The Fender Jazzmaster Turns 50


From the New York Times:

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Television’s Tom Verlaine bought his cheap in the early ’70s because nobody else wanted one. Elvis Costello liked its shape and versatility. Johnny Marr of the Smiths (now of Modest Mouse) was attracted to its machine gun qualities. :guitar: Over the run of 50 years, the Fender Jazzmaster guitar has developed a following as musically diverse as surf (the Ventures), new wave (the Cars), indie (Yo La Tengo), electronic (Stereolab) and alternative (My Bloody Valentine). And yet it never captured its intended audience.
In 1958, Leo Fender unveiled an instrument he hoped would do for jazz what his Telecaster and Stratocaster were doing for nascent rock ’n’ roll. It was built with state-of-the-art electronics, with a 25½-inch neck and a floating tremolo bar for smooth note bending. The sound was warm and clean, and the solid body was cut with an offset waist that gave the guitar an ergonomic feel when played in the seated position, the jazz posture of choice. Its space-age form had the contour of an amoeba about to shift shape, much like the spontaneous riffs it was meant to produce.
Unfortunately for Fender, it was more guitar than jazz stylists wanted. ‘‘The tonal range was wider than what a jazz player was used to,’’ says Justin Norvell, Fender’s marketing director. ‘‘It had more attack and more brightness. Jazz guitar has a sound that’s more like a horn, more muted. It didn’t take so well.’’ In fact, it didn’t take at all. Jazz players ignored it and continued to perform on Gibson’s classic hollow-bodied arch-tops.
Yet while its attack and brightness went unappreciated by the likes of Wes Montgomery, those same qualities were perfect for the emerging sound of surf. Listen to the Ventures’ 1960 version of Johnny Smith’s ‘‘Walk Don’t Run,’’ and the Jazzmaster’s unintended effect is immediately apparent. The guitar growls with a rumbling bass, punctuated with floating licks that seem to rise from under water with a jangly treble twang. ‘‘It’s quite a different sound,’’ says the Ventures guitarist Don Wilson. ‘‘It’s my all-time favorite guitar.’’ The Ventures became the best-selling instrumental rock group ever, to the tune of more than 100 million albums, and drove up sales of Jazzmasters.
But pop gravity follows its own divine law, and the surf-music craze fizzled with the British invasion. Armed with Rickenbackers, the Beatles and the Who helped push the Jazzmaster into a commercial coma. Later, with the rise of the Guitar Gods and their instruments of choice (Jimmy Page, the Gibson Les Paul; and Eric Clapton, the Stratocaster), it was relegated to pawn-shop status across the land.
And then an irresistible force took hold. In the mid-’70s, Television was at the forefront of New York’s punk scene, and every week Tom Verlaine would strap on his Jazzmaster and take the stage at CBGB. Drawn to the guitar for financial reasons (a deal at $150), he also liked its pedigree. While critics like Lester Bangs argued over the band’s influences, Verlaine acknowledged the Ventures in both style and instrument. In February 1977, Television’s seminal debut, ‘‘Marquee Moon,’’ redefined where lead guitar began and rhythm guitar ended.
That year Elvis Costello released ‘‘My Aim Is True.’’ The cover art featured him as a punked-out, pigeon-toed Buddy Holly holding tight to a vintage Jazzmaster, a guitar he came to own by trading in a Telecaster. He has no regrets. ‘‘This guitar,’’ he said in an interview on the Fender Web site, ‘‘it’s had a funny life. I’ve done all sorts of different music, but whenever it’s involved electric guitar, I don’t think there’s one record I’ve made on which the Jazzmaster doesn’t feature somewhere.’’ Fender is grateful: for its 50th anniversary, it released a signature Costello model.
Though discontinued in 1980 (later reissued by Fender Japan in 1986 and returned to American production in 1999), the Jazzmaster continued to make some conspicuous appearances. Ric Ocasek of the Cars wielded a pink one, and Robert Smith of the Cure, who used his first record advance to buy one, has played Jazzmasters throughout his band’s career. But for the most part, the Jazzmaster’s terrain remained on the fringe.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was during the post-punk, alt-grunge era that its crisp sound attracted its most loyal devotees. J Mascis, the frontman of Dinosaur Jr., remembers buying his first. ‘‘I painted this house in the summer, and I had $400 to buy a guitar,’’ he says. ‘‘There was this store called Slimey Bob’s Guitar Rip-offs, and in the paper it said you can get a Strat for $400. It was classic bait-and-switch — ‘Oh no, the Strat is $450.’ ’’ But there was a Jazzmaster for $300. ‘‘I liked the neck because it was all worn like a baseball bat,’’ he says. ‘‘But it reminded me of Elvis Costello, and that definitely didn’t have a good association to me. I just thought: Elvis Costello … nerd.’’
Mascis’s use of feedback, distortion and a controlled sense of being out of control caught the attention of others in the alt-music scene. ‘‘In the late ’80s we were playing with Dinosaur Jr., and J was using Jazzmasters almost exclusively,’’ says Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. He and his bandmate Thurston Moore have played more than 20.
All this late-in-life fame can cost. Vintage models go for as much as $10,000; at that price they’re targets for thieves. There’s also a certain six-degrees-of-connectedness to them. ‘‘This guy at Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma sent me a guitar, and I played it for a couple days and didn’t like it,’’ Mascis says. ‘‘So he said, ‘I’ll give it to Watt,’ who then gave it to Nels.’’ (As in Mike Watt of the Minutemen and Nels Cline of Wilco.) ‘‘There was another one I passed up, and the guy said he sold it to [the band] Luna.’’
Johnny Marr chose the Jazzmaster for its sound, but he’s aware of being part of a unique coterie. ‘‘It’s interesting that Thom Yorke plays one, because I feel a certain natural kinship with Thom’s band,’’ Marr says of Radiohead. ‘‘Sometimes you can be unified and join together with people because of the things you stand against as much as the things you stand for. Maybe that is true for all the people who have chosen to play this guitar.’’ :guitar:


New Member
I personally prefer Strats myself.:p
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