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Jazz Bomb. Surf Staple. Indie Icon: A Jazzmaster History
Designed for (and ignored by) jazz musicians, it took the long road to iconic status.
By Jeff Owens
THE RUNDOWN 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 Telecaster and Stratocaster models and appeal to serious jazz guitarists, a type of musician that had so far eluded Fender’s widening reach.
Although the distinctive guitar-Fender's first offset model-didn’t achieve success on those specific counts, it nonetheless surprised everybody by reaching widespread adoption in other, more unexpected arenas. In fact, it did this more than once, becoming the go-to guitar during the golden age of surf music in the 1960s, a cheap and stylish instrument for new wave musicians during the seventies, and finally as an iconic and versatile guitar for the alternative and indie rock set-a development that continues to see the Jazzmaster in the hands of rock's most inventive musicians.
THE GUITAR Sleekly curvaceous and contoured like a Stratocaster, the Jazzmaster is longer and heavier because of its offset-waist body, which makes the guitar more comfortably playable and balanced while seated.
The original Jazzmaster featured a floating bridge/anchored tailpiece design with a floating vibrato and tremolo-locking system and distinctive single-coil pickups that 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.
Too many to mention, but here are some highlights:
- Elvis Costello
- Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth)
- J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.)
- Nils Lofgren (E Street Band)
- Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher (My Bloody Valentine)
- Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten)
- Jonny Buckland (Coldplay)
- Win Butler (Arcade Fire)
- Nels Cline and Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)
- Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd (Flaming Lips)
- Adam Franklin (Swervedriver)
- Tim Gane (Stereolab)
- Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins)
- Joshua Hayward (The Horrors)
- Francis Healy (Travis)
- David Immerglück (Camper Van Beethoven, Counting Crows)
- Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo)
- Hamilton Leithauser (The Walkmen)
- Stephen Malkmus (Pavement)
- Aaron North (Nine Inch Nails)
- Ric Ocasek (The Cars)
- Alex Rosamilia (The Gaslight Anthem)
- Robert Smith (The Cure)
- Adrian Utley (Portishead)
- Thom Yorke (Radiohead)
THE FULL STORY
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, 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.
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).
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 a smooth feel, striking 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 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.
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 it worked.
The Ventures: "Walk Don't Run" (1960)
Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/embed/owq7hgzna3E?rel=0
Also, the Jazzmaster was heard on 1960 hit single “Walk-Don’t Run,” one of the first surf 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 Seattle instrumental quartet, the Ventures, whose melodic guitar style attracted and influenced many beginning guitarists, and rhythm guitarist Don Wilson’s instrument of choice was a Jazzmaster. 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 surf guitar. 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.
Further, the Jazzmaster did make its way into the hands of some notable ’60s guitarists. Eric Clapton played one during his brief stint with the Yardbirds. Luther Perkins occasionally played one while backing 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.
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.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions: "Radio, Radio" (1978)
Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/embed/UPyHgKSN5Vk?rel=0 Consequently, however, the Jazzmaster’s ’70s-era, bargain-basement status made it very affordable and a new breed of guitarists with professed disdain for rock’s more bloated excesses 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.
Thus, the chameleonic Jazzmaster had done it again: finding success when anything but seemed inevitable. Unfortunately, it couldn’t survive on artsy underground street cred 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.
Dinosaur Jr.: "Freak Scene" (from the film, 1991: The Year Punk Broke)
Embedded content: https://www.youtube.com/embed/iz3XQ3puHa0?rel=0
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 that 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 alternative/indie cred. In the late-eighties and early and mid-nineties, the Jazzmaster was a prominent instrument of the massive grunge/indie explosion and could be seen in the hands of scene luminaries such as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., the Cure and My Bloody Valentine. And it continues to be a mainstay of rock musicians including Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Nels Cline of Wilco, Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Win Butler of Arcade Fire and Jonny Buckland of Coldplay.