Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo was a big fan of Fender’s Telecaster Deluxe and Jaguars throughout the 1980s, but sometime late in the decade he and bandmate Thurston Moore came across the Jazzmaster.
“We liked it immediately because it was similar to the Jaguar, and then when we discovered that longer scale that it has, somehow we both immediately gravitated towards that,” said Ranaldo.
Around that time Sonic Youth played a number of shows with Dinosaur Jr. and when they caught what J Mascis was doing with his Jazzmasters it cemented their adoration of the iconic offset.
But Sonic Youth has always marched to its own beat, so even though Ranaldo and Moore both adopted the Jazzmaster as their go-to guitar, they approached it with a series of modifications.
Sonic Youth guitar tech Nic Close recalled an exchange he had with Ranaldo about their mods during his interview for the gig. “I said, ‘I know you guys are using a lot of Mustangs and Jazzmasters, and I know those things have a lot of crazy circuitry,’” recounted Close. “Lee said, ‘Oh, no, we just rip all that out.’ I don’t know who the first person to rip the electronics out of a Jazzmaster for Sonic Youth was. When I walked in, it just seemed obvious. How could it be any other way? At least for Sonic Youth. I assume they ripped the stuff out themselves early on.”
The circuitry wasn’t the only thing to go. “We’ve streamlined a lot of the electronics on the guitars to suit our own needs,” explained Ranaldo. “We don’t really have any use for tone controls or all the different knobs and switches that were on Jazzmasters or Jaguars, so we’ve kind of stripped it down to a jack point, volume knob and toggle switch to switch between the pickups.”
As for the pickups, Ranaldo favored the humbucking pickups from his Tele Deluxe because of their “thickness.” And due to the intense output of those pickups, the band began referring to Ranaldo’s Jazzmaster as a “Jazzblaster.”
An additional mod was shared by another Sonic Youth guitar tech, Jim Vincent, who chose a Mustang bridge for Ranaldo’s Jazzmaster in order to improve functionality.
“For Lee, we discovered that you can take those Fender bridges, which wobble, and take out the saddle from the Jazzmaster, which has all the slots for the strings,” said Vincent. “You can put in a Mustang saddle, because it only has one slot per string. And before you do that, you wrap a couple of winds of electrical tape around the male part of the bridge, stuff it back in and it’s locked in – no wobble.”
On the morning of July 4, 1999, while the band was in Orange County, California on tour, Ranaldo’s original Jazzblasters – along with most of the band’s uniquely and heavily modded equipment – was infamously nicked from their tour trailer. The truck was later found, but all was lost. Over the ensuing years a handful of the guitars stolen that morning have made their way back to the band thanks to watchful fans.
In 2009 Fender released two Sonic Youth Signature Series guitars – one specced out by Moore and the other by Ranaldo (above). Both were offered as Jazzmasters and fitted with two wide range Humbuckers, a tremolo bar and stripped off all but the most basic circuitry (a volume control and a selector switch)—Jazzblasters in all but name.
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