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

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

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.

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.

Street $799 - Fender -

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.

Street $799 - Fender -

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.

Street $799 - Fender -