A close look at Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore's Jazzmaster
For those of you out there who have been regularly visiting our blog over here at ProAudioLand, you’ve probably noticed how for the last couple of weeks we have been focusing on some of the other guitars from the good folks at Fender. Sure, most guitarists out there can probably automatically recite to you the differences between a standard Telecaster and Stratocaster – things such as the different pickup setup, different body, different tonal characteristics and so on – but how many of them can tell you intricate details that make a guitar such as the Mustang uniquely its own? Or what about the special qualities that made the Jaguar guitar the darling of the bourgeoning indie and punk rock scenes of the ‘70s and ‘80s – even though it was a flunk when it was originally introduced? Well, for those questions answered and more, simply head on over to our previous blog posts on the Fender Mustang and the Fender Jaguar!
Alright, so we found out that the Jaguar and the Mustang brand of guitars – although experiencing very similar revivals – were still very different guitars. The Mustang for one was meant as a meat and potatoes second tier student model for those who outgrew the entry level Musicmaster or Duo-Sonic electric while the Jaguar was meant to appeal to surf rockers and was stuffed with more settings and switches than people back then knew what to do with. But even before the Jaguar and Mustang axes were released way back in ’62 and ’64, respectively, there was another guitar that once was lost but now is found; yes, I’m talking about the Fender Jazzmaster Electric.
History of the Fender Jazzmaster
The Fender Jazzmaster electric guitar was created as an upmarket version of the company’s very successful Stratocaster model. It was first revealed on January of 1958 in Anaheim, California, during the annual NAMM convention (which is by the way still one of the largest professional music industry trade shows in the world with only the Musik Messe in Frankfurt being a close competition) and was specifically marketed towards jazz musicians as its namesake suggests. Fender had hoped that the Jazzmaster would do the same for jazz guitarists as the Stratocaster and Telecaster did for rock and country guitarists, that is to say, become the standard choice of the genre while fending off the growing stiff competition from rival Gibson.
The Jazzmaster was the first of Fender’s guitars to introduce the contoured “offset-waist” body (not to be confused with the Strat’s “comfort contoured” body) specifically designed for comfort while playing the guitar in a seated position which was the style that many jazz and blues guitarists preferred – and still do. Among the other key features in the Jazzmaster was a full 25 ½ full scale length, lead and rhythm circuit switching with independent volume and tone controls along with a floating tremolo with tremolo lock. Although the Stratocaster before it also had a unique bridge and tremolo system, the construction was very different and gave the Jazzmaster its own diverse resonance and generally less sustain.
Along with these features, the Jazzmaster also stood out from the rest of Fender’s line with its pickups and the tone they created. The Jazzmaster had unique wide, white "soapbar" pickups that were unlike any other single coils at the time. Because of their larger size, Jazzmaster pickups are often confused with Gibson's P-90 pickups. Although they look similar, they are actually constructed very differently; whereas the polepieces of the Jazzmaster pickups are magnets, the P-90 has its magnets placed underneath the coil. Also, the Jazzmaster coil is wound flat and wide – even more than with the P-90 – which is very different from Fender's usual style of tall and thin coils. This gave the Jazzmaster a warmer tone without losing its single coil clarity – perfect (or so they thought) for jazz.
Townshend was known to abuse Jazzmasters
Although the Jazzmaster did have that mellower “jazzier” tone – at least more so than that of the Strat – it was not really embraced by jazz guitarists. Interestingly enough, the group that did embrace the Jazzmaster was the surf rock scene; The Ventures, The Surfaris, and The Fireballs – the top surf rock bands at the time – were all prominent Jazzmaster users. One of the main reasons behind this was the Jazzmaster’s characteristic string resonance which appears at several fret positions – and we all know how much those surf rockers love them some resonating tones – along with its unique body shape.
Fender knew they had to take advantage of the Jazzmaster’s appeal towards this genre of music so they quickly came up with a Jazzmaster-inspired design meant specifically for the surf rock crowd. That guitar was the Jaguar. For those of you who remember Monday’s article, you already know that the Jaguar didn’t exactly hit it big with the surf scene but made a comeback – much like the Jazzmaster would – with the underground music scenes of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Funny how both the Jazzmaster and the Jaguar failed to hit their target audiences but found new life elsewhere. If Fender’s laughing – it’s all the way to the bank, but let’s get back to the Jazzmaster.
The ‘70s mainstream rock sound did not treat the Jazzmaster well at all as most guitarists at the time were heading towards the big fat sound of the humbuckers, i.e.: Gibson Les Pauls. Compared to a Les Paul, the sound of the Jazzmaster was obviously a bit weak and the overall look of the guitar didn’t fit the vibe of the harder version of rock that dominating the airwaves such as Led Zeppelin or a little later on, AC/DC. They were so unpopular at the time in fact that it Fender had to get rid of excess inventory through huge price reductions before sticking the final nail in the coffin when Fender ended the line in 1980. Unknowingly, Fender actually gave the Jazzmaster a second shot at life through those very actions.
Very much like resurgence of the Mustang and the Jaguar, the Jazzmaster too benefited from its much reduced price (but excellent build quality), off kilter tone and anti-style appeal. New Wave artists such as Tom Verlaine of Television and Elvis Costello each sported a Jazzmaster, giving the guitar a strong cult following. By the ‘80s, the Jazzmaster was back in full swing – at least in the underground. Sonic Youth and art rock bands in particular were known to hoard these guitars as they prized the unique tones that could be had with them, often through tricks unknown to the Manufacturer (such as plucking the strings below the tailed bridge near the tailpiece to get church-bell-like tones).
By 1984, Fender introduced a reissue of the ’62 Jazzmaster – although it was regulated through its Japanese site, meaning it was not an American and therefore, not as prized. That changed in 1999 when Fender reintroduced the true American made Jazzmaster as part of its American Vintage Series. Today, the Jazzmaster is no longer a relic of the underground but a solid guitar is regular use by several of the pros in the business. Alright, now that we know a little bit more about how the Jazzmaster got where it’s at today, how about we take a look at some of the different varieties?
First introduced at the 1958 NAMM show, the Jazzmaster guitar features a uniquely contoured body, a snappy 25-1/2” scale length and warm-sounding pickups. Separate lead and rhythm circuit switching is a classic original design incorporating independent volume and tone controls, and the floating tremolo with tremolo lock adds to the Jazzmaster’s distinctive look and sound.
The Classic Player Jazzmaster Special guitar updates our famous Jazzmaster model with several thoroughly modern improvements, including hotter pickups, a new Adjusto-Matic™ bridge, a 9.5” fingerboard radius and a neck pocket with increased back-angle for improved stability and sustain.
Fender’s new and innovative Blacktop guitar series expands the sonic horizon of the classic Fender Jazzmaster® guitar by powering it with a high-gain humbucking pickup. Sleek and supercharged, the Blacktop Jazzmaster HS has a Duncan Designed™ single-coil Jazzmaster neck pickup and a humbucking bridge pickup, with other distinctive touches including skirted black amp knobs, a Jazzmaster tremolo tailpiece and a lean control layout featuring a tonally convenient single three-way toggle switch. Other features include an alder body, maple neck with 9.5”-radius rosewood fretboard, 22 medium jumbo frets, gloss polyester finish and chrome hardware.