Premier Guitar

Fender Pawn Shop Series '51, '72, and Mustang Special Guitar Reviews

April 19, 2011


When I got my drivers license, I did two things—cruised to the beach and burned rubber between every used record and guitar store from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. There were a lot of rare gems in those shops. But the guitars that fascinated me most were the oddballs and ugly ducklings that enterprising players threw together in search of some elusive sound buzzing around in their heads. Some were abominations, of course. But others were inspired—mad, monstrous collisions of borrowed, stolen, traded, aftermarket, and dumpster-dive-sourced pickups, tremolos, and tuners. All were customized with six bucks’ worth of Krylon spray paint.

Fender’s elegantly simple solidbodies were always a target for these ambitious garage-guitar surgeons. If you needed the higher output of an aftermarket humbucker or some newfangled locking tremolo, you could do a lot with a router, a drill, and a couple of screwdrivers (not to mention undo the damage with a little wood filler, bondo, and spray paint). The funny thing is that many of those Fenders became icons—from David Gilmour’s black Stratocaster to Kurt Cobain’s Jaguar. And while you could argue that the results were either beautiful or sacrilege, the most important thing is that they enabled their players to make extraordinary, unique, and deeply personal music.

With their unusual, mutated features and configurations, Fender’s new Pawn Shop Series guitars—the ’51, ’72, and Mustang Special—pay homage to the spirit that made those guitars and thousands like them. They’re also a tribute to the experiments and oddball guitars—like the Swinger, Marauder, and Maverick—that sometimes leaked from Fender’s Fullerton, California, factory way back when. Each of these new guitars looks, feels, and sounds familiar, and yet each also conceals surprises that can prompt new musical directions or lend fire to the most tired licks.

I explored each of the Pawn Shop Series guitars though a 1964 Fender Tremolux, a Fender ’63 Vibroverb reissue, and a 1966 Fender Super Reverb. Running through every tone possibility on each of the guitars made for a lot of fun at the jam space, exploring everything from dirty Southern rock to fuzzed-out garage punk, open-tuned droning, and strange points in between (Click here to watch the video review).




Pawn Shop ’51
The Pawn Shop ’51 is clearly inspired by Fender’s first three and most important solidbody designs. But this particular synthesis of visual elements—which most resembles a shrunken ’51 P-bass—first saw the light in the form of the much-adored Squier ’51. Although the Squier ’51 sold well, got favorable reviews, and inspired a rabid (and still flourishing) cult of hot-rodders who dug its pickup-switching options, its combination of classic Fender design cues, and, above all, its rock-bottom price, Fender pulled the plug on it before long.

The Fender ’51 changes little of the basic configuration of the Squier ’51, but there are refinements aplenty that make it a smooth and nasty player—not to mention a perfect embodiment of the Pawn Shop Series ethos. Fenders of the 1950s were no-frills machines, and that same design austerity informs the look of the ’51: The glossy butterscotch body and single-ply black pickguard are sharp and startlingly simple, and the beautifully yellowed maple neck, topped with a Telecaster headstock with a “spaghetti logo,” is a perfect fit for the guitar’s minimalist visual identity. It’s a guitar that looks rock-steady, ready to play, and able to take a beating.

There isn’t much hardware on the ’51. Kluson-style tuners keep things looking period authentic, and the hardtail bridge with six individually adjustable saddles is pure simplicity. The Tele-esque control set looks about as simple as they come, too—and it’s key to the guitar’s more Frankenstein-ian nature. The Volume knob is also a push/pull pot that splits the coils of the humbucker in the bridge position. Where there would ordinarily be a Tone knob on a Telecaster, there’s a 3-position pickup selector.

Rippin’ and Roarin’
The lack of a Tone knob obviously makes the ’51 a little less flexible in terms of tone, but the sounds you get in trade with the splittable humbucker are cool and plentiful. With both coils in action, the humbucker is all fangs and sting. But when you’re so inclined, a nimble finger on the Volume knob can keep the ’51’s more slashing personality traits in check. Gunning full throttle with the humbucker puts a lot of biting high-mid tone at your fingertips—especially through a wide-open 6L6 amp. If you’re comfortable in that range and sharp with your pick attack, the ’51 can give you a positively Jimmy Page-like authority that makes bluesy jabs sound fresh and totally nasty. Roll off the Volume a notch or two, and you’re in a sweet spot for rootsy jangle tones. Splitting the humbucker’s coil gives you a distinctly less girthy tone and lower output but remains quite cutting, with an almost Tele-like kick and a brightness that probably gets an assist from the maple fretboard.

The ’51’s neck pickup is a Fender Texas Special, which is a beautiful match for the guitar’s architecture. It’s both a little rounder and hotter than what you’d typically hear in a Stratocaster, with exceptional definition and a sweet responsiveness to pick attack that, again, makes even the simplest blues bends sing and beckons you to slow down and let each note linger a bit.

The ’51’s substantial-yet-slinky feel didn’t make me want to speed up my playing, either. It has medium-jumbo frets, and the C-shaped neck profile is neither too wide nor too flat, inviting languid bends and slow, wobbling finger vibrato. In all, the ’51 is a beautifully simple, comfortable, intuitive, and inviting guitar that can gnash, purr, and sing. If you’re accustomed to really working your Tone knob, the lack of one here may get under your skin, but if you’re comfortable finding tonal nuances in your fingertips or tend to play on the more aggressive end of the tone spectrum anyway, you may never miss it. There are plenty of sounds in this guitar to go around.

Buy if...
blues and hard-rocking tones—peppered with some ’50s snap—are your flavors of choice.
Skip if...
your bread and butter is working the Tone knob.
Rating...


Street $799 - Fender - fender.com





Pawn Shop ’72
If there was ever a golden age of irreverent and lawless guitar tinkering, it was the early ’70s. The holy grails of today’s vintage-guitar fetishists were still largely regarded as just used guitars, and dudes and gals with the fever for home craft were a lot less reluctant to attack a ’62 Stratocaster with routers and carving knives. Fender, too, was willing to tinker with what we now regard as perfection. And the modernist minimalism of the Telecaster and Stratocaster were rethought with features like f-holes, au natural finishes, and—in a nod to higher-octane rock of the times—big, burly chrome humbuckers.

In keeping with that vibe, the new Pawn Shop ’72 is a cool, quirky encapsulation of the period’s style. Tele and Strat purists who consider the subtle changes wrought during the ’60s an affront to Leo Fender’s genius need not apply. But if you’re feeling a bit brash, bell bottomed, and/or funky—and you have the GTO gassed and good to go—the Pawn Shop ’72 is your axe.

The ’72 has a clear family resemblance to the ’51, of course, but it’s as if the ’51 left high school as a greaser in 1962, joined a commune after a road trip to the Monterey Pop Festival, journeyed to Woodstock, and then stayed behind to build geodesic domes. The ’72 also looks wired for loud. The Fender Enforcer humbucker in the neck position is inspired by the pickups Fender put in Thinline Telecaster models in the early ’70s. And the same humbucker that propels the nastier persona of the ’51 sits in the bridge position of the ’72.

Fender reveals a cool eye for other period- correct details on the ’72, too. It’s got a 3-bolt neck (the bane of so many pre-CBS purists), a bullet truss rod, ‘F’ tuners that were typical of Strats and Teles of the time, and a hardtail bridge like the ’51’s. The white-bound f-hole is borrowed from the ’69 Thinline Telecaster and, like the ’51, the ’72’s familiar Telecaster-like controls conceal a hidden purpose. In this case, what would traditionally be a tone knob is a very cool pickup blender knob. As on the ’51, it won’t do much for you if you’re looking for mellow jazz tones or burly saxophone honk of the sort you’d normally summon with a Tone-knob tweak, but it does offer a lot of hip tone-shaping possibilities.

The ’72 is a cooker, especially through a potently projecting 4x10 Super Reverb. It kicks hard from the bridge pickup and slings Zep and Paul Kossoff tones whether you’re jamming a big or small amp. The neck-position humbucker—a visual and sonic nod to the ’72 Thinline Telecaster—is predictably darker, but it can be blended with the more slicing bridge humbucker to create a harmonically rich blend that sounds fat, zingy, and jangly under the guitar’s 25 1/2" scale. A little pedal overdrive turned the ’72 into a perfect vehicle for grinding open-tuned Black Crowes- or Faces-style jams—ringing with a whole spectrum of overtones and a string-to-string definition that highlighted funky pull-offs and snap bends. And moving between the two pickups in the middle of a lead created some very cool, almost modulating textures. Unfortunately, the blend knob stopped working (possibly due to a loose solder connection) after a few hours of playing—and before we’d shot the video review. Fender’s Justin Norvell explains, “The model we sent was from a first-production run and had been deconstructed and rebuilt a few times in the inspection and evaluation process. So consider this a mea culpa for possibly rushing the rebuild to get them out fast for this first and exclusive review!”

The ’72 feels super slick under the fingers. While the medium-jumbo frets and C-shaped neck—one of the nicer necks I’ve gripped in a while—enable fast fretwork, they also make slow, lazy bends a joy. Because it was set up with very low action, it took a tweak on the truss rod and a few adjustments to the saddles to get the action where I really felt open notes were ringing in a way that suits this cool, high-output pickup array.

The ’72 may not be everyone’s idea of a looker, but if you dig the guitar equivalent of a mag-wheeled custom van hanging cool and low around your shoulders—and, more importantly, if you crave the tones of that time—the ’72 is great way to break away from the pack.

Buy if...
Southern rock and high-octane blues with a Stratocaster feel just sound and feel right.
Skip if...
you can’t live without that Tone knob or single-coils.
Rating...


Street $799 - Fender - fender.com





Pawn Shop Mustang Special
Billed for much of its life as a student model, the 24"-scale Mustang—which debuted in 1964 as an evolution of the Musicmaster and Duo Sonic—never got a whole lot of respect from Strat and Tele devotees. But, over the years, it’s found its own league of admirers: Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and Mudhoney’s Steve Turner used ’Stangs to thrash out the garagier side of the Seattle sound, Adrian Belew probed the outer limits with a radically modified version, and Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo used a Mustang stuffed with a humbucker to generate some of the howling sounds and classic cuts from the band’s late-’80s and early-’90s catalog.

Of those legendary ’Stangs, the Pawn Shop Series Mustang Special is probably most akin to Ranaldo’s modded ’69 model. Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s packed with two Thinline Tele-style humbuckers that, to date, have only appeared in Ranaldo’s signature Jazzmaster. The two handsomely gleaming, chromecovered pickups are the most overt deviation from traditional Mustang design. And, in Candy Apple Red or Lake Placid Blue, the guitars are a perfect study in Fender’s knack for balancing flash with design simplicity.

What really sets the Mustang Special apart are the myriad pickup-switching options available via what look like standard Mustang slider switches above each pickup. The switches split each pickup to either the bass or treble side, depending on which side of center you set the switch. In the center position, it’s all humbucker. Unlike standard Mustangs, there’s a 3-position pickup selector on the lower horn that enables you to switch between pickups or select both. All this adds up to a ton of tone-shaping capabilities before you ever touch a pedal or adjust your amp. And that’s a treat when you have pickups as nice as these to begin with.

In humbucking mode, the neck pickup is beautifully round and rich—responsive to tweaks of the Volume and Tone knobs, and exceptionally detailed and sensitive to overtones in open tunings. The split-coil voices are equally rich, but a little more focused and with slightly decreased output. The bridge pickup is more of the same—highly sensitive to harmonic detail—but with a killer, biting range of tones that can range from spiky to spacious or funky, depending on how you set the Volume and Tone knobs.

While not all players will be cut out for the Mustang Special’s short 24" scale, there can be no argument about how good this guitar feels: The neck is slightly wider and flatter than a ’60s C profile, but it’s still quite slick and fast. And the combination of the short scale and medium-jumbo frets makes bends positively effortless.

The Verdict
The Pawn Shop Series is a fun and enormously capable set of guitars. It’s hard to imagine classic rockers not finding a sound to love every time they plug in a ’51 or ’72, and the far-ranging, jack-of-all-trades versatility and sonic richness of the Mustang Special will stun those who have never taken this little Fender seriously. With street prices of $799, they’re a good value, too. Though players who are addicted to Tone-knob adjustments may not be inclined toward the ’51 or ’72, those who like their tone wide open would be hard pressed to find better axes for sharp, bluesy hard rock and Southern rock. Meanwhile, the Mustang Special has such an expansive tone range and plays so smoothly that it’s easy to imagine it in the hands of sonic texturalists, roots- and stoner-rock players, and blues specialists alike.

It’s always to cool to be reminded what beautiful blank slates Fender’s classic designs are. And with the Pawn Shop Series, Fender has used those platforms for guitars that are full of twists, surprises, personality, and possibilities. Given what we’ve heard here, it’s a concept we hope Fender continues to explore.

Buy if...
switching pickup voices is your key to tone variation.
Skip if...
you can’t abide short-scale guitars.
Rating...


Street $799 - Fender - fender.com