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The Swinger and the Custom

 

Fender Swinger in Candy Apple Red.
Fender Swinger in Candy Apple Red.

There is perhaps no more ephemeral pair of instruments in Fender history than 1969’s Swinger and Custom guitars.

Most have never heard of either instrument. Few have actually encountered either instrument. But they were real. They were neither numerous, long-lived nor popular, but they were real.

As the 1960s waned, Fender found itself with a factory full of unused parts left over from non-mainstream instruments whose reception hadn’t panned out quite as well as hoped. Fender’s established favorites were as popular and indispensable as ever, but more experimental models such as 1965’s Electric XII and Bass V left many useless bodies, necks and other parts taking up valuable factory space. These instruments were destined to end with the decade, and parent company CBS preferred not to consign all the leftover parts to the scrap heap. Deeming it better to sell off than to write off, CBS executives determined in 1969 to make something of it all.

More precisely, they determined to have Babe Simoni make something of it all.

Virgilio “Babe” Simoni joined Fender at age 16 in 1953. He rose steadily through the ranks to become stringed instruments product manager in the mid ’60s, and in dutifully implementing the 1969 CBS mandate to find something profitable to do with all the leftover parts sitting around, Simoni duly created not one but two “new” Fender guitar models—the Swinger (also known as the “Musiclander” and the “Arrow”) and the Custom (also known as the “Maverick”). They didn’t prove to be as profitable as CBS hoped; indeed, neither unusual-looking guitar was a success and hence neither was around longer than a year. But credit must be given to Simoni for making some form of lemonade from the lemons handed to him. No small feat.

In carrying out his assignment, Simoni also managed an unprecedented feat at Fender. Every instrument model Fender had ever made was the result of a careful research and development process. Not the Swinger and the Custom, though. There was no “drawing board” involved in their creation; they were improvised right there on the factory floor under Simoni’s direction. Fender’s R&D department had literally nothing to do with either guitar.

It appears even that for years after the brief production run of both instruments, at least some pivotal figures at Fender weren’t even aware of their existence, period. When longtime Fender engineer Freddie Tavares was asked about one of the guitars in 1978, he was initially mystified, as noted in The Golden Age of Fender: 1946-1970:

In response to a letter sent to Fender in 1978 asking about a Swinger, Freddie Tavares wrote, “I finally solved the mystery, and can tell you that Fender did build a guitar like the one shown … the guitar, named Musiclander, came into being without the usual development process which is conducted by the R&D department … this incident makes me feel like an orphan in a company I have been with for more than a quarter century, because I never heard of this guitar until your enquiry.”

Keep in mind that the entertaining exchange above occurred several years after the demise of the short-lived Swinger.

The Swinger was the first of Simoni’s two “leftover” guitars. It never appeared in any Fender sales brochures, catalogs or price lists, and The Golden Age of Fender notes that they were likely sold directly by the sales reps they were given to.

Headstock detail showing "Swinger" logo sticker.
Headstock detail showing “Swinger” logo sticker.

The guitar itself was fashioned from Musicmaster guitar and Bass V bodies paired with short-scale necks; no more than a few hundred were made. Simoni took Musicmaster bodies and sawed a curve into the bottom end and a portion off the upper horn, resulting in an unconventional but surprisingly elegant and comfortable shape. Elongated Bass V bodies were also re-worked into Swingers. Musicmaster, Duo Sonic and Mustang student guitars had been available since 1964 with a choice of a 24” or 22.5” scale. Few chose the latter, and hundreds of leftover short-scale necks crowded the factory by 1969. These were used for the Swinger, with their headstocks sawn into a sharp point (which reappeared 16 years later on 1985’s Performer guitar). The instrument had a single Musicmaster pickup and other Musicmaster parts, and it came in Daphne Blue, Dakota Red, Black, Lake Placid Blue, Candy Apple Red and Olympic White. The headstock bore only the Fender script logo, although some also had a clear plastic sticker next to the logo that said “Swinger” in similar black script.

Although the Swinger was a small and inexpensive student model, surviving guitars command thousands of dollars in today’s vintage market as one of Fender’s most esoteric and short-lived models.

The second of Simoni’s two “leftover” guitars was the Custom. It rose—albeit briefly—from the ashes of the Electric XII; a mid-’60s model that, although well made and good sounding, had experienced disappointing sales. The distinctive 12-string guitar model was discontinued in 1969, and Simoni was once again charged with salvaging something profitable from the wealth of unused parts that had piled up throughout the second half of the decade.

Simoni’s response was practical and straightforward—he simply reconfigured all the leftover Electric XII bodies and necks into a six-string model, dubbed the Custom (which it inarguably was). As he’d done in creating the Swinger from Musicmaster and Bass V bodies, Simoni took to the remaining Electric XII bodies with a band saw. He re-shaped the bottom of the guitar with two slight inward curves culminating in a point at the center, and again took a slice off the upper horn.

The Custom as it appeared in the 1970 Fender catalog.
The Custom as it appeared in the 1970 Fender catalog.

The Electric XII’s “hockey stick” headstock presented more of a challenge, as it was considerably elongated to accommodate a dozen tuning machines. Simoni simply chopped it down and reshaped it slightly to more properly fit six tuning machines, covering up the surgery with thin maple veneers. The Electric XII’s pickups and most other parts remained, except for the model-specific 12-saddle bridge; obviously no longer necessary on a six-string guitar. Simoni replaced them with leftover Mustang bridges.

The Electric XII had a string-through-body design. In creating the Custom, Simoni filled in the holes and covered everything up by giving the guitar a sunburst finish on the front and, strangely, a solid black finish on the back. It appeared in the fall 1969 Fender price list at $289.50, roughly the same as a Telecaster Custom, Precision Bass and non-tremolo Stratocaster.

These guitars had headstock logos that said “Fender Custom” in the familiar flowing script, although others were produced that said “Fender Maverick.” It’s unclear why; various sources conflict over the distinction between the two or whether there is any distinction between them. Some contend that Customs had leftover Electric XII necks, whereas as Mavericks had purpose-built necks; others believe the reverse is true; still others believe the neck doesn’t provide the distinction. The correct explanation remains elusive.

Ultimately it didn’t matter. Just about everyone saw right through the Custom. A superior instrument to the smaller Swinger, it was nonetheless recognized as exactly what it was—a hurried and blatant salvage attempt. Several hundred were made, but the model failed to sell despite being included in the 1970 Fender catalog. It made its last appearance in a Fender price list in 1972.

Although it’s all but certain that Fender produced more Customs than Swingers, the former are few and far between on the modern vintage market, while it seems that you can often find a small handful of the latter on eBay. Both instruments command thousands of dollars today. And while the student-model Swinger is seldom if ever seen in high-profile hands (Ben Kweller and Talking Heads bassist Tina Weymouth being notable exceptions), acclaimed guitarists including Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick), Al Doyle (Hot Chip) and the late Rowland Howard (Birthday Party) have wielded the Custom.

Almost half a century ago, Babe Simoni did his best with what was given to him, and The Golden Age of Fender notes that it’s unfair to blame him for the failure of the Swinger and the Custom. That distinction belongs elsewhere, the book’s authors contend—with CBS executives “who cared little about guitars or the people who bought them.” And while the Swinger and the Custom might seem with hindsight to embody a cautionary tale regarding Fender’s increasing travails under CBS rule, they’ve also earned a distinctive place among Fender’s most experimental instruments of the 1960s and ’70s.

 

 

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