Falling in love with a Fender Mustang is a shockingly rare occurrence for me. Not that I don’t like the model at all, I really do enjoy its smaller shape and the 24” scale that it shares with the Jaguar. The Dynamic vibrato is smooth but more immediate than that found on the Jazzmaster. Plus, the ability to run both pickups out of phase is really fun, something I’d definitely use if I had the option at the ready.
If pressed, I couldn’t tell you exactly what the missing element is that keeps me from them, only that I can think of only a handful that really stood out to me, just never in that “OMG-I-have-to-buy-this” sort of way.
Until recently, that is.
I found it weeks ago while wasting time at the Hollywood Guitar Center and have been stalking it ever since. On three separate occasions I’ve stared long but chickened out at the thought of playing it, happily transfixed by its grisled appearance. It’s finished in that galvanizing shade of Mocha, way outside of my normal preferences –– I always told myself I’d own a Competition color someday –– but preferences often turn to proclivity, and then complacency. Not content to leave mine unchallenged, I finally picked it up.
This particular guitar has been played hard, absent bits of finish and pitted chrome attesting to an owner who gave little thought to condition. The frets are deeply grooved and completely lack a crown in the higher registers; some were even popping out of their slots. The electronics were noisy, scratchy, and barely worked, while tapping my finger on its hardware revealed a missing bridge ground. Even strung with 9s, the neck was horribly out of adjustment and the nut was a goner. Among everything else, it was in dire need of a good setup.
In spite of all of these major concerns, the guitar sounded flat-out amazing, like no other ‘Stang I’d played before. Plugged into a used JCM900, it was loud, throaty, and had this vibe that complimented my playing style perfectly. I could hardly believe that I had found the ‘perfect’ Mustang, let alone that it was this one. I remember telling my wife later that night, “That guitar has songs in it.”
Am I crazy for falling in love with such a problem child of a guitar? Should I have written it off completely? Is it a bad guitar or a good one with some issues? And if I love it so much, why didn’t I buy it?
We musicians are a picky bunch, each of them with a different set of tastes and experiences. In gear-centric circles, players share their experiences from a wide array of perspectives, some more informed than others. As such, it’s not uncommon to hear them claim something to the effect of, “I had one of those and it played like crap. What a bad guitar!” As a tech, I’d like to gently point out that statements like this should be taken with a grain of salt.
When I hear that kind of assertion, my tech-addled brain kicks in to high gear because there are a lot of variables contained within, most of them fully addressable. Does the guitar have a design flaw? Is there some kind of problem from the factory? Is the neck warped? Were the electronics non-functional? Or did the guitar simply need a setup?
Usually, I find the truth is often somewhere close to the latter.
A bad setup can certainly make a guitar unplayable, or at the very least, not fun to play at all. It does not, however, automatically make the instrument ‘bad.’ Most of the time, how a guitar plays is easy to correct, and if you have the skill or experience, you should be able to anticipate what minor adjustments an instrument needs.
About six months ago, I discovered a Candy Apple Red late 1966 Jaguar in a shop, and one of the other customers who saw my longing gaze told me, “Don’t bother, man, it’s a piece of shit.” Always in for a challenge, I ignored the advice. When I picked it up, it was clear that the bridge and its saddles were unnecessarily jacked up to their maximum adjustment, rendering the instrument nearly unplayable with mile-high action.
Was the other customer wrong? Yes and no. From his perspective, the guitar played poorly, and thus, wasn’t a viable choice. The only real problem this guitar had was a careless setup, or total lack thereof. Far from a lost cause, all it would have taken to make that Jaguar a killer player was one Allen key, a Phillips screwdriver, and less than five minutes.
At the same time, I recognize that how a thing plays is often the only metric most guitarists have to judge whether or not a guitar is worthwhile, and hey, that’s valid. Playing as many guitars as I possibly could as a youngster was how I figured out what kind of guitar worked for me, a tradition that continues well into my very adult life. “Try Everything,” as Shakira’s Zootopia theme song goes.
Looking back, I’m sure I wrote off some instruments too quickly all because they weren’t properly adjusted. For a player, a bad setup can make a guitar unpalatable at best, and for a shop, a lost potential sale. Being able to tell the difference between a bad guitar and a bad setup requires a bit of experience with guitar repair, just enough that think most musicians can acquire it without much effort.
All you need to do is find an instrument that feels good to you, and then pay attention to the reasons why it feels that way. Compare it with other instruments you encounter, and think about things like string height or if the guitar plays in tune with itself. Does the instrument stay in tune, and if not, why is that? Ask questions if the answer isn’t immediately apparent to you, visit some forums and see if the question’s been asked before. Think critically about the guitar you’re inspecting, don’t allow the sexy gleam of a shiny thing to sway you.
When it comes to greater ailments than simple setup tweaks, a sober mindset is key. Let’s take that Mustang I mentioned in the introduction: riddled with issues, likely to be a huge pain in the ass to whip back into shape, and the kind of guitar you buy only if you have the skill or cash to take on a project. Every one of the detractors of this guitar is a thing I can fix, I know it. There’s nothing so wrong with the guitar that it should be consigned to the trash heap, nothing so egregious that it can’t be saved. But the cost…
One rule I have for myself in these kinds of cases is, “If you have doubts, walk.” So even as I write about not writing guitars off because of issues, I’m sitting here in my chair wondering if I really want to spend the time, money, and energy nursing another guitar back to good health. At the moment, I’m about 50/50.
I guess what I’m getting at is there’s no clear line to draw on this issue, no right and wrong, no true good and bad to be named. It feels like the line constantly moves to fit the buyer and the guitar, according to their means and the severity of the issues in play, and really, that’s the only line that matters.
Personally, I’m not bothered by a refin, a requisite refret, or minor routing under a pickguard. I’m turned off by non-original hardware, enlarged tuner holes, and in most cases, replaced pickups. And then again, all of the above goes right out the window if the price is just too good to pass up. So even for me, the line often changes position.
My best advice: let the line be wherever you need it to be, but allow some wiggle room. An instrument with a few more issues than you’d normally consider may surprise you.