Quirky, complex, and utterly un-Fender in so many ways, the Jaguar never quite lived up to its top-of-the-line status. But this hip contender has roared back to attain major cult popularity in recent years, and has become the main squeeze of major trend-setters, including Johnny Marr and the War on Drugs’ Adam Granduciel.
Musical styles were evolving fast by the late 1950s and early ’60s, and Fender was ready to mix it up with some new guitar designs aimed squarely at other sectors. The Jazzmaster, released in 1958, had largely suffered failure to launch with its intended jazz market, but unexpectedly hit the mark with the burgeoning surf scene. In 1962, to consolidate its appeal in this new, young sector, Fender released the Jaguar, a guitar largely designed to appeal to that very crowd. The model’s foundation clearly owed a lot to the major elements pioneered four years previous in the Jazzmaster. It had the same swept “offset” body with forearm and ribcage contours borrowed from the Stratocaster, and the same floating vibrato unit and bridge. At the other end, it also sported the Jazzmaster’s larger headstock design with a newer twist on the Fender logo.
Two other simple but key changes, however, would make it an entirely different animal, both in feel and in sound: First, the Jaguar was built to a 24" scale length, which made it shorter than the Jazzmaster, Telecaster, and Stratocaster—all of which had a 25.5" scale—and therefore made it sound and feel a little different. Second, Fender designed an entirely new pickup for this model, which used the approximate foundation of the narrow Stratocaster single-coil rather than the wide, flat Jazzmaster pickup, but added a U-shaped steel channel, or “claw”, into which the unit was mounted. The intention was apparently to better shield these pickups from the radiofrequency interference that often plagued other single-coil pickups—and the broad Jazzmaster coils in particular—but the added steel also increased the inductance of the Jaguar pickup slightly, arguably thickening its tone.
Along with the fancy new pickups came a more complex control scheme that included—along with the same upper-bout “rhythm circuit” controls as the Jazzmaster—three lower-bout slide-switches, two of which provided individual on-off for each pickup, and the third a Mid-Tone Cut (aka “trangle switch”) that switched in a capacitor to scoop the guitar’s tone. This oft-confusing bevvy of switches might have contributed to denting the Jaguar’s potential popularity, which is perhaps ironic as they were likely intended to be further justification of the model’s top-dog status in the Fender catalog.
Although it gained some popularity with surf guitarists right out of the gate (a Jaguar was Carl Wilson’s firm favorite in the Beach Boys), as well as some pop and studio players, the model failed to embody its destiny as the most expensive model in the lineup. As a result, for many years the Jag was one of the used bargains in the dustier corner of the music store, when Strats and Teles were flying out the door. Punk, grunge, and indie-rock rebels grabbed up these more affordable and unusually-styled Fenders over the following couple of decades, as the Jaguar firmly reinserted itself as a stylishly outré tool of the alternatively minded, yielding superb sonic service in the hands of Tom Verlaine of Television, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others. The Jag’s pickups, when they’re good ones (and originals can vary a lot), can be more snarly and angry than those of most other Fenders, and they play particularly well through a pushed amp or a good overdrive pedal. The shorter scale length also fattens up the overall tone somewhat too, while enabling a lithe, slinky playing feel. Add to that the slightly plinky, snarky percussive attack and reverb-like resonance that the added string length between bridge and vibrato contributes, as well as the smoothly utilitarian attributes of the vibrato itself, and this is a guitar that offers much to love.
► Solid alder body with ribcage and forearm contours
► One-piece maple neck with 24"-scale rosewood fingerboard, attached to body with four wood screws
► Two narrow single-coil pickups with added steel “claws”
► Floating vibrato unit with independent rocking bridge
► Independent pickup on/off switches, Mid-Tone Cut switch, upper-bout “rhythm-circuit” with separate roller controls