If you’ve been to a decent number of underground rock shows in recent years, you’ve probably seen at least one Fender Mustang bass. Introduced in 1965, the Mustang bass (and the matching guitar of the same name) was originally marketed to students, but it has the same humbucker pickup as the iconic Precision Bass. Crucially, though, the length of the instrument is reduced by about a quarter.
“Student model” is a recurring phrase in the world of short-scale and small-bodied guitars. Guitars of these types are marketed as a stepping stone to a standard-sized instrument, and they’re often inexpensive and cheaply made. But the guitar industry has noticed the growing buzz around short-scale and smaller-bodied instruments, and has begun producing them with the same quality and care with which they make their other products. Taylor Guitars has pushed their GS-mini acoustic guitar, and Fender relaunched the Mustang bass and guitar in 2016. A new guitar company, TunaTone, has launched making handmade instruments exclusively at shorter scales and with smaller bodies.
But why has it taken so long? For one thing, the guitar industry is a nostalgic one. Guitar designs from the ‘50s and ‘60s continue to dominate the market, and guitar mythology tends to be regressive. Davis Guggenheim’s 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud is a movie about iconic guitarists—Jack White, Jimmy Page, The Edge—but it’s more guitar ideology than guitar playing. It’s a fine summary of the American guitar myth, strained and transmuted through time: white men earn their right to play Black music through hard graft. So, here’s the B-roll of grazing cows, and there’s Jack White, hammering a nail into a dirty plank of wood, fixing a guitar string to it, with a coke bottle to get the tension right, and in the voice-over, White tells The Edge and Page, “you have to fight these man-made materials.” Women and non-binary people have always played guitars, but in guitar culture, they’ve almost always been relegated to the margins. (Magazines like She Shreds attempt to offset this.)
And that means less comfortable and less playable instruments for everybody. Buckethead, the towering, enigmatic, 6’6” guitarist, dedicated one of the only interviews he’s ever done to talking about the chronic back pain and posture problems a career of playing Gibson Les Pauls has left him with. Today, musicians of all body shapes and sizes are picking up short-scale and small-bodied guitars, and demonstrating that they’re no less special, and no less musical. Every musician, in fact, has a story about their instrument. I spoke to four musicians who play short-scale and small-bodied guitars about theirs.
“It’s funny how many men were surprised that half the people who buy new guitars are women,” says Emily Harris. “Half the girls I went to high school with had a guitar in their room.” Harris is a musician and host of the Get Offset podcast. Harris wrote about the Tunatone Teeny Tuna, made by luthier Leila Sidi, for Fretboard Journal. “It weighs next to nothing. It really suits the way that I’ve been playing. I don’t want to have shoulder issues when I’m older!” Harris mentions musicians she knows that have had medical issues from careers of playing large instruments: “I don’t think anyone should be playing 10-pound guitars.” Harris emphasizes the need for quality instruments like those made by Tunatone for when players want to step up in build quality, but not size, saying that the Tiny Tuna is for “when you’ve been playing for a while, but when you also want a guitar that’s high quality that’s a little bit harder to find on the wall of the Guitar Center.”
To Harris, the availability of short-scale instruments is part of the larger issue of a lack of diversity in the guitar industry: “It starts from the bottom, but until people at the top are willing to reach out and include people who are different, nothing will change.” For now, for instrument makers successfully including short-scale instruments, Harris also shouted out Eastwood Guitars, particularly their Warren Ellis bass. “That’s a great quality instrument as well. I never really wanted a bass, but when I sit down and play that Warren Ellis, I’m like ‘Oh shit, I get it!’”
Matt Sklar of Parrot Dream and The Planes
“I think I was at a music festival and I just noticed how many bands’ bass players had the Mustang,” says Matt Sklar, a Brooklyn-based bassist who performs with the bands Parrot Dream and The Planes. “So I figured let me just try it, and I figured I’ll just use it as my secondary bass and it sort of became my main bass.” Playability always trumps narrative, and for Sklar there’s no tonal sacrifice necessary using his Fender Mustang bass: “for the most part, I don’t hear much of a difference with the short-scale compared to my [long-scale Fender] Jazz Bass.”
“What’s fun about The Planes is that the bass is a lead instrument at times, because it’s just guitar and bass and drums.” Sklar says. While the power pop band The Planes requires a cleaner sound, Sklar uses a lot of effects with dream pop outfit Parrot Dream, and the versatility of the Mustang helps him adapt. “I try to be flexible with any band I play in.”
Kyle Forester of Huvudbry and Crystal Stilts
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“You know the famous picture of the Ramones on the subway?,” says Kyle Forester. Forester is a Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter who also plays bass with the bands Huvudbry and Crystal Stilts. For him, the appeal of the Mustang is in the ability to get it across New York City easily, á la Dee Dee Ramone. “When you think of ‘70s rock, you think of the Led Zeppelin-style rock band that has a million amps and is really loud, with the Les Paul guitar.” But the Ramones rejected that idea, “using trashy instruments that they’re literally putting in a shopping bag.” That lack of self-seriousness appealed to Forester, a multi-instrumentalist who appreciates being able to switch back and forth from bass to guitar.
Forester also notes the adaptability of short-scale basses to effects: “I think the way that it is a little more in the guitar range, it’s a little bit easier to manipulate. You kind of want to be in that higher range anyway.” Like Sklar, Forester notes that short-scale basses open up new musical possibilities. “For what I’m doing, the bass is like a texture that’s gotta be in that frequency range, but it doesn’t have to take up as much as room. That’s not the purpose it’s serving.”
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Melissa Guion, a shoegaze artist who performs as MJ Guider, started with a Japanese-made “lawsuit” era EB-0 or Gibson-style SG bass. She says going from a standard bass to that short scale was “like night and day… it suddenly made sense. This fits my hand, it fits my body, I feel comfortable playing this.” Guider is also particularly attached to her Rickenbacker 3000. “It has really, really good top end,” she says. “Usually you don’t expect something that’s not neck-through to have that kind of resonance.”
Like Forester, Guider said that playing a short-scale bass encourages her to think more creatively about the role of the instrument in her work. “I’m a bass player, but I don’t play the bass like a bass player for the most part,” Guider says. “I play a little bit differently, have my own style and my own needs with what I want it to sound like and what I want it to do, so I don’t think that a traditional bass is exactly the right thing for me.” For Guider, playability is the most important consideration in selecting an instrument: “Something that’s easy for me to play is more important than tone. I wanna be able to play chords or slide around or do things that are a little different from a traditional bass player’s role. The short-scale bass makes that possible for me.”