Since we opened up shop, we’ve been getting to buy, sell and repair more than our fair share of Fender offset instruments, especially Jazzmasters. And while my partner in crime Michael Adams is a stickler for a guitar that has rock solid reliability, I tend to gravitate towards the more unreliable and quirky. Now, I’ve always had a sweet tooth for oddball “lawsuit” and direct copies of my favorite Gibson and Fender instruments, so when I first heard of “Serviceman” guitars my interest was piqued.
These Serviceman instruments are one of the weirdest niches in the offset Fender world, and they were so-called because of how they originated in the Philippines in the 1960s when American soldiers were on their way to Vietnam. This cottage industry of knock-off Fender instruments produced some very unique pieces, the most common of which are Jaguars, although there have been documented examples of Stratocasters and even Coronado hollowbodies. Logic dictated that this line of homemade blantant Fender forgeries would also include a Jazzmaster, and I was so excited when I finally had a chance to snag one and tear into it.
While these Serviceman instruments look the part on first glance, the quality varied widely, mostly leaning towards instruments which are composed of balsa wood and prayer. This wide variance in quality naturally comes from the environment in which these instruments were produced, and while there are some relatively mass produced parts (vibrato units, necks), each craftsman had the ability to create an instrument to his liking. Also, it’s doubtful that the Serviceman luthiers actually had Fender models to use as reference and this explains many of the cheap/ingenious/huh? elements of these guitars which were probably derived from photos. Further muddling the issue, many of these instruments were upgraded out of necessity by subsequent owners to make them play better (or at all), which makes it difficult to nail down how these instruments left the “factory.”
Well, now that we’ve laid the groundwork for what we’re looking at, let’s dig deeper into the Serviceman Jazzmaster. One of the first things I noticed was the fake, yellowed woodgrain and giant (we’re talking ate your ’52 Tele for lunch) neck profile. The headstock also has open-back tuners, a dead giveaway that this instrument is not a Fender, despite the two piece decal on the headstock which does its best to trick the buyer. And while most of these Serviceman guitars have a Fenderish decal on the headstock, I’ve also seen examples with hand painted logos which were surprisingly well done and infinitely cool. A couple other interesting points on the neck include the tiny brass bar frets which are better suited for the early 20th century than a space age guitar from the 1960s and lastly, while I failed to capture this in a photo, you’d be hard-pressed to find a truss rod (although it’s marginally straight and doesn’t fret out!).
Another dead giveaway that you have a “genuine” Serviceman can be found by removing the neck plate. Don’t worry about slackening the strings on the guitar, because nearly all of these instruments have a second neck bolting system hidden beneath the neckplate. As with many features on these guitars, the visuals match their Fender counterparts, but functionality is a different story altogether. This also rings true for the pickup height adjustment screws…which do nothing. They are simply small semicircle plastic pieces nailed into the one-ply pickguard which has a black line around the perimeter to simulate a three-ply construction. One more great example of this (and my personal favorite) is the way that the vibrato unit is put together. Instead of the bar locking into the collet on the base of the unit, the bar and the collet are the same piece! The whole shebang just screws into a baseplate which also slyly has the Fender logo and a couple patent numbers etched into it for good measure.
Electronically the guitar is an elegant mess, and while both pickups work, the stock five-way rotary switch which is in the place of the normal three-way toggle gives the user an unorthodox collection of pickup settings: bridge, bridge, bridge+middle, bridge+middle, bridge. And don’t try to engage that rhythm circuit, because while it was wired up with the best intentions, a few key wires are missing and thus it’s a very elaborate kill switch. So this all begs the question: What does this thing sound like? Well, the pickups are quiet and microphonic, but they do have a low-fi clanky quality all their own that I’m going to try and use in a recording some day.
Here’s the funny thing: for how much I’ve knocked my quirky little Serviceman buddy…it’s really fun to play. In fact, I’ve been picking it up almost every day while my real 1961 Jazzmaster hangs out in a stand. And while I won’t be relying on the Serviceman to carry me through my next gig, it is a charming reminder of a bygone era of guitar counterfeiting and its got a song to sing!