Classic Gear: The 1959 Fender Jazzmaster

The beloved granddaddy of Fender’s “offset” series became a major road warrior for alternative players almost from its inception; the weapon of choice for surf guitarists, then punk, then alt-rock and beyond.
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The beloved granddaddy of Fender’s “offset” series became a major road warrior for alternative players almost from its inception; the weapon of choice for surf guitarists, then punk, then alt-rock and beyond. It was conceived with very different ends in mind—or mis-conceived, you might argue—although its unexpected applications have rendered it yet another undeniable pre-CBS Fender classic.

Developed in 1957 and released for sale in 1958, the Jazzmaster was, as the name implies, Fender’s first conscious effort to appeal to jazz guitarists. It’s often said that Leo Fender moved to the separate rosewood fingerboards from the original onepiece maple neck/fingerboard, because he didn’t like the worn and tarnished look of the maple after use. But this new ’board was first used on the Jazzmaster, and was also considered something that might appeal to the more sedate tastes of jazz players. Also pitched to the jazzers was a new pickup design, with wide, flat coils surrounding six individual alnico rod-magnet polepieces that were shorter than the magnets in Telecaster and Stratocaster pickups. The result was a somewhat warmer, thicker tone, but the Jazzmaster still twanged, albeit with a rounder, meatier voice—or did so via its “lead circuit,” at least. In addition to that traditional control section, however, Fender included a separate “rhythm-circuit” control section that elicited a muted, bassy, and by many assessments, nearly useless, tone from the neck pickup alone.

These jazz-intended features didn’t appeal to many true jazz artists, but they sure lit a fire under the surf scene of the late ’50s and early ’60s. The Ventures were the best-known early proponent of the model, but it was also hoisted by several others, the Fireballs and the Surfaris among them, while the rhythm guitarists behind two of the biggest instrumental stars of the day—Bruce Welch with Hank Marvin in the Shadows, and Nick O’Malley behind Dick Dale in the Del-Tones—each preferred a Jazzmaster to their frontman’s Strat.

Although the Jazzmaster was launched as Fender’s top-tier model, it was never fully perceived as such by the broader guitar world. As a result, once the surf scene ebbed, Jazzmasters were generally more affordable on the used market than were Strats and Teles. This, in addition to the guitar’s appealingly original looks and sounds, is likely a big reason behind its uptake in the punk, garage, and alternative scenes from the mid ’70s onward. Tom Verlaine ripped it up on a Jazzmaster in the USA with the band Television, while Elvis Costello used one in the UK to establish his own pop-punk stylings. In the coming years, Robert Smith of the Cure, both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, and a steady stream of others continued to renew this “jazz model’s” lease on life.

What can a Jazzmaster do for you? Plenty, if you like the general cut of that classic bright, snappy, jangly Fender sound, but want a slightly throatier bite and a smoother, subtler vibrato action along with it. While Jazzmaster pickups aren’t particularly “hotter” than their Strat and Tele counterparts, their design lends a little more thickness to the guitar’s sound, which suits many alternative styles extremely well. The Jazzmaster vibrato unit was designed to be Fender’s finest of the breed. It’s apparently what Leo and Freddie Tavares were originally aiming at with the Strat vibrato, but couldn’t quite nail down in time for release. The vibrato itself is fairly smooth and efficient, although tuning instability is sometimes induced by the “rocker” bridge that’s partnered with it. A good tech can usually get one of these working its best for you, and many players today have found a great alternative in Mastery’s retro-fit replacement bridge, which lets the strings slide in well-rounded saddle grooves, rather than rocking in its entirety.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

> Solid alder body with ribcage and forearm contours
> One-piece maple neck with rosewood fretboard, attached to body with wood screws
> Two wide single-coil pickups
> New “Pat Pending” vibrato unit with locking mechanism
> Three-tone sunburst finish with gold anodized pickguard
> Three-way switch, master Volume and Tone knobs for standard selections, plus upper-bout “rhythm-circuit” with separate roller controls

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