The Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic models of the mid 1950s firmly established Fender’s long tradition of student-model electric guitars. Basic in design, well made and eminently affordable, both guitars started many a beginner on a lifetime of music.
It’s a tradition that began almost as soon as Leo Fender founded the company in 1946. During that first decade, he and his sales chief, Don Randall, were firm believers in “step up” sales programs in which students and other beginners could follow a well-defined path of upgraded instruments as they matured in both personal growth and musical skill.
Randall in particular was keenly aware that much would be gained by providing smaller, less-expensive student instruments to retailers who offered in-store music instruction; the thinking being that such dealers were well placed to launch beginners to the next level by selling them full-size Fender guitars. Fender’s steel guitar line was the first good example of this. From the mid 1940s to the mid 1950s, the young company developed a full line of steel guitar models that started with less-expensive student models and steadily progressed through professional models.
It seems only natural, then, that Fender would follow suit for its two great “Spanish” solid-body electric guitars of the early 1950s, the Telecaster (1951) and the Stratocaster (1954). As noted in The Golden Age of Fender: 1946-1970, both guitars “were aimed squarely at professional musicians.” As of the introduction of the Stratocaster, however, there was no related student guitar to lead young and beginning players to it and the Telecaster.
Further, a major development was transpiring in the worlds of popular music and burgeoning U.S. youth culture: rock ‘n’ roll. “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets, with its infectious swing and dizzying guitar breaks, spent most of summer 1955 atop the charts, and suddenly a lot of kids were interested in electric guitar.
None of this was lost on Randall, who wanted to see to it that all those kids would take interest in a Fender electric guitar. So when he urged Leo Fender in 1955 to develop a student electric model, a new guitar design didn’t take long. In fact, Leo responded with not one but two new student guitars. The Musicmaster and the Duo-Sonic went into production in mid-1956; in April and June, respectively.
Both were short-scale guitars—22.5” compared to 25.5” for the Telecaster and Stratocaster—with ¾-size bodies (contrary to what the name implies, a ¾”-size guitar is not 25 percent smaller than a standard guitar; it’s just slightly smaller). And both occupied the low end of the price list—$119.50 for the Musicmaster and $149.50 for the dual-pickup Duo-Sonic, compared to $199.50 for a Telecaster and 274.50 for a Stratocaster around that time. The first orders for the Musicmaster were taken in September 1955, but Fender was busy creating its “narrow-panel” amps and electric mandolin at the time, pushing Musicmaster production back into spring 1956.
Both guitars had Stratocaster-like headstocks and single-coil pickups, 21-fret maple necks, very basic three-saddle bridges, and Telecaster-like control knobs; one volume and one tone. Their bodies were notably smaller, with dual horns that were stubbier than those on the Stratocaster and Precision Bass. The Duo-Sonic had a three-way toggle pickup selector switch with a middle position that put both pickups in series, thus creating a humbucking-like tone.
The Musicmaster came first by a mere couple of months. Instruments in the very first production run had ash bodies, with black paint on their aluminum pickguards that often wore through quickly. June 1956 saw the second production run of Musicmasters and the first Duo-Sonic models; these had alder bodies, gold anodized pickguards, white pickup covers and a lacquer clear coat over a light-beige “Desert Sand” finish like that used on early Fender pedal steel guitars.
Both guitars were revised in 1959 with slab rosewood fingerboards, cream-colored single-ply plastic pickguards, dark pickup covers and an unnamed new finish of a darker tan with a slight pinkish hue.
The look changed again in 1961, when Fender gave both guitars a sunburst finish. It was not, however, identical to the sunburst finish of the Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, Precision Bass and Jazz Bass. Rather, the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic received a new “shaded sunburst” finish with, as noted in The Golden Age of Fender, “a deep maroon on the outer edge, fading through red into yellow, and as a cost-saving exercise, no clear coat.”
Both guitars changed once again in 1963, when the shaded sunburst finish was dropped and new white and red-mahogany colors were introduced. The latter was applied to mahogany-body models (an uncommon wood choice at Fender) but tended to crack and check easily; mahogany was consequently dropped in favor of poplar, which held the finish much better. Other features at that time on the red Musicmasters and Duo-Sonics included white pickguards and black pickup covers; white models featured tortoiseshell pickguards and white pickup covers. The Golden Age of Fender also notes a small special run of white guitars with brown pickguards, “examples of which are scarce.”
With the 1964 introduction of the Mustang, the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic received a Mustang-like redesign, offered in short and medium (24”) scales and in new red, white and blue finishes. These were often referred to as Musicmaster II and Duo-Sonic II models. Their bodies and headstocks were enlarged slightly, and the toggle pickup switch on the Duo-Sonic was dropped in favor of dual Mustang-style on-off-on slider switches (one above each pickup) that offered in-phase and out-of-phase tonal options.
With the widespread popularity of the vibrato-equipped Mustang, the Duo-Sonic was discontinued in 1969. The Musicmaster stayed, remaining in the Fender lineup until 1982 (and joined by the Musicmaster Bass model of 1971-1981).
It’s worth noting that while the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic were smaller student models aimed at beginners, in no way were they lacking in the quality present in Fender’s pro-level instruments. They were well-designed, solidly built and eminently affordable guitars which, after all, were created by the same people who created the Telecaster, Stratocaster, Precision Bass, Jazz Bass and other full-size Fender instruments.
And they did effectively serve their intended “step up” purpose as first-time instruments that would let players “graduate” to a Telecaster, Stratocaster or other top-line Fender model. Many a player started out on a lifetime of devotion to Fender guitars with a Musicmaster or Duo-Sonic (Jimi Hendrix played the latter early in his career).
Other artists who’ve wielded Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic guitars include David Byrne, Rory Gallagher, Richard Lloyd, John McLaughlin, Mickey “Dean Ween” Melchiondo, Liz Phair, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine and Johnny Winter.
Fender offered a reissue Duo-Sonic from 1994 to 1998 that came in Black, Arctic White and Torino Red finishes. A Squier Affinity series Duo-Sonic model was introduced in 1998 and lasted for one year. A decade later, in 2008, Squier introduced the Classic Vibe Duo-Sonic ’50s model, which was much closer to the original 1950s design, with a Desert Sand finish and gold anodized aluminum pickguard (although it had a 24” scale rather than the original 22.5” scale). It was discontinued in early 2013.