Saturday, 12 November 2011

1966 Fender Jaguar

If you're after a historically-focused look at the Fender Jaguar, you can find an overview of the model's popularity and progress through the years in my Vintage '62 Reissue article. If, however, it's specifically this rather unusual '66 job you're interested in, please read on...

With a neck date of September 1966, the Fender Jaguar I'm looking at in this retrospective is one of the earliest examples with block position markers on the neck. Until latter 1965, Jaguars had come with dot position markers and an unbound fingerboard. However, on the approach to 1966, the fingerboard was modified to include a single layer of white binding. Block fretboard markers were not added at that point, though, so Jaguars from the first half of 1966 have a bound dot fingerboard. In the latter half of '66, Fender completed the transition, replacing the fingerboard dots with the pearloid block markers you see in the photo.

In the 'eighties, I actually had one of the early 1966 Jaguars with dot markers and a bound fingerboard – an all-original Burgundy Mist metallic one with a green nitrate scratchplate. In what was unquestionably the worst deal I’ve ever done, in 1988 I traded that guitar as a straight swap for a brand new Boss ME5…….. Sorry, just had to take a minute’s silence then. But returning to the plot, after quite a long search, this very well-looked-after all-original ’66 sunburst Jaguar was the instrument I bought to replace the burgundy one.


As I mentioned at the top, this particular Jaguar is quite unusual. Indeed, if you know about Fender sunbursts you'll probably have clocked straight away what's different about it. Mid 1960s Fender sunbursts were all three-tone finishes - black into red into yellow. This Jag, has a two-tone sunburst, black into yellow - no red. A mistake? A one-off order? A refinish?...

Actually, none of those things. It's merely the effects of time. This guitar in fact left the factory with a typical, bog-standard, ’66 three-tone sunburst, but on the front of the instrument, the red portion has faded to virtually invisible. On the rear of the body the red is still pretty strong, and under the scratchplate and upper control plate there’s still some vivid red. However, as was usual with Fenders of this vintage, not all of the area beneath the scratchplate was fully ‘sunbursted’. The outline from the bottom of the neck round to the tone and volume control plate was never sprayed with red at all, and this normally invisible area of the finish is, and always was, strict two-tone, black into yellow.

The scratchplate is made of nitrate/celluloid, in four-ply, with the white/black/white layers topped by tortoiseshell. Good evidence of the plate being nitrate rather than plastic exists in the now slanted screws holding it to the body. Shrinkage was a typical trait with nitrate, hence the screws being pulled inwards, out of true. More obvious still, if you take the plate off, the ‘white’ underside is light green – the classic vintage colour of ‘white’ nitrate scratchplates. The pickup covers, however, have remained white, so it appears they’re not made of the same plastic as the pre-CBS ‘60s covers. The other ’66 Jaguar I owned (a few months older than this one) had very heavily yellowed pickup covers. They were brown, basically.

The pickups are slightly hotter than those you’d find on a stock Strat. In output and tone I find them similar to the bridge position Fender Texas Special Strat unit, to quote a modern reference. They do have staggered poles, but not in quite the same fashion as a mid ‘60s Stratocaster. I should say that I owned a Fender MIJ vintage reissue Jaguar at one point (in my old fave Fender colour, candy apple red). There was a very significant difference in tone between the reissue and the ’60s originals. The reissue sounded thinner and colder than the average Strat. Both my originals have sounded thicker and warmer than the average Strat. The reissue looked gorgeous, but it wasn’t a patch on this one or the burgundy one in terms of tone. The type, quality and age of the wood would be just as significant as the pickups when it comes to tone of course.

The electrics and switching add up to a more complex system than with earlier Fender designs. As with the Jazzmaster there are two separate circuits, but the Jaguar has even more gadgets than the Jazzmaster. A standard tone and volume knob are located next to the output jack. Roughly below the neck pickup there’s a set of three switches which control and shape the sound from both pickups. The toggle nearest the neck switches the neck pickup on or off. The one next to that switches the bridge pickup on or off. And the far toggle engages a capacitor which forms a sort of high-pass filtration selection. If you’re someone who thinks Jaguars sound thin and weedy per se, don’t touch that switch! It makes things extra thin, and extra weedy. Exactly what sort of music you’d be playing to warrant filtering a load of bass out of an already trebly guitar I’m not sure, but I assume in the depths of the early '60s when the design was conceived, there was some unimaginably trebly sound on some dreadful record, which Fender decided guitarists would pay good money for.

The other circuit heads in the other direction. This second circuit is activated by flicking up the switch on the control plate above the neck pickup, and immediately you know you’ve chilled out into ‘jazz mode’. The bridge pickup is disabled, and the neck unit is hit hard with low-pass filtration. The idea was probably to create the basic tone of a neck humbucker. It does have the tonal body, but obviously it’s less powerful, and it doesn’t buck the hum. You can then use the two horizontally-mounted ‘wheel’ knobs on the same plate to adjust the volume and tone of the circuit to taste. It is useful having the two circuits. If you wish, you can have the main circuit set for abject trebliness with the bridge pickup high-pass filtered, and all it takes is the flick of one switch (on the second circuit) to take the guitar into super-warm ‘comping’ territory. Most players won’t want to set things to that extreme, and it does take a while to get the feel of it all, but it does allow more scope for dramatic and sudden tone/volume changes than a Strat or a Tele.

To make the best of a Fender Jaguar it’s advisable to fit thicker strings than you would to a Strat or Tele. Because the scale length is shorter, the same string will feel ‘looser’ on a Jag than on a Strat, so I go up at least one gauge. I like the action a little higher on a Jaguar than I do on a Strat too. The Jaguar’s shallow string-break-angle across the bridge doesn’t do much for sustain or firmness of feel, and raising the action helps the guitar ‘fight back’ a little. It’s nice to have a guitar set up for easy playability, but a Jaguar with light strings and a low action can feel a bit like strumming an elastic band. Giving the instrument some ‘fight’ makes you feel like you’re playing a guitar again. This Jag did come with the under-bridge string damper and bridge cover fitted. I’ve taken them off and put them in a safe place, since I’ll never use anything other than my hand to damp the strings, and I prefer the look of the guitar without the excess metal and ‘sponge’. I suppose it’s a bit like the situation with the Strat bridge cover. Technically it’s part of the guitar, but no guitarist you’ve ever seen seriously playing one ever uses it.

I spent some time setting this guitar up quite recently, and it does now play very nicely indeed. It suits my style well, and I find it an exciting guitar to play with a liberal dose of overdrive. It has a much better midrange than you’d expect from a Fender with slim single coils and that equates to a good compatability with distortion. I wouldn’t specifically choose it for typical rock lead solos because getting it to sustain is hard work. But it’s excellent for punk and indie styles, ‘70s pub rock – anything with lots of crunched up damping, slashing chords, double stops and perhaps some ‘pedal-point’ stuff. Not to mention the obvious – the Beach Boys type ‘surf’ which really defined the Jaguar in its early days.

Sadly, mid ‘60s Fender Jaguars no longer come cheap, and most of them don’t even fall into ‘affordable’ territory these days. My first burgundy ’66 cost me four hundred and odd quid, and this sunburst one cost more than double that. I imagine that had I left it much longer to get a replacement, prices would have inflated a step too far and an original mid '60s example would no longer have been within my reach. I've twice previously made the mistake of getting rid of Fender Jaguars. I won't be making the same mistake with this one.

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Posted by: Bob Leggitt