The origins of the Fender Jazzmaster, from surf supremo to the alternative hero



As Fender roared in the mid-1950s, the company made a concerted effort to upscale its image while expanding the lineup with new models.

The covers of the 1955 and 1956 catalogs were significantly more stylish than those of previous years, but the public relations efforts of Don Randall and the Fender Sales team improved exponentially by the decade’s end with the help from a creative and insightful youngster. Advertising agent.

Meanwhile, in 1956, Fender saw the benefit of adding two new student models to the Spanish line of electric guitars to attract entry-level players to the brand, while working on the release of an all-new pro-grade model towards the end of the decade, which most would consider the company’s third true six-string classic.

The Jazzmaster is coming

Fender Jazzmaster

A 1959 Jazzmaster in mint condition, still with its hang tag (Image credit: courtesy Davidson’s Well-Strung Guitars)

The business spread across several avenues in the 1950s, starting primarily serving country artists, but confidently moving into the rock ‘n’ roll boom and then into the student market. In 1957, Fender was eager to prove that his guitars could be classy too.

Improvements and upgrades had been made to the Telecaster and Stratocaster, and these flagship products were landing in the hands of more and more professional gamers. Jazzmen have long been the traditionalists of the electric guitar world: if the company could win them over, too, it could finally put an end to the derision that greeted the Broadcaster at the start of the decade and pave the way for thousands of new customers in addition.

The result of this effort, the Jazzmaster, became another enduring mainstay in the Fender catalog and a firm favorite of several alternative genres for decades to come, but not in the jazz market that Fender anticipated during the passionate R&D process that produced it.

Schematics Fender Jazzmaster

Jazzmaster patent designs hint at target market (Image credit: Fender Musical Instruments Corporation)

Fender’s spearhead in jazz territory felt players with the traditional spirit of the genre might be won over by a few thoughtful changes to the bolt-neck solidbody format. Many of these were touted in a 1958 advertisement that declared the new model to be “America’s best electric guitar”. Some of the new features include:

  • Completely new and wider single coil pickups intended to produce a warmer, rounder sound
  • A new tone circuit which, in addition to a traditional “master” section that governed both pickups, offered a fast preset sound for the neck pickup alone at the push of a switch (located on the top horn)
  • A staggered waist body design that places the guitarist’s right arm in a more comfortable playing position when seated
  • A new floating tremolo design paired with a floating / rocking bridge for extremely smooth vibrato action and improved tuning stability
  • A sleeker, sleeker rosewood fingerboard and traditional sunburst finish

The Jazzmaster went through considerable design effort and represented a whole new breed of solid Fender bodies, with more complex features than any previous one. The new model hit the catalog in 1958 as the brand’s flagship and the most expensive Spanish electric guitar Fender has to offer, priced at $ 329 compared to $ 275.50 for a ’58 Stratocaster.

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Fender JAzzmaster

The Jazzmaster, as it appears on the cover of the Fender catalog and in period advertising (Image credit: Fender Musical Instruments Corporation)
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Fender Jazzmaster

The Jazzmaster, as it appears on the cover of the Fender catalog and in period advertisements (Image credit: Fender Musical Instruments Corporation)

All of this, and it almost failed to ignite the jazz world. In theory, of course, the new neck pickup’s preset rhythm tone circuit on its own might have come across as a more jazz-friendly feature than anything found on any other solidbody in existence at the time, but apart from that. that, there was not much to catch from the bop, swing or cool jazz guitarists.

From supremo surf to alternative hero

Fender Jazzmaster

Thumbs Carllile Holds Court At Fender HQ While Choosing A Jazzmaster (Image credit: Fender Musical Instruments Corporation)

And to top it off, the new Jazzmaster looked very gadget – and undoubtedly very rock n roll.

Whatever failure the new model may have been from the perspective of the jazz market, it was an almost instant hit with the burgeoning surf guitar scene swelling in California in the late 1950s. and swept across the country by the early 1960s.

The meaty but twangy sound of the Jazzmaster bridge pickup was perfect for instrumental surf guitar passages, the neck pickup was ideal for rhythm, and the smooth vibrato action was perfect for the obligatory glissandos, dips and vibratos meant to be played. audibly. the rolling and tumbling of a breaking wave.


The Ventures were among the first surf groups to adopt the Jazzmaster (Image credit: press)

The Ventures, a band from Seattle, were among the first prominent artists of the genre to bring the Jazzmaster to the fore, and it was quickly picked up by the Astronauts, Surfaris, Tornadoes, and other cargoes. And the Jazzmaster found an early proponent of Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins neither jazz nor rock ‘n’ roll as such, whose use of Esquires and Telecasters had led to an association with the Fender Company. . Perkins happily translated his characteristic boom-chicka-boom-chicka lead-rhythm style to the new fancy pattern.

Despite some success in the niche market, however – and despite being the most expensive new guitar in the Fender catalog – the Jazzmaster’s slow acceptance in other genres meant that it was often the last. one of the most affordable full-size Fender electric guitars on the used market for years to come.

This applied even more to the UK, where imported American guitars remained extremely expensive, especially during the faltering economy of the 1970s. If country artists were the working class heroes of the 1950s and 1960s, guitarists punk, new wave and indie would assume this role in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. And the more affordable Jazzmaster would often be their weapon of choice.

Elvis Costello

Designed to supplant the traditional jazz box, the Jazzmaster would become a favored tool of cutting-edge rock artists like Television’s Tom Verlaine, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda Butcher, and Elvis Costello. (Image credit: press)

Tom Verlaine of New York band Television donned his ’58 Jazzmaster all over their 1977 debut album, Moon marquee, around the same time Elvis Costello posed on the front and back covers of his own debut, My goal is true, with its stripped-down Jazzmaster.

Later, British artists Robert Smith of The Cure, Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher of My Bloody Valentine, Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins and, a little later, Adam Franklin of Swervedriver, Adrian Utley of Portishead, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and a lots of others would bend their Jazzmasters to indie and alternative hijinks.

Back in their homeland, American noise merchants Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo brought their Jazzmasters to Sonic Youth’s sound assault, while Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, Wayne Coyne and Steven Flaming Lips’ Drozd, and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Nils Cline have all embraced the flagship offset.

Rosewood planks and custom colors

The Jazzmaster’s rosewood fingerboard served as the introduction of this elegantly rich dark brown wood slice to the Fender range. Soon, functionality proliferated on all models, so that after 1959 the full maple fingerboard disappeared from standard Fenders until 1967. Meanwhile, with Fender necks moving towards the more traditional, bodies. soared to pop art with the official availability of Custom Color finishes. .

Most testimonials (including his) indicate that George Fullerton had the idea of ​​standardizing custom colors at Fender, an option that took shape more formally when the Jazzmaster was released. As Fullerton later recalled, “One day I went to a local paint store and started explaining to the man what was on my mind.

“I had it mixed some paint on the spot and finally we found a red color … Fiesta Red! I would say probably late 1957 / early 1958. The custom colors came out around the time the Jazzmaster was just released. . The reason I know this is because I had the color red put on one of the first Jazzmasters made. “

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Fender Color Catalog

A vintage Jaguar quintet is featured with a vintage Custom Color brochure (Image credit: Fender Musical Instruments Corporation)
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Fender Jazzmaster

(Image credit: Corutesy of Davidson’s Well-Strung Guitars)
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Fender Jazzmaster

(Image credit: Corutesy of Davidson’s Well-Strung Guitars)
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Fender Jazzmaster

(Image credit: Corutesy of Davidson’s Well-Strung Guitars)
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Fender Jazzmaster

(Image credit: Corutesy of Davidson’s Well-Strung Guitars)
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Fender Jazzmaster

(Image credit: Fender Musical Instruments Corporation)

In fact, the first public mention of the availability of any alternative to the Blonde Telecaster and the standard Sunburst Stratocaster appeared in a footnote on a 1956 sales sheet, which read, “Stratocaster guitars are available in retail stores. Du-Pont Ducco colors of the player’s choice at an additional cost of 5%.

Prior to that, some artists had requested special colors, resulting in Bill Carson’s Cimarron Red and Eldon Shamblin’s Gold Stratocasters. Custom paint options had proven to be big sellers in the automotive industry in recent years, and it made sense to offer the same on electric guitars, especially as the rock ‘n’ roll and the market young people in general were becoming more and more consumers of solidbodies.

Paint codes from Fender’s Custom Color Chart, released in 1960 and offering fifteen official colors (including Blonde) in addition to the standard Sunburst, reveal their automotive industry look-alikes, doubling the colors found on Ford Comet, Mercury and Lincoln, and on GM’s Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile and Cadillac models.

Custom colors became more prevalent from 1960 onwards, most often dressing Stratocasters and Jazzmasters, but sometimes also daubing Telecasters and Esquires, as well as another high-end model that was in the works for 1962.

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