Guitarchive: The Jazzmaster


An airborne Jazzmaster starred in one of the most famous “You won’t part with yours either” Fender ads, from 1965.

Fender unveiled its Jazzmaster® guitar in 1958, intending to land a one-two punch with an instrument that would be the company’s top-of-the line successor to the Stratocaster and appeal to serious jazz guitarists, a type of musician that had so far eluded Fender’s widening reach. Although the distinctive guitar didn’t achieve great success on those specific counts, it nonetheless surprised everybody by reaching widespread success in other, more unexpected arenas. In fact, it did this more than once.

Much was expected of the Jazzmaster. It bears remembering that the Fender company predated rock ‘n’ roll by a decade, and that when the form did make its first raucous splash in the mid-1950s, Leo Fender and sales director Don Randall were still focused almost entirely on the Western swing and dance bands so popular in post-war Southern California. The small but expanding Fender company was riding high in 1957 on the growing strength of its Telecaster guitar, Precision Bass guitar, a stable of well-built amplifiers and the by-then perfected Stratocaster guitar, but none of these had their genesis in rock ‘n’ roll.

Not that it mattered—rock ‘n’ roll was in a tailspin as the 1950s waned. Elvis Presley was drafted, Chuck Berry was jailed, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash, Little Richard abandoned rock ‘n’ roll for religion, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Alan Freed disappeared amid scandal. Little was left to fill the void except blandly manufactured teen pop (the wonderful saving grace of Motown was just finding its feet at the dawn of the 1960s), and it seemed as though rock was finished almost as soon as it started.

This context is important to understanding the creation of the Jazzmaster, because as far as Fender was concerned, rock ‘n’ roll had little if anything to do with it. The company had loftier musical ambitions and was eager to dispel the notion that its guitars, while popular with youth, were not top-tier instruments played by top-tier musicians.

Fender would do this by designing a successor to the Stratocaster that would appeal to jazz guitarists, a kind of musician generally deemed much more “serious.” The company eagerly sought the artistic credibility and market share that would come with getting Fender instruments into the hands of acclaimed jazz players such as Herb Ellis, Jim Hall, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Joe Pass and the like.

A prototypical Jazzmaster model is seen at left in Leo Fender’s lab in 1957 or early 1958.

As author Richard Smith notes in Fender: the Sound Heard ’Round the World, “Going after these players was the logical way to expand before Randall and Fender noticed and appreciated the growing proliferation of rock bands.”

Jazz, of course, was the high-minded, old-world and largely East Coast province of the hollow-body arch-top guitar. Fender wanted to prove that an affordably modern solid-body electric guitar could supplant these aged and expensive instruments, and the successor to the Stratocaster would be designed accordingly. The result was the Jazzmaster.

It was a striking instrument. While clearly a Fender guitar, the Jazzmaster bore little resemblance to the Stratocaster and none at all to the Telecaster. Although sleekly curvaceous and contoured like the former, the Jazzmaster was longer and heavier because of a feature previously unseen in a Fender instrument—an offset-waist body. This made the guitar more comfortably playable and balanced while seated, as jazz guitarists often were, and the design element was also used two years later on the phenomenally successful Jazz Bass guitar. Further, the Jazzmaster’s horns were less pronounced and its pickguard more angular than the Stratocaster’s, and its two large rectangular pickups and wealth of onboard controls gave it an atomic-age look that was just right with Sputnik beeping overhead and contemporary cinema full of robots, aliens and spaceships.

Very much unlike the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the Jazzmaster featured a floating bridge/anchored tailpiece design with a floating vibrato and tremolo-locking system. With a particularly shallow string-break angle at that end of the guitar, this design often proved temperamental—it produced a jazzy-enough “plunk” if set up correctly with the heavy-gauge strings typical of the period, but hitting the strings hard with the strumming/picking hand could often pop the strings from the grooved bridge saddles (a problem virtually nonexistent with the Telecaster and Stratocaster).

“Another Fender First!”: The Jazzmaster makes its debut in the 1958 Fender catalog.

Jazzier tone came from single-coil pickups wound flat and wide (as opposed to Fender’s customary tall and thin style) for less bite and a more plunk-y attack than earlier pickups, and with the bridge pickup mounted straight rather than slanted. These distinctive pickups were wired into an entirely new control layout, as the Jazzmaster was the first Fender instrument to have two separate tone circuits. A small slider switch on the upper horn let the player choose between “lead” and “rhythm” circuits, each with their own volume and tone controls.

The bright lead circuit had familiar Fender controls—a master volume knob and master tone knob on the lower bout, with a three-position toggle pickup selector switch on the stubby lower horn. The darker, mellower rhythm circuit had its own volume and passive tone controls on the upper horn in the form of inset tone wheels mounted near the slider switch. In the rhythm circuit setting, the Jazzmaster’s bridge pickup, pickup switch and lower-bout controls were deactivated, leaving only the neck pickup and the upper-horn inset wheels operational.

The rhythm circuit tone—which, again, is neck-pickup-only—is noticeably darker than the tone produced when the Jazzmaster is in lead-circuit mode with the pickup switch set to neck pickup only. The pronounced difference in the two neck-pickup-only tones is accounted for by the fact that the potentiometers for the lower-bout “lead” tone control and the upper-horn “rhythm” tone control are of differing electrical values.

All of these distinctive design elements coalesced to make the Jazzmaster a beautiful and most unusual and elaborate Fender guitar, to be sure, in sound and style. And as noted, there were high hopes for it upon its introduction.

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The Ventures in the early 1960s, with guitarists Don Wilson (right) and Bob Bogle (left) both wielding Jazzmasters.

The Jazzmaster was a smartly conceived guitar and it did produce mellower jazzy sounds, but it didn’t fulfill Fender’s original intent. It didn’t top the Stratocaster, and jazz guitarists didn’t embrace it. Why not? It was a gorgeous, well-built and innovative modern instrument with smooth feel, strikingly sleek looks and good tonal versatility.

The answer was perhaps twofold. First, jazz guitarists simply didn’t take to an instrument they hadn’t asked for in the first place. Fender could innovate right through the roof all day long if it wanted to, but, to stolid East Coast jazz-establishment veterans, a solid-body electric guitar just off the assembly line from an upstart West Coast maker was never going to equal their big, hollow, carved-top acoustic-electric jazz boxes.

Second, Leo Fender’s first two revolutionary guitars were so innovative, so brilliantly designed and so uncannily right practically from their introduction that any company—including Fender itself—would’ve been hard pressed indeed to top them. The Telecaster, eight years old by 1958, was already a de rigueur instrument in a working guitarist’s arsenal, especially on the West Coast. Its successor, the Stratocaster, had been perfected by 1957 into a remarkable example of stylish form and powerful function that was starting to lead a small but growing musical revolution. Tough acts to follow, those two.

Then something unexpected happened: the Jazzmaster succeeded anyway. It started to sell, but not to the customers Fender originally targeted. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The Jazzmaster appeared prominently in several of Fender’s noted “You won’t part with yours either” ads of the late ’50s and 1960s. Adman Robert Perine created the campaign to appeal specifically to teenagers, and, as Smith notes in Fender: the Sound Heard ’Round the World:

… the model found its way into the fabric of the teenage musical subculture, making a big splash with garage bands, especially surf bands in southern California. Instead of the prestigious pros foreseen by Leo, the Jazzmaster attracted kids with limited abilities who hoped a Fender would raise their musical skills to a higher level … In a sense, Leo’s failure illustrated Fender Sales’ success—ads with people jumping out of airplanes did not draw Barney Kessel types to Fenders. As planned, Perine’s ads attracted teenagers.

Actor James Best plays a Jazzmaster in a May 1961 episode of The Andy Griffith Show (above); Jimi Hendrix dons a Jazzmaster to back Wilson Pickett at a May 1966 Atlantic Records party in New York (below).

Also, the Jazzmaster was heard on 1960 hit single “Walk-Don’t Run,” one of the first surf-genre songs to crack the Billboard Hot 100 (it peaked at number two that summer). It was a cover of a 1954 Johnny Smith song by hugely popular Seattle instrumental quartet the Ventures, whose melodic guitar style attracted and influenced many beginning guitarists, and rhythm guitarist Don Wilson played a Jazzmaster as his main guitar. Many of the kids who emulated Wilson and many of the surf groups who proliferated in the Ventures’ wake followed suit, and the Jazzmaster found itself as the instrumental surf guitar (along with its 1962 sibling, the Jaguar). It was a far cry from upscale New York jazz cats it was envisioned for, but the reverb-drenched sound of the Jazzmaster had found its own place and its own way onto the charts in the eager hands of a wholly unintended audience of youthful and musically adventurous guitarists.

Further, the Jazzmaster did sometimes make its way into the hands of some other notable ’60s guitarists. Eric Clapton was known to play one during his brief stint with the Yardbirds, and Luther Perkins occasionally played one backing up Johnny Cash. Pete Townshend and Bob Dylan were seen with Jazzmasters, and Jimi Hendrix played one both before and after forming the Experience in 1966. On U.S. television in May 1961, viewers saw actor James Best play Jazzmaster-slinging guitarist Jim Lindsey in a season-one episode of The Andy Griffith Show, one of the top-rated programs of the decade.

The Jazzmaster remained in the Fender lineup well after the surf wave crested in the mid-1960s. The early 1970s, however, saw the growing popularity of humbucking pickups (an act that even Fender got into with its Thinline, Custom and Deluxe Telecaster models of that era), and the Jazzmaster seemed to fade almost entirely from view.

Consequently, however, the Jazzmaster’s ’70s-era unfashionable, bargain-basement status made it most affordable, and a new breed of guitarists with professed disdain for rock’s more bloated excesses easily got their hands on them. Artists on both sides of the Atlantic who eschewed the prevailing reign of lumbering pentatonic arena rock, such as Television’s Tom Verlaine in New York and angular U.K. songsmith Elvis Costello, resurrected the Jazzmaster and bestowed a subversive cool on the guitar that it wore well.

Thus, the chameleonic Jazzmaster had done it again: When it seemed on the brink of failure shortly after its late-’50s introduction, it found its own wholly unintended place with surf and instrumental pop. Now, in the mid 1970s, it had done so again, reappearing as a credible and quintessential punk/new wave/post-punk armament. Unfortunately, however, it couldn’t survive on artsy underground street credibility alone.

Fender faced its own corporate struggles under parent company CBS throughout the 1970s, particularly toward the end of the decade, and many enduring instrument and amp models were discontinued. Its fashionable underground rebirth notwithstanding, the Jazzmaster did not escape this fate, and after 22 years Fender ceased production of the model in 1980. It would be a while before it returned.

The Jazzmaster reborn: Television’s Tom Verlaine in a late-1970s Elektra Records promo photo.

But return it did. After the CBS era ended in 1985, overseas arm Fender Japan reintroduced the Jazzmaster in 1986 as a vintage-style 1962 reissue model (this enjoyed a lengthy run through 1999). Meanwhile, the Jazzmaster’s underground popularity had continued unabated all along, and the guitar’s late-’70s punk/new wave cred was rapidly segueing into 1980s-1990s alt-indie cred. This was especially apparent in the 1980s with U.S. East Coast groups such as Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., and U.K. groups such as the Cure and My Bloody Valentine. In the early and mid 1990s, the Jazzmaster was a prominent instrument of the massive grunge/indie explosion.

The guitar has flourished ever since. By the time the U.S.-made American Vintage Jazzmaster was introduced in 1999, the list of name players had expanded greatly. Those who’d already championed the model continued to do so, such as Costello, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher. Other modern-era Jazzmaster players have included Danny Amis (Los Straightjackets), Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten), Jonny Buckland (Coldplay), Win Butler (Arcade Fire), Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips), John Davis (Superdrag), Tad Doyle (Tad), Sean Eden (Luna), Mike Einziger (Incubus), Sharin Foo and Sune Rose Wagner (Raveonettes), Adam Franklin (Swervedriver), Tim Gane (Stereolab), Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins), Joshua Hayward (Horrors), Francis Healy (Travis), David Immerglück (Camper Van Beethoven, Counting Crows), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Hamilton Leithauser (Walkmen), Todd Lewis (Toadies), Nils Lofgren (E Street Band), Stephen Malkmus (Pavement), Russell Marsden (Band of Skulls), Nick Marsh (Flesh for Lulu), Rick McCollum (Afghan Whigs), Grant Nicholas (Feeder), Aaron North (Nine Inch Nails), Ric Ocasek (Cars), Mike Palm (Agent Orange), Alex Rosamilia (Gaslight Anthem), Anthony Rossomando (Dirty Pretty Things), Nick Saloman (Bevis Frond), James Shaw (Metric), Robert Smith (Cure), Adrian Utley (Portishead), Thom Yorke (Radiohead) and many more.

Along with renewed modern-era popularity came a stable of traditional, non-traditional and artist signature Jazzmaster models with remarkable sonic and design vitality. These include the limited edition Ventures Jazzmaster (1996-1997), American Vintage ’62 Jazzmaster (1999-2012), J Mascis Jazzmaster (2007-2010), Elvis Costello Jazzmaster (2008-2010), Classic Player Jazzmaster Special (2008-present), Thurston Moore Jazzmaster (2009-present), Lee Ranaldo Jazzmaster (2009-present), Blacktop Jazzmaster HS (2010-present) and American Vintage ’65 Jazzmaster (2012-present). Squier too has gotten in on the Jazzmaster action, with its own Vintage Modified Jazzmaster Special (2011-present), J Mascis Jazzmaster (2011-present) and Vintage Modified Jazzmaster (2012-present).

Below, a selection of modern-era Jazzmaster guitars. Clockwise from upper left: J Mascis Jazzmaster, a pair of Classic Player Jazzmaster Specials, a pair of American Vintage ’65 Jazzmasters and a Lee Ranaldo Jazzmaster.


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