An American Pro Jazzmaster came into my life recently and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. I’m loving the light weight and solid feel of the guitar, and for a guy that’s not such a huge fan of maple fretboards I’m delighted to have one close at hand. Those same concerns I had in my December review are still present, mainly the selector switch placement and the proximity of the E strings to the edges of the fretboard. I’ll be posting more of my long-term impressions down the road, but do go back and read that review if you’d like the full scoop.
After the last week of ownership, I have to admit that I’m not entirely thrilled with the sound of the guitar. The pickups leave me a bit cold, lacking some of depth of sound and dynamic range of other Jazzmaster pickups. They exhibit an almost Strat-like quality which I initially attributed to the new design, or perhaps the use of 500K pots and a treble bleed network, both of which can have an effect on the sound.
It wasn’t until I popped off the covers that I discovered the shocking reason for my dissatisfaction: these are not Jazzmaster pickups at all – they’re Strat-like coils in oversized bobbins.
As we’ve described previously, traditional Jazzmaster pickups have wide, flat, relatively hot coils wound right to the edges of the bobbin, which is why they possess such a wide range of bright highs, present low-mids, and round bass. Because of their size, Jazzmaster pickups sense a wider aperture of the string’s vibrational length than most, producing the dynamic, three-dimensional sound that makes Jazzmasters so damn sonically spectacular as well as unusually versatile.
Fender sells the sound of the newly-designed V-Mod pickups as “hot, vintage-inspired tone with plenty of punch and definition.” Vintage-inspired or not, the pickups found in the AM-PRO are a far cry from the sound and construction of traditional Jazzmaster pickups, which is kind of the reason folks buy a Jazzmaster in the first place. Wound tall and dense, the V-Mod pickups have much more in common with overwound Strat pickups or even P90s, minus the bar magnets and adjustable poles.
While I won’t go so far as to say they’re bad-sounding pickups I do feel vindicated in suspecting that I wasn’t getting the full experience. The sound is, to my ears, more narrow in scope and toward the sterile side comparatively; lows are there but rigid, and while highs aren’t biting, they also aren’t as sparkly. Again, they’re not bad, just not Jazzmasters.
Puzzlingly, this new pickup design isn’t new at all; these pickups are eerily similar if not virtually identical to those found on Japanese Jazzmasters since the mid-1980s. This Strat-in-a-Jazzmaster-cover construction is a hallmark of MIJ/CIJ guitars, generally considered the weak link of those models. In fact, swapping out for better pickups is always my first suggestion to players looking for more out of their import Jazzmaster. Check out this comparison shot of a Japanese pickup (left) next to a Lollar: (right)
It’s perplexing, then, that Fender would double down on such a design for their new, more modern take on the guitar. Along with the omission of the Rhythm Circuit, I suspect that this was an attempt to broaden the appeal of the instrument, to homogenize the new line so that none of the models stray far from each other. From that corporate perspective it almost makes sense to stuff a Strat pickup into a Jazzmaster, but in doing so they’ve undermined one of the most fundamental and desirable aspects of the guitar: the sound.
Look, I’m a reasonable if not opinionated guy, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks who like these pickups. Who am I to dissuade them! One of my Instagram followers was just telling me how much he loves his MIJ pickups, and I wouldn’t dream of shaming him for enjoying his guitar. I may personally find them lacking and if asked I’ll quickly suggest a replacement of superior quality. Otherwise, my motto is “Chase your bliss.”
But for those looking to spend their hard-earned money chasing Jazzmaster tones in an affordable and updated package, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. Bluntly, this guitar won’t sound like a proper Jazzmaster without modification, and at $1500, having to spend more for the ‘correct’ tone may be a mark against the American Pro series to some. To others like myself, for whom changing pickups is as routine as brushing teeth, same as it ever was.
At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual player to decide whether or not this is a dealbreaker. And really, I’m not so sure it should be, the guitar’s great fun all around. However, I also won’t pretend I’m not disappointed; perhaps it wouldn’t be so if the specs were a little more forthcoming, letting potential buyers know what they’re getting. Fender’s been vague on this issue in the past – just look at the “special design hot single coil Jazzmaster pickups” of the Classic Player line which are actually P90s through and through.
To simply call them “Jazzmaster pickups” is misleading, when in reality they are not. Beneath those big, white covers isn’t just a combination, it’s a compromise; the guitar sounds good enough, yet lacks the signature tone and feel you’d expect from such an instrument. And while there’s nothing wrong with a good Stratocaster pickup, like many other “crossovers” that aim to straddle two very different traditions, I can’t help but feel the end result is only half as effective as either.
As for me, I’ll be swapping pickups on this one sooner than later.