Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Part 3: Free your mind and your [tailpiece] will follow.

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By Michael James Adams

We’ve been talking about some of the more widely misunderstood features of our favorite Fender Offsets, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. Seemingly innocuous but often blamed for tuning problems, the humble offset vibrato lies in wait at the butt-end of your guitar just hoping that one day it will be taken seriously. 

Thing is, that day has likely come; with players ranging from Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Thurston and Lee from Sonic Youth, and Wilco’s Nels Cline – amongst others – wringing every lush, wiggly note they can out of the ‘wang bar’, it’s as if a fog has lifted and the guitar-playing populace is more willing to accept this brilliant, but somewhat confusing, design.

Design


Leo Fender couldn’t have designed a simpler mechanism for his new, top-of-the-line instruments: the strings anchor on a plate which has both the trem arm and spring attached to it, with a screw threading through the middle of the spring to adjust tension. When you’re pressing down or lifting up on the bar, you are directly moving that plate, which the spring counteracts with just the right amount of resistance, lowering or raising the pitch of the strings. Voila.

trem1

Image taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

Easy, right? One would think, but like I mentioned, this design carries with it the undeserved stigma of ruining everyone’s good time. But why?


I think one part of the general problem with this system is that it needs to work in tandem with the bridge to achieve any kind of stability. The stock bridge is meant to rock back and forth with the actuation of the arm, and in a perfect world it returns to its zero point, no problem. However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and because of the great confusion surrounding these guitars they often aren’t properly maintained. The tremelo (ha, Leo) gets blamed for tuning maladies aplenty but it’s really the bridge that’s at fault.*



The other big problem with this seemingly easy-to-understand system is the fact that it’s not visible in the way that a Stratocaster bridge or a Bigsby might be – those systems are easy to work on, and if problematic, even easier to diagnose. Guitar players tend to be an uneasy bunch when it comes to guitar maintenance, and many of my customers come in to the shop telling me, “I didn’t want to mess it up!” In many cases, their fears are justified, but to be honest there’s usually nothing to worry about when removing a screw or tweaking the truss rod lightly. I’ve gotten an ear full more than a few times about the near-hallowed nature of the bolt-on neck joint, that the sacred bond of neck, screw and body should never be broken. (I think that’s bollocks, personally)

The point I’m trying to make is, guitars aren’t so fragile as some might think! Yet, because of the secretive nature of this body-mount system, many players are hesitant to take the strings off just to access the vibrato, worried that something about their guitars will change the moment the final screw is loosened. This is simply not the case, so no need to be hesitant!

Staying in Tune

I’ve previously touched on the most common offset objection is that they just don’t stay in tune, but this really isn’t the case once these guitars are properly set up and understood. What’s more is that, since it seems like everyone and their brother is using a Jazzmaster or Jaguar these days, it’s hard to make sense of all of this popularity for a guitar that isn’t pitch-stable. So, what gives?

In our last Demystifying article, we gave you some history and pertinent information about the offset bridge, and even a few tips and tricks to keep it in perfect working order. Much of the tuning instability folks complain about comes from the bridge, but the vibrato certainly can contribute.

The first, best advice I would give to those that have caught the Jazzmaster/Jaguar bug is to use a heavier gauge of string. 10s will work fine, but these guitars are made with 11s and 12s in mind, which is why we so often have problems with strings jumping out of their slots. The key with the offset bridge is downward pressure. With the vibrato, it’s all about finding the right amount of tension for the gauge of string in use, so that when the vibrato is actuated there’s an appropriate amount of resistance. I usually use the Trem-Lock as a guide, especially if the player intends to use it. 

There’s an amazingly in-depth article on setting up the JM/Jag trem over at The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars, an amazing resource for all things Offset.

String Breakage

Though I’m very much an offset activist, I’ll concede to this complaint! Strings sometimes just flat-out break on these guitars, and it sometimes seems a futile effort to continually string the thing up when your high E is just going to snap in ten minutes. If fact, this happens so often that when I stroll into Guitar Center and see used Jazzmasters on the wall, they’re almost always missing the high e string, which leads me to believe that this problem was just that frustrating for its former owner. I’m jumping to conclusions, I know, but it’s really not that far-fetched.

IMG_2063-impOne of the main reasons that strings break on these guitars – especially new ones – is that the strings aren’t given the proper amount of clearance over the two outer screws near the anchor on the plate. These Phillips screws were lower and flatter on older units, and the anchor itself was negligibly higher, so strings were afforded more room to freely pass over them. 

On current models, the screws are more rounded and a little taller, providing a sharp edge for your strings to rub against when you’re playing even if you don’t use the arm all that much. If you bend a string, use alternate tunings or retune your guitar, you’re basically sawing through the string. Add to it, the place the stings rub is exactly the worst spot for this kind of contact: the closing wrap at the ball end. That’s why I’m never surprised when one of these guitars come in without an e string; this is almost always the culprit.

To solve this problem, I’ll recall one of my favorite axioms: “Flip ‘em over!” I’ll elaborate:

If you remove the six bolts affixing the trem to the body, you can see that the offending screws poke through the little pivot plate that keeps the anchor in line. Remove the screws under both E strings and thread them upside-down with the Phillips head facing the inside of the cavity instead of toward the string. Don’t worry, if you tighten them down they shouldn’t move, and the threaded end of the screw is just short enough to avoid the strings entirely.

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The second source of frustration would be the anchor plate itself. After months or even years of heavy arm usage, those little holes that hold the ball end of the string are likely to develop burrs, little sharp bits of metal that love to eat through string ends. Some light filing will almost always do the trick here, either with a small round file, or my favorite, Mitchell’s Abrasive Cord, which is like the Soap on a Rope of sand paper. It can be found in many woodworking shops or at Stew Mac, and boy, is it a lifesaver! Just thread it through the eyelet as you would a string, then floss away!

Those afflicted with chronic breakage would even do well to keep a roll of the larger diameter cord in the accessories pocket of the guitar case for emergencies; on the road or at a show, that stuff can make all the difference.

One more trick to prevent premature string death: solder the string’s ball ends through the wrap! I do this religiously to my e, b and g strings, and since I’ve started I have yet to break any of them. BONUS TIP: Don’t do this with the strings at tension; they’ll simply unravel, and then you’ll turn blue phrases the likes of which haven’t been heard since George Carlin’s untimely passing.

Bar-ectile Dysfunction
Wow. That one was a bit of a stretch.

If you’re like me, having the vibrato arm stay in place is a huge plus; when I’m on stage absolutely losing my musical mind, it’s nice to have the arm stay in a dependable spot. For some, this spot is against their output jack, especially if the arm is loose in its socket. This does not fly with me. I like it to be mobile but stiff, so that with my eyes closed there’s no question of its whereabouts. I can’t stand playing a brand-new guitar with the arm swinging wildly about like the tail of an excitable puppy.

This problem isn’t usually as persistent with vintage guitars, but on newer models the collet and arm aren’t exactly the same size or shape as the old ones, so more often than not there will be extreme amounts of play on the arm. Some people wrap tape around the end of the arm (which can be messy and sticky) and others will try to ‘gunk them up’, squirting some glue or something in there to cause more friction. I say nay to the above solutions, and instead point to a trick I first learned about on Offset Guitar Forum, a haven for the offset-obsessed.

Forum member theworkoffire suggests clamping the arm in a vice, with the collet-end exposed. Tapping that end gently with a hammer, it’s quite easy to put a nearly imperceptible bend in the tip at the end of the bar, causing it to rub up against the walls of the socket, and thus, stay in place. This is the method I’ve used time and time again, and I couldn’t be happier. Lasts forever, too!

There are also replacement arms and collets offered by a company called StayTrem, and their work is stunning! Completely solves this problem.

What the Hell is that Little Button?
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That’s called the “Trem Lock”, and it’s awesome. That little bit of machined metal is your ticket to easy street, my friend, especially in the event of string breakage.

Because this system is what’s known as a ‘floating’ vibrato –  which refers to the trem’s ability to vary pitch up and down because it isn’t resting against the body – the string tension is balanced against that of the spring in the vibrato unit. The downside is that when a string breaks, this offsets the balance between spring and string, causing your guitar to go out of tune, pulling sharp. That’s where that tiny, unassuming button on the front of the Fender plate comes in handy.

Also taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

Also taken from The Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars

If the unit is properly setup, that little button simply slides between the anchor plate and the Fender plate, stopping the anchor plate from raising, which in turn puts everything back in tune when engaged. Effectively, it ‘remembers’ how your guitar was tuned before you lost a string. When the proper tension on the spring is reached, you’ll be able to slide that little button back with no resistance.

Said button is also VERY useful when using alternate tunings. Unless you’re Thurston Moore, you may not be able to afford a fleet of Jazzmasters to handle every tuning you’re likely to use, but with the Trem Lock you may not need them. Slide that button in and tune at your leisure. Use drop-D, open G or C-minor? Pushing that button back turns the trem into a kind of hard-tail! You can still use the trem, but only to lower pitch.

On Vintage Units

My personal preference is mainly for the units found on vintage guitars. Reason being, the springs used on the old ones were more heavy-duty than those found on reissue instruments, especially imports. This makes for a tighter feel and greater touch-sensitivity.

Vintage Jazzmasters and Jaguars also had different springs! When the Jaguar came out, Fender quickly realized that because the shortened scale length of a Jaguar meant lower string tension, the vibrato felt far too stiff. Consequently, they started cutting one coil off the spring, resulting in better tension.

On my ’07 Sonic Blue Thin Skin Fender Jazzmaster, I’ve installed a Jaguar vibrato from 1963. When I compared the feel with that of my 1960 Jazzmaster, the difference was really pronounced, with the older unit feeling much more stiff, requiring more work to gliss notes. I love that, don’t get me wrong, but the trem on that blue Jazzmaster is heavenly!

So there you have it! I know I’m long-winded and probably providing too much info at once, but I really do hope this little series helped! Feel free to contact us if you have any questions!

And hey, if you need your Jazzmaster or Jaguar expertly set up, look no further!

*If you want proof, drop a Mastery Bridge in your Jazzmaster or Jaguar and see for yourself how stable that thing is! Because that bridge doesn’t rock in its thimbles, it provides a far better tuning experience.

-MJA

33 thoughts on “Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Part 3: Free your mind and your [tailpiece] will follow.

  1. perryazevedo says:

    Does this mean you aren’t using Mastery bridges anymore?

    • mmguitarbar says:

      Not at all! I even put a little blurb about the Mastery at the end of the article!

      Aside from buying an aftermarket bridge, my aim with the last two articles was simply to give players some food for thought when dealing with the stock bridge. I’m going to do a full-on treatment of the Mastery and why it’s the bee’s knees. Because it’s amazing!

  2. Epic series. I’ve been looking for something like this since I was contemplating buying a 62 AVRI Jazzmaster back a few months ago. I’m glad I did and thanks for the info!

  3. Paul says:

    Truly great articles. I own a jazz and two jags. Have to admit I bought them on looks alone from my childhood obsession and love the sounds but always struggled to understand them. Read your 3 part series and its clear, concise, detailed, helpful and not limited to techs but makes sense to DIY-phobic guys like me. If only guitar magazines could do articles like this!

    • mmguitarbar says:

      Just re-read this comment, and had to say thanks for your kind words! These are hands-down my favorite guitars, and if I can help someone else fully understand how they work, my job is done.

      If only a magazine would PAY me! Ha!

  4. ThomasAustral says:

    This article is fantastic. Love your enthusiasm. Very helpful for me, another Jazzmaster tragic… Thanks

    my friend:

    “Why don’t you just put a hardtail from a tele or something on a jazzmaster style body?”

    me:

    “no”

    • mmguitarbar says:

      Thanks, Thomas! If there’s something about which I become immensely excited, it’s the care and upkeep of offset guitars!

      I’m absolutely 100% in agreement with your reply to your friend.

  5. Webrocker says:

    Hi Mike,
    I just stumbled over this great series of posts — apparently some visitors of your site came over to my site to play with the good ol’ interactive jag :-))
    Thanks for the props and keep on sharing the offset knowledge. It is amazing to see how the offsets gain in popularity in recent years. they deserve it. 🙂
    Tom

    • mmguitarbar says:

      YES, TOM! I love your site! That interactive Jag is one of my recommended tools for Jag-curious folk, especially when I can’t take them on a tour myself.

      Seriously, man – you’re right up there with home.provide in my book! So glad to connect!

      • Webrocker says:

        Thank you. home.provide was one of the first sites back in the nineties where some info on the jag and jm could be found… time’s flying 🙂
        I’m glad I found your page, the writing is very informative AND entertaining, makes me want to hop over and have a good time 😉
        wiill definetly come back, keep up the good work
        Tom

      • mmguitarbar says:

        YES! Home.Provide has always been one of my favorite sites on the web for info on differences between model years and the like, but Higher Evolution is a focused and concise resource on Offset info, so please take that as my personal blue ribbon! I love what you’ve done there!

        And from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU for your kind words about my writing. You’ve described exactly my goal, and it’s good to know I’m hitting the mark. Aside from making weird noises with my Jazzmaster and creative solutions to guitar repair, writing is one of the few things that I truly treasure about myself.

        Tom, if you’re EVER in the area, drinks are on us and you can play as much Stairway to Heaven as you like in our shop. BAM.

  6. Brian says:

    I’m now tempted to flip those tremolo screws on my Jazzmaster like you suggest here, but I’m going for somewhat of a replica of Robert Smith’s old Jazzmaster from The Cure’s early days. Maybe I’ll give it a try the next time I change strings.

    • mmguitarbar says:

      Very cool! If you need the proper Teisco pickup from Smith’s “Woolworth Top 20” guitar for your custom Jazzy, we’ve got a spare one in stock. Thanks for reading!

    • mmguitarbar says:

      It’s literally the best thing you can do, especially if you’re going to use the tension bar he installed. Your strings are just going to rub on the screws that way. And remember to solder the finishing wraps at the ball end on your plain strings.

      • Brian says:

        How much for that pickup? I have one on my guitar already and I have an extra one, but the extra one has a short in it so it might be cheaper to replace it instead of having it repaired. I wish I can just buy that Top 20 guitar from you right now! I’m always keeping an eye out for them, but I always find the ones that are slightly different from Robert’s.

  7. Jonn says:

    Excellent article. I too am a long-time Jazzmaster fan. Recently I heard that the tailpiece can be set-up to float. In other words, that the bar can then be pushed down and pulled up. Is this the case? Again, great writing!

    • John, oh yeah!

      When the vibrato is set up properly, you should already be able to push down and pull up. Where I mention using the Trem-Lock to set the tension properly, you can definitely pull up. If you need more upswing, adjust the trem a little loose and it should do everything you like!

  8. filip says:

    hello.

    i am thurston moore signature jazz user. i ve got problem. i wanted to flip over my offending screws but there is rifling only in the pivot screw, there is no rifling in tremolo plate so if i flip over screws they don’t hold two plates together.

    • That’s interesting. I haven’t run into that myself, but you only need to flip the two outer screws. They’ll hold the plate secure whether or not the top plate is threaded, and the middle one will do more than enough with regard to holding everything together.

      You could also opt to file down the tops of your outer screws, which might at least put your mind at ease. Let me know what you come up with!

      • filip says:

        hello!

        i think that i found really solid solution for this problem. i have replaced two outer screws with rivets. i think that fliping them is not stable enough and during using vibrato it can be quiet loose. rivets seem to eliminate this problem. i have sent u some photos (on email) that show how it looks like. so u can publish it to help someone if u find it as a good option.

        best,
        flp

      • Hey FLP!

        Interesting fix, nice! I’ve done the flip-trick on too many guitars to count, and not one of those screws has worked loose including any of my Jazzmasters. If you were concerned about them working loose, Loc-Tite would be a great solution, but it’s not necessary.

  9. Gary Fielding says:

    Warmoth Guitars makes a modified Mustang bridge (http://www.warmoth.com/Modified-Mustang-C716.aspx) that works great. Its like a regular Mustang bridge, but with individual adjustment screws for each saddle like on the original bridge. Fits right into the original thimbles too.

    • Totally, but I’ve never liked that particular bridge. I’ve had to remove them from multiple instruments for having too-wide string spacing. If you were buying a Mustang-style bridge, I’d go Staytrem all the way.

  10. nealens says:

    great article! i’ve done the screw flip trick on my 2 of my jms, and it works great. also have the staytrem collet installed on my ’59 and it’s super solid. did the arm bend trick on another jm and that works great too.

    I’m completely sold on the mastery bridge (apart from the huge price), was wondering if you’ve tried the graphtech jm/mustang bridge saddles, i have had these for years on a custom made jm and they definitely add sustain and are buzz free. not sure if they’re as good all round as mastery tho…

    • I’m not a fan of the Graphtech saddles from a tonal perspective, but I’m sure they’re a fine option. I’d much rather have the original saddles in terms of sound and performance over any aftermarket saddle-only solution. I’m really glad that mod works for you, though!

  11. David Lee says:

    Fantastic detailed articles! Has helped me understand what’s going on here. I am hoping you might indulge me some related Qs, as my instrument is a Fender Squier Bass VI. Lots of similar issues, but some unique ones, too. All makes sense now – break angle, string tension, strings snagging edge of bridge, screws on base-plate etc. I was going to make four modifications to get the bridge/trem set up working properly: a barrel-shaped string tree, a Staytrem wide bridge for Bass VI, and replace the (Squier) non-locking trem unit with a genuine Fender locking one from a Jaguar (I think they’re the same – but what about the spring inside?). Lastly, I am not sure what the original strings are, but Fender after-sales ones’ bottom E is 0.85, and the La Bella roundwound ones are 0.95 (to 0.26) to ‘de-flop’ my low E. What do you think? I was also wondering about the shim issue too as the bridge is already set low, exacerbating the break angle and rubbing issues. At the moment, the trem is virtually unusable (straight out of the box) and I quite fancy having it working properly. (And of course, last of all, I’ll get a luthier to check out the nut!)

    • That all sounds great, although the string tree isn’t actually such a big deal as some gearheads might have you believe. All US-made reissue vibratos are the same, but with a Squier body you might have to do some routing to make it fit properly. The strings that ship with VIs have an .084″ low E, which is way too low to have a tight, defined sound. Anything .095″ or above is great!

  12. Ranen says:

    What exactly do you mean by, “solder the string’s ball ends through the wrap”?

  13. Kisha says:

    Keep thhis going please, great job!

  14. Mike says:

    Hi there,
    I would just like to thank you for the ‘solder the string end’ technique. When i bought my jaguar, i broke about 4 top e strings in a matter of weeks, but since i read this and started soldering them i haven’t broken one in months.
    Thanks for this and many other useful and interesting articles on your site
    Mike

  15. Michael Buter says:

    Thanks for the tip on fixing the top E-string trouble! I flipped over the screws, which actually had visible marks on them from years of strings being rubbed up against them. Those tremolo’s really oughta just leave the factory with reverse-installed screws. Anyway, I’ll no longer have to buy extra E-strings with every new set of strings, so thank you.

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