The Fenders You’ve Never Heard Of
by Daniel Brooks
Tele, Strat, P-Bass, J-Bass, Jag . . . instruments so ubiquitous that you might forget these are not their actual names. Each has its own distinctive sounds, its own look, its own luminous history and its parade of inspired players who have used it to create some of the most popular music ever, sometimes even completely transforming pop culture in the process. Fender guitars and basses have become so iconic that it is difficult to imagine how the last sixty or seventy years might have sounded without them.
But, of course, while not every Fender instrument has inspired this same level of success, many relatively obscure Fender guitars do have their fans. Maybe an adventurous musician looking for a quality instrument that is different enough to create a unique sound, or maybe a beginning guitarist on a budget, or a collector in search of a lost gem whose quality outshines its fame. Or maybe, a thrift store romantic who embodies all three of these and simply has a good eye, and a good ear, for the forgotten masterpieces.
Then there are those truly obscure instruments unknown to all but a dedicated few. Quirky experiments, expedient hybrids, odd designs that would never be manufactured in large enough numbers, or never marketed properly to get the attention they deserved. For one reason or another, these were guitars that never had a chance to become iconic. Let’s take a look at a few.
The Fender Swinger was one of the quirkiest and most obscure guitars ever to come out of the factory. It was introduced in 1969 as a way to make use of spare parts left over from the unsuccessful Fender Bass V. and the “student” model Fender Musicmaster. Only 250 to 600 were ever assembled and they were virtually unmarketed, never appearing in any of Fender’s catalogs or literature. The “Swinger” decal seems to have been an afterthought, applied, if at all, over the finish on the headstock. Most began to peel off within a few years, so very few have any kind of indication as to what model of guitar they are. More often than not, those who found a Swinger had no idea what to call it and often informally referred to it as the Fender Arrow, probably after the pointy “arrow” shaped headstock. The Swinger featured a 22.5” scale length, an almost randomly contoured body design, one single-coil pickup near the neck, and a bridge and control plate design borrowed from The Fender Bass V. Dating these guitars would seem to be a difficult task, since they are assembled entirely from older parts, but they were only made for a brief period, so every Fender Swinger is a vintage 1969. As rare as they are, musicians as different as Jimmy Page and Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth have taken them to the stage.
Also released in a brief 1969 run, the Fender Maverick was another attempt to clear out old factory stock that met with limited success. Essentially a twelve string Fender Electric XII, modified to be a six string guitar, the Maverick featured the same elongated headstock as the XII. The holes for the six tuning pegs were widely spaced, and headstocks that had already been drilled for 12-holes had the extra six holes plugged and refinished with a concealing veneer. The body had a slightly different design than the XII, but the neck, split P-Bass style pickups and hardware were often directly lifted from the twelve string model, and the bridge was borrowed from the Fender Mustang. Very few Mavericks were ever made and they never sold well.
The Fender Electric XII, from which the Maverick is derived, was designed from the ground up to be a twelve string electric guitar. It features split P-Bass style pickups, four way switching, and individual bridge saddles for each of its twelve strings. It is neither particularly rare nor common, having had a limited amount of success during its five-year run from 1965 to 1970, but it does have its own distinctive sound that has contributed to many more influential records than one might expect. It was featured most prominently on The Who’s Tommy, and Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, as well as records by The Velvet Underground, Cream, Caravan, and Tom Petty.
The Fender Performer was introduced in 1985 in an attempt to compete with the edgier, angular styles that were growing in popularity among heavy metal guitarists. The one-year run was made entirely in Japan, at a time when the U.S. manufacture of Fender guitars was at an all time low. It is rumored that the design of the body and headstock was inspired by the contours of the scraps left over from the manufacture of Japanese Stratocasters, and the angular “horns” that form the cutaways are modeled after the flat part on the back of a Strat. The Performer offered some outstanding features like custom offset humbuckers with a coil-tapping switch, sealed tuners, 24 frets and a locking tremolo system. Despite the limited success of its short run, the Performer has since been recognized by collectors as a high quality guitar, with an elevated price to match its quality.
Of course, there are many other Fender guitars that have never achieved icon status, but were in production long enough to be reasonably available, and to earn their own deeply loyal following. The original Fender Starcaster was a semi-hollowbody in production from 1975 to 1982. It features an offset ES335-style body and a pair of humbuckers. It has become somewhat better known as a favorite of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.
The Fender Duo-Sonic was a “student” guitar introduced in 1956. It remained in production, with a few upgrades and remodels, until 1969, when it gave way to the much more popular Mustang. The Duo Sonic featured a short 22.5 inch scale length, two single coil pickups and a fixed bridge. Despite its intentionally low-cost construction, the Duo-Sonic proved to be a very playable guitar with great sound that has earned a coveted place among collector and artists as diverse as David Byrne, Bill Frisell, John Mclaughlin, Liz Phair, and Rory Gallagher.
Keep your eyes and ears open and you might find one of these undiscovered treasures. Recognize them for the hidden gems they are and pay whatever underestimated price the owner is likely to ask. Chances are, you’ll have bought a guitar that will continue to surprise you with its quality, its quirky charms and its singular sound and feel.