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History has a fickle way of deciding what we find to be important, and when. Some things seem to withstand the test of time, while others ebb and flow as society decides it’s value. What was once in, can be gone tomorrow quicker than it arrived. As consumers, we are cognizant of this ever turning cycle of hip, and nothing epitomizes that more that the infamous Fender Jazzmaster. However, the deeper you dig, the more you begin to realize that this offset guitar, which seems to be gaining steam once again, has always been around.
I want you to grab a piece of paper, and draw an electric guitar. Whatever comes in to your mind, sketch it out on paper (yes, real paper). Finished?
Ok, now how many of you penciled something that even crudely resembles a Fender Stratocaster? It’s likely that a large percentage of you at least pictured a Strat-esque body, but imagine a world in which the Fender Jazzmaster was the most iconic guitar shape. That is how history could have played out if things had gone as Leo Fender had intended, as the Jazzmaster was released in 1958 to replace the Stratocaster as the top Fender model.
For those who don’t know, Leo himself didn’t play a lick of guitar (and yes, the pun is intended). During the 30’s and 40’s Leo ran a radio repair shop in California, where he eventually began building lap steels with Clayton Orr "Doc" Kauffman. As music began to evolve after WWII, so did the needs of the musicians Leo came into contact with. Ultimately, Leo saw the great potential for a solid body guitar that would allow guitarists to no longer have to worry about the feedback of the popular hollowbodies of the day. To condense, thus the birth of the Fender Esquire (1950, single pickup), then named the Broadcaster, but widely known now as the Fender Telecaster. Then came the Stratocaster (1954), which was crafted in response to player criticism of the Telecaster, and was to be the upscale Fender in the lineup. It is said that as early as the fall of 1957, Leo began working on the new high end Fender model; The Jazzmaster.
The Jazzmaster is a true testament of the genius and innovation of Leo Fender. The offset contour of the body was created to allow a more comfortable and balanced experience for the player, especially in the seated position. A wider cut underneath the neck gave players better access to the upper frets, and better use of the 25 ½ scale length. The ‘soap bar’ pickups were larger and flatter single coils that achieve a mellower tone than those found on the Teles and Strats. To balance the larger pickups and shield the wiring, the Jazzmaster was originally fitted with an anodized gold pickguard. The wiring of the pickups itself was innovative for the time, as Fender included not only a three-way selector switch, but also a rhythm and lead switch at the top of the pickguard. This was designed to give players the option of two preset settings, and also a deadened tone in the rhythm position to mimic the warm jazzbox sounds created by Gibson guitars of the era. It was the first Fender guitar to feature a rosewood fingerboard, which later found its way to other Fender models. Leo also reimaged the vibrato, designing a tremolo and bridge system that allowed the strings to rock back and forth over floating saddles. Even the Fender decal was upgraded to include a more ornate design that has become a trademark feature of the Jazzmaster. Leo stopped at nothing to make sure the Jazzmaster was a sleek and classy instrument full of innovation and style, but also an instrument that was comfortable to play and versatile in sound.
The Jazzmaster has been a key tool in music and has touched every typed of genre possible. Upon its release, it was not embraced by the Jazz world, but instead by California surf rock. Bands like The Fireballs, The Ventures, and The Surfaris created a whole movement around Fender’s newest guitar. Luther Perkins, known mostly as the guitarist for Johnny Cash’s band The Tennessee Three, was one of the earliest Jazzmaster players. Luther credited the Jazzmaster as the source of Cash’s signature sound. Early photographs of James Marshall Hendrix show him holding a Jazzmaster strung upside down while on stage with The Isley Brothers. That’s right - Jimi Hendrix played a Jazzmaster. Photos can also be found of Lennon and Dylan with beautiful offsets in their hands, although they were not in any sort of permanent use. Tom Verlane of Television, Elvis Costello, J Mascis, Kevin Shields, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Steve Drozd, Stephen Malkmus, Thom Yorke, and Nels Cline have all used Jazzmasters throughout their careers of making some of the most influential music of the past forty years. As long as Stratocasters and Telecasters are in the forefront, it seems as though the counter culture grasps on to the Fender Jazzmaster and makes something as innovative as the guitar itself.
Fender discontinued the Jazzmaster in 1982 due to lack of popularity, but they returned in 1986 as a Japanese made ‘62 reissue. Through the late 80’s and 90’s Fender continued to make the MIJ Jazzmasters, which are now fairly covetable. In 1999, Fender brought the offset back to its American factories with a MIA ‘62 reissue, followed by the Mexican made Classic Player in 2008.
As Jazzmasters have returned to the public eye, one has to wonder what the driving factor has been. A large portion of the Jazzmaster’s successful return has to be the Classic Player series. Fender rethought some of the designs of the Classic, and made them a bit more player friendly. Hotter P-90 style pickups, a tune-o-matic bridge, a 9.5” fretboard radius, and slightly smaller body shape are just some of the updated features that catapulted the Jazzmaster back on to the scene. Another factor seems to be that most indie musicians are reaching out for an alternative to the Strat/Tele/Les Paul classics of their forefathers. It seems as though the counter culture has once again latched on to Fender offsets and are using them to change the music scene.
Ultimately, it seems Leo Fender got something right with the Jazzmaster that is often overlooked, or maybe not quite understood. Regardless, they stand as a reminder of the man who had a great vision, and of all who have chosen the Jazzmaster over the years.
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