In honor of this iconic guitar’s 60th Anniversary and considering it is a fave model of modern guitarists, I though I would repost this. I have replaced the video links that have been removed since the original. Also, when I originally reviewed the J. Mascis model for Guitar Moderne, I sent it back even though I really wanted it. I have just rectified that mistake.
Fittingly for Halloween, we thought we would tell the tale of a guitar that rose from the dead. Here then, is a brief history of the birth, death and revivification of a guitar model.
When it was first introduced at the 1958 NAMM show, the Fender Jazzmaster, was aimed—as one might suspect from the name—at jazz guitar players. Many jazz guitarists of the time preferred to play sitting down, so the “offset-waist” body shape was designed for seated comfort.
A separate “rhythm” circuit on the upper bout contains independent volume and tone controls. Engaging this circuit with its sliding switch, bypasses the main Gibson-style three-way toggle, volume, and tone circuit located below.
The wide, flat pickups, though warmer than Stratocaster single coils, still offer plenty of twang, when the main circuit is employed, thanks to the Jazzmaster’s use of higher value potentiometers than those employed in a Stratocaster. Regardless of pickup configuration (bridge, neck or both) selected by the three-way switch, choosing the rhythm circuit sends the signal immediately to just the neck pickup with some of the high end bled off (even with the upper tone control full on). This darker tone was meant to appeal to the jazz guitarists of the late Fifties.
As the young folks say: FAIL!
Jazz guitarists of the day stayed away in droves, preferring archtops or the new Gibson Les Pauls. The tremolo system in the Jazzmaster created a shallow break across the instrument’s bridge, leading to less sustain. This was not a big problem for players using heavy gauge strings, but lighter strings would tend to buzz and slip out of their saddles when bending notes. This turned off rock, blues, and country artists of the time. Only surf guitarists, who rarely bent strings, took to this new model and its sister, the shorter-scale Jaguar.
With the fading of the surf craze, Jazzmasters languished in the shops. Fender gamely continued to churn them out, but by 1980 the model was discontinued. Ironically this coincided with the guitar’s adoption by a new breed of guitarists. These young punks were rejecting the blues-based pyrotechnics of classic rock, as well as the heavily distorted sounds of metal. This newfound popularity coincided with a brief moment when Strats, Teles, and Les Pauls were desirable but still essentially affordable, making Jazzmasters available for a pittance. This further increased their appeal to an impecunious younger generation of musical artists, laboring in garret-like lofts.
Tom Verlaine of Television, Elvis Costello, Robert Smith of the Cure, and the twin musical manglers in Sonic Youth: Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, all embraced this cheaply obtainable instrument. As artists will, they figured out ways to turn its limitations into positive attributes: The unique wiring allowed wild dynamic swings from screeching trebly distorted solos to instant dark rhythm tones. The tremolo and bridge design allowed chiming, almost ring modulated noises to be produced by picking behind the bridge. Best of all the Jazzmaster didn’t sound like the guitars the old farts were playing.
By the late nineties, after further star-making turns with Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis, Nels Cline, Swervedriver, and My Bloody Valentine, Fender brought the Jazzmaster back from guitar limbo. Just in time too: Strats and Teles had become so collectible and expensive, that it had raised the cost of vintage Jazzmasters out of the “affordable” category.
Various models are currently on offer. Here we look at one that recalls the affordability that once made this model attractive to struggling guitarists of the Eighties and Nineties: the Squier by Fender J Mascis Jazzmaster.