This new Mustang comes with some unexpected surprises
by Phil O'Keefe
Fender first introduced the Mustang in 1964. At the time it was their premium student model, with some features that differentiated it from the (freshly redesigned) Musicmaster and Duo Sonic II models, which had been in the lineup since the mid-50s in somewhat different form - in fact, the Duo Sonic models in Fender's new Offset series were obviously influenced by the 50s era models...but I digress.
While Duo Sonics and Musicmasters have their fans, of the three, the Mustang has been the most successful by far. Despite its "student model" reputation, it has seen use by several notable alt-rock pros and the Mustang remains popular with players of all skill levels. Fender's new Offset series includes two new versions of the Mustang. Let's take a closer look at one of them - the new Mustang 90.
What You Need To Know
The Mustang 90 is part of Fender's new Offset lineup of guitars which includes another Mustang model, two Duo Sonic models and the new Mustang Bass PJ, which we will also be reviewing soon.
The new Mustang 90 retains the classic Mustang body shape, complete with "offset" body. What's an offset? The narrow part of the body is asymmetrical, with the treble side waist curve being offset towards the rear of the guitar compared to the bass side. This makes the Mustang 90 very comfortable to hold and play, even when you're sitting down.
The earliest Mustangs had "slab" bodies with rounded edges, while later models had tummy and forearm contours similar to a Strat; Fender has opted for the earlier, slab-bodied approach with the Mustang 90, but fear not - it's still very comfortable (no doubt due to the Mustang design's relatively narrow body width). This makes it more compact and comfortable, and a great match for players with smaller frames.
Not only is the Mustang 90 compact, it's also fairly light, with the review unit weighing in at 7 pounds 4 ounces.
The body wood of Mustangs has traditionally been poplar (and occasionally ash or basswood), but here Fender has opted for alder. The finish is gloss polyester, and I couldn't find a flaw in it. The review example that Fender sent is Silver and metallic, but the model is also available in Torino Red and Olympic White.
The Mustang 90 features a Strat-style string-through-body hardtail bridge with individual bent steel saddles for each string; the strings anchor in ferules mounted in the back of the body. The ferrules are not flush-mounted, but stick up slightly above the body's surface.
Some people are going to say that a Mustang without a vibrato is a Duo Sonic II, and while that was true in the 1960s, it no longer applies. In this same series, Fender has released two Duo Sonic models. Unlike the Duo Sonic II (which was redesigned to look more like the Mustang and was the same basic guitar, minus the vibrato found on the original Mustangs), the current Offset Series Duo Sonic models feature a non-offset body and a pickguard that are more similar in shape to the original Duo Sonics from the 1950s.
The Mustang 90's maple neck features a comfortable C-shaped profile and the traditional 24" Mustang scale length, with 22 frets on the rosewood fretboard. Fender's specs say the neck is 1.650" wide at the nut, but using my digital calipers, I measured the neck width at 1.623" at the nut on the review unit. The neck thickness of the review sample is .830" at the 1st fret and .910 at the 12th fret.
The neck pocket is nice and tight on both sides of the neck.
For this model Fender has opted for a more modern 9.5" radius and medium-jumbo frets, which makes chording and string bending a breeze. The fretwork feels very good, and the fret edges are smooth and nicely dressed, and white dot fingerboard inlays and side markers help you keep track of where you're at.
Interestingly, the back of the neck features a walnut "skunk stripe," which is usually found on guitars with maple fretboards (to fill the truss rod installation route) and not rosewood boards.
While the back of the neck has a smooth and fast-playing satin urethane finish, the large-style headstock face has been given a flashier looking gloss urethane finish that is adorned with the Fender logo and Mustang name. The white nut is synthetic bone and is well cut.
The tuners are Fender-branded American Standard style models with a 14:1 gear ratio. These were first seen on some models from the 90s and have been in use on and off ever since. I've always liked them - they hold their tuning well and they look classy.
The neck is attached to the body with four bolts, and the neck plate features the stylized engraved Fender F logo.
The master volume and tone controls as well as the 1/4" output jack are mounted on a metal plate in traditional Mustang fashion, and the knobs will also look familiar to anyone who has played a vintage Mustang or reissue.
The inside of the the control cavity is unshielded. Fender used full-sized 375k pots made in Korea by Jinsung for both the tone and volume controls.
Where the electronics differ from the norm is in the pickups and switching system. Gone are the individual slider switches for each pickup; they've been replaced with a standard three-way toggle switch placed below the neck pickup, down near the lower horn. I was concerned it might get in the way, but it posed no problems and I never hit it accidentally while rocking out. It's certainly far more practical and faster to use than the traditional Mustang switching system.
The pair of MP-90 single coil pickups are hotter and more aggressive than the traditional Mustang single coils, and they give the Mustang 90 a heaver, slightly warmer and more authoritative voice. They're mounted in a vintage-style "mother of toilet seat" pearloid pickguard.
The stock string gauges are 10-46, but as with all 24" scale length guitars, they feel a bit looser than they would on a guitar with a longer scale length. Many short scale players will use a gauge one size bigger than what they'd use on a full-scale guitar to compensate, while others like the slightly different playing feel.
While smooth, very comfortable in profile and nicely crafted, the neck has noticeably sharp and unrounded fretboard edges - in fact, they're some of the sharpest I've ever encountered. I'd expect it to take a year or two of daily playing to break in this otherwise excellent neck.
No case or gig bag is included, so budget accordingly. To be fair, Fender obviously put the money into the instrument itself, and for a guitar of this quality at this low price, a case shouldn't really be expected.
The single three-way toggle switch arrangement for pickup selection is simpler, faster and easier to use than the dual slider switches of vintage style Mustangs, but you lose their ability to put the pickups out of phase with each other.
In some ways this is the classic Fender Mustang, taken up a notch. I suspect many players would consider alder to be a step up from poplar, and the quality of the finish and materials is definitely good, as is the overall build quality and set-up of the nut, neck, bridge and pickups. Some may prefer the late 60s / 70s era body style with the tummy and forearm contours, but a slab bodied Mustang is slim enough to still be very comfortable to hold, and the offset body not only looks cool, but is very functional when trying to play seated.
The neck has some great things going for it, including a comfortable C profile and 9.5" radius, but also the smooth feeling satin finish on the back and the classic glossy headstock face, outfitted with reliable Fender "square back" American Standard tuners. The unrounded fretboard edges definitely give it a stiff feel, but it is still comfortably playable and will likely break in nicely to the individual player over time. Not to mention the cool factor and fun a 24" scale guitar brings to the playing experience with its thicker alternative tones and the extra "reach" you get with its shorter scale length.
Possibly the coolest thing about the Mustang 90 is the pickups. The MP-90s take the Mustang into wilder, more untamed sonic territory, and give it a thicker, bolder sound that works great for rock. Many players will also appreciate the simplified switching too; although you do lose the ability to put the pickups out of phase, most players won't miss that feature much.
The Mustang 90 is a great addition to the Mustang herd, and one that many players will be tempted to add to their stable. Priced like an entry-level guitar but built to professional standards, it's a fun guitar to play, has those cool MP-90 tones, and at only $500 "street," it's a fantastic deal for pros and beginners alike. -HC-
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.
Thanks, Phil! I did try the one at the local store. Fun! My next guitar will probably have two knobs and two P=90s, so I've been comparing them - the Mustang 90, Godins, a G&L, Reverends, an Epi, a Hamer. So far, Godins and Reverends are the most interesting.
I didn't have any issues with the pickup selector on the review unit. It seems to be working fine, so maybe that's just a one-off issue.
As far as the pickups, I think Fender put some pretty good ones into the Mustang 90. The only other guitar I have here at the moment with P90s in it is a Casino, which is a hollowbody, so it's not really a fair comparison, but I don't think you'd hear a huge difference if you swapped the stock pickups out for something else.
I do think the Mustang 90 would be a natural for the Blues. Give one a try and see what you think - and if you do, please stop back in and let us know what your thoughts are!
Phil - There's one one hanging in the local music store. It is fun to play. One drawback is a very crackly switch - KKKH!! whenever I moved it. I'm also wondering how you think the MP-90s compare with Gibson P-90s. If I were to buy the guitar, I'd think about a pickup upgrade at some point and wonder what throwing Gibson pickups will do. Something good? I'm a blues guy, not a rocker, and the one Gibson I had with a P-90 (an old ES-150) had a gorgeous, lush tone. How lush will the MP-90s be?