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Demystifying Part 5: The Fender Mute

After a years-long hiatus, the Demystifying series is back!

First, I need to say thanks to all of you that have checked out the blog, and in particular the many that have shared and reposted these articles. Because of their popularity, Premier Guitar recently asked me to write an offset guitar setup guide for publication, which you can find in the May 2017 issue. AVAILABLE NOW IN STORES AND ONLINE!

So thanks to all of our readers, customers, and friends––without your support, this never would have happened.
The one bit of hardware I’ve not discussed previously is often thought of as a vestigial, an hold-over from a different time fit for the bin. Ultimately, it’s up to you if you’re ever going to use the thing, and to be honest, it seems like many don’t. However, if you’ve ever been curious about it, or if you use it but find it problematic, then friend, I come bearing glad tidings. I am of course talking about the Fender Mute.

A feature shared by both the Jaguar and Bass VI – though not across all models or years of production – this curious metal plate was originally intended to be a surrogate for palm muting. Couldn’t be a simpler mechanism, really: the mute is secured to the body by two screws, and the long bolt in the middle pivots on a spring-loaded plunger sunk into the guitar body. The mute can be engaged by pressing on the plate, shifting it back and forth in place, causing the foam pad to make contact with the underside of the strings.

The Fender Mute leaves the player’s picking hand totally free for strumming or sustain-less leads. This gives the device a sound distinct from traditional palm muting techniques, one widely used on instrumental surf recordings of the 1960s. What’s it sound like? I just happen to have an example for you here:

Like the Fender offset bridge, the mute requires some extra thought to set up correctly. Really, the whole procedure comes down to balance; the mute has to be set to engage smoothly while allowing the bridge to be lowered enough for playable action. If the mute sits too high, the bridge will rest on its mounting screws. Too low, and the mute won’t engage at all.

It’s best to begin with the mute installed on its own––leave the bridge for later. Remember those two mounting screws I mentioned earlier? You’ll need to find the lowest possible setting for them where the mute still pivots. Try screwing them in all the way, then backing off until the foam side of the mute pops up and stays put. Then, install the bridge and make sure it doesn’t sit on top of the mute mounting screws.

It may take a few tries, but you’ll soon find that balance. When pressing on the plate, the foam side should rise up to meet the strings but not push them up, then stay firmly in place. Pushing down on that side should disengage the mute, again with a firm action. If the mute doesn’t stay in place, or is difficult to move, take the bridge off and keep adjusting those mounting screws.

Top: disengaged. Bottom: engaged

It’s worth noting that, In order to get the mute set up correctly, your guitar will need to be shimmed as described in part two of the Demystifying series. A sufficient amount of neck angle is crucial, otherwise there may not be enough room under the bridge for the mute to be functional.

One problem that can crop up with the mute is that it pulls the strings sharp when it’s engaged. Often, this can be due to the mute sitting too high, which effectively shortens the scale length of the instrument. If that’s the case, cranking down the mounting screws should solve this issue for most players. Too-hard foam can also be the culprit, pushing up on the strings and raising pitch. Substituting a softer piece of foam here can work wonders (more on that later). Alternatively, one can easily shave off the bit of foam that touches the strings.

If you have a vintage Jaguar or Bass VI, you’re likely familiar with a problem that arises when the original foam on vintage instruments, due to age or contact with sweat: deterioration. This happens to pickup foam as well, where it hardens and compresses, rendering pickup height adjustment difficult or even impossible.

Hardened, sticky mute foam on a refinished ’63 Jaguar. You can see the gooey residue on the low E side of the mute.

If this happens to your mute foam, I have to tell you there’s no point in trying to salvage it. Touching or removing the stuff, you’ll notice that what was once foam is now a slightly gooey, sticky mess. Even on a totally original ‘60s guitar, leaving foam in this state is at the very least off-putting and potentially problematic, what with the black residue left behind on contact with skin or strings. Seriously, that stuff is disgusting.

Do yourself a favor and replace that foam. I’ll admit, it’s often the only part we’d even thing of replacing on a perfect vintage Jaguar. Replacement Fender foam can be found on eBay, but it seems that every parts supplier is out of stock right now. In a pinch, we use this. The link will take you to some weather stripping foam that’s just slightly taller than the 3/8” by 1/4” Jaguars have from the factory, but it should work like a charm. If the extra height concerns you, the same brand has a version with a height of 3/16″ as well.

Interestingly, this Mute wasn’t Fender’s first shot at string-dampening technology. Earlier, there was foam stuffed under the bridge covers of ‘50s Precision basses. The first Jazz Basses featured stiff pads for each individual string, while the later Mustang Bass  bridge had similar devices. Muting may make a bit more sense on bass than guitar, but give this mute system a shot and see if you can’t make it work for your brand of music. To the author, it’s a fun sound that makes some rhythm parts more interesting, and with effects added, it can bloom into something totally unique. And weird. Definitely weird.

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Mike Landis’ Very Special 1966 Jaguar: A Holiday Tale Spanning Two Decades

Happy Holidays from all of us at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar. We truly would be nothing if not for the love, support, and business of our many friends and customers. Cheers to you! In celebration of this joyous time, I’d like to tell you about something extraordinary that happened to me recently, something I couldn’t talk about because it would have spoiled a surprise.

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This 1966 Jaguar belongs to the father of my good friend Mike Landis, and it happens to be the very first offset guitar I ever encountered. I haven’t seen it in 20 years.

I vividly remember Mike pulling it out of the case on some otherwise average day in 1996. I’d never seen anything like it before—like something out of a Sci-Fi dream. The cold gleam of the Jaguar’s many control plates ignited within my young mind what felt like a fumbling musical adolescence; I didn’t know what I’d do with it if I had one, I just knew I needed it.

Sunglasses case, no less!

Sunglasses case, no less!

Holding that guitar for a brief moment two decades ago felt like some guilty, illicit pleasure. Everything inside me knew I shouldn’t have been messing with it, but the rush of getting caught made it all the more thrilling. I strummed a few chords, ignorant to the function of the switches, yet marveling at its beauty and quality of the sound I was hearing. It was clear to me then that I wasn’t worthy of such a guitar.

When Mike heard that I was coming back to my hometown of York, PA for a quick visit, he asked if I’d be able to get it back into playing shape as a Christmas gift for his dad. Of course I said yes!

That night as I stood over the guitar—the guitar—I paused for a moment before I dared touch it. I thought back to that first trespass, handling his dad’s Jaguar as if it were a priceless artifact, caught up in wonder and amazement. Surely, at that time, it had been the nicest instrument I had ever seen, let alone played. I wondered, was I worthy of it yet? I breathed, spoke aloud a quick thank you to any deity that may have been listening, and got to work. For two hours, I attended to it with the same thoughtful, careful attitude I try to lend to every instrument.

fullsizerender_1Before I arrived, Mike gave me a run-down of what the guitar might need. For starters, he wasn’t getting any sound out of the thing, and my first thought was that the Rhythm Circuit switch may have a bad solder joint. When I finally got my hands on it, the solder joints didn’t look obviously inoperable, but I thought it a safe bet to simply reflow a few key joints. This certainly helped, and suddenly I was getting sound from the Lead Circuit, with intermittent functionality of the RC.

It took a few minutes of turning the Rhythm volume and tone controls, but it turned out that those pots were just so dirty from disuse that they wouldn’t pass signal. Ideally, I’d have sprayed them out with contact cleaner, but alas, this was one thing I forgot to mention when I sent Mike my laundry list of tools I’d need to do the work. They cleaned up beautifully just by being turned over and over, and I told Mike to get some cleaner before too long.

Back in 1996, I remember asking why Mike’s dad never seemed to play the thing. The complaint then was that it just didn’t play all that great, and that was still a problem today. I don’t think the guitar had ever been set up, at least, not by someone that understands the intricacies of Fender Offset Guitars. Strung with too-light strings and with the bridge too high and saddles set at the wrong radius, it was clear that this guitar hadn’t been comfortable to play for ages.

fullsizerender_2I took the strings off, removed the bridge, and gave the guitar a thorough cleaning, from finish to frets. It wasn’t filthy by any means, but the frets showed signs of disuse and the finish had a dull shine. It’s Christmas, after all; this should feel like an entirely new guitar. After a good polish of the finish and frets, and some lemon oil for the rosewood fretboard, this guitar came right back to life.

I had Mike pick up a set of 11 gauge strings, which is usually the lightest I’ll recommend for Jaguars. I lowered and pre-radiused the saddles by eye and re-installed the bridge, intending to fine-tune it later on. To my surprise, the guitar actually played pretty well with just that done, but I decided to give the truss rod another quarter-turn to really dial in the relief. With 11s and the correct amount of neck angle, those strings weren’t going anywhere.

Because the guitar just wasn’t staying in tune before I started my work, I paid special attention to every point of contact on the strings, lubricating the nut and making sure it was properly cut for the gauge being used. Ideally, I’d like to replace the nut on this one at some point, but there just wasn’t time for that on this quick trip home. Another day, then! The trem was also wildly out of adjustment, so I zeroed in on the sweet spot for both the Trem Lock to work as intended and for optimum string tension, and the whole guitar snapped right back in to perfect functionality. Bam!

fullsizerender_3When I was finished, I hovered above the thing, not quite sure how to feel. This was the guitar from my youth that elicited such passion, though my ignorance kept me from fully embracing the model. I couldn’t believe that I was able to give back, as it were, to that first Jaguar. I dreamed about this shimmering blue guitar for years, and here I was, ready to play it as it should always have been. And play, I did; the sound, the feel, the response… it was magical.

Life has come full-circle, in a way. What an honor it was to care for this instrument! Thanks, Mike!

 

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Skye’s Jaguar Thinline Gets a Serious Upgrade

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As you well know already, Skye Skjelset (Fleet Foxes, Japanese Guy, Tiger Beat Magazine) often hires us to customize instruments to his exceedingly quirky tastes – he’s like the Zooey Deschanel of guitars. And it’s great.

Mr. Skjelset (Pronounced: shell-set) seems to vacation in Japan frequently, and during his last round of fun under the Rising Sun he picked up this lovely black Thinline Jaguar with the intention of making it ‘his own’.

It’s a huge honor to so often be the M. Ward to his guitar-customizing She, and as such I have a lot of fun letting my mind run wild when we’re talking about specs or ideas for upcoming mods. Although Skye’s only had this Japanese Jaguar Thinline for a few months, we’ve been talking about this job for a quote some time.

Skye had already taken it upon himself to swap the original neck with a mid-sixties Mustang neck, and since the scale length is the same this ensured that worn-in feel without any negative side effects. Our plan was to swap the stock IMG_2098-impJapanese single coils – something I’d almost always recommend anyway – with a Lollar Jaguar neck pickup and a vintage DeArmond/Rowe Siver Foil in the bridge. Nothing too fancy, really.

It’s a good thing Skye wanted a new single-ply guard for this one, because mounting the Silver Foil to the original guard might have required some extra work, given the bridge pickup rout in both guard and body. We ordered the new guard sans-bridge pickup hole from Chandler Pickguards (Pickguard Heaven) and had it in no time. Even without sending a template, Chandler’s work was excellent and the guard mounted without issue.

Honestly, this thing came out so, so good; that Silver Foil is loud, clear, and has this vocal midrange you just don’t hear on most single coils. It blends beautifully with the neck unit, making for an intense, complex middle position that begs for delay and reverb.

So, to recap:

-Installed a Mastery Bridge (yes)
-Swapped in a Lollar Jaguar neck pickup
-Installed the custom-cut pickguard we picked up from Chandler, specially made with no bridge pickup
-Installed the vintage DeArmond/Rowe Silver Foil in the bridge (AMAZING)
-Full set up, and some secret sauce on top

And I know we get these questions all the time, but the Mastery Bridge is the greatest thing ever. Skye’s going to source a vintage vibrato for this one eventually, but for now it’s good as-is!

Here’s some more eye candy for you:

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar Pt. 4: Pickup Lines

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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.

A shot of Mojotone's Jazzmaster bobbin

Compare this shot of Mojotone’s Jazzmaster pickup with that of the Strat pickup below.

Open Coils

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.mojotone-classic-stratocaster-electric-guitar-pickup-single-strat-

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]

DV019_Jpg_Regular_306915.715_cremeOften, 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:

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Offset Obfuscation

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?

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Oh yeah.

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.

The Creamery shows us the difference!

The Creamery shows us the difference! (the reissue is Japanese)

Sound Decisions

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.

For more great options, here are some other manufacturers you should look into: The Creamery, Lindy Fralin, Porter Pickups, and Mojotone.

Jaguar: a Kitteh of a Whole Different Breed

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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

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