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An Open[ish] Response to Fender CEO Andy Mooney’s Thoughts on Offset Guitars

A bad guitar, 1961

In a recent interview with Reverb.com, Fender CEO Andy Mooney laid bare his true feelings about the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, and let me tell you, they were anything but glowing. In the exchange, he brands Leo Fender’s original designs as “not very good guitars” at the time of release, declaring the mistakes of the past fixed in Fender’s latest entries into the offset line. 

Mooney takes a hard stance here, but to be honest his perspective here is nothing new. These critiques have been around for years, and even with the informed views of dedicated users of the Offset Guitar forum, the main axe associations with high profile players like Chris Stapleton and Nels Cline, and my own work over the last decade advocating for the guitars in print and performance –– pardon the horn tooting –– opinions on these fascinating guitars among the general populace are still very much divided.  

I don’t blame folks for holding these opinions because even I, Dear Reader, once believed the very same things. Back in high school I had an Olympic white Japanese Jaguar, a parental purchase spurred on by my love of the band Bush. The kindest way I could describe the guitar is problematic; the strings skipped off of their saddles, the bridge shimmied down, and it would not stay in tune no matter what I did. 

Eventually I traded it in on something more reliable, unwilling to wrestle with the instrument. When I finally came back to the offset guitar 14 years later, I realized that insatiable tinkerer Leo Fender wouldn’t have released a guitar he didn’t think was ready, and so I pushed through my preconceived notions of its flaws to gain a better understanding of the thing. I came out on the other side with a deeper appreciation for the man’s work. 

It seems to me that when a player has a bad experience with these guitars, it’s often because they’ve been poorly maintained. In cases such as these, I view it as an opportunity to educate and reevaluate. After a conversation or a quick adjustment, the player might still decide the models aren’t for them, but more often than not they seem to “get it.” And that’s enough for me.

So here I am, returning from an extended hibernation like a grumpy, shaggy bear; like the aging ensemble cast of a ‘90s sitcom, lured into a reunion for the cameras by the dangling carrot of a handsome payday, each secretly knowing that the end product would not be nearly as good as the show’s initial run; like a cherished childhood movie that, upon re-viewing for the first time in 30 years, has way more adult themes than your young mind could then comprehend, causing feelings of retroactive discomfort because you watched it with your parents in the SAME ROOM???

Prodigal namesake that I am, I have returned with my proverbial pen pressed to the also proverbial page of the Guitar Bar website to feverishly scrawl this open[ish] response in an attempt to give some context and gentle rebuttal to his comments. 

“They were not particularly good guitars when they were first introduced.”

When the Jazzmaster and Jaguar were first released in 1958 and 1962 respectively, they were not only top of the line models, but top sellers as well. While neither model was exactly embraced by the Jazz community, they nonetheless found favor with a varied group of players and all but defined the sound of Surf music while still in its infancy. For a time, they seemed to be everywhere. Admittedly, perceived popularity does not a good guitar make, so let’s look at a handful of early adopters.

At first, session players and country pickers liked the models well enough to use them on stage and in the studio, including Wayne Moss, Hank Garland, Willie Nelson, and Luther Perkins, who has an engraving of the model on his tombstone. If more proof is needed, here are three separate performances of Roy Clark absolutely shredding “12th Street Rag” on a bone stock Jazzmaster and Jaguar. These videos remain favorites of mine because they show someone really digging in and playing fast melodic runs on guitars that people seem to think can’t handle that kind of vigorous right hand technique. 

But if they were so good to begin with, why did sales eventually taper off?

A refinished ’65 from a couple of years back. I actually put the stock bridge back on this one instead of the sloppily installed TOM. It was awesome.

Previously, I’ve explained that the most common complaints with the model aren’t the fault of the design, but rather, trying to make that design do things it was never intended to do: wearing a set of light gauge strings.

In the Jazzmaster, Leo Fender’s intention was to appeal to Jazz guitarists by creating a solid body guitar with the string geometry of an archtop: a pitched-back neck, a floating bridge, and a tailpiece, and most importantly, all specifically designed to work with heavy gauge flat wound strings. We’re talking 12s, 13s, and 14s. 

Once lighter gauges (9s and 10s) became the norm in the early to mid 1960s, inadequate string tension reduced the downward force on the bridge, resulting in tuning problems and string skipping. It’s like going off-roading with bald tires: you can certainly do it, but expect to slide around a bit.

At this point in my career I’ve set up well over a thousand of these guitars, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, once you throw on a set of 11 gauge rounds and shim the neck as Leo intended, they just work. They were good guitars then, and they’re still good guitars today.

For more information on setting up these guitars, have a look at our Demystifying series and my May 2017 cover story for Premier Guitar. 

“We’ve made them functionally better”

It’s true that Fender has devoted a significant amount of time and resources into solving the perceived problems with these guitars, including modified vibrato positioning, redesigned bridges, strategically placed nylon bushings, and even neck pockets angled at the factory to eliminate the need for shims. These are all good ideas, a few even great; as is often the case when chasing mass appeal, some have not been as successful as Fender might have hoped.

Take the Classic Player, which features an angled neck pocket and an Adjust-O-Matic bridge yet can still fall prey to the same string path issues of more vintage-correct models. The AOM style bridge was not designed with a vibrato in mind, with sharp, shallow saddle slots that can cause tuning problems of their own. And that’s to say nothing of the mismatched 12” radius bridge on a 9.5” neck, which causes the E strings to be higher off of the fretboard than the D and G in the middle and makes for an inconsistent feel across the neck. 

My friend Brian’s wonderful later model MarrGuar. An amazing guitar that set up beautifully.

Mooney specifically mentions the Johnny Marr model –– indeed a killer guitar ––  yet it’s worth noting that many of the earliest of the bunch left the factory with 56mm bridge string spacing, which turned out to be only a hair slimmer than the width of the neck. Many players reported problems keeping the outer strings on the fretboard, which eventually led to Fender adopting slimmer 52mm spacing in later production runs (linked in case you need one). Here’s a shot of a lovely black one with the worst example of this I have yet to see. 

Strangely, the earliest American Professionals which came a few years later had the same problems, sometimes necessitating the need for aftermarket parts and prompting another mid-run update. 

As for the new American Ultra guitars, they may not be for me but I can understand why many of the features might appeal to other players looking for a more modern take on the Jazzmaster. With an additional lead circuit control knob, a re-purposed rhythm circuit layout for out of phase operation, rollers for individual pickup volumes, and an S-1 switch for series options, it could be argued that functionally they’re more complex than ever. 

However, once agin Fender curiously employs a mismatched bridge radius, this time a 9.5” bridge mated to a compound 10-14” radius neck, which puts the D and G strings higher off of the fretboard than the Es. Generally, compound necks work best when the string path is treated as a cone, flattening as it expands. In this case, a 16” bridge radius would set up far better than that of the stock part. I suspect we’ll start seeing even these guitars sporting alternative bridges before too long. 

So yes, while it’s good that we’re seeing R&D dedicated to making adjustments, some of those adjustments haven’t actually solved the problems, but rather, changed the nature of them instead.

“Now you can actually play them.”

I’ve made this point abundantly not only in this piece but in nearly everything else I’ve done over the years, but the fact is that Jazzmasters and Jaguars were always playable –– stock bridge included. Take it from an ardent Mastery user: the original bridge is as viable as any other, and once it’s adjusted correctly it’s as fun as it is functional.

Not only is there a wealth of great music made with them over the years as proof, you can refer to articles on this blog, numerous posts on both my personal Instagram as well as Mike & Mike’s showing that the stock bridge is dependable and musical. Hell, every offset guitar the shop sells goes through the same setup process to show off what incredible instruments they can truly be with just a little extra effort.

Closing Arguments

Would you play this stripped ’61, original bridge and all? It was a total beast of a guitar.

Real talk: I get that Mooney’s comments may be a marketing tactic to steer customers toward the current lineup in the Fender catalog, and just in time for the holidays at that. You know the old song and dance: newer is better! Fender does make a great guitar and innovation can be a good thing, so to this I say, fair play. 

Still, I have to believe there’s a better way to say so without throwing heritage –– and our beloved vintage instruments –– under the bus. 

You see, over the last five or so years, it seems to have become fashionable in Fender’s corporate culture to downplay or outright disparage the legacy of Leo Fender, with reps at NAMM overheard saying things like “Leo didn’t get everything right” and “we fixed his mistakes,” phrases repeated at the onset of the latest feature set or spec tweak. 

At best, comments like those in the previous sentence (as well as those which are the basis of this response) make Fender seem out of touch, and at worst, could erode the trust of a very loyal legion of customers.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll be saying it for as long as it needs saying: the Jazzmaster and Jaguar are Leo Fender’s most brilliant and misunderstood designs. It may have taken us 50 years to catch up, but now a growing and dedicated group of fans have found a unique sound here unlike anything you can get from other more traditional guitars. 

Speaking personally, no matter what other instruments are available to me, I reach for an offset first. I have found my musical voice in the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, and I’m never more comfortable or more adventurous than when I have one in my hands.

One last quote: 

“I have Jazzmasters and Jaguars… I have four in a line on my wall from 1966.” 

Andy, if you’ve read this and have found any of it compelling, I’d love the chance to show you just how good those guitars on your wall can be. All I’ll need is a few sets of 11s or 12s, a screwdriver or two, and maybe a couple Cold Ones to share between us. Burritos are good, too.

Oh, and parking validation –– it’s a bit of a drive up from Long Beach and the last thing I want to deal with is finding a spot on those notoriously crowded Hollywood streets.

A bad guitar. A very bad guitar

 

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Breaking Panera Bread with Evan Craig of Dirge Electronics

Dirge Edit
In my 33 years on this planet, I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than an hour at a time in a Panera Bread. Yet here I am, two hours in and hoping that my time here will soon come to an end.

It’s grey and cold outside; the bitter Pennsylvania winter greeted me the minute I stepped off the plane two weeks ago, and since then I’ve come to the startling realization that, no matter how well I think I’ve packed, I never seem to bring enough cold weather clothing. I am freezing, and I am ashamed.

On this particular day––this particularly cold day––I’m meeting my friend Evan Craig of Dirge Electronics, a guy who’s creating pedals that grind, quake, rattle and break amps, which is a fitting description of any clever device that calls itself Dirge.

He arrives about an hour later, apologizing profusely, and by this time I have inside jokes with each of the Panera staff. We’d grown close in those three hours; I’ve walked with them through life, watched as their kids left for college, cried with them at the loss of a family member, and attended four bar mitzvahs and two birthday parties. That’s grossly hyperbolic, but a cashier noted that I had been there a long time and I winked and told her, “I didn’t have a beard when I came in here.” Nailed it.

Thing is, Evan’s tardiness is neither true tardiness nor his fault; when we made plans earlier in the week, he was up-front about the nature of his job––Evan’s day job is selling doors to home improvement retailers––and that he often has to stay longer at a particular store location to train employees on the features and installation of said doors. I knew this going in, and for some reason, I thought, “I’ll just show up early” as if I were known for punctuality. What the hell. So really, it’s my fault for sitting there for so long, but that’s neither here nor there.

After Evan collected himself and had a sandwich, we breezed through the usual smalltalk rather quickly. It was going well, his day was meh, family’s good, etc., etc. It took little time for us to get acquainted, and soon we’d touched on guitar companies we like, bands we would die for, and most importantly, how Evan got into the pedal biz.

IMG_0013Before circuit bending and pedal vending, Evan (aka Skullservant on Instagram and other forums) began his career by listening first, homing in on the sounds he found compelling. Around the age of 13, Evan discovered Noise, a genre with the most appropriate designation ever. He cites Merzbow as a huge influence, speaking with exuberance about the impact of those sounds on his young mind. “I’m still trying to collect all of the Merzbow records, even though it’s impossible. He has, like, 300 of them out there.”

But it was his first rig, a Dean Vendetta guitar and a Digitech Death Metal pedal, that got him curious about creating his own sounds. He messed around with circuit bending, starting with toys, and soon did the same to his pedal, creating weirdness any way he could. Eventually, Evan found he had the knack for bending, and began acquiring loose boards to aid in his experiments.

“When I started, I would get circuit boards from places and just modify the hell out of them, just add as much stuff as I could cause it helped me learn. I got the basic circuit down, now here’s how I can expand it.”

And that’s what makes him attractive to so many players: expansion. Evan doesn’t shy away from requests, and any opportunity to twist a familiar design to fit his idea of the perfect sound is one he’ll gladly accept. His first commissions came from the I Love Fuzz community, where Evan would post his latest builds. Interest quickly built up around his work, and forum members started asking for specific builds based on what more traditional circuits were missing.

In short order, Evan’s brilliant little boxes began finding happy homes on the boards of some well-known musicians, such as Weezer’s Scott Shriner. Shriner owns Evan’s Dirge Dweller, which is based on the Mad Bean Cave Dweller delay project but with that special Dirge twist. Evan explains:

“One of the limitations of that circuit is the headroom––that’s the limitation of the pt2399 chip in general––so it clips kind of easily. That circuit’s… kind of dark and ambient, which I dig, but I refined it to be a little more bright. It doesn’t have a normal blend control, so I’ve been adding one and a clean boost… You can drive your amp with this delay.”

Evan originally made his ideal Dirge Dweller for himself, with every expansion he could think of crammed into the enclosure. But when the bassist of one of the biggest bands out there comes around, you definitely don’t want to make him wait. “Scott was like, ‘I want you to build me one’ after I had just finished that one. So I was like, have mine. He likes it a lot.”

9763175192_e8b5b97f09

One of Dirge’s three-in-one pedals, with RAT, Boost, and Comp pedals in one convenient design.

Expansion, elevation… that’s what makes Dirge stand out to me; all of Evan’s designs seem to have a common thread that runs through them, and that thread is “more.” When he takes a custom order, or evaluates a common design––a RAT for example––and he asks himself, ‘How can I take this and elevate it?’ The last RAT-style pedal he did included a custom tone stack, clipping options, and an expression jack for external gain control. For Evan, there’s no such thing as too much, at least within reason. What’s his benchmark for reasonability?

“I like people looking at my pedals and saying, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’”

In fact, there was a period of time where Dirge pedals seemed to toy with their users, daring them to forget how they define things like ‘volume’ and ‘tone’. He used to leave controls unlabeled so that players could find their own way instead of relying upon familiar old settings.

“It’s cool seeing how they’re put to use,” he gushes. “I might not be into that type of music, but it just completely opens my mind up to how something can be used. I might have an idea for a modification to a circuit and they end up using it in a different way than I had intended.”

Evan’s goals as a pedal maker aren’t exactly in-line with most other manufacturers, who turn out product after product to reach as many players as possible. Evan prefers to keep his operation small, focusing on custom orders. “I honestly have more fun [doing custom orders]. I enjoy being able to just cycle through circuit boards, that’s really zen, just loading circuit boards, but at the same time there’s something special about having a story behind every single custom pedal that I’ve made.”

Working from custom order business model allows Evan to create something very player-specific, and he can guarantee that the pedal he makes for you will be something no one else has. It’s not just about churning out pedal after pedal, it’s about dreaming something up and putting it out into the world. “I remember building every single one. It’s been fun to see where they end up, where they travel and what’s happened to them.”

But what makes Dirge stand out isn’t just the sound, it’s also the look. His art style is chaotic, often consisting of squiggly, concentric lines that never touch but form patterns like ripples on a lake, but the lake is made of wide-ruled notebook pages and the ripples are colored inks from ballpoint pens. The artwork sells his pedals just as much as the sounds.

Looking at some of his work, you almost expect to see lewd drawings of his former Social Studies teacher, or some band logos scrawled around the edges, maybe a few romantic check boxes. There are frequent appearances of coffins, skulls, and scythes, and while there’s definitely a Jr. High aesthetic in play, it’s in earnest and gives his pedals the excitement of discovering heavy music for the first time all over again.

However, Evan’s not stuck in a particular idiom; he once made an Ibanez Bottom Booster in a Unicorn-adorned enclosure. He’s done hand-drawn Big Muff enclosures with the word “DIRGE” across the front, and even has some really nice etched looks to brag about. And while his pedals often embrace visual simplicity, Evan’s actually a very skilled artist.

The 1776 Reverb, based on the Rub-A-Dub board, with a gain knob to drive the reverb hard.

The 1776 Reverb, based on the Rub-A-Dub board, with a gain knob to drive the reverb hard.

“I used to sit at a desk job all day and just draw ‘cause it was on the phone, I didn’t need my hands for anything, so I would just doodle and that would give me inspiration for the builds and drawings on the builds.” And as for the content of his visuals, Evan confesses, “I don’t know why I turned morbid.”

Having never publicly displayed his art, giving himself creative freedom with his enclosures means he now has that outlet, a way to have his work seen as part of a very specific medium, and one that serves him well. While other artists might have a breakthrough via the blogosphere (can’t believe I just typed that) or a local art show, Evan’s artwork is already touring the world, and thanks to rig rundowns and social media, it’s being seen by thousands of people each day.

When we sat down for our informal chat, Dirge had been on somewhat of a hiatus for a few months. Evan was still finishing a few pedals here and there, but as we all know, real life can sort of take over other interests. Real life, in this case, means having a baby.

“I just wanted to be with my wife as she was going through pregnancy ‘cause there were definitely hard times. At first I would build and she would watch TV or whatever and then as [the due date] got closer I just stopped building and finished up the builds that I could so that I could spend more time with her, and now, spend the time with Hunter.”

Since the birth of his son six months ago, Evan has extended his break from the pedal-making biz, but rest assured, he’ll be back with a renewed vision soon. And when he does come back (potentially later this year) he’ll be making time for a handful of orders every month. “I think what I’m gonna do from here on out is just take one, finish it, another one, finish it, and not take on a bunch at once.”

9763149681_ee1b8b6396He’s also considered doing a production run in the future, but laments that at his level, there may not be a return on that investment. For the foreseeable future, Dirge is going to be a fully custom, very personal sort of company.

So what’s next for Dirge after the break? More tweaks, more modular pedals, and even a few new ideas that have been floating around in Evan’s head. One such idea that excites him is for a special delay pedal he’s been trying to figure out, “…having such a short delay that it almost becomes a sort of cone filter.” Color me intrigued.

While talking to Evan that day, it was clear to me that no matter how he decides to balance life and business, the subject of sound will always be exciting to him. Each time he spoke of a tone he loves or a new pedal he wants to make, the passion with which he approaches Dirge Electronics wells up in him, and he beams. But there is still one thing that eclipses even the pride he feels in his pedals being used the world over:

“Dude, my son is awesome. He’s fucking great. Just fucking awesome.”

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Getting to Know Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar

Our good friends at Orbilite Productions came to the shop a month or so back to interview us for what will hopefully become a series of videos detailing just what it is that makes Mike & Mike’s so darn special.

We’re really proud of our first foray into visual media, and we think it came out great! We’re hoping that it shows our personality and helps put a face on the internet presence we’ve been trying to build. Get to know us! Come one, come all!

 

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