1961 Fender Jazzmaster

Introduced in mid 1958, the Jazzmaster was the guitar that Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares hoped would be embraced by professional jazz players, and, in turn, help to loosen the iron grip that Gibson had on the jazz market. Among the most striking features of the Jazzmaster were its slighter larger and more curvatious body (compared to a Stratocaster’s), wide-aperture single-coil pickups, and a unique control scheme designed by Fender general manager Forrest White that enabled players to switch between two preset tones without having to adjust knobs. Another first for the Jazzmaster was its floating vibrato/bridge system, which enabled the bridge to move in conjunction with the vibrato’s motion, thus eliminating string friction on the saddles. The system also incorporated a lock so the player could immobilize the vibrato if desired. Unfortunately, the new vibrato’s limited pitch range and preference for heavy-gauge strings and a light touch (lighter strings and/or heavy action on the
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While jazz players of the era (such as Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, and Jim Hall) didn’t dump their Gibsons for the new Fender, the Jazzmaster found unexpected appreciation in the surf scene—particularly in the hands of Ventures guitarist Bob Bogle (who used one on the 1960 hit “Walk Don’t Run”), and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys.

A testament to Fender’s belief in the Jazzmaster is the fact the guitar remained in production until 1982, undergoing only superficial changes during its lifetime—such as a switch from anodized aluminum to plastic for the pickguard in 1959, a bound fretboard in 1965, and block-style inlays in 1966. (The model resurfaced again in 1996, as one of Fender’s import reissues.) The early Jazzmasters have traditionally been among the more affordable of the vintage Fenders, but the low-price record could well have been set by Detroit-area music photographer Ken Settle.

“Vintage guitars and amps have always held a special interest for me,” says Settle, who describes the insane deal he got on the gorgeous 1961 model showcased here. “My first ‘vintage’ guitar was a mid-’60s Olympia White Fender Mustang that I bought as a ten year old from a guy at a Detroit-area dry cleaners for $80. Through the years, I’d acquired two reverse Firebirds, a ’57 Les Paul Junior, a ’67 Messenger, and an early-’70s Fender Precision bass. But the most unique acquisition circumstance came when I bought this ’61 Jazzmaster.

“For years, my mom had listened to all of my guitar dreams and always kept an eye open for something I might be interested in. One fall morning in 1979, she called to say, ‘Ken, there’s a garage sale nearby, and they’re selling a Fender guitar you should check out. It’s a Jazzmaster in one of those unique colors.’ Well, I’d never thought much about a Jazzmaster, so I wasn’t very enthusiastic at first, but I made my way to the garage sale anyway. Past the racks of clothes, tennis rackets, beach balls, and ancient, dusty bric-a-brac, I found the lady who was hosting the sale. I told her that I was interested in her guitar. ‘It’s my husband’s guitar,’ she said. ‘Follow me.’ We went into the house and down into the basement. I could hardly contain my excitement when, before fully descending the creaky stairs, I saw the telltale, rough brown Tolex case.

“When I opened the case, I was treated to a gorgeous, Lake Placid Blue Jazzmaster. The guitar even had the chrome bridge cover tucked neatly away in the inner compartment of the case. I played it a bit, and I was immediately taken by the guitar’s easy playability and chimey acoustic tone. The asking price of $150 was cheap—even by 1979 standards.

“‘My husband has other guitars, too,’ the lady revealed. ‘Call me, and I’ll see if he wants to sell any of them.’ I quickly paid the money and headed home, looking forward to getting acquainted with my new acquisition. I had spoken with Freddie Tavares four years earlier when I purchased a ’59 tweed Twin. Now, I thought it would be interesting to see what wisdom he had to share about the Jazzmaster. I left a few messages for him, and a few hours later, he returned my call. He was very happy to talk about the Jazzmaster, and he was still excited about this guitar that he regarded so highly. He shared stories about how he researched what jazz players were demanding, and set about incorporating those features into a solidbody instrument: pickups with a broader tone, a conveniently located volume knob for dramatic swells, and his pride and joy—the preset switching system. He told me he was disappointed that jazz players never took to the guitar, and was perplexed that surf guitarists embraced the instrument.

“‘Some of these young guys are using ’em now,’ Tavares chuckled, ostensibly referring to Elvis Costello and Tom Verlaine.

“Feeling pretty thrilled about my new purchase, I called the seller to see what other guitars her husband may want to dispose of. The lady was rather short with me, and said her husband didn’t want to sell any guitars. In fact, she asked if I’d bring the Jazz-master back. It turned out that when her husband had said, ‘Have a garage sale and get rid of this junk nobody uses,’ he wasn’t referring to his guitars! I considered the situation for a couple of seconds, and then—risking perpetual bad karma—replied, ‘I’m sorry,but your receipt declares that all sales are final.’”