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The Jaguar Bites Back

Issue #7

The Jaguar Bites Back!

For decades one of Leo Fender’s Cinderella designs, recently the Jaguar has received a new lease of life with two signature models - the Kurt Cobain and Johnny Marr Jaguars. Guitar historian, Tony Bacon, takes us through the Jaguar’s troubled history and that of its even more troubled sibling, the unloved Jazzmaster.

Why would Leo Fender bring out more new guitars once he’d got the Stratocaster and the Telecaster on the go? From our advantageous position today, it seems obvious. Don’t bother, Leo! Everyone loves the Strat and the Tele! We don’t need anything else! Yes, well, you know what they say about hindsight. Back in the 1950s, when all this was happening, it must have looked very different.

Leo had made sure there were people around him at the Fender HQ in Fullerton, California, so that ideas became instruments and a lot of musicians could play Fender guitars. Don Randall headed up the Fender sales operation, although he’d started out back in the 1940s selling products made by Leo’s first guitar company, K&F, through Randall’s Radio-Tel wholesale firm based in nearby Santa Ana. Radio-Tel became Fender’s exclusive distributor and soon turned into the official Fender Sales company.

Leo hired Forrest White as his factory manager in 1954, and White set to work organising and streamlining a chaotic and sometimes threadbare firm. A musician, Freddie Tavares, was Leo’s main ideas man, designing new guitars and amplifiers and quickly becoming an invaluable member of the team. By the late 1950s the factory hummed with activity, and work would sometimes spill out into the alleyways, a distinct advantage of the Californian climate. But Leo was almost always inside, often burning the midnight lamp.

Amplifiers were still important to Fender, but by early 1958 they had a strong solidbody six-string electric line consisting of the original Esquire and Telecaster, the relatively new Stratocaster, and the Duo- Sonic and Musicmaster ‘student models’. The Musicmaster was the cheapest, at $119.50 retail, the Strat the most expensive, at $274.50 with vibrato. Fender was a growing, ambitious operation, and they must have looked enviously at the market leader, Gibson, whose list of electric models ran from the Les Paul Junior at $120 right up to a natural-finish Super 400CES at a dizzying $700. Clearly, some players would buy expensive electrics. The models at the head of the Gibson list were luxurious hollow-bodies, aimed at and played by the top Jazz guitarists. Fender decided they would make a solidbody instrument for these well-heeled Jazzmen.

So along came the Fender Jazzmaster, launched towards the end of 1958 at $329.50 as the company’s top-of-the-line model. Some prototypes have survived that lend a little insight into the design process: one has Fender’s regular fretted maple neck of the period, rather than the (for Fender) brand new rosewood fingerboard that graced the production model; another one, which I was lucky enough to look over when I wrote a book on Scott Chinery’s collection back in the 1990s, had a Strat neck and black-cover pickups. When the production Jazzmaster appeared in 1958, Fender couldn’t resist plugging it as “America’s finest electric guitar … unequalled in performance and design features”. Freddie Tavares, as usual responsible for some of the design input, said later: “When we built the Stratocaster we thought that was the world’s greatest guitar. Then we said let’s make something even better – so we built the Jazzmaster.”

Immediately striking to the electric guitarist of 1958 was the Jazzmaster’s unusual offset-waist body shape, which became the subject of one of Fender’s growing number of patents. And for the first time on a Fender, the Jazzmaster featured that separate rosewood ’board, glued to the customary maple neck and aimed to provide a comfortingly conventional appearance and feel for the Jazzers. The guitar’s floating vibrato system was new, too, and had a tricky ‘lock-off’ facility designed to prevent tuning problems if a string should break. The vibrato was quite different from the earlier Strat unit, with a separate tailpiece and bridge, and did not succeed nearly as well. It can prove a difficult (and sometimes buzzy) beast.

The pickups were a couple of large, flat things, unlike any of Fender’s usual units and with a smooth, thick sound, still quite cutting at the bridge but suitably jazzy at the neck. Fender’s Don Randall recalled a major criticism of the Jazzmaster. “It never met with very much favour because those big, wide pickups were not shielded, so you’d come on stage among all the wires and cables and pick up too much hum and noise from the lights, static, and all.”

The pickguard was at first one of Fender’s gold-coloured types, generally referred to as ‘anodized’ (although that’s not a technically accurate term). These nine-screw ‘gold’ guards gave way in 1959 to 13-screw white or tortoiseshell plastic. The Jazzmaster’s controls were certainly elaborate for the time. The idea was that you could flick a small slide-switch to select between two individual circuits that you had preset: one for rhythm; the other for lead. The idea was a good one: set up a rhythm sound and a lead sound, and then switch between them. But the system was over-complicated for players brought up on straightforward volume and tone controls (in other words, pretty much everyone).

The dual-circuit idea was adapted from a layout that Forrest White had devised way back in the 1940s when he built guitars as a hobby. He’d put a switch into his steel guitar to flip between preset rhythm and lead tones. “I saw Alvino Rey at the Paramount Theater in Akron, Ohio, and he had to keep fiddling with his guitar when he wanted to change from rhythm to lead,” White told me. “I thought well, there’s no reason he should have to do that. Later, I said to Leo: ‘What you need is a guitar where you can preset the rhythm and lead.’ Leo didn’t play guitar, he couldn’t even tune a guitar, so he didn’t think this was important. Rey came in the plant one day, and I said: ‘How would you like not to have to mess around with the controls, just flip a switch?’ He says, can that be done? I says well sure, I already did it. So Leo brought the Jazzmaster out, and that guitar was the first where you could switch between rhythm and lead.”

So, the sound of the Jazzmaster was generally richer and warmer than players were used to from Fender. “Leo was trying to get more of a Jazz sound than the high, piercing Telecaster sound,” explained White. The new model certainly marked a change for the company and constituted a real effort to extend the scope and appeal of their guitar line. Ironically, this has been partly responsible for the Jazzmaster’s lack of long-term popularity relative to the Strat and Tele, mainly because many of us aren’t struck by the guitar’s sounds and playability.

Jazz guitarists found little appeal in this new, rather awkward solidbody guitar, and mainstream Fender fans largely stayed with their Stratocasters and Telecasters. Bob Bogle in The Ventures played a Jazzmaster for a while in the early 1960s, and a few surfers, including The Surfaris of ‘Wipe Out’ fame, seemed to like the way you could switch from snap to smooth with the presets. Accomplished American instrumentalist Roy Lanham favoured a Jazzmaster for a while too. About the only ‘real’ Jazzers who ever gave the new Fender a go were top man Joe Pass and the lesser-known Eddie Duran, but these too proved to be brief flirtations. Jazzmen kept hold of their hollow-body electrics, and Fender had to come to terms with what seemed like their first dud.

Nonetheless, the Jazzmaster stayed in the catalogue, and Fender didn’t give up on the idea of an upmarket electric. By the early 1960s they’d decided to give it another try and introduced a new high-end model in 1962, the Jaguar. (It listed at $379.50; a similar-finish Jazzmaster was by then pegged at $349.50, and a sunburst Strat with vibrato would set you back $289.50.)

 Like the Jazzmaster, the similar Jaguar was an offset-waist multi-control instrument and had a separate bridge and vibrato unit, although the Jaguar added a spring-loaded ‘string mute’ at the bridge. Fender rather optimistically believed that players would prefer a mechanical string mute to the natural edge-of-the-hand method. Some did; most did not. Feel-related playing techniques simply cannot be replaced by an on-or-off gadget.

There were some notable differences between the Jaguar and Jazzmaster. Visually, the Jag had distinctive chromed control panels, and was the first Fender with 22 frets, not 21 like the rest. Its 24-inch scale-length (“faster, more comfortable” said Fender) was shorter than the Fender standard of 25½ inches and closer to Gibson’s 24¾. It meant an easier playing feel for the Jag compared to other Fenders. The model was offered from the start in four different neck widths, one a size narrower and two wider than normal (coded A, B, C or D, from narrowest to widest, with ‘normal’ B the most common). These neck options were also offered from 1962 on the Jazzmaster, as well as the Strat.

The Jag’s pickups looked much like Strat units but had metal shielding added at the base and sides, probably as a response to the criticisms of the Jazzmaster’s tendency to noisiness. The controls were yet more complex than the Jazzmaster’s, using the same rhythm circuit but adding a trio of lead-circuit switches for selecting the pickups or a ‘strangle’ low-end filter.

The company’s new model was the first regular electric guitar to carry the new Fender logo on its headstock. Around 1960 Fender’s print ads had started to feature a chunky new logo drawn up by Bob Perine, the man responsible for the stylish look of Fender’s advertising from the late 1950s to the end of the next decade. During the following years Fender gradually applied the new logo to headstock decals too. It’s since become known to collectors as the ‘transition’ logo because it leads from the original thin ‘spaghetti’ style to a bolder black one brought in at the end of the 1960s.

Like the Jazzmaster, the Jaguar enjoyed a small burst of popularity soon after it was introduced. Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys was one of the most prominent Jaguar players in the 1960s, probably influencing lesser surf outfits to pick up a Jag such as The Trashmen, whose ‘Surfin’ Bird’ was a big US hit. But this new top-of-the-line guitar, “one of the finest solidbody electric guitars that has ever been offered to the public” in Fender’s original sales hype, never enjoyed sustained success, and again like the Jazzmaster has been marked down by many players since as a Fender also-ran.

Playing-wise and operationally the Jazz and Jag may have been a bit of a handful, but they’ve always looked great. They seemed to benefit particularly well from Fender’s 1960s custom colour options, which added a gleaming throb of colour to an already cool object. Back in 1963, for just $17.47 extra on a $349.50 sunburst Jazzmaster, or $18.99 on a $379.50 Jaguar, you could choose from black, burgundy mist metallic, candy apple red metallic, dakota red, daphne blue, fiesta red, foam green, inca silver metallic, lake placid blue metallic, olympic white, sherwood green metallic, shoreline gold metallic, sonic blue, or surf green. A few more options soon followed, including blue ice, charcoal frost, firemist gold, firemist silver, ocean turquoise, and teal green. Suddenly, blond or sunburst seemed fit only for old-hat Tele and Strat men.


Famously, Fender was sold to CBS at the start of 1965. At first the prospects seemed good as the new owner pumped money and enthusiasm into their impressive purchase. But in years to come the relationship soured.

Some cosmetic changes at the time included the Strat gaining a broader headstock to match that of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar in 1965. Also that year, binding was added to the fingerboards of the Jag and Jazz, and in 1966 they were given block-shaped fingerboard inlays in place of dot markers.

Who knows how it might have been had a big name picked up on one of these secondary Fenders at the time? According to Nashville-based guitar dealer George Gruhn, it almost happened at the end of 1970. “Eric Clapton began buying and playing vintage Strats and their popularity consequently grew,” Gruhn said of this era, when EC acquired his famous ‘Blackie’ and shifted from Les Pauls to Strats. “Clapton bought quite a few Strats from me during this period, and when he asked one day that I find a good Jazzmaster for him, I had hopes that his use of the model would do comparable things for its collectability. However, circumstances intervened, Clapton decided he didn’t want a Jazzmaster after all, and nothing further developed.” I’m guessing, but let’s assume the fashion-conscious Clapton was drawn to the look of a Jazzmaster … and then tried playing the thing.

During the 1970s, Fender’s CBS management cut back on the existing product lines and offered hardly any new models. The Jaguar disappeared from the catalogue around 1975, and by 1980 the Jazzmaster (by then boasting black pickups and pickguard) was phased out of production. Neither would reappear for many years. But the boardroom doubts in California coincided with a new popularity of the models among punk and new-wave guitarists. This was partly due to the punk ethic of visible notice of having little money (at least theoretically). Jazzes and Jags were relatively unloved and therefore relatively cheap on the secondhand market compared to the burgeoning prices of what were now being tagged ‘vintage’ Strats and Teles.

One of the best of the new breed of so-called punks was Tom Verlaine in the New York group Television. Verlaine played a Jazzmaster and showed its versatility on the classic Marquee Moon album, which you ought to go and get immediately if you haven’t heard it. Back in Britain, it was necessary to listen no further than Robert Smith in The Cure and Elvis Costello, fronting his mob The Attractions, as Smith and Costello both selected a Jazzmaster as their six-string of choice.

Back in California, Fender had business troubles during the 1970s, and in 1981 new management was installed by Fender’s owners, CBS, who were rattled by Fender’s uncharacteristic tendency lately to follow rather than lead instrument fashions. New men from Yamaha US were hired, revisions were made to the primary Strat and Tele models, and a modernisation programme at the factory meant that production was virtually stopped while new machinery was brought in and staff re-trained.

As a result, Japanese production of Fenders began in 1982, and the first Vintage reissues came out, recreating classic Strat and Tele models with 1950s and 1960s period styling. In 1985, almost exactly 20 years after acquiring it, CBS sold Fender to the company’s new management. Probably the most immediate problem for the new owners was that the Fullerton factories were not included in the deal, and so US production stopped in February 1985 until a new factory – in Corona, CA – was established the following year. The Japanese operation became Fender’s lifeline, providing much-needed product while the US factory was quiet. All the guitars in Fender’s 1985 catalogue were made in Japan. New Japanese-made Jazzmaster and Jaguar models for the Japanese market appeared in 1986, and while they were also sold in Britain from that time, they didn’t appear in American shops until the mid 1990s.

Around the 1990s, grunge emerged as the overarching style that some felt defined an era of guitar playing. As with punk before, it was never that simple, and talented players made their own marks within and around the fashionable label. Also like punk, the attraction of relatively cheap instruments - and of being seen NOT to play the old-school favourites - meant that Jags and Jazzes had another good showing among some of the leading lights of the time. There was J. Mascis in Dinosaur Jr., an inventive guitarist seen with various Jazzmasters (primarily a modded ’63), Thurston Moore in Sonic Youth who favoured Jazzes but didn’t say no to a Jag, and Stone Gossard with the occasional Jag in Pearl Jam. And that’s not to forget a few cheers for a couple more notable Jag-men, Brian Molko of Placebo and John Frusciante in the Chili Peppers.

In Nirvana, Kurt Cobain played his favoured left-hand Fender Jaguar (a ’65 sunburst with humbuckers added and some of the switches removed and taped over) as well as a Mustang. Probably early in 1993, Cobain cut up some photos of his Fenders and stuck them together this way and that, trying out different combinations to see what they looked like. Larry Brooks in Fender’s Custom Shop was given the paste-ups and created a design for a new instrument.

Kurt received the resulting red custom guitar from Fender, although he never saw the second (blue) one. Following his untimely death in 1994, Cobain’s family collaborated with Fender to release a Japanese-made production version of the instrument, by now named the Fender Jag-Stang. The model hit the market in 1996 and stayed in the catalogue for a couple of years. It was back in the line in 2003, still from Japan and described by Fender as “a collision of contemporary features fused together to create a combination of Jaguar and Mustang”, but again the oddity was only on sale for a couple of years.

Cobain’s experiment was never a ‘signature’ model at that time: that series had begun for Fender with the Clapton Strat back in 1988, but again the Jazzmaster and Jaguar hardly got a look in. One exception was the Ventures Jazzmaster of 1996, harking back to that American always-big-in-Japan instro group. The short-lived model was a Japan-made late-60s-style bound-neck guitar but with simplified controls and several Ventures logos on-board. Fender Japan have made other non-signature versions of the late-60s style Jaguar and Jazzmaster in addition to early-60s dot-neck types.

Since those days, the monster has awoken as Fender has raided its heritage larder for every last scrap of advantage. The current line-up boasts 11 Jaguars (including a ‘vintage modified’ Squier) and seven Jazzmasters. The launch of Cobain and Marr Jaguars could be seen as the final vindication of the big cats - but looking at the changes made to create Johnny Marr’s ideal Jag, you would have to be a real Leophile not to conclude that the original didn’t have some quite significant design faults.

As for the rest of us, perhaps we should try to forget that the Jazzmaster and Jaguar are Fenders. Forget that they’re not a Strat and not a Tele, and try thinking of each of them simply as a different guitar worth a try. Who knows where you might end up?




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