noted Fender collector from Letts, Iowa) has amassed a compendium of Fender guitar serial numbers, which has understandably become a standard reference on the topic. With his kind permission I have attached an abridged list of student Fender instruments.
This list is intended to give the reader a general idea of the progression of serial numbers and neck dates through the life of the 3/4 scale guitar production, though it should be noted that not all instruments listed after mid-1964 are necessarily short scale.
The list must also include the standard disclaimer that Fender neck plate serial numbers were not applied in strict numerical order, period. Groupings are possible and the overall trend is one of numerical progression, but many inconsistencies exist. Remember that Fender was an assembly-line manufacturer, and the application of neck plates (stored in no particular order in parts bins) was simply another step in the process.
Spot dating guide:
As previously detailed, there are structural features that clearly identify the era of production of the short-scale Fender guitars. As a quick, general reference:
Maple neck = mid 1956 to mid 1959
Slab-board = mid 1959 to mid 1962 (patent numbers on headstock by mid 1961)
Curved fingerboard = mid 1962 on
Narrow spacing of 12th fret position markers = mid 1963 to mid 1964
"II" series configuration = mid 1964 on
Pearl dot markers = very late 1964 on
Sound and feel are subjective items, and the tenor of this article is one of objective observations. However, a few words on the performance of the student Fender guitars may be insightful, particularly to those who have never played them.
There are inherent flaws in the design of the 3/4 scale Fender that limit its usefulness as a professional or "working" instrument. To anyone accustomed to the Strat/Tele scale length of 25.5", the 3/4 neck will feel cramped. By nature, a shorter scale length will cause changes in tuning (even slight) to be more pronounced. Also, the bridge design (two strings per saddle) hampers precise intonation. In short, these instruments are harder to keep in tune than their full-sized brothers.
Having said that, they still exhibit the feel of the era in which they were produced. Allowing for the difference in fret spacing, a maple-necked Musicmaster does not "feel" terribly different than a maple-necked Strat. They certainly do work well for those (either by age or disposition) with smaller hands, but that does not preclude their value to others. Stevie Ray Vaughan regularly used an early '60s Musicmaster to warm up on before gigs in the 1980s. According to the information presented when the guitar was auctioned off, Vaughan liked the "coarser" feel of the student Fender; the stage guitar felt all the more refined when he went to perform. Other players, from notable guitar hero Jimi Hendrix to music revolutionary David Byrne, have used and performed with 3/4 scale Fender guitars (at some point in their careers).
Another limitation of the short scale length is the reduction in resonance produced: even though thay are tuned to the same pitch (as a full-scale guitar) the strings are shorter, so they vibrate less and produce less output. As a consequence, the bridge pickup (where the strings vibrate the least) on a Duo or Mustang is pretty thin sounding. However, the neck pickup (where the strings travel further and vibrate more) can produce plenty of vintage Fender single-coil tone. This is not to suggest that it sounds "as good as a Strat", but it is very Strat-like.
Fender's 3/4 scale guitars are still generally held in low regard by the collecting and retail communities (though that hasn't prevented some dealers from jacking up their asking prices for vintage Musicmasters, Duos and Mustangs to unprecedented levels). The pirating of vintage parts from the little guitars, most notably the neckplates, has sadly become a common practice.
I am annoyed enough by this prevalent disdain to point out that these classic Fender instruments were designed by the same (phenomenal) team that produced the Stratocaster, and were built on the same assembly line, by the same craftsmen and women (and using many of the same materials) as the other great Fender guitars. The Stratocaster reference is purposeful, since that is the guitar the original student Fenders most resemble; hardly an unflattering comparison!
But I am also relieved that the notoriety (and pricing) that has been accorded to other Fender models has not been bestowed upon the 3/4 instruments: this means that these wonderful, valid artifacts of the Golden Age of Fender production are still available to (and within financial reach of) the common man.
The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Greg Gagliano, another Fenderholic, who contributed greatly (of his time and expertise) to the construction of this article, and to thank James Werner for his input and for the use of his serial number data. This work would never have materialized were it not for the generous nature and inspiration provided by these two individuals. Significant contributions have also been provided by Marcel Roy and James Makishima. I acknowledge their spirit of sharing collected data and challenging my assumptions!
About the Author:
Tim Pershing lives and works in the San Francisco area. He is an occasional contributor to the vintage guitar magazine "20th Century Guitar". He divides his free time between collecting vintage US paper currency, studying Fender student guitars, and playing bass in a Bay Area band named Tweak Beach. His own web page dedicated to 3/4 scale Fenders (working title: Leo Fender’s ‘Student Bodies’) is currently under development. Mr. Pershing invites comments, correcting information and observations regarding 3/4 scale Fender guitars. He may be reached through e-mail at email@example.com.
Selected Serial Numbers for Fender Student Guitars:
Number Neck Date Model
09271 Apr 56 Musicmaster
11467 Jun 56 Musicmaster
12498 Jul 56 Duo-Sonic
14167 Aug 56 Musicmaster
16842 Oct 56 Duo-Sonic
19487 Feb 57 Musicmsater
-21003 Aug 57 Musicmaster
024863 Mar 58 Duo-Sonic
28980 Aug 58 Musicmaster
31988 Jan 59 Duo-Sonic
36844 Apr 59 Duo-Sonic
38240 [blank] Musicmaster
46969 [blank] Duo-Sonic
51337 Jun 60 Duo-Sonic
54297 Sep 60 Musicmaster
61389 Apr 61 Duo-Sonic
66673 Oct 61 Musicmaster
73385 Feb 62 Duo-Sonic
82906 Nov 62 Musicmaster
99155 Mar 63 Duo-Sonic
L00352 Apr 63 Musicmaster
L06289 Apr 63 Duo-Sonic
L22767 Sep 63 Musicmaster
L36994 Mar 64 Duo-Sonic
L43904 Sep 64 Mustang
L46286 Sep 64 Musicmaster
L52225 Oct 64 Duo-Sonic
L60543 Dec 64 Mustang
L74879 Jan 65 Duo-Sonic
L81032 Apr 65 Musicmaster
L88044 Aug 65 Mustang
L97487 Aug 65 Musicmaster
108904 Dec 65 Duo-Sonic
115802 Jan 66 Mustang
129247 Jan 66 Musicmaster
142386 May 66 Duo-Sonic
151646 Jun 66 Musicmaster
264593 May 66 Swinger
267074 Jul 69 Swinger
269750 Jan 67 Swinger
272934 Jun 66 Swinger