Fender Jazzmaster: Brief History of a Legend

Fender Jazzmaster: Brief History of a Legend

11th Jun 2020 @ 18:55 | Chris Corfield

Offset genre-spanning guitar still going strong

Regard the original shapeshifter, the Fender Jazzmaster. There's a lot to be said for guitars which are, tonally and aesthetically, genre-specific. We see pointy guitars from the likes of Ibanez and ESP and know roughly the kind of music that will be performed on them. Likewise, a huge Gretsch semi-acoustic will often be around the neck of a certain type of player.

But there is also a whole slew of guitars which are far more chameleon-like in their nature. Guitars which can easily fit in with any number of different styles or techniques, and become loved for their versatility.

We'd consider the Fender Jazzmaster as a prime example. This venerable offset solid-body has been around for decades and has long provided a solid alternative to players who don't want the cliched Strat or Tele setup.

The Jazzmaster is popular because it can be many things to many people. But it's also a guitar which has found its popularity almost by accident. Let's take a look at its history and find out how it became so well respected in the guitar world.

Fender Jazzmaster History

The Fender Jazzmaster was released in 1958, the third of Fender's 'big' instruments after the Telecaster and it's younger relative, the Stratocaster. It marked an attempt by Fender to appeal to one specific, large musical demographic it had been unable to appeal to previously: jazz players.

Traditionally, jazz players like jazz guitars. This usually means enormous, hand-carved semi-acoustic guitars. Certainly not thin, offset solid body guitars. There was also, apparently, a geographical issue ... the majority of jazz was played in bars on the east coast, whereas Fender was based in, and synonymous with, the west coast.

But, in the first of the Jazzmaster's 'happy accidents', being snubbed by the jazz players actually did it a favour. Around the similar time, a new musical genre was picking up pace; surf rock. Drenched in reverb, the Jazzmaster became closely associated with this cool new brand of guitar music.

Along the way it picked up plenty more 'cool' credit. Almost as an antidote to the prosaic, the Jazzmaster found itself being used by musicians who wanted that classic Fender single-coil goodness, in a package just off-radar. In a way the Tele and the Strat could never deliver.

It's had a few bumps along the way. In the late 1970s, Fender was undergoing some serious corporate wrangles in the background, and in 1980 the original Fender Jazzmaster rolled off the production line for the final time.

Or, at least it did until it was brought back into the line-up in 1986. By now, the Jazzmaster had earned its place in the hearts of a new breed of alternative players, who sought something a bit different to the mainstays on offer at the time.

But what is it that makes the Jazzmaster such a unique instrument?

Make-up of a Master Guitar

The Fender Jazzmaster guitar, in all its guises, is actually a fairly simple instrument with one or two unique twists. Clearly, the off-set body is one thing, making it easier to play sitting down. This, again, was a move made to entice the jazz players who typically played sat down. But their (alleged) original snootiness is our gain, because the Jazzmaster is a wonderfully well balanced guitar which is great for longer play sessions. All because of its body shape.

Look it up and down and you'll see it has two pickups, 21 frets and all the other usual trappings you'd find on an iconic solid-body guitar. But look a bit closer, just up and to the side of the neck pickup. There you will find a second switch, and two rotary wheels. This is where the Jazzmaster's secret weapon comes in.

Knowing that jazz players favoured a warm, rounded sound - not the clanky cleanliness of a single-coil pickup - Fender actually completely remodelled the internal wiring. What we have instead is two independent tone circuits. When switched off, the three-way pickup selector, tone and volume controls work as you'd imagine they would. This is the 'lead' circuit.

Flick the switch, and you're into a whole new world of tonality. This is the 'rhythm' circuit. Everything here is much darker, and opens the door to countless new sounds which would only be possible on a Jazzmaster.

So as well as its obvious physical beauty, the Jazzmaster was also home to - what was at the time - some pretty revolutionary electrical magic.

Jazzmaster Guitar Players

The list of players who have used Jazzmasters over the years is pretty interesting. You'll see names like Elvis Costello, Thurston Moore and J Mascis, along with people like Troy Van Leeuwen from Queens of the Stone Age. If nothing else, it shows the versatility on offer from Fender's longstanding 'other' guitar.

In this video, Elvis Costello talks about his Fender Jazzmaster guitar.

If all this Jazzmaster talk has made you curious, we'd suggest you take a look at a few of the guitars we have at Dawsons. At the top of the pile sits the legendary Fender 60th anniversary Jazzmaster. This exceptionally well-built instrument is a peach and offers an unrivalled playing experience. It's been modelled as a homage, right down to the vintage-inspired pickups and floating tremolo bridge.

Alternatively, the Squier Vintage Modified Jazzmaster offers up a superb Jazzmaster experience at an extremely wallet-friendly price. Modern Squiers deliver high levels of quality and performance, and the Jazzmaster here shows this off perfectly.

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