The Jazzmaster is one of Fender’s flagship guitars, and guitar players of all genres and styles use it. Robert Smith of the Cure, Nels Cline of Wilco, Elvis Costello, and more all chose the Jazzmaster as their guitar of choice. Countless classic records feature the Jazzmaster, inspiring generations of kids to pick up a guitar.
But the Jazzmaster wasn’t always that successful and popular; underground rockers used them for decades instead of its intended audience of jazz players, and Fender even discontinued them for a period of time. So how did the Jazzmaster, with its offset body and complicated controls, even become such an iconic and popular guitar?
The history of the Fender Jazzmaster is a long and winding road filled with failure, success, surprises, irony, and most importantly, great tones. So sit back, put on some Sonic Youth or Elvis Costello, and keep reading to find out how the Jazzmaster did the impossible and became one of Fender’s most beloved instruments.
Origins of the Fender Jazzmaster
Fender was doing incredibly well in the 1950s. Their Stratocasters and Telecasters were popular guitars, and eager players were buying them up. Both offerings were workhorse guitars marketed by mainly towards western swing and dance bands. But Leo Fender wasn’t happy with their current market share—he wanted to get in on jazz too, a market largely dominated by Gibson and their hollowbodies.
You might be thinking, “why not rock and roll? It was the 50s!” But when Fender was working on the Jazzmaster in the mid 1950s, many thought rock was dead; the police arrested Chuck Berry, religion overtook Little Richard, the Army drafted Elvis, and Buddy Holly was dead. The days of rebellious teenagers listening to rock and roll seemed to be over. So instead of catering towards a dying market, Fender set his sights on jazz, aiming to create a top-of-the-line, solid body, jazz guitar that could compete with Gibson’s hollowbodies.
Design and Sound
The design of the Jazzmaster is arguably the most unique in all of Fender’s standard catalog. The Jazzmaster was remarkably different from anything else on the market at the time, and it’s still unique in 2022. But Fender also designed it specifically with jazz players in mind.
Starting with aesthetics, the Jazzmaster features an offset body unlike the Telecaster and Stratocaster. The offset design was not for looks though, but rather function. The offset body allows the guitar to be balanced when played sitting, which is how most jazz players performed. The Jazzmaster also features a rosewood fretboard, again, a feature very marketable to jazz players.
Sonically, Fender aimed the Jazzmaster at jazz musicians. Fender designed new pickups for the guitar that produced a warmer tone better suited for jazz. The pickups were wider and thinner than previous Fender pickups, resulting in a spaced-out coil that creates warmer tones. They were also reverse wound so the middle position was hum canceling, giving players more tonal options. Fender added a thin sheet of aluminum to the back of the pickguard to help with hum as well.
One of the most obvious additions to the Jazzmaster is the set of knobs and switches. While they can be confusing at first, these controls give the player more tonal variety. A rhythm and lead switch allows you to go between separate rhythm and lead circuits, each with their own distinct tones. The roller knobs function as volume and tone controls for the rhythm circuit, allowing players to easily adjust their tone on the fly and have separate preset tones for the rhythm and lead circuits. Fender also created a new single spring tremolo system, aimed at being more subtle. Again, Fender designed these features with jazz guitarists in mind.
The end result was an electric guitar uniquely suited for jazz, but one that also fit in nearly any musical context. The Jazzmaster had a wide variety of great tones, was easy to play, and good looking. With the guitar finally done, it was time to start selling it.
When the Jazzmaster finally hit the market, it completely failed to capture the attention of its intended audience. The East Coast jazz establishment did not embrace the Jazzmaster and stuck with their hollowbodies. Jazz guitarists didn’t ask for a new guitar, and they had no interest in switching. It didn’t matter how innovative the Jazzmaster was; they didn’t have any interest in a new guitar.
Despite that, the Jazzmaster sold anyway. Fender featured it in their “you won’t part with yours either” ads, a marketing campaign devised by Adman Perine to appeal to teenagers. The campaign was obviously a success since Jazzmasters were selling while failing to appeal to jazz players.
The Jazzmaster really caught on after the Ventures featured it on their 1960 hit, “Walk Don’t Run,” which ironically is a cover of a jazz tune. Countless soon-to-be musicians heard the single and saw the Jazzmaster on TV, inspiring them to get one and start playing. There were other players of note, though none of them used the guitar consistently. Eric Clapton played one while in the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan was seen with one during his famed electric trilogy, Luther Perkins played one on occasion while backing Johnny Cash, and even Jimi Hendrix himself played one before and after his time with the Experience.
As the years rolled on though, the Jazzmaster became less and less popular. Humbuckers were all the rage, and even Fender started putting humbuckers in their telecasters. Still, underground players often chose the Jazzmaster since they could get them cheap on the secondhand market. Tom Verlaine of Television and Elvis Costello both played Jazzmasters in the late 70s, imbuing the guitar with a subversive sense of cool. While their use of the Jazzmaster helped make the guitar the legend it is today, Fender wasn’t making money from teenagers buying cheap used guitars. In 1980 Fender stopped production of the Jazzmaster, but it wouldn’t last long.
A New Beginning
Even while out of production, the Jazzmaster continued to gain popularity. Artists like Sonic Youth, the Cure, and My Bloody Valentine used the guitar and continued to inspire other players to use them. Eventually the popularity became too much, and in 1986 Fender decided to reissue the Jazzmaster. They released a Japanese made model based on the 1962 Jazzmaster which stayed in production until 1999. The Jazzmaster continued to gain fame, especially as the 90s alternative movement caught on and artists like Dinosaur Jr. used them. The Japanese models sold well and inspired Fender to finally start making Jazzmasters in the US again.
In 1999 Fender started making Jazzmasters in the US again, a decision that was met with much enthusiasm by Jazzmaster devotees. Since then the Jazzmaster has continued to be one of Fender’s most popular guitars, with Fender offering a wide variety of models and options. Artists still use it for countless records and live performances. Nels Cline of Wilco uses a Jazzmaster for a wide variety of sounds from noise rock to Americana. Troy Van Leeuwen of Queens of the Stone Age has a signature model that he uses consistently. The Jazzmaster holds an important role in modern guitar music and is unlikely to go away anytime soon.
The Jazzmaster may have been a failure at appealing to jazz players, but it found an audience with teenagers and surf rockers of the late 50s and early 60s. New wave and underground artists like Television and Elvis Costello used Jazzmasters, popularizing the guitar with alternative artists in the late 70s, 80s, and 90s. Fender may have discontinued it for a few years, but the guitar was too popular to die. They reintroduced it and even more players fell in love with the Jazzmaster. Though the Jazzmaster had a slow rise to fame, it has finally achieved the acclaim and recognition it deserves.