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Fender Jazzmaster...50 Years On And Still Going Strong!

Published: Thu August 21, 2008  News Feed

Fender unveiled its Jazzmaster guitar in 1958, intending to score a one-two punch with an instrument that would be the company's top-of-the line successor to the Stratocaster guitar and appeal to serious jazz guitarists, a class of musician that had eluded Fender's widening reach.

Although it succeeded on neither count, the distinctive Jazzmaster nonetheless surprised everybody by reaching widespread success in some unexpected arenas.

The Jazzmaster certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. It bears remembering that the Fender company predated rock 'n' roll by a good decade and that when the form did make its first youthfully raucous splash in the mid-1950s, Leo Fender and his sales director, Don Randall, seemed barely to notice; their fledgling company was built 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 strength of its Telecaster guitar, Precision Bass guitar, a handful of well-built amplifiers and the by-then perfected Stratocaster guitar, but none of those products had their genesis in rock 'n' roll.

Not that it mattered—the first wave of rock 'n' roll was in a tailspin by 1958. Elvis Presley was drafted, Chuck Berry was jailed, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash, Little Richard abandoned rock 'n' roll for religion, Jerry Lee Lewis disappeared from view amid scandal and Alan Freed's career was destroyed by a payola scandal. Little was left to fill the void except blandly manufactured teen pop (the saving grace of Motown was just finding its feet at the dawn of the 1960s), and it seemed rock was finished.

Indeed, from a corporate standpoint, Fender couldn't have cared less about rock 'n' roll in 1958.

An early example of the Jazzmaster being used...

The company had loftier musical ambitions by then. Mainly, Fender and Randall wanted to combat the perception that Fender guitars, while popular with youth, were not top-tier instruments played by top-tier musicians. Fender wanted to design a successor to the Stratocaster that would dispel this notion by appealing to "serious" players—jazz guitarists. Fender sought the artistic credibility and market share that would come with getting its instruments into the hands of acclaimed jazz players such as Herb Ellis, Jim Hall, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Joe Pass and the like.

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."

Of course, jazz was the high-minded province of the hollow-body arch-top guitar. Fender wanted to prove that an affordably modern solid-body electric guitar could supplant these expensive old-world 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 than its predecessors because of a feature previously unseen in a Fender instrument-an offset-waist body that made the guitar more comfortably playable and balanced while seated (as jazz guitarists preferred); a design element used two years later on the phenomenally successful Jazz Bass guitar. Its horns were less pronounced and its pickguard more angular than the Stratocaster's, and its two large rectangular pickups and plethora of knobs and switches gave it an atomic-age look that was just right with Sputnik beeping overhead and movies full of robots.

Also unlike the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the Jazzmaster featured a floating bridge/anchored tailpiece design with a floating vibrato and tremolo-locking system. This design, however, often proved temperamental; while providing jazz-like "plunk" if set up correctly and using heavy-gauge strings typical of the period, hitting the strings hard with the strumming/picking hand often popped the strings out of the grooved bridge pieces (especially lighter strings); a problem virtually nonexistent on the Telecaster and Stratocaster.

The Jazzmaster was also the first Fender instrument to have two separate tone and volume circuits. With jazz guitar tones in mind, the single-coil pickups were wound flat and wide (as opposed to Fender's customary tall and thin style), giving them less bite and a "plunkier" attack than earlier pickups, and the bridge (treble) pickup was mounted straight rather than slanted, further adding to jazzier tone. The lead circuit had a three-position switch mounted on the lower bout, with a tone knob and volume knob in the standard area between the bridge pickup and input jack. A slider switch above the neck pickup activated a second, mellower rhythm tone circuit that had its own tone and volume roller controls set into the upper body.

The Jazzmaster was a versatile guitar and it did produce mellower sounds, but it didn't fulfill Fender's original intent for the instrument-it did not top the Stratocaster and it was not embraced by jazz guitarists. Why not? It was a well-built guitar with good feel, modern visual appeal and a variety of tones suitable for many styles of music.

The answer was perhaps twofold. First, jazz guitarists simply didn't like it. This was most likely because while Fender could innovate right through the roof all day long if it wanted to, a solid body electric guitar was just never going to sound as smooth and mellow as a big hollow-body acoustic/electric jazz box.

Second, Leo Fender's first two guitars were so innovative, so brilliantly designed and so uncannily right 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, and its successor, the Stratocaster, had been perfected by 1957 into a remarkably stylish and efficient combination of form and function that was forcefully starting to lead a small but growing musical revolution.

Then something unexpected happened: the Jazzmaster became a success anyway. It started to sell-just not to the customers Fender and Randall originally envisioned for it; quite the opposite, in fact. The Jazzmaster appeared prominently in several of Fender's famous "You won't part with yours either" ads (see below) of the late '50s and 1960s, which were smartly devised by Fender's Robert Perine to appeal specifically to teenagers. Again, as Richard Smith notes in Fender: the Sound Heard 'Round the World:

click to enlarge

... 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.

Further, hugely popular Seattle instrumental quartet the Ventures-whose melodic guitar style attracted and influenced many beginning guitarists-used a Jazzmaster on their 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). Ventures rhythm guitarist Don Wilson played a Jazzmaster as his main guitar; many of the kids who emulated him and many of the surf groups who followed in the Ventures' wake followed suit. The Jazzmaster and its 1962 offspring, the Jaguar, subsequently carved out an enduring niche as the instrumental surf guitars.

Jazzmasters seemed to fall from favor during the 1970s as the popularity of surf music waned and many mainstream rock guitarists opted for humbucking pickup sounds and greater sustain. Interestingly though, by the late 1970s, the Jazzmaster's unfashionable, bargain-basement status made it very affordable, and several young musicians who disdained rock's more bloated excesses easily got their hands on them just as Fender was preparing to discontinue the model (which it did in 1980). Television guitarist Tom Verlaine and edgy U.K. songsmith Elvis Costello resurrected the Jazzmaster as a cult instrument, giving it a new lease on life as a credibly cool punk/new wave guitar.

Tom Verlaine of Television

Fender reintroduced the Jazzmaster in 1986 as a Japanese 1962 reissue model, and the model's late-'70s punk cred set the stage for its adoption by the U.S. grunge/indie rock explosion of the 1990s. Sonic Youth guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore are well known for playing, collecting and customizing Jazzmasters; Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J Mascis was also a highly popular and influential player whose own signature Jazzmaster model appeared in 2007. Alongside the Jaguar, the Jazzmaster became the alternative rock guitar of the early 90s, thanks to artists such as Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain (Jaguar user) and Cure leader Robert Smith who often played the Jazzmaster model.

Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and one of his many Jazzmasters

The American Vintage '62 Jazzmaster was introduced in 1999. By that time there was an even longer list of prestigious Jazzmaster players, and today they are still found in the capable hands of Costello, Ranaldo, Moore and Mascis, plus artists such as Nels Cline (Wilco), Thom Yorke (Radiohead), Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher (My Bloody Valentine), Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo), Wayne Coyne and Steven Drozd (the Flaming Lips), Tim Gane (Stereolab), Aaron North (Nine Inch Nails) and Mike Einziger (Incubus).

To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Jazzmaster, Fender is organizing an amazing concert in New York this September.

Watch The Jazzmaster in Action!

Television, "Call Mr. Lee"

Sonic Youth, "Dirty Boots"

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