Tag Archives: Michael James Adams

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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Road Worn? More like Road KILL, Amirite????????***

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Yeah, but no, this guitar did have some problems.

by Michael James Adams

Sometimes the hardest part of the job is fixing previous repairs and mistakes made by amateur techs and hobbyists, quite often done so with the best of intentions. Hell, we all make them, and in this business even good intentions can have disastrous effects. Especially when they aren’t disclosed…

Buyer Beware

My good buddy Art recently picked up a Fender Road Worn ’72 Telecaster Custom from eBay–fantastic guitars with a vintage look and nitro finish–but there were problems with this one that went unmentioned by the less-than-scrupulous seller.

Looking at the guitar, it’s obvious that there have been some changes here: a ’72 Telecaster Custom most definitely comes equipped with a Fender Wide-Range Humbuckers (WRHB for short) in the neck position, and hand-in-hand with that is the pickguard, which we can determine is a replacement due to its having been cut for a standard-size Telecaster neck pickup. (A Dimarzio Area-T in this case) But wait, there’s more!

What may not be so obvious is that there has been plenty of other funny business going on here, but as they say, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Most notably, we have the telltale signs of a previously installed Bigsby unit of some kind: filled holes on the top, and the seller claimed, “They all had them.” Yeah, right. More alarming were the holes for the Bigsby/Jazzmaster bridge that’s usually installed along with the vibrato, poorly drilled and filled with wood putty. Knowing that we’d be installing another Bigsby, I prayed they were at least drilled in the right place. SPOILER ALERT: They weren’t. Grr/Argh.

Aside from those issues, the wiring on this thing was absolutely ruined, a solder-drenched mess on each pot and frayed connections all over the place. The pots used weren’t the correct values to begin with, so replacements were in order. Additionally, someone had decided to “relic” the neck even further with a hearty rasp or something, because there were deep gouges on the back that felt positively dreadful to the hand. Smoothing out the neck with 220-400 grit sandpaper and a light refinish made all the difference here.

The Long, Hard Road… Worn

Here’s how we planned to take this guitar from road kill to Road Worn and BEYOND:

  • Dowel and redrill the holes for the bridge IN THE RIGHT #%(*&@#$% PLACE
  • Install more proper pickups. Lollar’s Special-T bridge and Regal WRHB seemed more than appropriate!
  • Install a new Bigsby B7, Bigsby bridge plate and a Mastery Bridge
  • Enlarge the hole in the guard for the new neck pickup
  • Build a new wiring harness (250k x2 for bridge, 1m x2 for neck)
  • Smooth out and refinish the back of the neck
  • Have fun while doing so (no charge)

I prepared our friend for the amount of work and the associated cost with such work and parts, and once we got the go-ahead, it was on. And after a great deal of hard labor, the end result was stunning. Behold:

IMG_2955-imp

And it sounds brilliant. Just, three-dimensional, sultry, smoky and smouldering. Honestly, it’s my favorite guitar in the shop right now! I kind of don’t want Art to pick it up! Yes, Jason Lollar makes amazing pickups, and the Mastery Bridge makes everything better. I’m really proud of this one!

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***I know this is a lame title. I want to say it was intentional, but I can’t lie to you: I’ve had some hot cocoa with tequila and that’s the best I can do right now. Please don’t tell your friends/family/pets that this Adams kid is past his prime. I promise the next article will have a properly humorous but simultaneously enlightening title. Pinky swear.
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The Most Patriotic Guitars Ever, Ever. Happy July 4th!

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Here at Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar, we couldn’t be more excited about July 4th. It’s three days after our shop’s anniversary (1 year, y’all!), my anniversary with my wife (3 years, y’all!) and the anniversary of our Nation’s independence (237 years, y’all!) so we’ve much to celebrate! And we LOVE to celebrate. I can’t speak for Other Mike, but I can tell you that in exercising my freedom on the freest day of the year I’ll be hanging with friends and family while eating grilled meats and drinking frosty brews, probably some Mike’s Hard Blackberry Lemonade because I like repetition. And also because I like adult fruit punch. I swear to God, if anyone tries to hand me a Silver Bullet I’m going to glare at them until they leave me alone.

When it comes to the best ways to share American pride, among them are belt buckles, bikinis, gaudy tattoos and, of course, the guitar. Yes, the guitar; is there anything more American?* Given the amount of red, white and blue guitars out there, that answer seems to be a flag-wavin’ HELL NO. In this day and age, everyone’s got a guitar – hell, even Obama plays a Jaguar.

Let’s take a look at some of the most patriotic guitars ever created, and we’ll rate just how proud they make Uncle Sam based on their individual patriotic flair. We’ll also try to give approximate prices, proving that freedom truly isn’t free.

1) Buck Owens Signature Fender Telecaster

98FenderBuckOwensTele
Now that’s what I call patriotic: stately, refined pride. That’s a classy guitar, not some chaotic melange of blue stars and red stripes as if Uncle Sam got sick like so many other instruments. Gold hardware, three-tone sparkle finish and Buck’s signature on the headstock all makes this guitar as attractive as it is reverential, much like Buck’s deep love of his country.

Out of all the guitars we’ll look at in this post, this is one of the ones I’d really love to own. It’s a guitar even a dirty lib’ral could love! The caveat here is that this limited-edition run of guitars was actually made in Japan, for which we’ll have to reflect  in the guitar’s rating.

Buck Owens Telecaster
Price: $1200-1500
Country of origin: Japan
Patriotism Rating: 888 (exactly 1/2 of 1776)

2) 1985 Gibson MAP

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In 1985 Gibson did a limited run of guitars shaped like the 48 contiguous states of America, only nine of which are in this stars-and-stripes finish. Featuring a familiar electronics array, much like that of a Les Paul or an Explorer, these guitars have both style and substance while being a symbol of American craftsmanship. I mean, can you imagine trying to install binding on that thing? I would quit once I got to Michigan.

Because there are so few of these guitars, who’s to say exactly what the going rate would be. That finish is plenty cool, though, so if I came across one in the wild I’d snatch it up no matter what the going rate would be. There are a few of the natural-finish examples on eBay, with the sellers asking $3000, so I’m certain there’s a premium price attached to such a rare finish.

Being that this Gibson has such a rare, cool finish and is made in America, I’ll be awarding this one full points on the scale of patriotism.

1985 Gibson Map in Stars-and-Stripes finish
Price: $????
Country of Origin: USA!
Patriotism Rating: 1776

3) 1965 Mosrite Ventures “Salesman”

1965-Mozorite-Salesman-FramedIn the 1960s, California-based guitar company Mosrite produced about 50 of these guitars know as “Salesman” guitars. The thought was that a Mosrite rep could walk into a guitar shop and say, “Here’s the Mosrite guitar, and these are your color choices: Red, White or Blue.” Easy, right?

Trouble is, I don’t want any of those individual colors, I want THIS ONE. I mean, just look at that! So dreamy.

Aside from the Ventures, many of our guitar heroes played Mosrite guitars including Kurt Cobain, Joe Maphis, Fred Smith of MC5 and Johnny Ramone.

1965 Mosrite Ventures model “Salesman”
Country of origin: ‘Merika
Price: ~$5000
Patriotism Rating: JFK riding a robot unicorn on the moon

4) Blueberry Guitars USA Eagle Thing

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Holy shit. Evidently this was a custom order for a country artist that wanted everyone to know that his pride is bigger than yours. I can’t knock the kind of skill it takes to produce such an instrument, but subtlety is lost on this one. I mean, this thing is… well, I can’t describe this one to you as well as photos can…

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And yes, the headstock shot from the beginning of the article is from this guitar. Can you imagine what this thing must be like in person? It must sound like the tears of an a bald eagle falling onto the Liberty Bell. And guess what: it’s not even made in America! This one’s from Canada, and the thought of someone in another country having to do this is hilarious. I do love Canada, though, and being that they’re our neighbors to the north I want to take this opportunity to say that we should hang sometime soon.

Blueberry Guitars USA Eagle Thing
Price: many thousands, I’m sure
Country of origin: Canada
Patriotism Rating:

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Blueberry actually does really beautiful work. I’m picking on this instrument heavily but I do have deep respect for their craftsmanship and instruments. Check them out here.

5) Fender Wayne Kramer Signature (MC5)

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I’m a huge MC5 fan, and I would totally Kick Out the Jams on this guitar. With US hardware, a Seymour Duncan ’59 humbucker in the middle position and an engraved “This Tool Kills Hate” neckplate, I would have no qualms about taking the stage with such a flashy Strat. It’s also worth mentioning that I’m not even a Strat guy!

This model has been relic’d to match the original, and is made in Mexico. “Mexico?!!”, you ask incredulously, mouth agape in shock. Yes. And it’s great. At least it’s an American brand, which is more than I can say for our next entry.

Fender Wayne Kramer Stratocaster
Country of origin: Mexico
Price: $999 new
Patriotism Rating: WELCOME TO EARF

6) Toby Keith’s Stars-and-Stripes Takamine

Toby-Keith4
I’m sorry, but no. I mean, the other offshore-made guitars we liked were at the very least made by an American brand, but come on! Takamine?! Sure, they make good guitars, but TK’s not even trying here. Yeesh. How’s about you sing us another song about putting boots in terrorist’s asses or bringing American jobs back home. Let’s slap Old Glory on the front of a Takamine! Brilliant!

Irony? He’s swimming in it.

TK’s Takamine
Country of origin: Japan
Price: Custom
Patriotism Rating: McCarthyism

7) 1976 Gibson “Bicentennial” Firebird

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Gold hardware and an understated tweak to commemorate 200 years of American history. It’s no Map, but it’s a nice nod.

1976 Gibson “Bicentennial” Firebird
Country of origin: USA
Price: $4,000-6500
Patriotism Rating: 177.6

8) Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” Gibson J-45

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Woody Guthrie is an American legend, and the songs he wrote are just as poignant and effective today as they were when he penned them. Utilizing familiar folk melodies and the breadth of his experience gained while rambling around the country in train cars, Guthrie deeply loved his country and believed it was inseparable from its people, and aimed to protect her from fascists, singing his songs anywhere people were.

There’s much to be said about Guthrie’s legacy and music, but the song that’s probably the most well-known of his is also one of his most misunderstood: “This Land is Your Land”. Guthrie wrote that song in 1940 as a reaction to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie thought was trite and complacent. The song, originally titled “God Blessed America”, is a beautiful example of his feelings of patriotism, far removed from today’s brand-name, fearful allegiance.

Above all, Guthrie believed in the capacity of people to care for one another, but he also believed that the country he cared for was going in the wrong direction, filled with greed and injustice. A socialist, Woody saw the wealthy profit from the labor of the poor, going from migrant camps to union halls, feeling what was happening around him.

I say that “This Land” is misunderstood because until I was in This Land, a play/musical I was in last year detailing Woody’s travels and songs by use of his personal journals and letters, I had never heard the whole song. Sure, everyone sings “This land is your land, this land is my land”, but I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone sing the other more damning verses before. I remember when my family was invited to see president George W. Bush at the York Fairgrounds in York PA, there was a group there singing patriotic tunes, and among them was “This Land”, and looking back those later verses were conspicuously absent. Here are those verses:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
God blessed America for me.
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
And saw above me that endless skyway,
And saw below me the golden valley, I said:
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me.
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

As Greg Carter, the director of This Land said, “Woody will tear your flag down and give you a reason to pick it back up again.” And, having spent three months working in that play, singing his songs and playing his notes, I can honestly say that being so enveloped in Guthrie’s words and songs has taught me more about patriotism and heroism than the 30 years of fireworks, cookouts, pledges and elections ever could have. No one ever fights for a piece of cloth; they fight for the idea.

Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists” Gibson J-45
Country of origin: United States of America
Price: Priceless
Patriotism Rating: Eleventy Billion

*Yes. The modern guitar has its roots in Spain, and further back, Rome. But of course, we’re a big ol’ melting pot, aren’t we?

-Michael James Adams

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