Nothing quite sets our hearts alight like the distinctive silhouette of the offset electric guitar, and the undisputed monarchs of these irregular six-strings are the Fender Jazzmaster and Fender Jaguar. Frequently subject to cases of mistaken identity, many guitarists grapple with differentiating the two, much less understanding the subtle distinctions in specifications between them.
Today, we’re here to debunk the mysteries once and for all. We’ll be navigating the rich and varied histories, the prominent players, and the unique tones of the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar. Each has seen a diverse spotlight journey, migrating from the shadowy jazz clubs to the sun-drenched California surf scenes, ultimately finding their home among alternative rockers. These guitars have undeniably embedded themselves in the guitar-playing collective consciousness, earning their place as some of the most coveted models ever released.
Despite their acclaim, they often remain misunderstood. Let’s demystify the differences between these two offset champions.
The tale of the Jazzmaster begins in the pivotal year of 1958. This period was a time of innovation and reimagining in the electric guitar world. While Gibson focused on unveiling the radically designed Flying V and Explorer and renovating their Les Paul model, Fender turned their attention to an elusive demographic – the jazz musicians.
This new model diverged significantly from the preceding Stratocaster and Telecaster, offering the serious jazz aficionados an instrument teeming with tonal variation features. The unprecedented offset waist of the Jazzmaster gave it an almost futuristic look. Although this warped outline gave the Jazzmaster a unique aesthetic, it was designed with the needs of jazz musicians in mind.
Known for their seated performances, this offset design allowed the Jazzmaster to sit more comfortably and balanced. The Jazzmaster also introduced a new switch and thumbwheels, which continue to confound players, and a floating bridge with an anchored tailpiece, adding a subtle movement to chords and lead lines. While a few jazz musicians adopted it, it didn’t quite ignite the jazz world as Fender had hoped.
However, its journey was far from over as the Jazzmaster found acceptance within the surf guitar community in the 60s, the new wave in the following decade, and the alternative rock scene later on. Quite the trajectory for a guitar initially dismissed as a “failed jazzer,” wouldn’t you agree?
The Jaguar made its grand entrance in 1962, conceived as Fender’s answer to a premium model. Taking design cues from its older sibling, the Jaguar introduced something unprecedented in a Fender guitar – a short scale. This was a deliberate move to attract the Gibson players yet to be impressed by Fender and offer their existing fanbase a new experience.
The mid-sixties saw the rise of the British invasion, causing the popularity of surf music to wane. Despite this, Fender clung to its newfound popularity with the surfers, with the now-iconic “you won’t part with yours either” ad showing the Jaguar being played atop the waves. This chrome-adorned axe was an instant hit upon release and was embraced by many famous artists of the time.
Unfortunately, the decline of surf music was a storm the Jaguar couldn’t weather, and the Jaguar fell out of favor, eventually being discontinued in 1975. Similar to the Jazzmaster, the Jaguar was adopted by punk and grunge guitarists in the ’80s and ’90s – mainly due to their affordability in pawn shops. The rest, as they say, is history, with the Jaguar solidifying its position as a key player in the alternative rock movement and enjoyed a resurgence in the 90s that continues today.
With the histories behind us, let’s take a deeper dive into the technical details of these two iconic guitars. Both instruments have a variety of different models and variations, but we’ll focus on the original vintage-style specifications for the most part.
One of the most significant differences between the two is the scale length. The Jazzmaster has a standard Fender scale length of 25.5 inches, consistent with Stratocasters and Telecasters. On the other hand, the Jaguar has a shorter 24-inch scale length, resulting in slightly less string tension, making it easier to play and facilitating more complex chord shapes and bends.
The Jazzmaster is equipped with two wide, flat single-coil pickups known for their warm and full sound. The shape of the Jazzmaster pickups contributes to a broader frequency response, yielding a distinctively fat tone yet clear.
On the other hand, the Jaguar sports two narrower, taller single-coil pickups shielded by notched metal plates to reduce electrical noise. The Jaguar’s pickups are typically more aggressive and mid-focused, creating a brighter, punchier tone.
Both guitars offer a host of control options that distinguish them from other Fender models. Each has a lead circuit controlled by the lower knobs and switches and a rhythm circuit activated by the switch on the guitar’s upper bout.
The Jazzmaster’s lower controls are relatively straightforward, with a three-way pickup selector switch and volume and tone knobs. Its rhythm circuit, activated by flipping the switch upwards, engages the neck pickup only with separate volume and tone controls, offering a warmer, darker tone.
The Jaguar, on the other hand, has a more complex control layout. The lower bout features on/off switches for each pickup and a “strangle” switch, which engages a high-pass filter, cutting the low frequencies for a thinner, biting tone. The rhythm circuit on the Jaguar operates similarly to the Jazzmaster’s.
Both guitars use a similar floating tremolo system, which allows the player to create smooth pitch fluctuations. The Jazzmaster and Jaguar also originally featured a similar bridge design, notorious for causing string slippage and intonation issues. However, many modern versions of these guitars now feature an updated bridge design to rectify these problems.
Having understood the technical differences between these two iconic guitars, let’s delve deeper into their influence in the music industry and the specific genres they’ve impacted.
Both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar have significantly influenced the sound of various music genres, even though they initially didn’t find much favor in their intended market, Jazz.
With its warmer, fatter tones, the Jazzmaster gained immense popularity among surf rock musicians of the 1960s. Its smooth tremolo system and unique tonal qualities fit perfectly with the reverb-soaked sounds of this genre. Later, the Jazzmaster became a staple of alternative rock, shoegaze, and indie rock genres. Bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and My Bloody Valentine all employed the Jazzmaster for its raw, distinctive sound.
On the other hand, the Jaguar also found its initial success in the surf rock genre, with its punchy, bright tones and short-scale playability. Punk rock musicians later adopted it for its aggressive sound. Notably, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana wielded a Jaguar as his guitar of choice, reinforcing its significance in the grunge and alternative rock scenes.
Today, both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar maintain a steady presence in contemporary music, especially within the spheres of alternative rock, indie, and experimental genres.
Jazzmasters are commonly spotted in the hands of artists like Nels Cline of Wilco, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., and Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, who value the guitar’s wide-ranging tonal capabilities and distinctive aesthetic.
The Jaguar has its high-profile advocates, including Johnny Marr of The Smiths, who even has a signature Jaguar model, and Annie Clark, known professionally as St. Vincent, who often uses the guitar in her genre-defying work.
The vintage market for both the Jazzmaster and Jaguar has exploded in recent years. Original 1960s models in good condition can command high prices. This surge in value is a testament to the enduring appeal of these unique instruments. Meanwhile, Fender continues to produce both models in various configurations, offering vintage-style reissues and modernized versions to suit a range of players and budgets.
The Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar are shining examples of how musical instruments can transcend their initial intentions, find their own path, and shape the sound of multiple generations of music. Their distinct personalities and features make them more than just tools for creating music; they are cultural icons that continue to inspire musicians and audiences alike.
Whether you’re a guitar enthusiast, a collector, or a musician in search of the perfect tone, understanding the history, technical details, and influence of these iconic guitars will surely enrich your appreciation for the Jazzmaster and Jaguar’s unique place in music history.