Ratings

Pros:
Zingy, even, and articulate pickups. Slinky playability. Vibrato is relatively tuning-stable.

Cons:
Pickups may sound comparatively flat for fans of vintage Fender voices. Three-way switch positioned inconveniently for aggressive strumming.

Street:
$1,099

Fender American Performer Mustang
fender.com


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You have to admire the plucky little Mustang. Since 1964, it’s lived and toiled in the shadows of legendary big brothers—often dismissed by “serious” players as the guitar equivalent of training wheels. But with the electric guitar cosmos expanding beyond established musical constraints (and stale ideas about what makes a great electric guitar), the case for the clear ringing tones and playability of the Mustang is stronger than ever.

Apart from a gap in Fender’s 1980s transitionary years, the Mustang remained in near-constant production from 1964. And though trad rockers never had much time for the model, Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, and Ty Segall, among many others, managed to make fantastically powerful, even revolutionary, music with the Mustang.

The new American Performer Mustang is the first U.S.-built production-line Mustang since 1982. It’s also one of the most refined Mustangs yet. Much of the refinement is down to the new Tim Shaw-designed Yosemite alnico II and IV pickups and a more stable version of the idiosyncratic Fender Dynamic Tremolo. But both improvements address old design shortcomings and play to the Mustang’s inherent strengths. Not coincidentally, perhaps, they’re also potential assets to pedal-crazed contemporary players.

The Compact Contrarian
So much is made of the Mustang’s student model status and its associations with musical contrarians that the beauty and inspiration in its design are often overlooked. While it may not have the svelte lines of a Stratocaster or the perfect simplicity of a Telecaster, it’s beautifully proportioned—a surprisingly tricky feat when designing a small-bodied guitar.

Those proportions aren’t just aesthetically pleasing. They also translate to a very comfortable, light, and well-balanced instrument that I happily sat with for hours. Such extension-of-the-body comfort underscores the fact that the Mustang is an ideal instrument for players of small stature or with smaller hands. That said, it certainly doesn’t feel like a student model when you play. The 24" scale makes super-expressive string bending a breeze (particularly with the .009 string set that the guitar shipped with). And I felt no less “pro” indulging in the deep quasi-raga- and Richard Thompson-style bends the short scale enables and encourages. Chords, too, are a pleasure on the 24" scale neck. And while I’m sure that players with extra-large paws could find the Mustang’s neck cramped, I think most will find the ease with which one can execute extended chord shapes creatively intriguing.

The comfort of the shorter neck is enhanced in the American Performer Mustang’s case by Fender’s Modern C profile, jumbo frets, and the 9.5" fretboard radius. On most Fenders, I strongly prefer a vintage-style 7.25" radius and smaller, vintage spec frets. On the Mustang, however, the new combination really works—adding a welcome sense of stability, smoothness, and heft.

The 24" scale makes super-expressive string bending a breeze.

If there’s one drawback in this recipe, it’s the jumbo frets, which can pull intonation sharp if you have a heavy fret-hand grip. Less experienced players still trying to find their ideal fret set-up should definitely spend some time with the Mustang to figure out how fat frets fit into their own style. The factory set-up, by the way, was excellent. Intonation was spot-on. And though the action was just a tiny bit high for my taste, lowering the bridge with a half turn on each of the mounting posts put the guitar more squarely in my comfort zone.

The improved Dynamic Vibrato remains quirky as ever, and a ton of fun. It’s a bouncy, twitchy, sometimes hyper-responsive unit with a fast pitch-shift taper that feels less elastic than a Stratocaster or Jazzmaster vibrato. It sits high above the body and, in general, it requires a subtle touch. But mastering that touch yields truly unusual vibrato textures that are more satisfying for the new unit’s enhanced tuning stability.

Oxygenated Output
Compared to other Fenders, the Mustang’s voices and output are relatively subdued. It doesn’t have a Telecaster’s bite, a Jaguar’s spiky-to-bell-like attack, or the full-spectrum breadth or volume of a Jazzmaster. But for many applications the Mustang’s output is arguably a more versatile blank slate.

In the new Yosemite pickup configuration, the Mustang uses alnico 2 magnets in the bridge and alnico 4 magnets in the neck. And both units exhibit classic characteristics associated with their respective magnet types. The bridge pickup is airy and even from the first to 6th string. It lacks some of the top-end spikiness you associate with Fender bridge pickups. But it is still bright, present, and full of air, striking a lively blend between a Stratocaster bridge unit and a Rickenbacker toaster-top. The more restrained and even output is a great match for overdrive pedals and time-based effects set for expansive sounds. And what you might lack in muscle up front, you gain in articulation and detail on the back end.

The alnico 4 neck unit, too, is articulate and responsive. It’s much less smoky and less wooly in the bass frequencies than a lot of Fender neck pickups. And you certainly won’t mistake the Mustang for an ES-335 in a mix. But it’s ideal for suggesting jazzy mellowness in chords and lead lines without retreating metaphorically into some dank Greenwich Village basement. Combined pickup settings, again, suggest a cool cross of Fender zing and toaster-top atmosphere—an awesome combination in my book. And in every setting the pickups are very quiet for single-coils.

The Verdict
The Mustang’s many virtues—comfort and balance, airy, open, and chiming tones—reveal it to be a guitar of many possibilities. The build quality is excellent. The playability and compact dimensions make the guitar positively inviting to hold and play. And while the even tonalities of the Yosemite pickups may not satisfy Fenderphiles that prefer the rowdier side of the single-coil spectrum, they are a thoughtfully voiced set that provoke creative interaction with the guitar—especially when you have a lot of atmospheric effects in your line.