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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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Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar at the Spring 2013 Seattle-Tacoma Guitar Show

IMG_7084-impYesterday (May 19, 2013) was the 2013 Seattle-Tacoma Guitar Show at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, and it was a blast! A veritable feast for the eyes for any one even mildly interested in guitars, the Guitar Show is always the perfect way to showcase the dealers, builders, artists and players as well as the fine instruments that inspire the music we connect with on a day-to-day basis.

A Plan, a Van, a Can-Do Attitude

IMG_7078-impFor Mike & Mike’s, the show started well before Sunday. We’d been carefully plotting what we would take with us for the last two weeks, when ol’ Ballsy went on a gear-buying spree using his talent for sniffing out great deals to ensure our having a bevy of beautiful guitars, amps and effects to excite the senses. (Mission accomplished!)

Last week sometime we started really deliberating on the virtues of taking some pieces with us; some were no-brainers on both sides of the spectrum – you know, this goes, that stays – but others were somewhat nebulous. For instance, we have these two massively cool Fender Twin amps, one blackface from ’66 and the other a silverface drip-edge model from ’68. Now, if you don’t know, Twins are great amps but also unwieldy, being as big and heavy as they are. The question: do we really need to bring both? At first it seemed that no, we did not. Last minute though, Mike had a change of heart and there we were, at the show with twin Twins. For the record, I’m glad we took ‘em both! Our table looked quite nice…

When you’re a dealer at the show, it’s always a good idea to get there as early as possible. The loading dock at Meydenbaur usually opens around 6:30, and because there’s only a limited number of hand carts available, the many shops and each of their host of gear translates to a LOT of waiting around. In order to get the jump on the day, we got all of our gear sorted out on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning we packed our rented van at 5:30am shoving off at 6. Not too shabby.

Staking Our Claim

IMG_7085If we’re being honest, setting up our three tables took a good hour at least, not counting carting our belongings to the fourth floor via Meydenbauer’s only service elevator. But the real problem (and biggest time sink) is creating an attractive display that invites wandering eyes to hover – nay, dance – from piece to piece; while it might be easy to simply ‘put out’ guitars in some random fashion, it takes a keen eye to present them in a well-executed, thoughtful way. The three of us brought everything out, and from then on it was a series of friendly, barked opinions which sounded something like “DOES THIS GO HERE” and “I LIKE WHAT YOU’RE DOING PLEASE CONTINUE” and “YOU’RE FIRED”, but only in a j/k sort of way.

As Mike and I later conceded, three tables was exactly the right amount of space for the gear we brought; we didn’t have to stagger any of our instruments, with something like 25 guitars and 5 amps alone, not to mention the other odds and ends we had with us. And did we mention the kick-ass banner our good buddy Jake made for us? Sex appeal to the max, right there.

It Starts

After I was thrice fired and re-hired, the doors opened and the game was afoot, Dear Reader! New friends and potential customers trickled through the door and I’m proud to say that we drew a lot of really great reactions! Also presenting at the show were many of PNW’s guitar elite: Emerald City Guitars, Thunder Road Guitars, Rick King and Guitar Maniacs, amongst others. But for the first time in my life I felt like we were running with the big boys, even drawing the attentive and discerning eye of Jay Boone of Emerald City Guitars, who commented about how impressed he was with the calibre of gear we had with us. From him, that’s a huge compliment!IMG_7089

As the show carried on, it was clear which of our instruments were the stars of our show. Our 1967 Antiqua Fender Coronado, for instance, was the source of many hushed gasps. Also on display was the amp we’ve been calling, “the cleanest Deluxe Reverb on the planet”, a silverface Fender that is downright immaculate, shiny, and perfect. If you were ever curious what old amps looked like when brand new, do take a look at that one at our eBay store!

What was most moving for me personally was the amount of kindness and attention directed toward our stock of Mike & Mike’s Guitar Guards. Nearly every person that dropped by the table, many of whom I’m sure wouldn’t have engaged us otherwise, deliberately stopped to tell us how much they liked the idea of pickguards made from old vinyl records. Many of them took photos, asked how much we charged, how we made them, and if they could send us a particular record. Almost everyone was floored by the idea, and I shook a lot of hands simply because they’d “never thought of it!” Plainly stated, it just felt good to have that little labor of love be recognized on a large scale, and anything that gets our shop that kind of attention is a blessing.

Gear Highlights

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The Teye “La Canastera”

I’m certain that what I thought was cool is going to disappoint most of the guitar lovers around; I don’t have any photos of the ’59 Gibson Les Paul across from our table, nor do I have any of the ’55 Fender Stratocaster adjacent to us either. Both were superb instruments, of course, but what really impressed me this year was the range of gear available. There were plenty of instruments that I’d either never seen before or hadn’t seen in years – things that most guitar buyers might overlook or pass on simply out of ignorance.
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The first thing that caught my eye in the morning was a few tables down from us: a Teye “La Canastera”, an alluring work of art that I’ve only ever seen in magazines. I didn’t dare pick it up, but I really enjoyed being able to glance over at it throughout the day like an especially attractive young thing, too shy to strike up conversation. Honestly, it’s even more beautiful in person. The same vendor – I forgot to ask the name – also had more S-series Teye guitars in stock, including the models adorned in three-dimensional abalone pearl.

IMG_7095Another surprise waiting for me at the show came in the form of two nearly identical Squier Vista Series Jagmasters, one with original pickups and one with replacements. These were guitars I greatly admired when I was in high school, but back then nobody wanted anything to do with the Squier brand, so of course we had no idea how great the guitars of the Vista Series were. I did have occasion to play a sunburst model just as they were released and I loved it, but that headstock decal made me wonder if something was going to go wrong after I bought it. I regret dismissing them so quickly, but seeing these two at the show reminded me how far I’ve come from being the biased idiot I was in high school. (SPOILER ALERT: I’m still pretty biased!)

Winner of the ‘Silliest Bass at the Show’ award was this Pink Floyd-themed Fender Jazz Bass, with airbrushed The Wall graphics all over its body. It’s sort of cool in a way, but the sad thing is this bass is actually a very early 1960s model, so I’m really curious to know what’s underneath the paint scheme. The neck, which I neglected to photograph, had new tuners and was modified for fretless play, but had its original nicotine-soaked finish.

Vendor Highlights

IMG_7094Out in full regalia was the table and offerings of our good friend Joe Riggio, a Tacoma luthier that builds the most breathtaking ‘50s and ‘60s F-style guitars I’ve ever seen. Not only are his neck and body shapes super authentic but fully customizable, his finishes are hands-down the most beautiful and right I’ve ever seen. Seriously, the quality and attention to vintage detail belies the true youth of his instruments, and if you ever get a chance to just touch them, you’d likely agree that there’s no way these are new guitars. They look, feel, sound and play far better than any relic you’ll run across, and if we ever start making our own brand of custom offsets, we’re gonna give this guy a call. He’s our favorite.

Also at the show was another of our favorite guitar finish gurus: Gord Miller. Say you had a 1950s Les Paul Jr. double-cut that was stripped and had a broken neck. If you brought such a guitar to us, of course we’d be happy to repair the neck, but when it comes to restoration, it’s Gord for us all the way. Seriously, his finishes aren’t your run-of-the-mill kind of relic job; with a dedication to authentic finish techniques, the right laquer colors and formulas, and dead-on wear and checking patterns, you’d be hard-pressed to tell his work apart from the real thing. Go to his website, which has a quiz of sorts on his website, begging you to guess which guitar pictured is a refin, a near impossible feat! Just check out that Les Paul Custom! He even had a display of vintage-correct colors sprayed on squares detailing the original look and his various levels of aging! Really impressive!IMG_7102

The most truly exciting discovery I made that day came by way of the proprietor of eBay store fenderparts, and let me tell you, I’m completely stoked over this guy’s work. He stopped by the table to congratulate us on our vinyl pickguards, asking questions and telling me how great the idea was. He mentioned that he made pickguards himself, and while I was interested I didn’t expect the level of work he was doing. He showed me his wares at his table, and in all honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever buy a guard from any one else, ever. Why? This man is fighting the good fight!

His guards are exactly the right color, shape and are cut with an attention to vintage detail that I just haven’t seen from other parts resources. His mint green ‘60s guards are the perfect color and has the correct middle black layer, and his tortoise shell is not only more beautiful than most repro guards, but they’re actually made of genuine celluloid sourced from Italy. Add to that the fact that his aging process – which he wouldn’t divulge – is both tasteful and produces a guard that’s a dead ringer for the real thing. Seriously, you honestly cannot find another retailer that’s doing it as right as fenderparts. If you didn’t know better, it would be hard to tell it apart from the real thing. I’ll be picking one up ASAP! And if fenderparts is reading this, I am SO sorry for forgetting your name. I’m the worst. I’ll be ordering my Jazzmaster guard very soon!

Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies, but not the Other Way Around

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Detail of the Stratocaster guard made by fenderparts, which you can find easily on eBay. Amazing stuff!

Look, honestly the reason we go to these guitar shows isn’t that we think we’re going to clean house and sell everything we bring; to think that way would be a total error of logic and purpose. The Guitar Show is really about connection with customers (we’ll call them new friends) and other vendors, and when that’s your criteria for success there’s no way you can lose. We made a lot of great connections throughout the day, gave out a bunch of business cards and price lists, and if that was it we’d be thrilled. Job well done, all of that.

Icing on the cake: we sold a few things, among which was the dreadnaught case we provided to the husband of the elevator attendant at the convention center, which was a great way to start the day. We also sold two very old parlor guitars (one from the 1880s and the other from 1920) to Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, and he couldn’t have been a nicer guy. And yes, we were all pretty excited to speak with him, especially Matt. We’re all big fans!

What a day. A 12+ hour day, but a great one nonetheless.

All in all, the 2013 Seattle-Tacoma Guitar Show was a lot of fun and we loved meeting all of you that came by the booth! Thanks for making us feel like the belle of the ball!

And to think, I didn’t hear “Smoke on the Water” even once…

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Gord Miller finish sample goodness!

– Michael James Adams

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