Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service guitarist Ben Gibbard’s newly released Fender Mustang signature model guitar is a bare bones workhorse instrument designed to inspire creativity. Simplicity and logical functionality, especially in live performance, take precedence over a glitzy, tricked out axe with a fast fretboard that lets you shred like an ’80 hair band superstar.
We chatted with the Death Cab leader about working with Fender on designing his new signature model and how he came to love the Fender Mustang. We also put the guitar in the hands of guitarist Max Connery of Sonic Blume, a New Jersey indie band and Shore Points Records artist who is heavily inspired by Gibbard’s playing and songwriting. Connery gave the guitar a test run in the video below, playing a variety of riffs and working the different pickup selections to showcase the guitar’s versatility
“This guitar,” Gibbard says, “is going to give you what you put into it. You’re not leaning on switchers and pedals. Over the years guitars have gotten complex. But for my purposes, I’ll always grab a guitar that’s a little simpler.”
“I am always frustrated by technological impediments to creativity. Any instrument that is just a pure vehicle for expression is one I always gravitate towards.”
Gibbard explains his fondness for the Fender Mustang, the first of which he acquired years ago in a trade deal. “My friend Jesse Quitslund, who has been our guitar tech, also works out of a guitar shop. I was trading him a black ’72 Fender Thinline Telecaster and a couple other things. He had a sunburst ‘70s Mustang guitar which he basically threw into the whole trade.”
Some modifications were made to the original Mustang by Gibbard. These changes, primarily swapping the tone knob into a 3-position pickup switch, have made their way into his new signature model. For Gibbard, it comes down to comfort and playability.
“I made so many modifications to my original guitar and I’m curious if people are going to find this signature model sacrilegious or not. The phase switch is gone, the bridge is locked, no pickup switch. I took the tone knob out because who uses that anyway and made that the pickup switcher. I wanted to design a guitar for someone like myself who sings and plays at the same time. I found that when I’m performing a song and really feeling it, if I’m playing a guitar with a lot of switches those are things to get in the way of the performance. Removing them seemed natural to me on my original and this new signature guitar.”
Gibbard’s path to the Mustang actually began with another overlooked Fender model.
“In the early days of Death Cab, I had been playing these Fender Bullet guitars. I had one that I bought for like $150. They have a ¾ body like the Mustang but with a Tele-style neck. The size of the neck and body made my hands move around the neck in a way that became a signature sound for our first three or four records. You could arpeggiate around the guitar easily.”
“I was also mimicking this guy Doug Martsch and bands like Bedhead, Superchunk and Seam who would take the guitar and, instead of playing chords, would break up the instrumentation across two guitars and bass and weave in and out of each other.”
“When I got my original Mustang, I found my hands moving in a similar manner. It felt like an old friend. I found myself writing parts that 21-year-old Ben would have thought were awesome. At that point in the band’s career, that felt like an important place to be.”
The guitar features a chambered ash body design for increased resonance and is fairly lightweight. The neck is a one-piece 22-fret modern “C”-shaped maple neck with 9.5” radius fingerboard and medium jumbo frets. This “C” neck is meaty and has a comfortable feel, though it does make you work a little harder than other artist signature guitars, particularly shred-style axes.
“For someone like me growing up in the suburbs, the ‘80s was a dark period in mainstream rock music if you were playing guitar. It was all shred guitar and hair metal. If you didn’t have access to a college radio station or a cool record shop, there was no way to be a musician if you couldn’t shred.”
“Not that virtuosity doesn’t have its place, but to this day I’m more interested in listening to someone who wrote music on an instrument they didn’t know how to play versus someone who spent years playing the same instrument. I find there’s a lot of innovation in the discovery of an instrument in atypical channels. That’s how I came up as a musician.”
Electronics include a set of custom, vintage-inspired Ben Gibbard Mustang pickups and a stage-ready 3-way rotary pickup selector switch. Fender and Gibbard added some new enhancements to the guitar as well. What appears to be a vintage-style Mustang bridge is actually an innovative modified hardtail setup, providing rock-solid stability, intonation and sustain. The guitar is offered in a natural finish and includes strap locks and a Fender gig bag.
Gibbard wanted to make sure the guitar was road-worthy, so he rotated the prototype in every couple of songs for quality control during the test period. “I’ve been using a fleet of ‘70s Mustangs when we are on the road. We actually have two sets of gear on the road for logistics. If we have to be somewhere else in a short amount of time, we can ship one out ‘slow boat.’” This signature model, he explains, has the same modifications.
“It’s been a fun journey to put this guitar together. Now it’s here and it’s wild to see it and hold it. I want to play this on stage. As soon as we can play shows, this guitar is coming with me.”