The perfect Jaguar setup? Part one. Appreciating the design, and architecture.

The more that I looked at those bridge options – the more I realised I’d opened a whole can of worms. When I looked into the differences – the more I realised that the evolution of many of the usual bridge “upgrades” came from a general desire, (on the players half), to “improve on” or “rectify” particular characteristics of the Jaguar’s original form and design. Which begs the question…

What, exactly is wrong with the Jaguar? And if it is so flawed – how much of the problem really is inherent in the design? Conversely – Might it just be that a lot of players don’t know how to get the best out of the design?

Fender Adjust-o-matic bridge. What’s with the curve on the lower edge?

When I was putting my previous post together, and comparing the Fender Tune-o-matic bridge, (Fender calls it an “Adjust-o-matic”), with the original Jaguar bridge – I noticed that the Fender AOM bridge was curved on the bottom. Almost as if it was designed for a carved top guitar – (like a Les Paul or something). That’s a bit odd. Was the Fender AOM bridge just a “parts bin” component, retro-fitted to the Jaguar? Developed just to pander to the changing demands of style and fashion? A, sort of, nod to the Gibson crowd? Or is there a different, technical intent in play here?

Looking at it all – it does seem to me – that many of the perceived, so-called, “problems”, associated with the original Jaguar design, come from a strictly retrospective viewpoint. Seemingly steeming from our, (the guitar playing publics’), ever-changing and evolving pre-conceptions and stylistic expectations of just what a particular model of guitar, as a tool, is supposed to do for us. In researching some of the usual Jaguar modifications online – I keep coming up with the same old comments and reviews about Fender offsets. There’s a repeating pattern of players who, apparently, “can’t get enough sustain” – who have strings, “jumping off the bridge saddles”, or who “find the tremolo pointless”. There are endless tales of “an awful buzzing from the bridge”, and warnings of string anchors grounding out on the “badly designed tremolo plate screws”. How much of this is down to the ever changing playing styles – themselves heavily influenced by subsequent developments in instrument technology, reinforcement and fashion? How much is down to a basic ignorance about how to properly setup an instrument? Or did Leo Fender really drop the ball with this one?

Take a look at Joe Pass playing his Jaguar in 1962.

Joe Pass on Jag

Is that the sound or scene you’d normally associate with a Jaguar?

If there really are problems with the Jaguar design – are they problems brought about because of a modern tendency to consider a guitar more for its’ visual characteristics – rather than simply for the sounds it’s designed to make?

Maybe part of the answer lies in a basic appreciation of the history of guitar development. And I think it’s essential to look at that history in context – rather than with our modern, (or postmodern), tendency to look back on things with only present-day experience. The rest of the answer will lie in a good technical examination of how the bridge and guitar geometry is supposed to work.

Originally – it was looking at Kurt Cobain’s JagStang, and that curve on the bottom of the Fender AOM that really got me thinking. But it was in my day-to-day playing that I started to get inside the idea of just what made Fender offsets so different and ground-breaking back in the day. In our present, Covid-19 cloistered lifestyle, I get a lot more time to play guitar and try out my various project builds – but because Mrs.C now works from home, I can’t exactly let rip with my amplifier 24/7. Consequently – I get to rely a whole lot more on trying to learn to set an electric guitar up, so it sounds sweet acoustically.

And that one thing alone, has proven so important in learning to put a guitar together – be it a generic partscaster, or a branded model built from the finest Fender Custom Shop parts available.

Stratocaster vs Jaguar – Spot the difference

At the moment, I happen to have my Ash Stratocaster and my Olympic White Jaguar out, on stands, in the area I normally use for daily play. I can easily swap between the two, and it’s a good reference to A/B one against the other. I’ve spent the last two years, or so, mostly concentrating on Stratocaster builds – and I’ve got to the point where I’m fairly confident, and maybe even skilled enough, to produce well balanced and eminently playable examples. I’ve put pretty much everything I’ve learned into that Ash Stratocaster, but perhaps the most important lesson, is that customising a guitar is so much more than just changing the colour, or slapping on a new pickup, or set of strings. Getting more involved with individual issues such as neck relief, string tension, tremolo balance and nut slotting have all paid off in their own way and, although there’s always so much more to learn, I think I’m beginning to start to appreciate just how much of an advance in guitar technology Leo Fender made, when he first put his guitars together. The thing is – the more I’ve got involved in modifying and fettling my Strats – the more I’ve begun to understand how he managed to tame and standardise some of the vaguaries of instrument construction and maintenance. To the point where your average, semi-competent DIY’er can setup and maintain a well balanced instrument, with little more than a screwdriver and a small hex wrench. With my current setup, I get to A/B a decent Stratocaster against my early Jaguar build, and it’s just so apparent that, although the two designs share certain elements of design and construction in common – the two examples have quite different pedigrees.

Of course – as a still-developing newbie to guitar construction – there was a natural inclination at first, on my behalf, to assume that “whatever works well for the Stratocaster must work just as well for the Jaguar”. But the more I got to play the two examples side to side, and the more I sought ways to make the Jaguar play more like the Stratocaster – the more it gradually sunk in…

… whilst the Stratocaster’s balance and simplicity is achieved by the flattening of the nut / bridge / tailpiece relationship – (a bit like on a lap-steel) – the Jaguar’s architecture is based around a very different relationship. One that is much more similar to the traditional, “triangular” relationship found on established “archtop” guitar designs.

They don’t call them “ironing boards” for nothing

Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Fender’s first experiments in electric guitar construction were built upon earlier developments and designs for hawaiian, and lap-steel guitars. Crucially – the lap steel model relies on a generally flat neck / pickup relationship. Fender’s early electric guitar designs mostly concerned themselves with the addition of a solid body, which would help balance a more familiar styled instrument for the standing player – plus the necessary solutions required to address some string break angle issues. Additionally, in his development of the early Esquire and Telecaster models, Fender took his basic design ideas and formulated them around a manufacturing principle which owed much to a mass-produced, modular approach. (Similar to what can be previously seen with Henry Ford’s Model-T automobile production). This is crucial. Keeping things modular meant that the simple designs could be produced in their thousands, and then easily maintained… and modified… and customised.

The Telecaster and Precision Bass made up the first real generation of Fender electric instruments to hit the market. The Telecaster – slab bodied, wiry and basic – and with that flattened neck / string / bridge relationship, found a real foothold with the popular Country and Western genre in the USA. All you need with a Precison bass is an amp. Even then, it’s louder and far more portable than the “stand-up” orchestral bass. The Precision Bass got it so right – that it’s still the standard by which all others are measured. By the time Leo Fender eventually introduced the Stratocaster in 1954 – he’d managed to incorporate all sorts of improvements for the professional player. And remember, the early electric guitar market – such as it was in those days – was always more about the professional. We often forget that – looking from our present-day viewpoint. These instruments were much more expensive back then, and our mass-consuming, economic market was still in its’ infancy. A large number of players were out-and-out professionals. A vast number of orchestras and bands employed thousands of full-time professionals – back in the days when music was predominantly live, and every radio comedy or music-hall theatre often relied on it’s own, in-house orchestra.

Technically, the then “top of the range” Stratocaster offered a radically re-shaped body – contoured to fit the player better, and sculpted to allow easier access to the higher register. The extra pickup(s) offered new, unique, sonic capabilities. A distinctive, characteristic sound generated by the three, single-coil pickups could be modified by tonal controls and by manipulating a three-way switching circuit. The evolution of a newly designed, floating tremolo brought a new dimension to play, where a player could impart a “fashionable” six-string vibrato, simply by wobbling a lever. The design – from scratch – of that same, “synchronised”, floating tremolo, (which used spring tension to balance against the string tension – returning the guitar to perfect tune, automatically) was key. The way the strings were now anchored through the body, and simultaneously through the tremolo block, (encouraging sympathetic resonance), created a sharp, solid string break angle, and a distinctive, bell-like chime. The addition of individual string saddles on the bridge piece helped sort out a common intonation problem, but also allowed for finer tuning and playing action adjustment). All of the innovations found on the Stratocaster seemed to work beautifully. They were real innovations at the time – and all elegantly and economically achieved.

And, of course, refinements in form followed the refinements in function. The Stratocaster design became iconic. Maybe a good deal of that fame is down to certain associations, over time, with certain stellar players – but the real secret of the Stratocaster’s success is, undoubtedly rooted in a solid but well-styled “standardisation” of the electric guitar form, with excellent provision of functionally operable, and interchangeable parts. In the end – it all boils down to playability and, additionally, a simplicity of maintenance which helps to keep a hard-working musician on the road.

Hey Daddy-O! – Get like a hepcat and check out the 1962 Jaguar ad!

But… back to the Jaguar. The fact is – back in 1962 – the Jaguar was never really about a linear evolution of the Stratocaster. It was actually more about a re-imagining of 1958’s Jazzmaster. When Leo Fender first launched the Jazzmaster, it was on a guitar playing public who were witness to the first stirrings of Rock and Roll – but many of those professional players were from an established, unamplified, Jazz-based tradition. Whilst the Esquire, Telecaster and Stratocaster followed a line of evolution from the lap steel – the Jazzmaster and Jaguar clearly evolved with a certain amount of reference to the architecture of traditional “archtop” guitars. (Albeit with an up-to-date “atomic” offset styling, reflecting the chrome and curves of the day). When you look at the length of those string tails beyond the bridge, the tall bridge itself, (and the shorter scale of the Jaguar) – it’s easier to see echoes of Gibson and Gretsch archtops, than it is to see a clear evolution of the Stratocaster.

The offset form was also a stylistic innovation, which was, again, targeted towards professionals – and especially “Jazzers”. These musicians often played sitting down, and by shifting the lower half of the guitar waist slightly, Fender instantly improved the stability of the new offsets, over even the long-established standard forms of the day.

True – the Jazzmaster took some of the ingredients from the first Fender experiments and designs – the longer 25.5″ scale length and a solid body with bolt on neck construction. However – onto that “flat” architecture – I think Fender also may have grafted some early responses to the emerging Gibson designs of the day. Perhaps aware of the growing commercialisation of the marketplace – it was maybe an early sign of a kind of developing “arms race” in the electric guitar market.

Wider, flatter, “pancake” coil pickups, and a taller bridge with a separate tailpiece. The incorporation of the floating tremolo into that tailpiece was a stroke of genius, and allowed (with a rocking bridge) a tremolo action, whilst maintaining the additional harmonics produced by those long string tails. You just don’t get that with a Les Paul – Bigsby, or no Bigsby. In the Jazzmaster, Fender managed to integrate some of his initial, revolutionary, design and manufacture principles with the addition of, perhaps, some of the most musical innovations of the new guitar form. Perfect for expression. Perfect for players. Perfect for Jazzers.

The Jaguar built further on the Jazzmaster stylings, but went on to add more playing refinements, as well as a “kinder”, “more fun” shorter scale length. This made the action slinkier, and twin switching circuits were focused to split rythmn and lead functions so players could voice the instrument to belnd in with, or stand out in the mix – at the flick of a switch. The style was revolutionary, but the pedigree was clear. The Jaguar was intended to join the Jazzmaster as the “top of the line” representatives of electric guitar innovation, first established with the Telecaster, Stratocaster, Jazzmaster, and then further refined with the Jaguar itself.

Offset case candy with a period vibe

So finally – we get to the point of what, I think, I’m trying to get to. The Jaguar, (and it’s big brother, the Jazzmaster) is a beautifully designed piece of kit. Very much of it’s time, aesthetically and sonically. If it has a flaw – it’s that it can’t be all things to all players. There seem to be many out there who like the form. However, they just don’t, necessarily, all seem to like the function, in practice.

But then I just don’t get folk who buy a Jaguar, and then complain when it “sounds crap” when all they want to do is hammer out barre chords in a death metal mix. It’s a bit like moaning about the fact that your hammer doesn’t have a special crosshead setting for hammering in screws, instead of nails. The Fender offsets were all about flexibility, accuracy and tonal pallette, from the very beginning. If anything – they perhaps offer the average player too much control and adjustment.

The Jaguar comes from a day when professional guitarists were first coming to terms with new possibilities offered by the electric guitar, as well as their own emerging personalities in the great Rock and Roll circus that was. Back then, a simple string bend motif could be enough to mark you out as a rebel and an innovator – but it was a fast moving race, and players quickly and constantly outgrew the ever-evolving technology. This all led, in turn, to more gimmicks, louder amplifiers, effects pedals, changing pickup technology and, ultimately, the digital amp modellers of today. It was all of this which probably did for the Jaguar’s popularity first time round. Basically – it quickly got left behind. The vast majority of the buying public will generally adopt an instant, off-the-shelf solution, over anything which requires a level of attention and personal adjustment – and the Jaguar takes a good deal of investigation to even begin to get to grips with it’s possibilities. Although the form probably led directly to the invention of the “Surf Sound” – the never-ending quest for novelty and gimmick eventually led players away from a more self-contained link to their instruments – towards add-ons like effects pedals, and then onwards to developments in orchestration with the emergence of multi-track recording.

Looking back from our digital driven world of today – it’s almost impossible to appreciate just how suited the Jaguar was to it’s original brief. It’s perhaps easier to identify where it has become technically “old-fashioned” for some modern players.

It’s resurgence in the seventies, with punk and post punk players – probably had as much to do with affordability, as it did with it’s offset, angular, atypical, outsider, non-symetrical form. A form which visually matched the, often detatched, skewed viewpoints of the instigators of the day. But by then – so much of musical performance was in the image presented. By the time Punk came around – amplification had evolved by at least a factor of 10. Whilst an entire band might once have shared a simple, 5 watt Fender Champ at the turn of the Sixties – just a decade and a half later, the sound was over-amped and drenched in distortion, crunch and compression. The clean chime and detail of Fifties Fenders was well out of time. When Kurt Cobain launched Grunge with his, heavily modified Jaguar – overwound Humbucker pickups continued Punk’s sonic legacy. It’s a long way from Joe Pass to Nirvana.

And now we can pimp and modify our instruments any way we want, and we can dial in any sound we want to achieve with our digital effects and Kemper back line. Anything that doesn’t turn out as we intended can be fixed in post-production. Guitars themselves can have any form you like, any faddy detail, decoration or gimmick that looks cool. You just need a guitar that looks the job. The sound guy will fix it all for you. “That Jag’s nice – but it’s switching is a bit wierd”. Stick some tape over the switches if your clumsy playing keeps catching them. Sure you can stop that string jumping off that bridge, if you tend to hit it a bit hard – but you’ll have to probably file those saddles down a bit, and put up with the tremolo detuning – maybe even breaking the strings. Sure, you can always install a Buzz Stop, but then you’ll increase the string break angle and eliminate some of those characteristic harmonics. You might even drag the string tails down so they start to rub on the tremolo plate screw heads. Sure – you can plug up the bridge in it’s thimbles so it doesn’t rock any more, but then using the tremolo will drag everything out of tune, and unless you’re using the tremolo stop button properly, then you’ll drop out of tune dramatically as you break one, or more, strings due to friction over the bridge saddles. Sure you can drop the string action so it plays like a Strat, but the bridge will have to sit so low, with such a shallow string break angle, that you won’t be able to play a chord – and you’ll have to fix the neck angle to correct the playing action.

Or – rip off the single coils and re-rout the body for humbuckers. Pull out the wiring, and re-wire it like a Les Paul. Rip out the bridge, and bodge in a Tune-o-matic. Drop that action right down so you don’t have to worry about that neck angle, and bolt-on a Buzz-Stop to pull the string break angle right down. Hardtail the thing too – you won’t be worrying about a tremolo with an action like that. String it with ultra-light strings so they won’t hurt your delicate fingers, and then run the whole thing through a full effects rig – into a cranked-up, bi-amped, digital approximation of sonic armageddon.

Congratulations! You’ve just neutered everything which made the Jaguar so individual. (Although you still look badass). At least you wear it well.

But if you want to capture something of the time, and learn to produce musical notes on a sympathetic instrument – designed to do the basics well, but with an astonishing range if you begin to apply yourself – If you want to really begin to look at the technical aspects of your playing – the richness of colour and tone. I’d argue that the original Jaguar already has more than enough possibility – and with all the personality you need, on top. However, (if you really want to bond with it), it might be worth thinking of setting it up more like an archtop.

Part two… here

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