Cobain's Brainstorm: The Jigsaw Story of the Jag-Stang
How the Nirvana frontman dreamt up a unique Jaguar, Mustang mashup.
By Jeff Owens
While Fender often designs instruments for artists and has done so for decades, seldom if ever does it work the other way around. There was one noteworthy instance, however, of a Fender instrument that wasn’t Fender’s idea.
The Jag-Stang was Kurt Cobain’s idea.
Arguably the greatest anti-hero in the history of electric guitar, Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) always liked Fender Jaguar and Mustang guitars, and it was his idea to fuse them into a single instrument, the Jag-Stang. He conveyed his ideas for the instrument to the Fender Custom Shop, which produced a couple prototype models in 1993, one of which the Nirvana singer/guitarist played on a few brief occasions late in his career. Fender carried on with plans for the instrument after Cobain’s death in April 1994, and Japanese-made production-model Jag-Stangs were introduced in early 1996.
Larry Brooks, a Custom Shop master builder in the early 1990s, worked directly with Cobain on the very first versions of the instrument. He noted that Cobain used a simple method of envisioning the half-Jaguar, half-Mustang guitar he had in mind, and that a tremendous amount of detailed back-and-forth quickly proved unnecessary.
“He took photographs of each, cut them in half, and put them together to see what they’d look like,” Brooks said in a 1994 Fender Frontline article. “It was his concept, and we detailed and contoured it to give him balance and feel. He was really easy to work with. I had a chance to sit and talk with him; then we built him a prototype. He played it a while and then wrote some suggestions on the guitar and sent it back to us. The second time around, we got it right.”
Cobain himself was unabashedly anti-corporate, but explained in the same article how much he liked the Jag-Stang and how he had no conflicts about having his name so closely associated with a guitar made by a big company.
“Ever since I started playing, I’ve always liked certain things about certain guitars but could never find the perfect mix of everything I was looking for,” he said. “The Jag-Stang is the closest thing I know. And I like the idea of having a quality instrument on the market with no preconceived notions attached. In a way, it’s perfect for me to attach my name to the Jag-Stang, in that I’m the anti-guitar hero — I can barely play the things myself.”
The genesis of the guitar is well documented. Several of Cobain’s early drawings of the instrument, including specific design detail notes, appear in 2002 book, Kurt Cobain Journals. Cobain reportedly sent his favorite Mustang guitar neck to the Fender Custom Shop to be copied. Brooks built two left-handed prototypes, one in Sonic Blue and the other in Fiesta Red. Only the blue one was sent to Cobain; he received it and soon sent it back to Fender for more work before he took it on the European leg of Nirvana’s 1994 tour, during which it was played on only a very few occasions.
Cobain never saw the red one. As Brooks told Guitar World in March 1995, “We were (packing) the guitar to ship it to him when we got the news (of his death).”
After Cobain’s death, Courtney Love gave his Sonic Blue Jag-Stang prototype to R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck. In the video for 1994 single “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Buck is seen playing the guitar right-handed. Another R.E.M. track from that year, “Let Me In,” was penned in tribute to Cobain, and bassist Mike Mills often played the song in concert with the guitar during the 1995 tour. The fall 1994 edition of Fender’s Frontline magazine/catalog detailed Cobain’s Jag-Stang prototype for readers who were curious about the identity of the mysterious Fender model Nirvana’s leader was seen playing in his final months.
With approval from Cobain’s estate, Fender proceeded with plans to produce the Jag-Stang. Built in Japan, the first production models appeared in late 1995, and the guitar was formally introduced in January 1996 as part of the Special/Deluxe series.
The original production Jag-Stang guitar had a basswood body, the 24” scale length of its two predecessors, a maple neck with a 7.25”-radius rosewood fingerboard, 22 frets, a vintage-style single-coil neck pickup and special-design humbucking bridge pickup (the two prototypes had a Fender Texas Special™ single-coil neck pickup and a DiMarzio®H-3 humbucking bridge pickup), on/off in-phase/out-of-phase slider switch for each pickup, two control knobs (master volume, master tone) mounted on a chrome plate, white pearloid pickguard, floating tremolo bridge with “dynamic” tailpiece borrowed from the Mustang, and vintage-style tuners. It came in Sonic Blue and Fiesta Red, and it retailed for $619.99 without a case ($774.99 with a case). Also, it was a right-handed guitar. A left-handed model retailed for $689.99.
These first Jag-Stang models enjoyed a four-year run and were discontinued in early 1999.
As the tenth anniversary of Cobain’s death approached, Fender reissued the Jag-Stang in 2003, this time as part of the Artist series. These models were also built in Japan, and were basically identical to their 1995-1999 predecessors. They retailed for $756.99 and were offered for a two-year run that ended in early 2005.
The Jag-Stang occupies its own special niche in Fender history. The guitar has a small but devout group of devotees, and it has remained one of the better-regarded models among Fender’s more non-traditional offerings (the irony there being that it was created from two solidly traditional Fender guitar models). You don’t see them often, but they do show up from time to time (the cover of author Tony Bacon’s 2010 book, 60 Years of Fender, for example, is a close-up of a Fiesta Red Jag-Stang).