Elvis Costello Q&A
Fender’s new Elvis Costello Signature Jazzmaster guitar honors one of the most recognized and recognizable Jazzmaster players in music history. It’s a spot-on replica of the original instrument that has continually accompanied Costello over an extraordinarily versatile and prolific career spanning four decades and still going strong.
Costello came snarling out of the U.K. in the mid-1970s with an edgy talent and image that immediately set him apart from the punk masses—impeccable pop songcraft, caustically literate lyrics, an angular stage presence, black horn-rimmed glasses—and an ever-present Fender Jazzmaster. The guitar model, introduced in 1958, had largely fallen from fashion until Costello’s phenomenal success seemed to single-handedly rescue it from bargain-rack obscurity. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and right up to today, thanks in no small part to Costello, legions of new-wave, alt-rock and indie-rock players prized the resurgent Jazzmaster for its versatile tone and subversive cool.
Costello’s original instrument has undergone many changes in the past 30 years, and Fender’s new Elvis Costello Signature Jazzmaster replicates the guitar as it existed at the time he recorded his acclaimed 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True. Uniquely Costello-ish features include a post-’68 neck design, a walnut stain finish and a tremolo with easier and greater travel for that spine-tingling “Watching the Detectives” tone; what Costello calls that “spy movie” sound.
Costello remain as busy as ever today, touring in summer 2008 with the Police and debuting in December 2008 as the host of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With ..., a Sundance Channel television series in which Costello plays host to artists and other personalities for an hour of discussion and performance.
Fender News caught up with the always-eloquent Costello during a short break at a San Francisco rehearsal at which he just happened to have his new signature model in hand and his famous original Jazzmaster …
FN: You seemed to rescue the Jazzmaster in the mid-’70s when the model wasn’t all that popular. What made you a Jazzmaster player?
EC: I began the recording of the first record with a CBS-era Telecaster®. A friend of mine who was the drummer in my previous band, when I was a semi-professional, actually worked for Fender, and he could get a company discount. And he got me a Telecaster—brand-new, straight up from the factory, out of the box—and the strings were so far from the neck; it was set up like a Dobro.
I knew so little about guitars; I thought that I was just unlucky and you couldn’t change them. I basically played it like that for a couple of years, including when I finally got a break and started making a record. So on the first sessions for My Aim Is True, I was playing this Telecaster—maple neck, blonde finish Telecaster; really hard to play.
And then one day I was walking along a road in Hounslow, near where I lived in west London, near London airport, and I saw a guitar not unlike this one (his new signature Jazzmaster) hanging up in a shop window. I’d never seen a guitar like this—I thought it looked like a Strat® that somebody had cut a bit off. I didn’t know the guitar even existed; you can see the funny cutaway shape here. And I went in and tried it out, and it certainly played a lot better than my guitar, so I traded it in. I traded a brand-new guitar in for a … I have no idea of the vintage of the one I have.
FN: A Jazzmaster for a Telecaster. They sound so different from each other …
EC: It just seemed like an opportunity. I’d seen one other guy playing this guitar in London; a fellow called Danny Adler in a great group called Roogalator, and he played all kinds of funky stuff on it that I could never dream of playing. He could play, like, “Clean-up Woman” and all that sort of thing (plays choppy rhythm part)—that kind of little chop stuff. I thought, “Well, that’s a versatile guitar.”
FN: Well, you’re known more as a rhythmic player rather than a lead guitarist; did the Jazzmaster’s inherent “funkiness” appeal to you?
EC: I was a rhythm player, so I didn’t need any guitar that sustained much. I knew it did that, and it had a slightly less shrill sound than the Telecaster. But it also had this little gadget on it (grabs the tremolo arm), and, you know, I wrote some songs on it that used it. I wrote “Watching the Detectives” with it (plays guitar riff from “Watching the Detectives”).
I liked that kind of “spy-movie” kind of guitar, and you could do that pretty good on this guitar. So I took it in and I used it on the rest of the sessions. And that is actually the guitar (his original Jazzmaster).
FN: How did your Jazzmaster get its unusual finish?
EC: When I went on my first and second trips to America, it had this attractive furniture-varnish finish, the original one, that somebody had put on it. But it was really just home furniture varnish like you would have on your arm piece or footstool. So I had it stripped off, and I had it taken to Valdez in Los Angeles, and he put this not-entirely attractive gray finish on it and my name up the neck, because I was into country and western-style guitar and gimmicks like that, and I figured nobody would nick it then because it would be useless to them. And I had a spare by then that has just my surname on it.
Of course, it’s a little confusing if you ever have to play this guitar in an emergency, if you’ve never played it. I remember, I was in an after-hours situation jam with Jerry Garcia once, and he looked at it and didn’t know what the hell to do with it. He ended up playing my guitar. And if Jerry didn’t know his way around a fretboard, given that he played an Alembic with all those scrolls on it, then you can see how confusing that can be if you’ve never held it before. But this here one (his new signature model) is as close to feeling like mine as I can imagine.
FN: Did it consciously appeal to you back then that few to none were playing Jazzmasters anymore?
EC: The only other player at the time that played one … well, the two guys in Television—Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd played them. But I hadn’t seen pictures of those guys. I’d heard their record. It wasn’t ’til I came over and I saw them—they were playing the same guitar as me, at least some of the time. Of course, they did a lot more with it than I did, you know. That was a record that I listened to a lot—their Marquee Moon. So I was kind of happy that you could make that kind of noise with the guitar, although I never attempted to do anything like that with it; I just played changes behind my singing.
FN: Yes, but in doing so you helped elevate the Jazzmaster and became a huge influence on a new generation of players.
EC: Well, later on it seemed to kind of be in and out of fashion, you know. There were various different people in the early ’90s—I think Kurt Cobain played one for a while; I know he played a Duo-Sonic or something like that, but I think he played one.
So when somebody gets on the television and they’re a famous rock ‘n’ roll star then, a kid who’s 14 just knows that person; they don’t know that I ever played one any more than they know who Tom Verlaine is, or Danny Adler or anybody else in, you know, Garnett Mims’ band, who may have played one in 1965.
FN: You made it a great rock ‘n’ roll guitar again …
EC: One thing you don’t see, oddly enough for a guitar named the Jazzmaster, is many jazz people playing them. I don’t know why they called it a Jazz, because (laughs) I’ve never seen a jazz player playing one. Although the mellower cut on the bass does actually sound pretty, and if you roll off the (adjusts the guitar controls), it can sound pretty, you know. But there you go.
I used to tape this little switch up (upper bout “lead/rhythm” slide switch) because it sounded kind of dull, and I would be halfway through something (strums upward, “accidentally” hitting the switch) and I would suddenly lose all my volume, so I used to tape that down so that I didn’t accidentally go to that position. I think everybody does that (grins). It was designed, obviously, for the mellower sound of the guitar’s name—that nobody wants (laughs).
Well, I think that some people did actually play them. There are some pictures of some jazz people playing Telecasters. Obviously, mainly because it was the first solid-body electric guitar, so of course the novelty of it alone would’ve encouraged people who were playing at high volume and didn’t want much hollow-body feedback.
But this guitar (Jazzmaster)—I don’t know, it’s had a funny life. And I’ve just always stuck with it; I always come back to it. I mean, I’ve done all sorts of different music, but whenever it’s involved electric guitar, I don’t think there’s one record I’ve made on which the Jazzmaster doesn’t feature somewhere.
FN: Many people think of you when they see a Jazzmaster.
EC: Well, obviously, the first few pictures people see of you tend to imprint on people’s minds. And you change over the years—not only change the guitar you play, but change the way you look; and you put down the guitar for a while and then play it; maybe play acoustic guitar or don’t play any kind of guitar. But when I’ve played rock ‘n’ roll music, it’s tended to be some part of it, and this part of it that feels right—the guitar doesn’t go out of tune. This one doesn’t go out of tune. It’s been drowned; it’s been in a flood; I’ve thrown it …
You know, I did the tribute to Joe Strummer on the Grammys a few years ago, and, you know, I wasn’t making any kind of statement, but I thought, “How do we finish this? We’ve got to finish with some feedback.” You know, you can’t just walk off the stage after doing that. And I just hurled it down, without thinking, against the amp—slammed it up against the amp, which I’ve done many times without any thought of the age of the guitar. I’d obviously be upset if it got destroyed, but in the heat of the moment you don’t think about that stuff; there are some sorts of sounds it just makes, which is great. And the tremolo on the guitar has a particularly attractive sound (plays for a moment). You can also bend—unlike the Strat tremolo—if you hit a chord, you can actually bend the whole chord down; you can’t do that with a Strat—when it comes back up, it’s out of tune, if you bend it that far. It’s really only designed for short little bursts of tremolo.
I mean, I think of Hendrix, obviously—because he had such light strings and he was playing backwards, upside-down and everything—he did a special thing. The guitar was actually, technically speaking, out of tune a lot of the time, but he was bending it in and out of tune, and it was such a fantastic thing that he was doing. But for somebody like me who’s sort of limited, this is a brutal-sounding guitar. It suits the way I play.
For more information on Elvis Costello and his Jazzmaster guitar, visit the Elvis Costello Jazzmaster product page