New project. Custom built, Antique White, Fender Jazzmaster

Getting involved with offsets was always going to be a bit of a rabbit hole. Revisiting my original “62” Jaguar led, in turn, to starting new builds with a Custom Fender American Original Jaguar and a Kurt Cobain inspired, Jag-Stang. In researching the models – it was impossible not to ignore the influence of the Fender Jazzmaster, and I suppose it was only a matter of time before I’d have to kick off my own Jazzmaster build too.

Fender Squier Jazzmaster body in Antique White

I’ve always loved the Fender Jaguar. Not only from the point of view of looks alone – but also because I kind of share a birthday. The chrome and curves of the 1962 Jaguar not only perfectly evoke the visual style of the era, but the sound produced also typifies some of the music of the day. As I discovered – the original inspirations for the mechanics of the first offset guitars lay in a re-modelling, in solid-body form, of older and more traditional archtop guitars of the mid-20th Century. The shorter scale and higher bridge apparently re-interpreted some of the competing Gibson trends of the time. However, with the offset form, Fender was ahead of the game in other ways.

The Jaguar itself, owed most of it’s initial development due to earlier, pioneering work on the Jazzmaster. In 1958, Leo Fender originally introduced the Jazzmaster to the range, as a top of the range evolution of the Stratocaster. Whilst 1958 saw some revamped specifications for the Strat and Tele – the Jazzmaster was all new – and was aimed deliberately at the Jazz market. The Jazzmaster used the same 25.5″ scale length type neck as the Stratocaster, but was matched with a new, offset waist body design. This was intended to suit both standing and seated players. Sonically – the Stratocaster’s single coils were flattened and widened into a flatter, “pancake” form. These produced a truly distinctive sound, (albeit one somewhat troubled by outside, electromagnetic interference), and the lead / rythmn switching system was pioneered to allow the player to “preset” the guitar, and allow easy switching between different pickup selections.

Whilst the Jazzmaster, ultimately, was to suffer a similar drop in popularity to the Jaguar – due largely to the growing iconic success of the competing Stratocaster – the offset form, (and pawn-shop availability), helped secure a return to style with many, off-centric new-wavers. Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, J. Mascis, Elvis Costello, Kevin Shields and Ira Kaplan all wielded Jazzmasters in the day.

So – with a couple of Jaguars already on the go, as well as a JagStang in the works to stretch the envelope a bit – I suppose a Jazzmaster project was always inevitable. I just didn’t expect to kick it off quite so soon. But then, the end of the year often proves to be best to focus on assembly only, type builds. Finishing tasks can sometimes be problematic due to the weather and, after all, who on earth wants to work in a draughty workshop over the colder months anyway?

Fender Squier Jazzmaster body in Antique White

The clincher came when I saw this Fender Squier, J. Mascis signature body, on sale for a good-looking price. A purchase, yet again, from The STRATosphere in the USA – this open box body is in virtually mint condition, and comes ready finished – drilled and ready to go.

The body is made of Basswood, (we in the UK call it Lime), and weighs in at 4lbs and 1oz, (1.84kg). Being from Fender’s economy “Squier” range – the body was probably made and finished in the Far East, and likely shipped back for assembly, where it would usually be matched with a gold anodized pickguard and soapbar pickups – albeit deeper ones with a slight P-90 flavour. Generally – these J. Mascis inspired models get great reviews for their playability and overall value for money, and since genuine Fender Jazzmaster bodies are quite hard to come by on the self-build components market – this particular example offered an ideal starting point, and was too much of a good thing to miss. (The Squier body sports a typical puck shaped punch-out under the neck plate. I’d originally spotted a 25% heavier body on offer without this typical mark, and showing atypical signs of figuring in the neck pocket – perhaps Alder? Perhaps an earlier US or Mexican example? I missed snagging that one while I took too much time weighing up the pros and cons. This body was the heavier of two others remaining).

Fender “Adjust-O-Matic” bridge fits right in

The body is already fitted with a pair of threaded bridge post bushings, for a Fender “Adjust-O-Matic” bridge – just like on the Fender “Classic Player” range. The Mexican made “Classic Players” featured updated, hotter pickups and a modified architecture built around Fender’s take on the, Gibson, “Tune-O-Matic” bridge. Fender took the original Jazzmaster stylings and shifted the tremolo plate a centimeter or so towards the neck. This slightly shortens the string tails, but increases the string tension and break angle across the bridge, and is therefore supposed to deal with the “problems”, suffered by some, with the original Jazzmaster bridge. But I’ve discussed all that elsewhere… The hotter pickups took advantage of some extra sustain provided by the, potentially more stable but stiffer, AOM/TOM bridge – the whole package updating the vintage look of the Jazzmaster, and projecting it with J. Mascis’ individual styling.

…but a standard bridge drops in as well!!

For my build – I might as well stick with the AOM bridge, or at least something similar, and perhaps try some slightly hotter, updated pickups – perhaps some of Jaime at the Creamery’s “Extra Width” pancake coils? – maybe even a set of Jazzmaster format Humbuckers? Since the bridge drops right in, and I have a spare TOM sitting around doing nothing – I won’t have to worry about pulling the bushings and redrilling. Even so – a more traditional styling is also a possibility. I’m intrigued to discover that the standard Fender Jazzmaster/Jaguar bridge drops right in to the threaded bushings! That’s a bonus, and should I want to – I’m sure I could use an older style bridge, shim the neck and develop the build along more traditional lines.

One consequence of using a more “fixed” bridge, (in the case of the original style bridge – any compensating, rocking movement is very much reduced), is that the capability of the guitar to return to tune after using the tremolo will likely be compromised. I prefer the chrome Fender AVRI tremolo plates to the cheaper, Squier alternative – (with the Staytrem modifications, they’re super-friendly to use) – so if I spend on the tremolo, I’d at least like to be able to use it properly. A compromise solution might be to swap the AOM bridge out for a Schaller roller-bridge upgrade, or similar.

At the same time I order the body – I also take the usual opportunity of stocking up with a few cheap scratchplates in different colourways. It’s always cost effective given their super-low prices, together with the fact that they can piggy-back free, with the shipping costs for the body. The printing on the basic plates isn’t the finest in the world – but the ability to mix and match them while I work out the best colourway options for the guitar is an obvious advantage. The body is finished in an Antique White, polyester finish. It’s sort of like a yellowed Olympic White. Reminds me of full fat Jersey milk. There must be a word for that. Oh yeah – Cream. First impressions as regards a scratchplate? – I’m slightly favouring the red pearloid. I have a custom made red pearloid plate currently on order from WD Guitars for my custom built Jaguar. This was inspired by the red on (candy apple) red Jazzmasters sported by both Kevin Shields and Ira Kaplan. If the WD Guitars plate turns out as well as I hope it will, I might look at getting a matching one cut for this Jazzmaster, and develop the Jaguar and the Jazzmaster to complement each other.

So that’s the initial plan anyway – take a Squier body, upgrade, and use it as the basis for a quality, custom built Fender. (Maybe that’ll make it a “Squender“?) The question is – just how good a start is it, for the money?

And the answer is… pretty good. It’s a pleasant enough weight, and the finished body has a distinct ring about it when sounded. The polyester finish is hard, and this contributes to the overall sounding tone and feel – but on closer look, the paint and clear coat does, maybe, seem a little bit on the thin side. Generally – things look fine, but when you get really close, (and with my eyesight the way it is, this really takes some doing – although I’ve recently got some magnifying specs which let me get really detailed in short bursts), you can just about see a fine tracery of cross-hatched machine marks. It’s hard to see if they’re in the paint and clearcoat, or whether they are actually in the wood below – but under strong illumination, the specular reflection isn’t quite as smooth, liquid and glassy as it might be. There’s something about the feel too. Normally, Urethane and Polyester finishes on Fenders can be quite thick and lustrous. This looks and feels a bit thin. No doubt – savings have been made. That said – when everything’s bolted in place – all of the rough edges will be covered, and it’ll scrub up a treat.

I could easily start building this one up right away. But equally – I could look at refinishing the body with a can or so of nitro over the top of the polyester. That way, I’d get a bit closer to the overall look and feel I’d be most familiar and content with. There’s something about a well polished nitro finish which just oozes quality – and they tend to age really nicely too. In contrast with a urethane finish – there’s a certain extra warmth – almost a “soapy” waxiness. There’s a softness to the feel which belies the lacquer’s inherent hardness and strength too – and the finish seems to mellow gradually with use, and take on a pleasant patina. The question is – do I want to, (and could I actually find the opportunity in the next few weeks, given the fact that the winter weather is fast closing in). I do happen to have some spare clearcoat in the workshop. Let me sleep on it…

Whilst checking the body over in detail, there are a couple of areas where the shaping looks just a little way off perfect – but once again, you have to get the light just right to pick up any slight flaws – (and I’m being super picky). Perhaps most seriously – there are two slight splits to the polyester colour coat which should, ideally, be stabilised. These appear to originate where the body has been drilled for the scratchplate. One stops underneath the plate, and so won’t be visible. The other, somewhat annoyingly, extends about 1mm beyond the top horn of the scratchplate. Clearly the quality controller didn’t look as close as I do. It’s another minor thing, but one of those tiny flaws which now I know it’s there – I won’t be able to miss it. It’s the usual question – can I just leave it and push on regardless? (The answer, in my case, is usually no).

The main trouble with these sort of splits is that they can sometimes prove unstable, and they can, possibly, lengthen over time. In the case of the latter mark – that would potentially extend it even further out onto the top horn of the body. Ugly. I’d be wise to, at least, consider stabilizing them both with some super glue drop fills, and also consider countersinking the tops of the drilled openings. Just to avoid the risk of further splits developing, once new screws are driven home. The drop fills may then, perhaps, need colour matching over the top, with an eventual polishing out. Maybe that’s enough to warrant a full, rich clear coat over the top as well?

Hmmm. Maybe…

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