We seem to remember firsts. A car, a kiss, a kiss in a car. A first guitar is also something indelible in our minds. For me, it’s the reason why that new guitar case smell sends me straight back to my first Stratocaster when I was fourteen and conjures up the surge of feelings of starting out with the guitar. Anticipation, excitement, and accomplishment at nailing a lead line of a favorite song.
Over the decades some major brands have gone out of their way to design, launch, and market certain models as “student” instruments. The starting blocks of the school of rock. Of course, there is also a clever marketing tact at play for this target audience: bringing players on board in their early days both cultivates brand loyalty and a sense of a natural feel of a guitar from that particular make. Ironically, however, many of these builds billed as a starter axe have shown they can perform at the top of their class.
The Unexpected Origins and Comeback of Offsets: The Fender Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic
The launch dates of the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic were so close they could have been twins. Both born in 1956, just a few months apart. This makes the Musicmaster one of the earliest examples of a “student” guitar. Its design boasted simplicity, with its mid-ship slanted single coil and a set of volume and tone nobs to get the job done. A feature common to both the Muiscmaster and Duo-Sonic is the notable 22.5” scale length, well below the standard 25.5” for most other Fenders, as well as the contoured body ideal for tiny players.
In 1964, however, Fender changed things up. Both models received a nip and tuck, giving them an offset contour akin to the Mustang. While the Musicmaster remains a relic in the heritage of Fender, the Duo-Sonic has made a more recent comeback with its 2016 reintroduction. The offset designs of these guitars, however, won over players from an early time such as Jimi Hendrix, who played a 1959/60 Duo-Sonic in his early years of backing up the Isley Brothers, and throngs of indie musicians thereafter.
The No Fuss Rocker That is the Gibson Les Paul Junior
Just two years after the launch of their flagship Les Paul, in 1954 Gibson released the Les Paul Junior. By releasing the design under the same name as it’s bigger brother, the idea was to communicate clearly to prospective players and buyers that the student could start with a bona fide Gibson. Detailed craftsmanship in a competitive price bracket.
Some of the design features that make these early models standout include: a single bridge-position dog ear P-90 pickup tucked up close to a slanted and stud-mounted fixed bridge, and a single-cutaway, flat slab solid body that reflects the Juniors lineage back to its more senior version. By 1958, however, Gibson made the bold move to render the body shape a double cutaway, which persisted until 1963 when the model was retired for a number of decades. The Junior’s stripped down, no-fuss design, however, made comebacks throughout the decades (1986 - 1992, 2001 - 2002, 2005 - present). Over the years, the Les Paul Junior has been wielded by guitar gurus across genres, including Billy Joe Armstrong, Bob Marley, and John Lennon.
Late to Class, but Making an Impression: The Paul Reed Smith SE Line
Arguably the most recent and more modern success story of a student-style guitar, the PRS SE line has expanded its scope and range to appeal to players well beyond their early years.
Following a strong start-up in the mid 80s, Paul Reed Smith guitars targeted top-class players with builds evidencing unharnessed creativity, surpassing quality, and sheer instrument artistry. One famous player that ascended alongside the luthier was Carlos Santana. After the ongoing success of the Santana signature model, 2001 saw the introduction of the PRS SE line-up, standing for “student edition.” One of the first exemplars of this idea was a Korean made PRS Santana SE. While the lineup has since expanded appreciably in style, signature models, categories of builds, and price, the basic idea behind the PRS SE range remains the same: craft a guitar that can journey with a student from their early days yet at the same time is of a quality that could perform on the world stage.In short, this cross-section of student models underscores that the right guitar can journey with you throughout your life as a player. Whatever you’re playing and wherever you are on that journey, have a great #RiffCitySunday.