Classic Guitars, part 9: Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar

The Fender Jazzmaster was introduced in 1958 as a conscious effort to broaden Fender’s user base and appeal.

The company’s first efforts – the now legendary Telecaster and Stratocaster models – had already proven to be successful, but were then still widely perceived as bright-sounding guitars for Country & Western, as well as early Rock ’n’ Roll. Now Leo Fender and his team were aiming for the more ”serious” guitarists of the Jazz and Easy Listening genres.

Fender kept the standard long Fender-scale (25.5″), but – for the first time – added a rosewood fingerboard. The reasons for the rosewood board were both cosmetic – it looked classier than the lacquered maple of previous models – as well for tonal reasons, with rosewood imbuing the sound with a warmer timbre. The Jazzmaster was also the company’s first guitar with an enlarged version of the Strat-headstock, which was meant to combat dead spots and wolf-tones.

The body was a brand-new design premiering the company’s patented offset waist feature, meant to improve balance, especially when playing seated.

A new, front-mounted vibrato with a softer, spongier action (meant as a direct competitor to Bigsby’s models) was also devised. The vibrato – which worked with a separate, rocking bridge – was easy to adjust from the front, and also featured a locking mechanism for disabling the system (and keeping the guitar in tune even after a string breakage).

The most important changes took place in the electronics of the Jazzmaster: The pickups were clearly Fender’s attempt at getting a Gibson P-90 -type tonality, with the wide and flat coils. The controls featured two different circuits, with the normal circuit offering a 3-way toggle switch, as well as a master volume and tone control. A slide switch on the scratchplate’s upper shoulder engaged the so-called Rhythm Circuit, which switched on only the neck pickup going through its own set of volume and tone controls (above the neck pickup).

After a first wave of enthusiasm over Fender’s new top-of-the-line guitar, the Jazzmaster’s success sadly waned. Most conservative Jazz guitarists wouldn’t touch Fender’s ”plank” with a barge pole, and still considered the sound as too bright, while the company’s usual customers were perfectly happy with their more straightforward Strats and Teles.

The biggest genuine problem with Jazzmasters lies in their singlecoil pickups, which take in a lot of extraneous hum and interference (just like P-90’s do).

Modern players also tend to complain about the vibrato system’s flimsy bridge saddles, although, in fairness, one should note that this is mostly due to our modern light string gauges. The Jazzmaster-vibrato had been designed at a time when ”light gauge” meant an 012-set with a wound g-string.

Today the Jazzmaster’s appeal lies mostly in the alternative field, and not too many name players spring to mind:

Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), as well as British songwriter Elvis Costello are the most well-known Jazzmaster players.

****

In 1962 Fender took the Jazzmaster as the basis for a brand-new model, geared towards Surf and Pop guitarists – called the Fender Jaguar.

The Jaguar was Fender’s first guitar with 22 frets, and it featured a relatively short scale of 24″ (even shorter than Gibson’s usual 24.75″). The general look stayed in place, but the Jaguar was adorned with glitzy chrome control plates.

Fender took the criticisms over the Jazzmaster-pickups to heart and designed new pickups for the Jaguar. The new units are reminiscent of Strat-pickups, but feature slightly higher coils, as well as metal shielding plates that enclose most of the pickups’ bottom and sides.

The normal/Rhythm-circuit set-up stayed in place, but the normal circuit now featured three slide switches – an on/off-switch for each pickup, plus a ”strangle” switch that cuts all bottom end from the output signal.

The Jaguar originally also came equipped with a detachable mechanical string mute, which wasn’t well-received by guitar players.

Sadly, the Jaguar’s fate followed along the Jazzmaster’s lines – after a first wave of success sales dwindled in the wake of the British Invasion.

The most famous names associated with the Fender Jaguar are Carl Wilson (The Beach Boys), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana) and Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse).

As with the Jazzmaster, the Jaguar has seen a resurgence of sorts over the past few years, with many new and modified versions springing up, such as the Fender Blacktop Jaguar HH.

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