The concept of the "student guitar" does not really exist today as it did in the ‘50s and ‘60s when the first electric guitar boom was in full swing. Back then, electrics were only being made by a handful of companies, and good ones from the major brands were prohibitively expensive for many working people. A Fender Stratocaster was a few hundred bucks, for example, which sounds like an incredible deal now, but in 2017 money that's the equivalent of about three grand. This meant that only the students with rich parents or really good part-time jobs were getting them. Less well-off kids wanted to rock too, though, and thus the extremely successful student guitar market was born.
Brands like Silvertone specialized in the lower-end student models, selling its wares through big department stores and mail-order catalogs, and while many of these were fine instruments, what the kids of the ‘60s really wanted were Fenders and Gibsons. These companies realized the potential of this student market early on and set about creating stripped down versions of their signature instruments for learners with limited budgets. These guitars were built on a shorter scale as well, and with slimmer contours, making them more suitable for young rockers with small hands and shorter arms.
Though student models were the budget instruments of their day, they were just as well-made as the professional models, and thus quickly attained cult status among accomplished musicians in addition to beginners. Some players liked the smaller size and simplified designs, and some (particularly early punk and post-punk guitarists) simply bought them because they were cheap, highly functional, and still had a Fender or Gibson logo on the headstock. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, these guitars were abundant in pawn shops and still far less expensive than a Strat or Les Paul. For a down-and-out ‘80s punk, they were just the ticket.
In modern times, the cult status of vintage student guitars has given way to a full-blown collectors market. Guitarists like Kurt Cobain have done much to increase the popularity of these instruments, resulting in a number of reissues, as has the fact that they are still relatively abundant and affordable. Vintage student guitars are a great way to get going in the vintage market without taking out a third mortgage or selling a kidney, and they're also just cool instruments. Here are a few classic starter models to look out for.
Fender Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic
The Musicmaster was Fender's first offering in the student guitar market, and was released in 1956. Leo and company had previously taken note of the fact that their flagship model, the Stratocaster, was financially out of reach for many younger players that wanted it, and thus began to design something smaller and more affordable, but with a similar look and sonic character. Prototyping began in early 1956, and by April of the same year the Musicmaster was in production.
The Musicmaster originally featured a 22.5-inch scale, a one-piece maple neck with 21 frets, a three-saddle bridge, and one single-coil pickup. It was quite spartan, to be sure, but it was also undoubtedly a Fender. It had the same quality construction, futuristic look, and distinctive tonal signature of its predecessor, despite selling for just under 120 dollars, around a third of the cost of a Strat.
For kids with slightly more money to throw around, Fender released the Duo-Sonic several months later. It was essentially a two-pickup version of the Musicmaster, built with the same body and neck, but outfitted with somewhat more complex electronics. Both guitars went through various updates over the years, but remained popular in the Fender lineup. These days, Pre-CBS models can be had for under two grand, making them very accessible to vintage guitar collectors of average means.
The Mustang is easily the most popular and enduring of Fender's short-scale student model guitars, making its grand entrance in 1964. It was envisioned as an evolution of the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic, sharing the smaller size and lower cost of these models, while surpassing them in terms of tonal variety and sophistication due to its offset body, pair of pickups, enhanced switching, and uniquely functional vibrato system. It was also offered in 24-inch scale length like the Jaguar (Fender began offering Musicmasters and Duo-Sonics in 24-inch scale at this time as well), which quickly became the most popular option. Most vintage Mustangs found today will be 24-inch scale models.
The Mustang has remained popular in large part because of its association with Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, who was posthumously given a signature model in 2012, but it had been generally popular with punk and underground musicians long before that due to its ubiquity on the second-hand market, its high quality, and its low cost. Its reputation had also grown steadily with vintage collectors, such that Fender first reissued the model in 1990, several years before Cobain's rise to fame. Today, a number of reissues can be found, but like the Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic, excellent vintage Mustangs can be picked up all day long for less than 2000 bucks, and sometimes a lot less.
Fender really was the king of student model guitars, releasing a series of stripped-down, short scale rockers over the years. The last one was the Bronco, and it entered the lineup in 1967, having some curious attributes. It was based around the body and neck of the Mustang, which had been released several years earlier, but it had a different vibrato system (a rather unpopular Leo-designed contraption that never graced any other model before or since), and a single pickup like the Musicmaster. This pickup was in the bridge position, however, unlike the Musicmaster's neck-position transducer.
Despite shipping with a cool matching amp (basically a “silverface” Vibro Champ), The Bronco never did as commercially well as any of its brethren. This may have been due to its lackluster vibrato system or its distinctly treble-oriented tone, which was cool for leads but not so great for old-school rhythm playing styles. It remained in the Fender lineup until 1981, however, and fine vintage examples can be had today for 1000 bucks or less, making it an attractive and accessible entry point to vintage guitar collecting.
Gibson Melody Maker
Gibson didn't attack the student guitar market with quite as much fervor and ambition as Fender, but its Melody Maker line has become legendary in its own right, and was the first proper guitar for many young future heroes, including Billy Gibbons and Joan Jett among others. It changed body styles many times since its 1959 release, starting as a single-cutaway LP Jr.-style body with a single pickup, and ending up with an SG-style body with two pickups and a vibrato by 1966. Many other variations have existed as well, but the '59-style single-cutaway seems to be the favorite.
Like other student models, the Melody Maker sought to uphold the basic quality of its forebears and give off some of the same vibe, while being smaller and much cheaper. As such, the original Melody Maker had a Les Paul-like shape, but with a slimmer mahogany slab body and set mahogany neck. It was available in either 18.56-inch scale (only until 1970) or a standard Gibson 24.75-inch scale. Curiously, it was outfitted with small, decidedly un-Gibson-like single-coil pickups, primarily to save in manufacturing costs.
The Gibson Melody Maker has a strong legacy in the vintage guitar world, and has thus been reissued in many different versions (2011 even saw the release of Flying V and Explorer variants). Actual vintage models can still be had relatively inexpensively as well, though, with many examples available in the sub-1500 dollar range. Single-cut models from the first two years of production can get kind of pricey, however, with a nice dual-pickup '59 sunburst going for 3000 dollars or more. That's a good chunk of change, but still many, many times cheaper than a '59 Les Paul, making it a great place to start for the working rocker with a lust for vintage Gibson tones.