Of all of the things that cause confusion about these guitars, perhaps the most common misconceptions about Jazzmasters (and to a lesser extent, the Jaguar) surround the pickups. Because they’re so odd-looking and unfamiliar, people have all kinds of crazy ideas about what exactly is going on under the cover. I mean, it’s not often that most players have occasion to dismantle a vintage Jazzmaster guitar for the sake of exploration, so the befuddlement is understandable.
You know what’s not helping, though? Fender. God bless ‘em for introducing more and more models these days with non-standard pickup complements – a qualified win for modders and players seeking variety. Their current offerings are rife with sounds not normally associated with offset guitars, and for all of the faults a few of them have, Fender’s really woken up to the notion that offset guitars are cool. This is good.
Because Fender’s introducing so many new models with different pickups, the result is that there’s more confusion than ever about what you’re actually getting when you buy a Jazzmaster. Single-coils? P-90s? Wide Range Humbuckers? High-output ‘buckers? Yeah, they’re all there now, and some are hidden under Jazzmaster pickup covers. Go to Fender.com and type ‘Jazzmaster’ into the search bar, and you’ll get an army of models that have little in common with one another save for the body shape. Holy hell! How’s a girl or guy to keep all of that straight?!
In this article, we’ll try to do away with some of the misinformation and show you exactly what’s under the hood in both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar as well as some of the variations you’ll find out there in the marketplace. We’ll also dive in to some definitions and specifics so that you can make an informed choice when you go to buy your next offset guitar.
The Jazzmaster pickup is a true single-coil pickup. From start to finish, these units are made of one coil of wire turned around the pole pieces, and in principle works just like those found on Fender’s more popular models, the Stratocaster and Telecaster. The construction of Jazzmaster pickups does have some notable differences when compared to other more common single-coil pickups: whereas a Stratocaster pickup is about 7/16” tall and wound tightly to the rod magnets, true Jazzmaster pickups are 1/8” tall and the windings extend nearly to the edge of the 1 1/2” bobbin.
This wider surface area translates to a wider frequency response (since the coil itself covers a far greater area of the string’s vibrational length) and, because the wire travels father with each turn, a hotter pickup. (Jason Lollar does a brilliant job of explaining this on his website) The Jazzmaster unit also uses rod magnets just like a Strat or Tele, differentiating it from a P-90, which it most certainly is not.
Don’t Drop the Soap[bar]
Often, you’ll hear people refer to Jazzmaster pickups as ‘soapbar’ pickups, and they should be forgiven for doing so; that big, white cover certainly has a soapy quality, especially on older models where the covers have a more satin finish than shiny new parts. This really is erroneous as pickup nomenclature goes, as the term began its existence as a way to help distinguish between two varieties of Gibson’s P-90 pickup design of the mid-1940s, the other being the “dog ear” mounting style which is commonly found on Les Paul Jr. and 330/Casino guitar models.
The P-90 “Soapbar” is a P-90 pickup which has a rectangular shape with rounded edges and with both the pickup and mounting screws contained within the coil bobbin. Wikipedia mentions that the nickname probably came about with the introduction of the Les Paul model in ’52, on which the pickup covers were white. These, of course, looked like bars of soap to consumers, and thus the name stuck. (Funnily enough, the Jazzmaster pickup looks more like a bar of soap to me than P-90s, but I digress.)
If we’re just talking about the covers, the Jazzmaster pickup’s very mounting scheme differs from the definition of the term ‘soapbar’, but again, that’s such a slight difference that there’s no shame in having used it. I mean, what matters is what’s inside, not where the screws mount, right?
To be clear, standard Jazzmaster pickups are NOT P-90s in both design and intention: the P-90 uses bar magnets beneath the coil, which magnetizes the pole piece screws and imparts a louder, midrange-focused personality. P-90s are also wound tightly around the bobbin and usually have hotter output, with most vintage examples in the 8-9.3Kohms output range. Jazzmaster pickups use rod magnets, generally live in the 7.4-8.4 range. Not a big difference, but notable.
The louder, dirtier sound of a good P-90 contrasts with the Jazzmaster persona, which has ample yet softened top end and a fatter overall signal with a more thumpy bass response, remaining clear and separated with even the most outrageous fuzz pedal. If adjusted closer to the strings, the Jazzmaster pickup has no problem pushing an amp into overdrive. When it comes to the tone of JM pickups, think more twang than bite, more boom than woof, more punch than kick.
Here’s a visual reminder to help you tell the difference between these pickups:
Adding to the din of confusing specifications are Fender themselves, with more varied offset models than ever. For instance, the Fender Classic Player Jazzmaster might look stock, but it actually does have P-90 pickups hidden beneath Jazzmaster covers. Same goes for the Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster, a fantastic guitar in its own right. Oh! I almost forgot to mention another offender, the Fender Pawn Shop Bass VI, which looks as though it has a Jazzmaster pickup in the bridge position but it’s actually a humbucker!
As for obvious pickup changes, the Blacktop line of Jazzmasters has a Jazzmaster pickup in the neck paired with a humbucker in the bridge position. Then there’s the Kurt Cobain Jaguar, the Modern Player HH and the Jaguar HH with – you guessed it – dual humbuckers. Additionally, Fender’s Lee Ranaldo signature model comes equipped with re-voiced Wide Range humbuckers. Did I forget anything?
Builders other than Fender are also muddying up the definitions, some offering classic designs with fully-custom options and different pickup layouts that bring more familiar sounds to the offset table. For instance, Fano’s JM-6 model has a stoptail and a TOM style bridge with P90 pickups, much like what you’d expect from a Les Paul. Now, that’s a GREAT guitar, let there be no mistake. I bring this particular guitar up because it’s been handed to me with the attached claim that it’s ‘just like the real thing!’ which isn’t Fano’s intention at all! Man, they make nice stuff…
And, while we highly recommend Japanese-made Fender Jazzmasters as a more cost-effective alternative to their AVRI counterparts, we always recommend swapping out the pickups. Why? Because they’re essentially Strat pickups in an oversized bobbin – just a thin, tall coil the same height as a Strat pickup masquerading as something much, much cooler. These don’t even SOUND like Jazzmaster pickups, and they usually feedback like crazy! Bum deal.
By now it’s become clear to you that there are plenty of “stock” variations between the various models offered from the factory. Luckily, we live in a time where there are more choices than ever when it comes to aftermarket pickups, and more than just brand name. For instance, Jason Lollar offers some of my favorite pickups for the Jazzmaster, and almost every guitar I own has his lovely upgrades installed. Did you know he also has a model of P-90 that’s housed in a Jazzmaster bobbin? It’s loud, authoritative like a good P-90, and has plenty of bite and growl, just like you’d expect from a Les Paul or SG Jr.
Then there’s offset hero Curtis Novak, a man that’s my first stop when I’m on the hunt for something that’s way off the beaten path while retaining a more stock appearance. Sure, he does the tried-and-true Jazzmaster pickup (also a great pickup), but he also creates stranger hybrids that absolutely beg to be played, like the JM-180.
Say you love that hallowed P.A.F. tone? Using dark magick, Novak has stuffed one into that familiar cover, and the result sounds exactly the way you want a vintage Gibson pickup to sound, and the only way you’d know it is that the pole pieces are shifted toward the neck. Maybe you love P-90s, maybe you’re a big fan of Telecaster bridge pickup? Guess what, he does that too! Or, perhaps you’ve been bitten by the DeArmond/Rowe Industries Gold Foil bug, in which case the only prescription is Novak’s Gold Foil-in-JM-housing design. It not only sounds like the best, loudest Gold Foil ever made, but having the gold color poking out of the holes in the pickup cover is like the best little secret you just can’t wait to tell.
If you’re like Other Mike and myself, you have a huge soft spot in your heart for the look and sound of vintage Mosrite guitars, especially the Ventures model. From the way they hang on a strap to that full-yet-springy sound they have when plugged in, to play one is to know the pinnacle of surf-rock coolness. Well, Novak does that, too!
Still confused? If you’ve read this far and are still wondering what the hell a Jazzmaster’s supposed to sound like, check out some sound clips of Lollar, Novak and Seymour Duncan’s amazing Antiquity I and II pickups, as well as those of actual vintage guitars.
Jaguar: a Kitteh of a Whole Different Breed
A rather quick note about Jaguar pickups: they’re far less confusing. Jaguar pickups are a lot like Stratocaster pickups in terms of construction and sound. The main difference is that Jaguar pickups utilize a notched metal surround known as the ‘claw’, which helps eliminate some of the hum associated with single coil pickups. Jaguar pickups are mounted directly to the body, whereas Strat pickups screw to the pickguard.
Jaguars can be much brighter overall than Jazzmasters, which is due in part to the reduced scale length; the Jaguar’s 24” makes for a springier, more twangy sound than the 25.5” standard scale. As aftermarket pickups go, there aren’t as many options for Jaguar users, with most manufacturers making a standard unit and not much else. Novak is one of the few exceptions, offering top-notch Jag replacements, Danelectro-style Lipsticks that drop right in, and even a top-mount version of a Jazzmaster pickup for those looking for a bit more oomph for their chromed-out shortscale.
“Is that a single coil in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”
Honestly, I wasn’t sure it was even worth getting into all of this; people have been calling JM pickups ‘soapbars’ for ages, and although it’s not really so it may be part of the guitar players’ lexicon, so who am I to try to change it! Still, I believe precise language is important especially when discussing guitar electronics and sounds, and if we’re all on the same page communication will be much easier and we’ll all get a lot more done!
-Michael James Adams