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.
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.
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.
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.
One 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.