Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 1

IMG_3071-impBy Michael James Adams

It’s no secret that we here at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar are BIG fans of Fender’s oft-maligned Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars. Top of the line in their day, these guitars are perhaps the most misunderstood instruments that Leo Fender ever created, a sad truth that to this day follows these wonderful guitars like a scarlet letter.

Why are these guitars so misjudged? For starters, Fender’s line of “Offset” guitars – so called because of the adjusted waistline body design – shared little in common with their more straightforward brethren, the Telecaster and Stratocaster. Those guitars were plain-as-day in terms of fit and functionality; when one looks at a Tele or a Strat, there’s little question as to the purpose of their respective three- and five-way switches, where the strings anchor, or what kind of music one can play on them.

When first released in 1958, the Jazzmaster was a bit more nebulous than its forebears, intended for Jazz players who largely dismissed the guitar. The first Fender guitar with a rosewood fretboard, the Jazzmaster also included Leo’s latest innovations including the floating bridge/vibrato unit and wide, flat pickups designed to pick up more of the string’s vibrational length, resulting in less sustain and a warmer overall tone than the Telecaster or Stratocaster. Luckily, instrumental rock and surf players (and even a few country players!) soon embraced the guitar, giving the Jazzmaster a new direction.

IMG_3779-impBy the time the Jaguar was released in 1962, the surf craze was in full swing and it would appear that Leo tailor-made the guitar to appeal to instrumental rockers. Chrome for days, a slightly modified, faster body, a shorter 24″ scale and a newly-designed Fender Mute all contributed to the wild looks and distinctively percussive sound of the model.

Hard to pin down as they may have been, these two models were wildly popular in the early to mid sixties, with sales numbers overtaking those of the Strat and Tele, which were at that time experiencing stagnated sales and a general view in the guitar world as being old-fashioned. The new, sleeker Offset Fender guitars certainly sold well, but soon enough public opinion began to sour. What went wrong?

As I mentioned before, these guitars shared little of the design elements of their predecessors, which is something many of us appreciate today. Unique controls and string length behind the bridge appeal to those of us looking for something different, from shoegazers to alt. country troubadours. With that recent spate of popularity have come numerous upgraded parts that promise to improve the feel and playability of Offset guitars, including the mind-blowing Mastery Bridge and the Staytrem. Sadly, this lack of familiarity may have proved to be these models’ undoing in the long run, with players frequently complaining that the guitars were confusing, poorly made or impossible to keep in tune.

In this series, I’ll attempt to address a few of these complaints, and explain why the very designs that confound so many are, in reality, brilliant.

“IT HAS TOO MANY SWITCHES!”
It’s not uncommon to hear the above phrase uttered ad nauseum at guitar stores and internet forums alike. It’s frequently followed by, “What the hell do they do?!” and “My brain hurts.” In reality, the switches aren’t all that hard to figure out, and with just a few minutes of patient open-mindedness most players can easily adapt to the layout.

IMG_3699Jazzmasters have the decidedly more familiar control layout, with a Gibsonesque three-way toggle switch on the treble-side bout. Obviously, this one changes the active pickup selection from Bridge, to Bridge and Neck, and Neck alone. The thing that tends to get murky for folks is the switch located on the upper bass-side bout: the Rhythm Circuit.

The Rhythm Circuit was designed with the intention of giving the player a darker preset sound for rhythm play. A different array of pots (50K tone, 1M volume) lends to the darker sound, contrasting nicely with the Lead Circuit’s brighter personality. (1m for both) Roller knobs poke through slots on the guard that allow the player to easily change settings without much chance of settings being changed by vigorous play. Flip that switch to its ‘up’ position and you’ve got a rounder, bassier tone at the ready, one which I frequently utilize for a clean, somber tone or to mimic synth craziness with a big fuzz and an octave pedal. Even so, most players will choose to ignore this optional circuit as a nuisance or a design flaw, but do yourself a favor and play around with it! It’s great!

IMG_2687

L-R: ‘Strangle’ switch, Bridge Pickup, Neck Pickup. Simple.

The Jaguar, however, seems to be the guitar with the most problematic layout for some players, and while I can understand why it’s so intimidating, again I implore those stymied masses to have patience. Don’t let those little chrome plates get the best of you!

Thankfully for most, the upper bout switching is exactly the same as the Jazzmaster Rhythm Circuit. The three switches on the treble-side bout of the guitar control on/off for both pickups and what’s known as a “strangle switch”, a capacitor that can be engaged to bleed away bass frequencies, resulting in a thinned-out tone that’s perfect for biting leads or cutting rhythm work. Thanks to this, the Jaguar can easily be the most versatile guitar in a player’s arsenal.

If you’re still feeling vexed, check out the Interactive Jaguar instruction manual over at The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars.

We’ll continue shedding light on these amazing guitars in part 2, where we discuss the floating Bridge, from its intended design to tips on keeping it functioning properly even with heavy trem use. Stay tuned!

We also believe that we perform the best Offset setups in the Pacific Northwest. If your Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Electric XII, Mustang or Bass VI needs some help to sound and play its best, stop by Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar for a free consultation!

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22 thoughts on “Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 1

  1. phill says:

    how old is my jaguar pattern number #2.972.923

    • mmguitarbar says:

      Phill! Glad you asked. The number you shared with us isn’t a serial number or any other date-related identifier; that’s the patent designation that’s on the tremolo plate, which is just Fender’s way of keeping their ideas safe.

      For date info, we’d need any number found on the heel of the neck, (something like 1AUG63, which would denote the month and year of manufacture – the 1 is a model identifier) or the number listed on the neck plate. Photos would also help.

      If you like, go ahead and email us at mmguitarbar @ gmail.com and we’ll give you a hand! Thanks for writing in!

  2. Steve perry says:

    I have a jazzmaster with no date on heal of neck it has five pat # on head stock was there a time period when fender did not stamp or pencil dates

    • mmguitarbar says:

      There are times where you won’t see neck stamps or pencil dates, most frequently in the ’59-’61 era. It’s difficult to date a guitar with out photos, so if you’d like to send us some pictures of the guitar via email we’d be glad to help!

  3. Kyle Johnson says:

    Wow. I recently bought a 2009 MIJ Jazzmaster and just read all four parts of this. Thank you so much! What a wealth of information. So many things you covered have already happened to me. I broke the high e two days after buying it doing a bend. The tremolo arm falls out all the time. I don’t think it even matches the guitar. I am definitely going to replace those poser pickups and possibly the bridge. That’s just a great place to start for turning a guitar I already love into something great. Any other advice specific to Japanese Jazzmasters? This was incredibly informative and helpful. Thanks again.

    • Ah, thanks so much! So very kind of you.

      I have plenty of advice for working on these guitars, and if you have a specific question you can feel free to email us and we’ll help as best we can. Thanks for reading!

  4. Gerard Carrier says:

    Thank you for your article. You explain the switch controls of the guitars very well. I have yet to play either one as they are not very accessible in the guitar stores I visit. I’m not sure if you have read “Surf Beat- Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Forgotten Revolution”. There are some explanation’s as to why these two guitars declined in popularity as surf music turned away from instrumental music to vocal music. Also as string gauges became lighter and easier to bend more guitarists turned to the blues. By the end of the 60’s these two guitars were so closely aligned with the surf sound that they seemed out of step with the times

  5. Gerard Carrier says:

    On page 168 of “Fender – The Golden Age 1946-1970” that the “`strangle` switch allowed for a simple tone modification that cut treble frequencies via a tone capacitor.” This seems to contradict this articles’ description that it cuts out bass frequencies. It may be that you are both saying the same thing but approaching it differently. So, in the “down” position, the bass tones are added but in the “up” position they are eliminated. It seems a matter of what is “on” and what is “off”. So, if on is the down position, the treble frequencies are cut, but if on is the up position the bass frequencies are cut.

    • Hey there!

      I think that book is known to have a few inaccuracies that readers have discussed in the past on a few well-known forums, and the above is a perfect example. The above quote is false, but not surprising given the great confusion on Jaguar controls amongst the general populace.

      The Jaguar ‘strangle’ is indeed a bass-cut control, emphasizing treble frequencies by way of a capacitor network that is placed in the signal path when engaged. When the switch is in its down or “off” position, there is no extra circuitry in the signal path, allowing the full tone of the pickups through. In this way, the down position truly isn’t adding anything; the control, when engaged, can only cut frequencies, and in this case, it’s bass frequencies that are ousted for a thinner sound. Google the Jaguar wiring diagram for reference.

      Of course, if you wanted a treble cut (we already have this with the tone knob) you could easily swap the capacitor.

  6. Purchased my sunburst Jaguar in July of 1965 along with the black face Twin with JBL’s. Have always loved the sound and versatility and power of this combination. Named her Jane in homage to B.B. King’s Lucile. Played in a group called the Revalleers at Ohio State for three years before graduating in 1968. Kept them in top shape all of these years. Tom King of the Outsiders taught me how to play my first guitar which was a Gibson Melody Maker while in high school.

  7. cody says:

    im wanting to find out about how old my jazzmaster is..neck plate stamp numbers are L78620 is that the right number to tell how old it is..

    • There’s a lot more to dating an old Fender than by the L-number on the plate because they aren’t strictly chronological; digging into pot codes, body dates, and other things like the existence of a ‘paint stick’ mark in the neck pocket are all good ways of nailing that down.

      Your L serial would indicate late 1965, but feel free to email photos and we’ll be happy to help!

  8. Steve says:

    I have one of these guitars if has five pat# and no date on inside of neck no pencle no stamp my research tells me early 62

  9. Russell says:

    Hello jaguar and jazz master disciples, I have a 1963 jazz master that was refinished at some stage and recoated with a clear coat of poly. The original headstock logo was replaced by a large fender logo with the trademark r next to it. I wanted to know if a generic logo was issued in the 70s to suffice the masses who meddled with their machines?

    • When a guitar was refinished at the factory or when a decal was needed, Fender used or supplied whatever was current. For instance, we have a ’50s Stratocaster neck in the shop that was refinished at some point in the transitional 1960s era, so its decal was replaced with one of those. This happened all the time. If that ’63 Jazzmaster was refinned in the ’70s, then that’s what probably happened. Feel free to email us photos if you need to authenticate!

  10. Stanley says:

    What a brilliant (and well written) series! I learned a great deal, many thanks.

  11. Richie rich says:

    I am sure you have covered this in previous posts, but as a new reader of your blog, can you give me any insight or point me to articles regarding the stabilization of the tremolo arm on my Jaguar? I would like the arm to stay in place, i.e. let me move it aside manually when I wish, rather than it swinging loosely away from the body. It just does not seem to stay put. Is there a way to fashion the base of the arm so that it maintains a tighter fit in the grommet hole? Many thanks for any insight you may provide

    • You know, I remember now that I meant to write a separate post on the arm itself. Can’t believe I forgot!

      What model of Jaguar do you have? Vintage? US Reissue? Import of some kind?

      If it’s US-made, then all you need to do is put the arm in a vice with about 1″ of the insert-end sticking out, then tap it lightly with a rubber mallet or hammer. This will put a nearly imperceptible bend in the end of the arm, and inserting it will significantly improve the arm’s ability to stay where you put it. You can tap a few more times for an arm that won’t move at all, or stay light and move it out of the way when you want it. Thanks, Richie!

  12. […] heard its name you’ve probably heard its sound in much of the alt-rock of the last decade. Its wide pickups, floating tremolo, and asymmetrical “offset” body shape make it a visually and…, and one well suited to the sounds of modern indie music. The current use of the Jazzmaster is far […]

  13. Randy McWilliams says:

    Hey guys! Randy here! A friend brought me a guitar with Fender Jazzmaster II on the headstock, but the body only has one pickup basically in the neck position! Did they make a Jazzmaster with one pickup or has someone put this neck on a different body? Did Fender even make a single coil – single pickup guitar? I’m lost!

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