In my last post – I posed the question…
What’s wrong with the Jaguar? And if it is so flawed – how much of the problem is inherent in the design? How much, if any, of the responsibility should be apportioned to the individual player, and their style of play?
Of course – I’m not saying that the Jaguar is somehow above all modification – to be wrapped in cotton wool and kept, shut away, in a vintage case labelled “1962”. Like any other tool – there are bound to be improvements, and developments which can help an old design work even better, within a changing, modern context. Like most guitarists, I’m constantly tweaking and making little changes to my “sound” and setup – it’s an important part of personal development. It’s just that sometimes, we can all tend to stray “off-track” – spending time chasing our own tails. Getting nowhere fast.
When I first put my Olympic White Jaguar together – I was completely inexperienced with the basic concepts behind the development of offset guitars, and that first project was a steep learning curve – (but then I’m always open to making mistakes along the way, and learning from them). When confronted with, what looked like an overly tall bridge, and an unplayable action, my natural reaction was that there was something architecturally wrong somewhere. Maybe something to do with the body – but most likely to do with the bridge. I expected that lowering it would help lower the action. That had worked for me before, but I didn’t expect the bridge to ground out, with the action still way too high. I had to find a work around, and logic eventually pushed me towards the correct solution – (namely shimming the neck to produce a shallow back angle). However, I think that initial instinct – to look primarily at lowering the bridge – probably comes from the fact that my sole reference point, up to that particular project, was based on the way things usually work on a Stratocaster. I think that’s probably the same for a great number of players. Most people want a quick fix, and don’t have the time to take careful observations and measurements to begin analysing the way things really work. Consequently – I think a lot of players may have jumped at “easy” modifications for the Jaguar, based on what they think they already know.
As I’ve put together a few Stratocasters, and begun to try and take some of what I’ve learned, and apply it to Jaguars – I’ve realised that many of my pre-conceptions are off the mark. They just don’t work the same. I’ve had the chance to look at a few bridge options for the Jaguar, and to compare their effects – both in terms of how they change the “feel” of the guitar, as well as the sound. It’s clear that the Jaguar is well suited to a style of play from an earlier era, but then many have demonstrated that it can be modified to suit more modern styles, and to incorporate more up-to-date technologies. But if some of the real character of the instrument is to be preserved – those modifications need to be well implemented, and subtle. A good understanding of the various knock-on effects of modding the Jaguar is important – both to get the best from the alterations, and to avoid causing other problems.
Let’s have a look at what lies at the heart of just a few of the, more common, “problem” areas on the Jaguar. And why modification can have unintended, knock-on, ramifications.
“The neck angle is all wrong“
The received wisdom from being well-familiar with the “flat” nut / neck / bridge relationship, as found on the Telecaster and Stratocaster – might indicate that anything other than a perfectly flat neck, would also be wrong on a Jaguar.
So why did Fender originally ship early models with a neck shim, apparently, already installed? In fact – there are those who think the original specification sheets may actually identify a unique part number for those little pieces of pickup bobbin fibre, which turn up in all those vintage offsets. It seems that many of these get removed and lost along the way – (huh? – “what’s that doing in there?”) – only for players to improvise their replacement with business cards, or bits of old, cut-up credit card. Estimates I can find online for the actual size and thickness of these shims, “offical” and unofficial alike, do seem to vary. Besides – to many – these may seem little more than, “a DIY’ers bodge”. Coming across a bit of extra board shoved in the neck pocket may well turn out to be a bit of a surprise for someone who has just purchased a “top of the range” Fender.
But take a look at the newer Jaguar models. The “micro-tilt” adjustment has now found it’s way into the modern design, and Fender documentation hails that improvement as “no more need to shim the neck”. I’ve even read somewhere that the new Fender “Professional” range Jaguar bodies have a specially angled neck pocket – pre-set to the ideal angle. That would certainly make sense – but I can’t find any official specification anywhere, and am unable to check or measure this myself. As a custom builder – I’ll need to find some way to quantify what’s actually needed here. That – or put up with a lot of trial and error.
If you do try to keep the neck flat at the heel – the immediate knock on effect is that you need to lower the bridge dramatically, to compensate the playing action. As I discovered with my Olympic White Jaguar build, this effectively grounds out the standard bridge, so that it doesn’t work properly. But then a good number of the other problems often reported with the Jaguar, can immediately be attributed to having the bridge set too low. Sometimes, “having a low action” isn’t quite what it seems.
“The bridge is all wrong”
It’s the first thing for most of us, isn’t it? “I’ve been playing this guitar a while now. I really like it – but I know I can lower that action“. In the past, I’d just send my guitars off to a Tech, and have them do a pro setup. I always figured the Tech would set up the guitar the very best it could possibly be. If it still wasn’t right, then – “there must be something wrong with the guitar”. I think that’s the case with a lot of players, and one reason for why there’s always so many second-hand guitars around.
Lowering the action seems simple enough and, at most, it only takes a couple of tweaks with a wrench. It’s probably the most common DIY modifcation a guitarist considers taking on him, or herself. With a Telecaster or a Stratocaster – you can lower or raise the action simply by turning the adjustments on the string saddles. If the action is too high – you can lower the strings. However – if you lower them too much – you get buzz on the upper frets. OK – once you strat to get to know what you’re doing – you may have to look at the neck relief, in combination with the string height. It’s relatively easy to find the right balance, in between the two extremes, if you know what you’re doing. But the Jaguar is a bit of a different beast, entirely.
The thing is – that bridge needs to stand tall. Furthermore, it needs to work properly with that shimmed neck to provide a more acute break angle for the strings over the bridge. In fact – that shimmed neck angle should probably be the first thing to look at, in the case of an unplayable, high action. However – if, like most, you jump straight to the bridge – you really need to know how to adjust it properly. Things can get out of balance very quickly
DO NOT jump straight to adjusting string height via the string saddle grub screws. They are there to set the saddles to match the fingerboard radius. Also – the height of each saddle in relation to the bridge plate, and to the sprung, intonation adjustment screws is absolutely critical. Get this wrong, and the strings will ground or buzz against these as the bridge flexes and moves.
Normally, Fender set the saddles on these bridges fairly accurately from the factory – so if your bridge is already, usually set to the correct radius for your fingerboard. All you need to do, to raise or lower the bridge, is to turn the grub screws located in each of the post holes – at either end of the bridge. Set the height right for the two, outer strings – and as long as your saddle radius is correctly matched to your fingerboard radius – all should be well across the board.
On early Jaguars, which came fitted with a Fender Mute device – it’s clear to see just how delicately balanced all the various clearances need to be, between all of the various moving parts. The whole assembly is designed to pivot freely on those two posts alone, and the strings are supposed to touch only the individual saddles. If the strings start to rub in unwanted places – then vibration can be transmitted to other components. If other components touch each other – in severe cases – the vibration can begin to resonate.
And the Fender Jaguar bridge is a device which just isn’t supposed to be built to cope well with unwanted vibration. All in all, there are 33, individual parts which go together to make up a single bridge unit. 35 if you include the two “thimbles”, in which the unit sits. Of course – if there’s any free movement at all, between any of these pieces – then there’s the potential for rattle and buzz.
For many players – the bridge is the end of the story, and they’re straight onto Staytrem or even Mastery for a new, improved, (potentially expensive) bridge – and, no doubt about it, they do a decent job. Fewer moving parts, and special anti-vibration bushings will all help to cut down on that unwanted noise. But I just can’t help wonder if, in replacing that original bridge, we’re somehow throwing out a little bit too much of the overall Jaguar character?
“The strings jump out of the saddles with the original bridge design”
You have to remember the technology of the time. Most of us use roundwound strings these days, and most of us will opt for the lightest gauge we can use without breaking, (on bends or by hard strumming). The thing is – roundwound strings were only invented in 1962. Even then – only, at first, for bass guitars.
The Jaguar was actually designed with flatwound strings in mind. And that’s important. Flatwounds produce a little bit more string tension, compared with the more modern roundwounds. Plus – players in the early sixties will likely have used heavier gauges as a matter of course. Not only will the extra metal, in a heavier string set, produce a slightly stronger response in the pickups – the additional string tension will create a larger downforce through that whole bridge assembly. In choosing our, more modern, lighter string alternatives over the intended, heavier flatwounds – we’re not only changing the overall, basic sound of the guitar. We’re also taking some of the compressive pressure off those bridge components. If those parts find it easier to move against each other – then that alone might even be enough to cause your rattle.
And changing that basic timbre is fundamental. The whole notion behind the Jaguar’s various switching options, and it’s rythmn / lead split presets – is all about precise control, and the modulation of that control. Again, the function was designed around the expected response of flatwound strings. In that context – it’s possible to see the, often derided, “strangle switch” as a way of cutting out some of the more muted character of the flatwound strings and instead, emphasising some of the clarity. (It’s a passive guitar. You can only “boost” something in relation, by cutting something else out).
The same switch circuit in operation with a roundwound string would, (since the roundwound has a much brighter character to begin with), tend to accentuate some of the roundwound’s characteristic fizz and sizzle. No wonder some people find the Strangle Switch’s effect too trebly and harsh on the ear. In truth – the switch isn’t intended to “strangle” – I think it’s just a sort of high-pass filter, intended to help emphasise detail in lead work, and when the duller flatwounds are switched to work with the bridge pickup. It’s a sort of early Treble Boost, without “boosting” anything.
In stringing with modern roundwounds, it seems that we risk throwing the Jaguar, ever so slightly out of balance. Sonically, the instrument sounds a bit “harsher”. Whilst the original design was intended to maximise the resonant vibration and harmonics produced by the long string tails – adding the extra sizzle of the roundwounds might even be considered a bit “over the top”.
It might be acceptable for some – but then we’re also changing that string tension too. The Jaguar, having evolved from the Jazzmaster, was designed around the string tension exerted by flatwound strings. And in the late 50’s – those strings were probably of a slightly heavier gauge. That, on it’s own, might well be enough to account for some of the rattles on a Jazzmaster bridge – but the Jaguar, additionally, has a shorter scale and therefore slightly less string tension, as a result. It’s what makes it’s playability so slinky. In truth – it’s what puts it closer, in some respects, to some Gibson guitars.
The thing is – any little bit of lost, downwards pressure on the bridge – really needs to be dialled back in somewhere. We’re back to keeping that bridge nice and high.
If that bridge is too low, or that downward pressure is lost in another way, (like switching to lighter roundwounds), then the strings themselves can even begin to slip on the grooved saddles. That grooved design works just fine on the Precision bass, but there, we’re dealing with a much sharper break angle and a whole load of extra, downward pressure from the thick, bass strings. On the Jaguar – it’s easy to see how “more modern” playing styles, with lighter than intended strings, might easily be the root cause of a lot of this – (as opposed to just the “poor design” of the actual bridge). The thing is – most players, when encountering problems like this for the first time, might logically move to adjust the height of those string saddles up a touch. As we’ve already seen – this can quickly throw other things out of balance – and round we go again, looking for that perfect, buzz-free balance point. You can, by now, probably begin to appreciate – the key to setting up a Jaguar properly, is in keeping it properly in balance.
“The Strings are too low – touching the bridge, or the tremolo plate screws“
Let the Jaguar setup get out of balance, and there are always potential pitfalls. As we can see – it’s quite often got something to do with the bridge. (It’s just that the adjustment required might actually be somewhere else). Part of the genius behind the original Jazzmaster and Jaguar design concept, was to take that critcically balanced bridge and require it to move in sympathy with a radical, newly-designed tremolo. That’s not as straightforward as it might seem.
I just love the Jazzmaster / Jaguar tremolo, and many people describe it as the most “musical” tremolo in production. The engineering behind it – with that little locking bolt which keeps the whole thing in tune even if you break a string – is just so simple and elegant. But it does depend on that bridge being able to rock gently backward and forward in those thimbles. It’s a tiny movement – but it has to be able to do it without any other part blocking it’s path, or without introducing either of it’s edges, or any of it’s little screws, too close to any of the string paths. As we already know – there are so many tiny little parts in the bridge which can generate buzz against each other. The fine adjustment and free movement of the bridge is absolutely essential. Obviously – the operation of the tremolo is an added complication, but if everything is set up correctly to begin with, then the bridge should always return to the same starting position after each use of the tremolo. As long as that remains the case – then the strings should always return to tune. If anything goes awry when operating the tremolo – it’s normally down to a problem at the bridge, (or the nut), rather than with the tremolo itself. Unfortunately – some of the usual modifications seem to mess with this basic rule and, consequently, although they may offer some benefits – they can alter the delicate equilibrium needed, and thus compromise the essential function.
A common modification for the Jaguar is the Whizzo “Buzz Stop”
The “Buzz Stop” does exactly what its says on the tin. It stops buzz. And it’s very good at it’s job. Many players resort to bolting the device onto their tremolo plates – effectively adding a slight “Bigsby” character to their Jaguars, into the bargain. The device works by forcing the path of the strings downwards, by means of a steel roller. This increases the break angle of the strings over the bridge, and considerably increases the downforce through the bridge. In most cases – this will immediately stop the standard Fender bridge rattling. But it does come at a cost.
The first thing the device does is to further increase the string tension. That makes the “feel” of the strings stiffer, and less “slinky”. For me – that slinkiness is part of what the Jaguar is all about. Like a toploaded Telecaster. Additionally – not only are the strings forced downwards at the bridge – they’re also moved downwards at the tailpiece. This can bring the strings into direct contact with the domed screwheads which secure the tremolo plate. This, in turn, can cause rubbing and, in very severe cases, can eventually cause the strings to break. At the bridge it can throw the delicate balance out of whack.
Not only can the increased string pressure tend to pull the bridge over from it’s central balance point – but the increased downward angle of the strings can end up fouling the bridge plate. That creates yet more friction points, and can also interfere with the free rocking motion, required to allow the tremolo to function properly. Instead – the strings can begin to slip on the saddles slightly, as they extend and contract. It’s far from ideal – especially considering that there’s already increased downforce, due to the installation of the “Buzz Stop”.
The “Buzz Stop” surely works – no doubt about it. However – it can interfere with the delicate balance required to keep the Jaguar tremolo in operation. If you don’t use the tremolo – then this might be OK for you. If you don’t want to deal with the neck angle, want to keep the action low and don’t care about losing some of the “slinkiness” and playability of the Jaguar – then it will solve your buzz problem, but you risk losing a lot of the inherent Jaguar character. Basically – since you’re changing the string tension – you’re changing the basic sound of the guitar. For me – that’s already too much of a compromise.
The “mute device“. Why would I even need that?
When a Fender Mute device is fitted, it sits directly below the bridge, with the two bridge posts passing through two holes in the mute plate, into the thimbles below. The mute is a simple enough device – wherby a neoprene pad can be flipped up underneath the strings, close to the bridge pickup. The mute plate is screwed down to the body, and is slightly sprung. This operates with a small central screw, which engages against a sprung metal disc in the body. The opposite forces keep the mute in position, whether it’s engaged or not – but again, it’s all a question of getting the balance right. The mute has to sit below the bridge – ideally without touching anywhere. Sometimes – in attempting to lower the bridge – the bottom of the bridge plate can ride on the screws which hold the mute down. This is not good, and your bridge may vibrate, with six strings and two pickups to amplify that vibration.
Many players ditch the mute altogether. It’s a question of whether you think you’ll ever use it really. But personally, I quite like the look of the extra chrome, and using it throws up some interesting rythmic possibilities, (especially with a tape loop effect) – although it does have a bit of the air of a period-dated “gimmick”. I suppose it’s ideal if you’re doing covers like “Shaking all Over”, by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. (and you have the tremolo, of course, to help you along, as well).
Removing the mute shouldn’t effect the crucial balance relationships I’ve covered previously – although I realise some will probably try to screw the bridge down a little bit more, to try and tidy things up. Resist at all costs. If you must ditch the mute, the bridge will look even leggier – but the playing balance must be maintained. Don’t be tempted to “tidy” the Jaguar up. Lowering the bridge might make it all look a bit flatter – a bit more streamlined – but if you do manage to make the guitar playable with the bridge screwed down, you’ll probably have to lower the pickups down into the routed spaces below that pickguard. in some cases you might even have to screw them down as far as they’ll go.
And what is the point of those famous Jaguar “Claws” – if you’re just going to hide them down in the body anyway? Keep that bridge high, and wind those pickups out. (They’re not exactly over-powered, and they need to stay reasonably close to the strings). The Jaguar should show its’ claws. Is it just me who thinks that looks a whole lot better? Not convinced? Why then do Fender make those adjustment screws so long? And why are the screws for the bridge pickup actually longer than the ones for the neck pickup? (Check out the specification – different part numbers).
Surely it can only be, that the pickups are intended to sit up off the scratchplate – with the bridge pickup right up there against the mute and the raised bridge. Slightly higher than the neck pickup, but indicating the approximate angle, of the perfectly adjusted and shimmed neck. Looks, (and works), a whole lot better to me.
Back to basics then – and my own realisation that the Jaguar is “all about the bridge”. Pros and cons. Get it right, and you bring out the “Archtop” character, which was a major driver behind the initial design concept. You’re rewarded with the real character of the Jaguar. Get it wrong and you change that basic character, and you risk imbalance and further knock on effects. The question is – can you setup the original Jaguar in such a way as to eliminate or minimise the potential problems? Or do you really just want to apply quick fixes, which might change the whole essential character? Is that a change worth considering?
I’ve already had a comparative look at a couple of the usual Jaguar bridge modifications – mostly looking at their comparative dimensions and the technicalities of fitting them as “drop-in” solutions. It was that, preliminary look, which led me to further investigations into the whole world of the Jaguar design. This has led me to a few additional thoughts about the bridge alternatives, and how they might affect the overall balance of the Jaguar.
Mustang or Staytrem bridge replacement
The Mustang bridge, or it’s Staytrem variant, is a standard “drop-in” replacement, and it does it’s job well. Basically, it’s a better manufactured unit than the standard, and it’s design has far fewer components. The saddles themselves have greater mass, and the string slots are milled deeper, to help stop any danger of string slippage. Additionally – special nylon bushings on the support posts help prevent any unwanted buzz.
Because, otherwise, the unit looks and acts like the original – there’s not much in the way of a downside with the Mustang bridge on a Jaguar. But it does seem to change the character, albeit slightly, in my opinion. It’s difficult to describe the difference, but I think there’s actually a certain character in all those slight creaks and rattles of the original Jaguar bridge. There’s a certain “paperiness” to the sound, if you know what I mean. A lot of detail and additional harmonics in there. Of course – if all that gets out of hand – you’re potentially in for all the buzz problems, as previously identified – but to my ear, the original bridge just sounds a touch more authentic. The Staytrem bridge maintains all of the function of the original bridge – perhaps at the cost of some subtle, harmonic detail.
But then it does bring a certain extra solidity to the play and feel, and that alone might be worth a compromise. The Mustang bridge is as tall as the original – so you may still have to address the neck shim issue, but you can set it lower than standard – without risking string slippage. The saddle heights are pre-set to the correct radius – so it’s impossible to really throw the bridge out of balance, once it’s height is set correctly. The slots in the saddles keep the strings firmly in place even if you lessen that string break angle, and it all means that the tremolo can still work correctly. If overall looks still important to you – you can still use a bridge cover. No-one will be any the wiser. Apart from the, perhaps, slight change in sonic character – there aren’t any downsides I can see. (Maybe just make sure the strings don’t foul on the dome headed, tremolo screws).
I’ll likely use a Staytrem, on my Custom USA project – along with some other mods which may look at some of the usual “Johnny Marr” Jaguar modifications. (One of which is the standard inclusion of a very Staytrem-looking, re-engineered, Mustang bridge). The other Marr modifications are mostly based around the pickups, switching functions and filter circuits – so any slight change in the sonic characteristics will be of little relative importance.
Fender “Adjust-O-Matic” bridge replacement
I’m still scratching my head about the Fender AOM bridge. Obviously – it’s a take on the popular Tune-o-matic bridge – so much associated with Gibson. Les Pauls especially – as well as other classic archtop forms. But then most of them don’t necessarily feature tremolos as standard. That’s what makes the AOM bridge so strange an inclusion on a Jaguar. That tremolo is so central to the whole offset design, function and form. Why do something which, almost deliberately, compromises that essential, basic element?
The whole architectural standard, sort of changes. Firstly – it’s not a straightforward, drop-in upgrade. You need to re-drill to the correct diameter, and insert the larger bushings. That will then allow you to set the bridge height correctly, (although it looks like the neck will still have to be shimmed).
Somewhat confusingly – the posts do seem spaced to exactly fit the standard, (unthreaded), thimbles. That would be really useful – and you wouldn’t have to redrill. However – the standard height adjusters just don’t have any thread to work against – and they won’t do their job. So, clearly not an intended drop-in solution, it seems it could be made to work like the traditional bridge – but only if some way could be found to lock the height of the unit. The slight movement of the bridge within the standard thimbles might even be enough to allow the bridge to work with the tremolo action.
Using the special bushings fitted – the bridge is fixed firmly in place – with little scope to rock with the tremolo. Those filed “V’s” for the strings will gradually rub at the strings as they flex and slide over the top, and if there’s any binding at all – it’ll cause unwanted noise and, potentially, tuning issues. Additionally – the saddles are pre-set in, what looks like a 12″ radius. Most Jaguar necks are 7.25″, or 9.5″. Either way – the outer string actions will be that extra bit high.
Some players think they want a TOM, (or AOM), bridge because they’ll “get more sustain”. That might be true if the post connections are solid and true. But you’ll effectively lose the tremolo as a result. (And if you’ve lost the tremolo, in my opinion, you’ve lost the spirit of the Jaguar). If you can’t get enough sustain off your Jaguar to begin with – then it’s setup wrong, (or your whole setup is wrong). That, or your idea of sustain is totally different to mine. OK – perhaps the Jag won’t hold that note while you go off and have a cigarette, but then you probably shouldn’t really be asking that from a Jaguar anyway.
The only reason I can see for fitting a TOM to a Jaguar, is to retain the looks, while you change just about everything else. Presumably, that’s why Cobain originally specified a TOM on his JagStang designs. Cobain liked a particular old-style Jaguar neck. he liked the Mustang shape, a bit of the Jaguar shape – but he also liked using distorted humbuckers. The standard offset specification had to change and evolve to acommodate those requirements. Obviously, that’s what’s happening with Cobain’s Jaguar and JagStang – so I can see why the TOM seems to be fitted to the Fender Classic Player, Kurt Cobain models.
As it is – I’m not sure just how well the TOM compromise worked. The limited edition, production JagStangs – (based around a Mustang Vibrato) – ended up with a Mustang bridge. Cobain – known for sticking with his favourite guitars live – never really seemed to settle with his initial concept ideas. So I’m not quite sure, still, what to do when it comes to the bridge of my JagStang project. I may just go with the Mustang bridge option, and stick with the usual Fender, offset post thimbles. Then again, I may try out a TOM and throw the Mustang whammy bar away. Whichever way I go – examining the bridge, and related issues in such detail has been a really enlightening and useful exercise, and there are a whole host of different perameters, solutions and combinations, to investigate on other projects..
So – after chasing all the issues round – it appears that with the Jaguar – it really is, (mostly), all about the bridge. Hopefully, in building my three current offset projects – I can address some of these issues, and find ways to express the standard Jaguar, (and Fender offset), design in specific, but effective ways. Hopefully without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and getting too far away from the form and feel of the original Fender concept. I think I’m already decided that I’ll try to return my “62”, Olympic White Jaguar to a more period correct specification, and see if I can tame some of the commonly reported bridge problems while I’m at it. I can look at some personalised modifications on my Custom, Candy Apple Red Jag, which will likely look to bring some of the elements a little more up to date, and more in line with my own personal idea of the “perfect modern Jaguar”. For the JagStang – perhaps that’s the one to see what happens if I pick and choose some of the classic offset characteristics that might just work with a flatter, solid body form and overwound humbuckers – combining “form” and “function” in the best way possible, but this time to try and achieve some of Kurt Cobain’s original concept, and a truly modern offset.