New project. Kurt Cobain “Jag-Stang”

I seem to have spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of years, mostly concentrating on Stratocasters. But when I recently got my “62” Jaguar out of storage for a quick revisit – I got that “offset fever” all over again. I’d been wondering where to head next, project-wise. With Stratocasters – I’ve already tried out a few different permutations, and looked into a few, different aspects of Strat design and technical development – covering a period from the early 50’s all the way into the 80’s and beyond. The Jaguar, (and myself), will be 60 in a couple of years. I figure there’s plenty of scope in the history of the Jaguar to keep me busy for a change…

Those who have read any of my previous posts will already know of my attachment to Jaguars. The first Jags were in development, and originally appeared on the market, around the time I was born. For me – there’s something about the form of the offset body that speaks specifically of that period in time. Cold war, “Atomic” design. Pop Art, bikinis, chrome, Marylin Monroe, tail-fins on cars and the Jetsons. Then there’s the sound. The sound of Jazz, and later, Surf in the US. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates in the UK. It’s quite a thin, brittle sound sometimes – but it’s rich in detail and harmonics. This means there’s plenty of scope to cut right through in a band mix. There’s something about the way the strings pass over that tremolo bridge – which produces a lot of sympathetic resonance behind the actual bridge. In the same way that the vibration of the Stratocaster’s tremolo springs go to provide a good portion of the character of the Strat sound – the same goes for the long string length between bridge and tremolo anchor on the Jaguar. There’s just something so very distinctive about the Jaguar sound, and that short scale also reduces string tension – making it fun and slinky to play.

When they were first released – Jaguars were intended by Fender to be part of their, “top of the range”, and a refinement on the, already established, Telecaster and Stratocaster lines. Many still consider the free-floating tremolo on the Jaguar and Jazzmaster to be the best all-round solution ever produced. That said – once Jimi Hendrix set his Stratocaster alight onstage, I think it’s fair to say that it was the Stratocaster which became the iconic Fender guitar – rather than the “top of the line” Jaguar.

In fact – kids of the ’60’s, like myself – growing up with Punk in the late 70’s – sometimes discovered Jaguars were an alternative, cheaper option. Whilst real Fender Strats remained desireable but expensive – you could sometimes find perfectly playable but “unfashionable” Jaguars in the local second-hand stores. (My local was the wonderful “Johnny Roadhouse” in Manchester). The late 70’s saw a resurgence in the appreciation of the “offset” and as Punk spread it’s influence into the later generations of Post-punkers – many took on the “alternative” stylings of the Jaguar and it’s big brother – the Jazzmaster. Players like Thurstom Moore, Kevin Shields, Johnny Marr, Blixa Bargeld, Black Francis all sported Jaguars at some time in their careers. With Johnny Marr in particular – the Jaguar became an integral part of both the sound, and the image of the player. Just because the Jaguar might appear to be small and compact, doesn’t mean it’s a toy!

In reality – there’s more than one new project here. Even that short run-through of Jaguar history provides more than a few, possible directions of investigation. I’ve already started modifying my original Jaguar build to more represent an original 1962 specification, and I’ve long entertained the idea of building my own Custom Jaguar – perhaps incorporating some of Johnny Marr’s refinements to the onboard circuitry. Maybe with a nitro finished, vintage style body, bound neck, block markers, Creamery pickups?? That’s something else to work on.

Concept drawing for Kurt Cobain’s Custom Jag-Stang. 1993

But back to the Jag-Stang. Kurt Cobain took his own, personal Jaguar investigations a step or two further – and I’m inclined to follow, and maybe see a bit of what he discovered, along the way. Having taken a stock, sunburst Jaguar and modifying it to take a humbucker pickup in the bridge position – he’d already updated a Sixties Jaguar and turned it into a Grunge machine. Early videos of some of the “Nevermind” tracks feature one particular, modified Jaguar, and this became an inegral part of Cobain’s image. The angular, offset shape of the guitar body, visually matched his slightly remote, dissonant, outsider viewpoint perfectly – but he had more ideas too, which would see much more expansive modifications to the basic Fender offset concept.

In his Journals – published after his death – there are sketches reproduced, which Kurt worked on, apparently, prior to 1993. The sketches show a new concept guitar based heavily on both the Fender Jaguar and Mustang, short-scale patterns. Cobain was also a big Mustang fan.

Photoshop “cut and paste” sketch, and Kurt onstage with the Jag-Stang

In Kurt’s concept sketches, he basically created a mash-up using a couple of spliced together images. A Fender, short scale neck, married to a body – which itself was half Mustang / half Jaguar. In the UK – when you join two halves of different vehicle chassis together, it used to be called a “cut and shunt”. That’s pretty much what we have here. The tremolo bridge, pickguard and pickup positions come from the Mustang – with a little bit of extra body angularity from the Jaguar. Kurt wanted to use a neck based on his favourite, short-scale Fender neck, but also entertained some very un-Fender design details – like the incorporation of a Tune-o-matic bridge. Fender took Kurt’s sketches, and worked up a few prototypes – which Kurt was, apparently, working with them on. Still offering modifications and suggestions – right up to his death in 1994.

Kurt never apparently used the Jag-Stang for any recording – but he did tour and occasionally play live with a couple of early prototypes. Fender made a few adjusments along the way, and Kurt’s guitar tech seemingly changed the original pickups to better suit live situations. Together – this combined to create a strangely unique guitar. Kurt used a Jag-Stang a little more extensively on Nirvana’s final tour dates in Europe – and reputedly played an entire gig in Croatia with a Sonic Blue Jag-Stang. There’s something about the image of Cobain – dressed all in blue – with that particular instrument. It looks almost, cartoon-like. I can’t ever help thinking there’s something inherently shark-like in the look of a Jag-Stang.

I want to try and build my own, top quality version. Genuine Fender and Fender licensed components, where I can – and based closely on Cobain’s sketches. Maybe, perhaps, trying a few different pickup and switching combinations along the way. I know there will be a few issues with the bridge, but I think the colour scheme is set.

Sonic Blue – just like Kurt’s own.

Peter Buck plays Kurt’s Sonic Blue Jag-Stang. “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” video – 1994

In essence – the Jag-Stang never really emerged from the prototype stage, and the character of the sound is, largely unestablished. There’s some leeway there for experiment, and license there. I may find that there are inherent balance problems in the cut and paste design. There’s a lot to come together beyond the visual styling. Kurt’s Sonic Blue guitar did appear after Kurt’s death – played by Peter Buck, in the video of REM’s, “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?”. Buck plays the left-handed guitar upside down – so reversing the stringing. The same manner in which Hendrix inverted the Stratocaster. I could always do the same. Build it leftie, but play it right-handed – but then I’m more keen to see how the concept holds up as a conventional construct. I’ll build my Jag-Stang for myself. Right handed.

Otherwise – there’s much to research and consider from Kurt’s original concept sketches. It seems Fender only ever produced a Japanese built, limited edition run of the Jag-Stang, so there’s not much in the way of specific aftermarket parts on the market. That said – the guitar usually garners good reviews on the usual discussion boards – so maybe Cobain was onto something after all. The best way to go about things will be to source as many of the original Jaguar and Mustang hardware parts as possible – and then mount them to a combination of Fender licenced body parts. Allparts does an OK Jaguar neck, and Warmoth seems the best option for an accurate body shape. I’ll plan for a Sonic Blue nitro finish. It’ll take a while to get the bits together – but, for now at least, there’s plenty of research to do as I draw up a shopping list and put a plan together. Watch this space.

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