What’s Special About a Fender Jazzmaster?

The Fender Jazzmaster is one of the most misunderstood instruments Leo Fender ever devised.

I love my Jazzmaster because I’ve taken the time to learn how to adjust and maintain it properly. The average guitar tech—with good intentions—will treat a Jazzmaster like any other Fender. This can turn an otherwise great instrument into a dud.

Maybe that’s why they’ve had such a bumpy history.

What makes the Jazzmaster special is its super comfortable offset body, jangly pickups, special electronics for a wide range of tones, and a unique vibrato system. Combined, these things make the Jazzmaster extremely versatile.

Despite their status as an indie rock and alternative guitar, they’ve been growing popularity in recent years. Heck, even Squier makes several different low-cost models including a left-handed version and a mini guitar.

When the Jazzmaster was first introduced at the 1958 NAMM Show, Fender marketed the new model to jazz guitarists. It was designed to mimic the geometry of an archtop jazz guitar and offer easy switching between rhythm and lead playing.

Jazz players never really warmed up to the Jazzmaster. However, it found favor with surf guitarists, along with its cousin the Fender Jaguar.

Unfortunately, surf music was only popular for a few years in the 1960s. Despite attempts to find new markets for these instruments, Fender discontinued the Jazzmaster in 1982 due to poor sales.

When a Jazzmaster has a good setup by someone who knows how to work on these guitars, they are some of the best instruments available.

The Body

The Jazzmaster’s body shape is perhaps the first thing people notice. It was designed in the 1950s and looks like a cross between a ’57 Chevy and a rocket ship.

Fender intended the offset body to allow for increased comfort in both sitting and standing positions. Along with an arm contour, belly cut, and almost nonexistent lower horn for reaching the upper frets, the Jazzmaster was built for comfort.

The larger body shape can be disorienting for players who are more accustomed to a more “traditional” model. Despite their size, the Jazzmaster can weigh about the same as a Strat or Tele.

The thing I’m surprised people don’t talk about more is the routing. Removing the pickguard (which is a chore) reveals what is essentially a semi-hollow guitar. The control cavity runs along the entire lower bout, from the output jack all the way to the 3-way pickup selector switch.

This is similar to the routing on a Telecaster Thinline, minus the cap and F-hole. The amount of wood removed from the body for routing makes it much easier to find a Jazzmaster in the neighborhood of 8 pounds (3.6 kg).

Gibson’s first semi-hollow electric guitar, the ES-335, was also released in 1958. I’ve always wondered whether Leo Fender was aiming for a semi-hollow design for his jazz guitar. There doesn’t seem to be any information about this aspect.

Jazzmasters and 335s both typically weigh between 7.5 and 8.5 pounds.

For comparison, the Fender Jaguar has one small route for the controls and a separate route for the pickup switches. The routes for the Jaguar’s pickups is also smaller.

The Electronics

Besides its body shape, perhaps the most unique feature of the Jazzmaster is the electronics. The special-designed pickups and dual tone “circuits” allow for a wide range of tones not available on a Tele or Strat.

Pickups

The first unique feature of the Jazzmaster is the big, rectangular pickups. Because of their “soapbar” shape, they are frequently confused for P90 pickups. The rounded rectangle shape is the only similarity between the two.

Jazzmaster pickups have wide, flat bobbins and AlNiCo pole pieces. Vintage and reissue pickups tend to be lower output and have a more balanced frequency response than a Strat or Tele.

Conversely, P90 pickups have taller bobbins and bar magnets that allow for higher output and more midrange frequencies.

Controls

For those who are unfamiliar with the Jazzmaster, one of the most confusing aspects of these guitars are all the extra controls. The confusion is worsened by well-meaning reviewers who don’t really understand how they work.

The Jazzmaster has two sets of controls: the Lead Circuit and the Rhythm Circuit. These were designed to give players the ability to toggle between two preset tones.

The Lead Circuit, located on the lower bout of the guitar, is like a regular two-pickup guitar setup. There’s a 3-way selector switch, a master volume, and master tone. The pots are 1MΩ, unlike the 250KΩ pots in most Fender guitars. The higher value allows a lot more treble through than most of us are used to.

If you don’t mind using the tone control to roll off the treble when you don’t need it, this can be a blessing. Sometimes you need a little more bite. If you hate fiddling with controls, don’t get a Jazzmaster.

The Rhythm Circuit, located on the upper horn of the guitar, is where people get really confused. There is a 2-way slider switch and two roller wheels. The switch selects which of the two circuits is active. When the switch is in the down position, it’s the Lead Circuit. In the up position, it’s the Rhythm Circuit.

The Rhythm Circuit disconnects the controls on the lower bout. It only uses the neck pickup. The roller wheels are the volume and tone controls. The volume control uses a 1MΩ pot and a 50KΩ tone pot. The lower value tone pot blocks a lot of the treble, which makes it ideal for a rhythm tone.

Hardware

In an effort to mimic the geometry of an archtop jazz guitar, Fender designed a special bridge and vibrato system for the Jazzmaster. While these features are great, when they are not adjusted correctly the can cause a number of tuning and playability issues.

The Bridge

The bridge is a “rocking” bridge, which means it’s designed rock back and forth when the vibrato is being used. This prevents the strings from rubbing back and forth against the saddles. A rocking bridge can be tricky to set up. If the guitar is not properly configured, the bridge can lean too far in one direction and prevent it from rocking.

Setting up the bridge is tricky. There are two adjustable posts to raise and lower the bridge in relation to the body. There are also two height-adjustment screws on each saddle to match the strings to the neck radius. Each saddle has an intonation screw in the back.

The saddles have to be at just the right height to keep the strings from buzzing on either side of the bridge, or buzzing against the intonation screw.

The Vibrato

Right behind the bridge is the vibrato. I’ve always thought of it like a Bigsby vibrato with all the moving parts hidden underground. The strings attach to a plate with a spring to counter the spring tension.

A unique feature of the vibrato system is the mechanical “lock” that prevents the vibrato from floating (moving in both directions). This is useful if you don’t want to use the vibrato, or if you break a string and all of the strings go sharp. The spring tension can be adjusted using a screw located behind the lock button

Conclusion

The Fender Jazzmaster is a unique creature. I wish I could say everyone should own one. As much as I love, they require specialized knowledge or a guitar tech who knows how to work on these instruments.

If you are thinking about buying one, consider the sheer number of electronic and mechanical components that make the Jazzmaster special. Can you handle it all when something goes wrong?

So many people buy a Jazzmaster because they’re fun to look at. Then they spend months or years modifying everything before selling the guitar completely.

Jazzmasters are more than a guitar. They’re practically a lifestyle.

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