The subject of this retrospective is an all original 1965 Fender Jazzmaster in Olympic White (although at first glance the yellowing makes it appear blonde). A matching headstock and a tortoise scratchplate complete the retro image, and produce a look which will get any fan of vintage Fender guitars pretty instantly drooling.
Whilst the 1965 Fenders were manufactured under the auspices of CBS, the materials and production methods were basically the same as for the last of the pre-CBS models. Hence, this guitar has an unbound fingerboard, dot markers (as opposed to pearl blocks) a nitro-cellulose finish, and a celluloid scratchplate, rather than plastic. That said, there is a sense that production may have been a bit more swift and flippant with this guitar than with, say, a ’64.
It's clear from this photo (click to enlarge) how the cellulose lacquer top coats have yellowed over the years. If you look where the forearm has worn right through to the colour coats on the upper body contour, the original Olympic White custom colour finish is visible in its original shade. But much of the rest of the guitar, including the headstock, now looks blonde rather than white, such is the discolouration of the clear coats. Given the fact that the instrument is now on the approach to the half century, it's in remarkably good, all original condition. Worth a lot of money in historical terms, but realistically it's not that well built and it's comparatively hard to play.
To begin with, the neck pocket isn’t a great cut for the neck. There's a gap between the upper heel of the neck and the body into which you can easily slide a playing card, and for a top end Fender which would have cost a big chunk of someone’s salary when new, that’s pretty sloppy.
Secondly, the wood finishing on the body isn't great. At the vibrato end of the body above the strap button there's a fairly pronounced angle which I'd expect to be a much smoother blend from the front of the body around onto the edge. It's not sharp to the touch, but it's not as rounded as the rest of the shaping and looks out of place. Making things worse, the scratcplate has shrunk (typical with these celluloid/nitrate jobs), and is beginning to reveal the edges of the cavity routing along the plate's top edge. The latter issue certainly wouldn't be down to the CBS takeover, if indeed the others are, but it does all add up to an image of something more like a budget guitar than a range-topper. I’ve had two lower-end Fender Mustangs in the past, and both were better made than this Jazzmaster. Condition, however, is otherwise very good indeed for the guitar’s age, and undeniably, when used on stage, the instrument looks exceptionally cool.
The feel will be alien to guitarists used to Strats and Teles. The Jazzmaster feels big, and the position of the pickup selector isn’t greatly convenient. But by far the biggest shock will be the profile of the neck. The fingerboard is ridiculously narrow. Not quite as narrow as a Rickenbacker 330 neck, but not far off. I wondered at first, what with the narrow profile and the poor fit at the neck slot, whether this was the original neck. But it is the one fitted at the factory, I’m sure. The white headstock is a perfect match with the body, in colour, yellowing, lacquer cracking etc. So there’s no real question of an owner having discarded the factory fitted neck and put on another from a different guitar. The neck also has an October ’65 neck date in the correct Fender style, which is completely in keeping with the rest of the guitar.
However, once you overcome the sloppy build, plug the guitar in and play it, the negativity starts to disperse. The Jazzmaster has a bigger and fatter tone than Strats and Teles. It’s not a humbucker tone, or even a P90, and weirdly, it’s still Fender, despite being less toppy and with more poke. Of course, the generously wound single coil nature of the pickups does mean noise. You can either use a noise gate, or think of Hendrix and regard the noise as a feature of the sound. But unless you use a fair bit of overdrive, the noise isn’t that intrusive, so I usually just have a bit of edge and do the latter.
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I've included the stream above as a taste of this Jazzmaster in action. It's an old recording from 1996, on which all of the guitar work utilises this instrument, routed through the blues channel on a Mesa V-Twin pre-amp, into a Fender Pro Junior combo. I very rarely use this guitar to record, hence the journey deep into the past for an example. Listening to the track, you can almost feel the struggle I was having to play the part (well, I can, anyway), but the sound is very good, and it fits in well with quite a full mix. You can get a full synopsis on how the above track was recorded in my Home Recording in the 1990s article.
This is not really a rock/blues lead guitar – especially given the neck profile and the dearth of sustain due to the poor trem system, which is such an anti-climax after the earlier Strat trem. It’s always baffled me why anyone would dump the excellent Stratocaster vibrato system for such an obviously inferior affair such as that fitted to the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. However, if you like playing quirky rhythm stuff, this guitar is really good fun. You can push it about as far as the Wilko Johnson Doctor Feelgood style, and the Chuck Berry riffs are comfortable, but Jimmy Page is a struggle, and shred metal is a non-starter.
One of the reasons the Jazzmaster was popular when introduced was the dual tone circuits, which allowed a beefed up version of the usual Tele-type sounds, plus, as you might expect, some jazzy tones, on a separate set of controls. The black switch at the top of the scratchplate selects between the typical Fender circuit, and the ‘jazz’ circuit, which is simply the output of the neck pickup modified by a capacitor, then given its own additional tone rolloff and volume controls. It’s actually not bad for jazz. Given the choice I’d rather play jazz on a Gibson 175 (who wouldn’t?), but the Jazzmaster isn’t as laughable a jazz guitar as some assume.
Despite its flaws, I know that this guitar is quite valuable now, and for historic reasons I wouldn’t sell it. But being absolutely realistic and comparing it to more modern Fenders, it wouldn’t represent good value at the price it would be likely to fetch. My Fender US ’57 Strat reissue is a paragon of perfection. No dodgy joints or silly neck profiles, and it does what you want it to without putting up a fight. There’s almost no comparison in the quality of manufacture. So, before you blindly think an original is gonna kick a reissue into touch and blow a few grand, try the two side by side and be serious about which one really is better.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding vintage guitars. But the bulk of it comes from those who are trying to sell them – often by the bucketload. I’ve got quite a few vintage guitars (none of which I’m intending to sell), and I’ve played many others. The truth is, you do get the odd one that plays beautifully, is superbly made, and sounds phenomenal. But generally speaking it’s a minefield, and in my experience an original vintage guitar is typically way overpriced, and inferior to a high quality modern replica such as the ones from Fender USA. Don’t forget, when the ‘vintage is better’ ethos began, Hendrix completely ignored it and used new Strats, and even the likes of Clapton had to cannibalise multiple pre-CBS guitars to produce one really good one. If you’re buying a guitar to play, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that in general, a good non-vintage instrument will be far more reliable – and a fair old bit cheaper. Not that I don't love this Jazzmaster, though. For all its annoyances, you can never deny its 'sex appeal'.
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