OK, it's not an original 60s Jazzmaster, and it isn't black and covered in stickers, but it just feels right to pay tribute to one of the world's most adventurous sonic experimenters and influencers, permanently on the playlist of any grunge or indie hero that followed. And it's a beauty!
To be fair, Sonic Youth passed me by in their heyday - probably more in thrall to those indie, shoegaze and grunge bands they paved the way for than the original pioneers. But sometimes if you miss out first time round, there's a benefit - you get to hear the influence behind the songs you love, tie together the threads, build the family tree. Anything from Nirvana to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club to Car Seat Headrest, there's a small nod, if not a bow. It feels good to follow the path backwards. Which is good, because I might have otherwise left the path when I saw Thurston Moore for the first and only time in 2019, in a charity benefit with John Paul Jones and Steve Noble at London's 100 Club. God-like geniuses they are, but an unbroken instrumental noodle didn't quite do it for me. Fortunately, there's more in the catalogue than that one night.
Thurston Moore may be the arch-experimenter, but my own memory of Jazzmaster first contact was seeing Elvis Costello, striking poses to Watching The Detectives on TOTP in 1977. I had no idea what the guitar was, but loved the sound, that shimmering vibrato in the opening riff. Over the years, he's written and played all styles under the sun, his Jazzmaster on every album. And every justification for the signature Jazzmaster, based on his original walnut stain model, that launched in 2008.
I'd never played a Jazzmaster until I got this one. Not only a beauty to look at, but an absolute tone-monster with that range of sound from the separate rhythm and lead circuits. That rhythm setting had a purpose, on its launch in 1958. Leo Fender was hoping to appeal to the serious jazz musicians on the East Coast, rather than that flash in the pan rock and roll fad. It may have seemed a bad bet then - and even been discontinued in 1980 - but take the longer view, and it's passed the test. Beautiful warmth in the rhythm setting, rolling off the tone wheel to plant you into that smoke-filled jazz bar. And one hell of a bite in the lead mode, probably a fill-in at the time of launch, but an absolute blessing for the modern player. It's not a Strat or a Tele, but something in between, with the added extra of that tonal depth. A joy to play, and, to misquote Elvis Costello, "I would rather be here, than anywhere else today."
See & Hear It In Action
Kool Thing, Sonic Youth (1990): Cast-iron classic, with not one, but two vintage Jazzmasters on show. A throbbing overdriven groove that feels like it flowed through the veins of the teenagers later to become Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. . . .
Watching The Detectives, Elvis Costello (1977): My first remembered sighting of a Jazzmaster and an early masterpiece from Elvis Costello's debut album My Aim Is True. Not all angular poses and sneers.
Elvis Costello On His Signature Jazzmaster: Get your dose of fellow feeling, hearing how Elvis Costello came across his first Jazzmaster - and how he later got it refinished and inlaid with his name on the fretboard, "I figured nobody would nick it then, because it would be useless to them" Priceless..
62 Reissue Jazzmaster JM-66
Number of Frets
Individual Vintage Wafflebacks
Jazzmaster Single Coils
Fender 6-Threaded-Saddle Jazzmaster Bridge; Fender Jazzmaster Floating Tremolo Bridge
Fender first introduced the Jazzmaster in 1958. It was the third in what's now considered the classic original line-up of Fender-brand guitars, following in the footsteps of the Telecaster and Stratocaster, and ahead of the Jaguar.
It was targeted at a very specific market, with a carefully hidden clue in its name: jazz guitarists. Fender designed it with those players in mind, adding in the revolutionary design of two separate tone circuits, giving real boost to the warmth of the neck pick-up independent of the standard circuit. Whatever the technology, it turns out jazz guitarists are a rum bunch of cats - and at the time still preferred those big-bodied archtops to this upstart solid-body.
As Fender put it themselves: "Jazz Bomb. Surf Staple. Indie Icon. Designed for (and ignored by) jazz musicians, it took the long road to iconic status". That road started with the surf guitar bands of the 60s, making the most of that brilliant tremolo system. Check out The Ventures' Walk Don't Run, one of the songs I first learnt to play the lead part to, a few years back . . . Despite its adoption by an entirely unanticipated market, the road got rougher through the 70s as "big rock" demanded big sustain, humbucker-driven power. A bit of an irony, considering the Jazzmaster's two-pick-up mid-position creates a perfect humbucker effect. But even with new wave guitarists like Elvis Costello and Tom Verlaine sporting Jazzmasters in the late 70s, it was discontinued in 1980.
Fortunately, the story didn't end there. And it was Fender Japan that first produced this 62 Reissue in 1986. And what a fine job they did of it. The pre-CBS headstock, the spaghetti decal, the unbound rosewood fretboard (guitar geeks, the Jazzmaster was the first Fender model to feature a rosewood board, on its launch in 1958), the clay dot makers, the four-ply tortoiseshell scratchplate, the 50K (vs 1M) tone pot to take the brightness off the rhythm tone, and those white nylon cased single-coils. Side note. There's some discussion about whether the Japanese builds got the pick-up bobbin height wrong, but seems to me this one still gets the warmth that you'd want from a Jazzmaster.
This one's in fantastic condition - save a couple of very distinctive lacquer cracks. It feels a lot different to a Strat or Tele - that narrow C-neck will suit many, not all. But it's got everything going for it in terms of tone (once you work out how the switches engage the pick-ups!). And that tremolo is spot on for your surf-shimmer or new-wave-waver. This is a hugely versatile guitar. The only shame, like missing out on Sonic Youth, is it took me so many years to get round to playing one. No more!
One final confusion. These Japanese builds are neck-stamped, and often known as, "JM-66" Jazzmasters. You'd think that might mean "Jazzmaster 1966 Reissue". But the design predates things like the bound neck and pearloid inlays introduced to the Jazzmaster in 1965. So, the popular story is that the "66" stood for "66,000 Yuan", the original price for this Japanese-built guitar. I don't believe it . . . Then again, that's not without precedent. The first Gibson ES-335, 345 and 355s were apparently numbered to reflect their original retail price in dollars. You'd think the lesson would have been learnt from that small inflation-ignorant error, but I suppose there's never any telling how history will repeat itself.
Sources & Links
Jazz Bomb. Surf Staple. Indie Icon: A Jazzmaster History: Just a fantastic read, the history of the Jazzmaster, a tale of design without consultation, unexpected take-up, downfall and resurrection, as told on Fender's own website.
Jazzmaster History & Spec Evolution on Wikipedia: It's not often I use Wikipedia for research, but this is a special piece, consolidating the evolutions of the Jazzmaster in one place. Recommended reading!
The Intricacies Of The Fender Jazzmaster, by James William Shine Jr: If you really want to get into it, James William Shiner Jr's piece is pure gold-dust. Every spec change and evolution in detail. A brilliant piece of research!
And for more trivia and info, The Higher Evolution Of Offset Guitars: Great site name, great insights on all things Jazzmaster and Jaguar.
How To Use It (1): Yes, I followed the well-trodden path of confusion, when trying to work out the switching options. Thank Fender for helpfully sharing what's On and Off in all the combinations here.
How To Use It (2): It may seem old-fashioned, but there was a time when guitars came with manuals (and a one-year warranty). Here's a nice piece of history direct from the Fender archives with the 1959 Jazzmaster Instruction Manual.