Tag Archives: vibrato

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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The Buzz Stop Stops Here: A Rant

Hate is a strong word, and one I normally don’t like to use unless the subject is foods called “salad” which do not contain lettuce (the only exception being Fruit Salad, but why call it that when ‘Cup of Fruit’ would suffice). While I can’t call my feelings for the Buzz Stop ‘pure hatred,’ I have to admit that removing them from guitars is one of my favorite jobs.

For the uninitiated, the Buzz Stop is an aftermarket bracket for Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars which acts as a tension bar, much like the roller bar on a Bigsby B7 vibrato. Affixed to the guitar via the forward-facing vibrato mounting screws, the Buzz Stop forces the strings against the bridge, keeping the them in place while also stopping the saddles from buzzing. Hence the name; it stops the buzz.

In theory it’s a fine idea that attempts to solve the problems so many have with the original Fender design, but it’s ultimately completely unnecessary and in many ways a detriment to your guitar’s sound and functionality. Below, you’ll find the reasons I elect to do away with the Buzz Stop, and why I find guitars without them to be better instruments for it.

1) The Buzz Stop Introduces New Points of Contact

The whole point of the Buzz Stop is to force the strings down, and in doing so invariably creates additional points of friction. The Buzz Stop’s roller bar is one of those points, and while it is intended to rotate as the vibrato arm is depressed, I’ve never encountered one that actually does so in a smooth manner. Most seem to require a bit of force to turn, more than the strings can dish out. As a result, many of the Stops I’ve removed have had grooves worn in them, which means the strings are just grinding against an immobile roller.

The second point of contact is the back of the bridge itself, a problem that Jazzmasters and Jaguars shouldn’t have to begin with. Under normal circumstances the strings flow from vibrato to bridge uninhibited; the sharp angle of the Buzz Stop causes them to dig into the back edge of the bridge, leading to tuning or even breakage issues. The less metal in the string’s path, the better.

2) Buzz Stops Decrease the Stability of the Vibrato

With its nearly unparalleled stability and smooth feel, the offset vibrato really is one of the biggest selling points of the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. But with the increased friction of a Buzz Stop, it’s a miracle when the thing returns to pitch. Anything that messes with the functionality of the vibrato is a liability, not an asset.

3) It Forces the E Strings onto the Dreaded Pivot Plate Screws

The vibrato pivot plate mounting screws which sit directly beneath the two E strings have long been a problem on reissue guitars, causing string breaks and tuning issues which can normally be cured with a proper setup and increased bridge height, or by simply turning them upside down as shown in one of the early Demystifying articles.

With a Buzz Stop installed, there simply is no hope for the strings (See above). Pulled down toward the vibrato plate, the Es are forced against those pesky domed screws. As they’re bent, tuned, or warbled with the vibrato, the screws eventually saw through the string’s finish wrap leading to sharp detuning, and eventually, breakage.

4) The Buzz Stop Alters the Guitar’s Unique Vibe

Part of the unique sound of Jaguars and Jazzmasters is the length of string behind the bridge. Like an archtop acoustic, every bit of vibration counts. There’s a fullness and a pluckiness to the tone that comes from the added string length, and the slight decrease in sustain and tension makes these guitars feel and respond unlike other solidbody electrics. It should be no surprise that I also wholly endorse vigorous picking behind the bridge for atonal, noisy fun.

With a Buzz Stop installed, you may as well have a stop tail. It effectively cancels out the length of string behind the bridge, sterilizing some of the three-dimensional resonance that make these guitars sing. And honestly, if you’re looking for more sustain or ‘better tone’ there are far better options available to you in the form of Mastery and Staytrem hardware.

5) It’s a Half Measure Response

The Buzz Stop is a product of a time when these guitars were thought of as toys rather than fully-playable instruments. Without the readily-available, conversational sources for setup and modification that we have today (including this blog and my recent Premier Guitar article) the Buzz Stop was perhaps a once-legitimate option for taming this misunderstood, often neglected offset design. Though its premise was flawed, it served its purpose.

The Buzz Stop, by its very nature, doesn’t really “fix” anything; it’s a stopgap which fails to address core issues, applying force instead of correcting an inadequate setup. All of the common complaints, from bridge buzz and string jumping, tuning stability, and unwanted string resonance are easily solved with an attentive eye, a couple of screwdrivers, and a few hex keys. Neck angle, bridge height, string gauge––all of these things are integral to the design of the guitar, some of which the Buzz Stop website actively recommends against.

With advent of the internet, players now know how to care for the Jazzmaster and Jaguar better than they ever have. Communities like Offset Guitar Forum and Shortscale.org popped up and thrived, surrounding the Jazzmaster and Jaguar with that perfect, geeky love that reminiscent of my fellow Star Trek fans, excitedly swapping tips and parts, digging into manuals and other documents to discover the proper way to work on them.

6) It’s Ugly

It is. Don’t @ me.

The Long Walk into the Sunset

Call me a pedant, call me a purist, even call me ol’ Henry’s favorite, “luddite”––I just think we have so many better options for modifying or ‘fixing’ these instruments, all of which leave the original sound and intent largely intact. And honestly, in every instance where I’ve removed a Buzz Stop and then properly set up the guitar, it just sounds better to me.

We used to joke at the old shop about a cardboard box tucked away in the back that was filled with forty discarded Buzz Stops. We’d always say “forty” for some reason––We have forty of them in a box!––but thinking back that number has to be low. Literally every time we took in a new Jaguar or Jazzmaster bearing one, off it would come, fate sealed, tossed with prejudice into said box never to be seen or thought of again. And that’s just the way we like it.

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The Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI: a 100% Pun-Free Upgrade Guide

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My Squier VI lounging with Paul Frank’s amazing Custom Shop model, strung with Gabriel Tenorio strings

While Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar seem more popular than ever, the Bass VI still seems mysterious, or at the very least, under-appreciated. Players seem confused by its mere presence in the catalog: Is it a bass? Is it a guitar? Is it a baritone?

Let’s clear up the confusion right now: The Bass VI is a bass guitar in the strictest sense. Tuned E to E a full octave lower than a standard guitar, the VI is an incredibly versatile instrument that’s as well-suited for familiar chord shapes as it is for punchy bass lines.

Right now, the easiest way to get into a VI is the Squier Vintage Modified model. Fundamentally a great instrument, the Squier VI ticks all of the right boxes for me: it has Jaguar-style pickups and the all-important fourth Bass Cut switch, it’s affordable, and it’s damn fun to play. We’re still talking about an import model, so if you pick one up and find it lacking, I’m here to provide a handy upgrade guide to the “ba-VI” of “VI-sessfully” upping your Squier’s “VI appeal” into a machine for making “mu-VI.” (My deepest apologies for how poorly those puns worked.)

The first mod I’m going to suggest can hardly be called a mod at all, but believe you me, it’s crucial.

STRINGS

Far and away, the most common complaint with current Bass VI models is that the low E string lacks tension. You’ll hear it described as “floppy” or “sloppy,” and those adjectives sum it up nicely. It feels unbalanced and just can’t stand up to aggressive picking.

The problem with your Bass VI’s low E is thanks to a too-light gauge of string. When Fender released the Bass VI in 1961, the standard set was made up of strings gauged .026”-.095”, and that .095” is key here. At some point in the recent past, the low E string changed to .084” which is woefully under-built for the task. A .095” E is going to feel taut, stable, and will gleefully accept heavy attack, whereas the lighter string ends up feeling, well, just as described in the paragraph above.

In my view, the most essential mod you can perform on your VI is installing a heavier, more balanced string set. Even without upgrading the bridge or swapping pickups, this very simple and easily overlooked tweak can tighten up the whole instrument and bring back the low end that’s so sorely missing with the stock strings.

Because this information doesn’t seem to be collected anywhere, here’s a handy shortlist of string makers that offer a good set of VI strings with adequately heavy E string, which I’ll update as I stumble upon them. The only set Fender currently offers is gauged .024″-.084″, sadly.

La Bella (Flats and Rounds)
Kalium (Rounds, tons of options)
Gabriel Tenorio String Company (Rounds and Gabriel’s new Ground Wounds)

Or, if you want a genuine set from the 1960s

BRIDGE

A '62 Bass VI that I recently fell in love with at the Fretboard Journal Summit, courtesy of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

An original ’62 Bass VI that I recently fell in love with at the Fretboard Journal Summit, courtesy of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

If you ever have a chance to inspect a vintage Bass VI, you’ll notice that the original bridge is much wider than the one found on most reissues, which is just a standard offset bridge slapped on likely due to the costs of tooling-up for such a niche item. That original 1” width is a big part of the Bass VI functionality puzzle, which translates to more flexibility when it comes to intonation. Original examples have nearly twice the saddle travel as the current part, and with the Bass VI’s 30” scale, every little bit is precious.

The stock Squier VI bridge

The stock Squier VI bridge

The bridge found on the Squier Bass VI is essentially the same as the other VM offsets, save for the adjustable Mustang-style saddles, which have deep grooves and the ability to set the radius of the strings to match the fretboard. It does, however, have a propensity to rattle around so much that even correct offset setup techniques may not quell it. (See my Demystifying series for more info)

What to do? Track down an original bridge from the 1960s or 1970s? Nah, Staytrem’s got you covered with their fantastic and appropriately wide Bass VI bridge. If you’re looking for a stable bridge that’ll intonate for sure, this is the way to go. I have a Mastery on my personal Squier, and while it does intonate perfectly for me, your mileage may vary depending on string gauge and type as well as setup.

TREM

img_8743As I mentioned in my recent article on the J.Mascis model, if you’re planning on using the vibrato you really should upgrade this part. Import vibratos are made of inferior metals and often have manufacturing flaws that render them less stable than their US-made counterparts.

A great solution here is obtaining a Fender AVRI/AV65 vibrato, especially if you’re on a budget. I’ve chosen the Mastery Vibrato for my own specifically because of the heavy-duty spring Mastery uses, which replicates the sturdier feel of early 1960s units and really stands up to the extra tension of those thick strings.

 

NUT

As you might expect, the nut work on these instruments is passable, but not great. The soft plastic used wears easily, and the slots are often too tight even for the string gauge used at the factory. I’ve also seen a number of them with poor string spacing, but hey, I don’t expect perfection on a sub-$500 instrument.

I highly recommend having the nut replaced by a competent tech in the material of your choice; my preference is bone. And for those of you that use the vibrato, a properly-cut nut is your best defense against tuning issues.

ELECTRONICS

The electronics in the Squier Vintage Modified series are, understandably, on the cheap side of things. I’ve seen and heard of a number of VMs that had wiring issues or faulty parts right out of the box, so if you’re going to be using this instrument heavily I would insist that you have the instrument rewired with higher quality pots, switches, capacitors, and even replace the jack while you’re at it. Not only will you end up with an instrument you can really trust, you’ll also have better sound as a result.

Look to CTS, Bourns, or my good friends at Emerson Custom for pots, Switchcraft for the jack and switches, and any number of options exist for capacitors. Most of these parts can be found via AllParts or Angela.

Note: US parts will require enlarged holes on the volume-tone control plate.


PICKUPS

While I confess that you can get by with the Squier in its stock configuration, let’s be honest: there are better pickups out there. They’re a little trebly, a bit noisy, and too weak on output to keep up with other basses. It’s well worth your time to explore the myriad pickup options that exist in today’s market, but where to start?

Star Trek stickers optional, of course

Star Trek stickers optional, of course

In my mind, Curtis Novak has his finger firmly on the pulse of offset guitars’ unique capabilities, and he’s the first person I bring up when a customer has a specific sound in their head. From traditional sounds to obscure designs stuffed into familiar covers, Curtis excels at wringing every last drop of tone from your instrument.

For Bass VI, he offers both the early ’61-’62 Jack Bruce-style pickups and the Jaguar-style pickups that came as standard on the model from 1962 onward. However, if you’re looking for something different, I’m sure Curtis could wind up a trio of his Jaguar-sized Lipsticks, some unique Gold Foils, or even something humbucking if you’re that kind.

Another good option would be the fantastic pickups made by our friend Jaime of At The Creamery. He offers a VI set with much higher output than the stock pickups, and with custom options if desired. Jaime does exceptional work!

On my personal VI, I started out by building a set out of three Fender AV65 Jaguar pickups, which I really like. They’re affordable and great-sounding pickups for the price, but ultimately, a little too bright for my tastes. If you need a good Tic-Tac sound, this would be a great way to go. If you create a set out of three separate pickups, do pay attention to output in each position as well as polarity to make sure they all play well together.

Currently, my VI is loaded with a set wound by our good friends a Lollar Pickups, which have a bump in midrange and output, and they really keep up with my other instruments no matter the setting. Plenty of bass on tap and clarity through any amp. I’m a huge fan of Lollar Pickups.

TUNERS

Prepare to be amazed: there’s no good reason to toss these. The Kluson-style tuners you find stock on the Squier VI are great. On the many examples I’ve had across my bench, I have never found them to be problematic. Keep them.

LINE VI

When Squier introduced their take on the VI, I was immediately excited. At the time, the VI wasn’t an instrument I was keen to spend a lot of money on, simply because I didn’t think I’d be using it heavily. Squier made that sound accessible and did so with a lot of bang for the buck. When you mod this instrument, it isn’t so much a lipstick-on-a-pig scenario, you’re genuinely taking a good instrument and making it better.

My VI and '73 Precision, just after we got back from tour.

My VI and ’73 Precision, just after we got back from tour.

To that point, I recently joined my good friends Vanessa and Sarah, a duo better known as Leo Leo. The LA-based contemplative rock-pop outfit plays complex, beautiful music that’s as energetic as it is challenging; they are one of my favorite bands. When they asked me to tour with them on bass, I have to admit that I was overjoyed and overwhelmed, especially with just a week to learn ten songs. It was a lot of work, but I’m so proud of the noise we made together at those shows.

At the center of my bass sound: my trusty Squier VI. I plugged into a borrowed Salvage Custom board (thank you, Gabriel!) populated with pedal necessities run through a mini SVT. Night after night, that thing performed beautifully and never let me down. Even as we rehearsed, it became clear that the VI was the sound. It proved to be such a bruiser that next time, I may leave my ’73 Precision Bass at home.

Each time I took it out of its case, I was immediately greeted with questions from perplexed onlookers that wondered about my weird bass. I showed it off proudly and handed it over to person after person, none of whom could believe what they were playing was a lowly Squier. There was only one occasion before a show where a churlish bassist chided me for playing––and I quote––a “piece of shit.”

I’m happy to say that I proved him wrong that night. I’m proud to play my Squier.

Here's how that Squier looked the day I recieved it. (Thanks, Nate!)

Here’s how that Squier looked the day I recieved it. (Thanks, Nate!) See below for a post-mod comparison.

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This one's getting a TON of use in the @leoleoband set for the tour that starts—holy shit—tomorrow. Now, the weight of this Squier Bass VI never bothered me until we started this hours-long rehearsal process, but at the end of the night my back is screaming at me for relief. I think it may be time to look into a real '60s VI refin or something, that is of course assuming that the band wants to keep me! 😁 I also wish it were brightly-colored, but eh, such is life. Upgrades: -Lollar pickups -Fenderparts mint guard -Mastery Bridge + Vibrato (thanks Woody!) -upgraded wiring -La Bella Deep Talkin' Flats -Matching headstock #guitar #bass #bassvi #leoleo #tour #masatour #makeamericashakeagain #squier #fender #offsetguitars #lollarpickups #masterybridge #fenderparts

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Upgrading a Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster

FullSizeRender_1As you can imagine, I get asked about mods all the time. Recently, my new friend Brent brought his Squier J. Mascis model to me to hear my impressions of it and the many potential upgrades he was looking to have done. As-is, the JMJM is such a good guitar that many players don’t see the need for new pickups or hardware, but given the cheap price he paid and his needs, it totally made sense to do the work.

As I said before, the JMJM is a pretty cool guitar for the money. The neck feels great in your hand, the stock pickups are alright, and it has all of the right electronic appointments a Jazzmaster should have. Still, there’s room for improvement. Let’s jump in, shall we?

Tuners: Actually, these are good enough that I don’t see the need for a swap. As long as know how to string a slotted post correctly (string goes in the hole, 3-5 wraps) they work just fine. Great, actually. Even on my Squier VI!

Pickups: The stock units are pretty decent, but they are indeed P90s instead of Jazzmaster pickups, with big bar magnets and adjustable poles, with a tall coil that’s wound hot. If you want a real Jazzmaster sound, you’re not going to get it from those. Plus, as far as P90s go, I just feel there are better ones out there. I recommend a swap.

Electronics: On this particular instrument, I didn’t totally rewire the guitar. Generally, the one area where the current Squier builds fall short is the dependability of the electronics, which often develop shorts due to sloppy wiring or inferior parts. Instead, I went through and checked every wire and re-flowed some particularly bad connections. I do, however, recommend gutting the electronics and starting fresh with better components.

AOM/TOM Bridge: If you’re familiar with us, you’ll know that the AOM/TOM is the bridge we least recommend for offset guitars, both for sound and setup. Adjust-O-Matic/Tune-O-Matic bridges generally aren’t the correct radius for the most common Fender necks (7.25” and 9.5”) and even with heavy re-slotting of the saddles, it’s not always possible to totally correct that. As a result, the E strings will always feel more stiff than the others.

Additionally, even these bridges don’t always address the most common complaints with the original style bridges: buzzing and stability. This bridge already had some pretty nasty buzzing going on, which was mostly cured by re-seating the saddles. A shallow slot on the low E saddle meant that string impulsively jumped out with heavy picking as well. 

I recommend a change here, but obviously, your mileage will vary.

A Mastery bridge is almost always my first pick here, which does indeed require pulling the old AOM/TOM inserts, filling the holes, then re-drilling. Staytrem also makes a drop-in thimble replacement for these, so do keep that in mind if you’re looking for something less, well, surgical. They also used to make a drop-in replacement, but I can’t seem to find it on their site. I may be interneting improperly.

The Vibrato: I won’t totally rehash my arguments from our prior blog post on the quality issues of import vibrato units, but suffice it to say, if you’re a heavy trem user––hell, even a pedestrian––you should consider an upgrade here. Tuning stability is key, and the sloppy fit of the internals on these can be a nightmare.

In this case, we went with an American Vintage Reissue trem from eBay user trickedoutguitar, which came with the correct AVRI arm with the ever-so-lovely, gentle bend. Mastery also makes a delightful trem of their own, which I recommend highly for truly intense users.

IMG_8439So, when we finished our assessment meeting, I made my list of recommendations known. With Duncan Antiquity Is, a Mastery M1 kit, and an AVRI trem, I felt we’d pretty much covered everything. Obviously, the Mastery and pickups can be a significant investment for such an affordable guitar, but Brent wanted a guitar that would meet his needs without having to think about it ever again. Good call, says I.

After doing all of that and a proper setup by Yours Truly, I really believe we made a good instrument great. The difference in tone, unplugged and amplified, was immediately apparent. Whereas the guitar sounded pretty good plugged-in but was rather dead acoustically, the superior fit of the Mastery bridge and thimbles really made the thing come alive. And the trem? Smooth and immediate, and of course, stable as hell.

When I’m asked about my favorite Jazzmaster pickups, I always recommend Lollar, Novak, and Duncan Antiquity Is, the latter of which I feel does an excellent job of approximating the sound and response a 60+ year old black-bobbin pickup. In the case of this JMJM, we ended up with a brand new guitar, the sound of which belied its youth. Really a stunning pickup set. It has so much of the warmth and midrange complexity that’s associated with the best old pickups, woody and natural as can be.

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Brent’s finished Squier J. Mascis pictured with Artoo and Pancake

We came so close to that sound that I decided to do a comparison video of the J.Mascis  Squier up against my 1961 Jazzmaster “Pancake”, which is the greatest guitar I’ve ever played. This was all rather last minute and I didn’t yet have a proper microphone, but the iPhone did a good job showing some of the more overt differences between them. I even threw in “Artoo”, my 2007 Thin Skin with Lollars for fun. Check the video below!

In the end, Brent was absolutely blown away by his guitar, and so was I.

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Boutique Builders and the Offset Vibrato: A Trem of Great Import

IMG_2580-imp

I spend the bulk of my professional life thinking about offset guitars, from the next way in which I’ll be able to explain solutions to the myriad perceived bridge issues, to my idea of the perfect Jaguar, to mods and possible set up techniques I’d like to explore on one of my own. These guitars have been a huge part of my career, and I’m happy to say that recently I’ve discovered that I have a nickname among some enthusiasts: “The Jazzmaster Guy”.

Yes, dear reader, you likely know already how obsessed I am with these models, and in the same way that some proudly identify with a political party or religion, I wear my love of these quirky guitars as a badge of honor. If elections were held to determine the supreme guitar ruler of the world, I would firmly be in the Offset Party. I would totally rock a “Jazzmaster 2016” or “Jaguar 2016” bumper sticker. In fact, that might be worth putting some effort into.

Recently Summer NAMM took over the Music City Center in Nashville as well as our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. Gear lovers had a lot to look forward to, with new offerings from boutique and indie guitar, pedal, and amp makers as well as updated models from the big boys, and even if you weren’t able to attend in person (like me) there were plenty of goodies showing up online to satisfy even the most stodgy of enthusiasts. Among said goodies were plenty of models in the offset tradition, which is something that should have elicited more excitement in me than I actually felt.

It’s true: everyone makes an offset guitar these days, and how could we begrudge them that? These guitars have never been more popular, what with the spate of indie bands, aftermarket parts like the Mastery Bridge, and Nels Cline’s mind-altering musicianship, new Jazzmaster and Jaguar models (as well as variations on the theme!) are flooding the market at rates never before seen or anticipated. What was once a bargain-barrel, “crappy” guitar is now every bit as coveted and hallowed as some of the other most successful and idolized guitar models out there.

But with all of the complaints levied against these models (all of which we disputed and dispelled in our Demystifying series) one would expect that new offerings would perhaps understand not only the setup techniques involved in making these guitars play as Leo Fender intended, but also the very real affect of sub-par parts on the tone and functionality of these amazing, misunderstood instruments.

And that’s what concerns me about these upmarket models and fresh takes on famous designs, that there appears to be a disturbing trend in the “boutique” guitar market far more pervasive than relic finishes, self-tuning guitars, and ultra-hot gimmicky pickups:

$2000 guitars with cheap import hardware.

Offset Apart

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My favorite iteration of the offset vibrato: the Pat Pend unit found on my ’61 Jazzmaster.

Many builders these days have homed in on the hot, hot, hot market share the offset body design has carved out for itself. Never more popular or readily available, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar-like body designs invading stores and internet forums alike are often as enticing as they are expensive. Offsets are being turned out in huge numbers these days, and so even small builders are looking to remain competitive in this not-so-niche market, and in order to stay that way, some builders are quietly installing inexpensive hardware on their guitars. And because we’re seeing this practice so often, these expensive custom guitars don’t perform nearly as well American reissues offered by the big company with the F-logo. I find that to be inexcusable, and too often, guitar makers are ignoring what I would argue is the most important piece of hardware on the guitar in terms of tuning stability: the offset vibrato tailpiece.

If you’ve read our Demystifying series, then you know that, when properly set up, Leo Fender’s offset vibrato design works flawlessly. Seriously, take a moment to read those articles, then come back to this one with your mind blown, and thus, more open. The offset vibrato is so popular right now for a reason, and that reason is, it’s stable as hell. When well-maintained, I can do more and get more out of the offset vibrato than I can with just about any other unit on the market, and although it may not ‘dive bomb’ the way a Floyd Rose does, how many non-locking trems do you know of where you can depress the bar the whole way, strings flopping about, then release and have it come straight back into tune? 

(For the record, I also love Gibson’s equally maligned Lyre Vibrola, Bigsbys, Rickenbacker’s Accent, and the tailpieces found on old Silvertone guitars. Sorry for answering my own question.)

But hold on a sec, the above statements come with a disclaimer: I’m only referring to vintage and US reissue tremolo units. There is no import part on the market that works as intended.

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From Allparts.com

I’m quite honestly shocked at the number of high end offset guitars at SNAMM  equipped with the unbranded offset vibrato, a unit that can be easily obtained from many parts suppliers yet is never worth even its modest cost. The reasons I’m so down on the ubiquitous, no-name import trem unit is that the parts are made from pot metal, poorly machined, and are generally bulkier in design. They also happen to have arms with the least graceful bend imaginable, something that I’d contend is as much a part of the feel of the trem as the spring.

See, not only are there issues with arms spinning freely, collets breaking and never quite locking-in properly on those units, they also just don’t stay in tune as well as those made in the America. Parts that don’t fit properly together mean that the unit won’t return to pitch or “zero out” perfectly. They feel cheap, and comparing one of these import trems with the real thing, one can plainly see the stark difference in quality between them.

Recently, my pal Jessica Dobson of Deep Sea Diver brought in a new guitar for a setup and to install new pickups, and as part of a setup, I always ensure that the trem unit functions smoothly and accurately. In the case of this instrument and many like it, the vibrato wouldn’t return to pitch even when properly set up. I removed and dismantled the unit, and saw something that I’d seen many times before.

IMG_2590In viewing this photo from my Instagram feed, you should be able to see that the pivot plate on this Asian-import trem is sloppily manufactured, and it’s not just this particular one! Every single one of these I’ve ever worked on is malformed in some way, leaving the hope of tuning stability a pipe dream at best. Now, this can be corrected to some extent by doing as I did here, grinding away the excess material until the plate was left with sharp edges and equally smooth contact points. And while this does ensure that the trem works much, much better than it did, weak springs and inferior materials will continue to cause issues much farther down the road.

Another mark against the import unit: bad metal sounds bad.

A Call to Trem Arms

If you’re a guitar maker offering a Jazzmaster-type model (or any model with that particular bridge and tailpiece combo) then I completely understand that you can’t just put a Fender-branded part on your guitar. In that regard, the no-name, unbranded import vibrato seems like a good alternative, and one that’s easy to relic to hell and back, if that’s your bag. The thing is, because they’re so poorly-made, you may be offering a guitar with a flaw right out of the gate. But there is hope!

One option would be purchasing the U.S.-made ‘real thing’ and replacing the face plate. Companies like Faction Electric Guitars offer stainless steel plates (designed by our pal Paul Rhoney) that would suit this purpose well. Sure, that’s an added expense, but if you’re already charging $1800-$2500 for a guitar, well, it’s a worth while one.

An even better option? Investing in the Mastery Vibrato, a unit that’s free of ties to the California manufacturer with the familiar name that works perfectly and is perhaps the closest in feel and tonality to the units found on vintage offset guitars, and as many of us offset aficionado will tell you, they’re the cream of the crop. Woody designed this piece as an upgrade to the original, with the a new carbon steel spring meant to feel and perform as the originals, low-profile screws that won’t chew through your strings, and a pivot plate that runs the entire length of the string anchor plate. Sturdy, solidly-built, and tonally brilliant, this all adds up to the perfect vibrato for your equally well-made and attractive instruments.

If you’re building your own guitar from parts and you don’t have the coin to drop on upgraded or vintage units, you can find Fender AVRI trems in the $50-60 range, and you can even find ‘aged’ ones on eBay. The no-name unit goes for $35 over at Allparts but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Unfortunately, at this time the  import unit is the only option for those in need of gold hardware.

Now, the purpose of this article isn’t to call out any specific builders out there, so I’m not going to include the names of guitar makers that use the dreaded “no-name” vibrato. Instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite builders that, instead of attaching subpar parts to their instruments, go the extra mile and dollar to install the precision-machined Mastery Vibrato. These are builders that care about quality that you can buy from and know that your instrument will perform as promised every single time.

In alphabetical order:

Ayers
BilT
Collings
Creston
Deimel
Echo Park
Kauer
Rhoney

That’s all I could think of right now, but I’ll be sure to update this post once my other guitar-building friends read this and yell at me for forgetting them. I’ll deserve that much at least, I’m sure.

Anyway, this one’s the only unbranded trem I’ve ever liked, found on Freddie Tavares’ prototype ’58 Jazzmaster in Desert Sand with a huge maple Stratocaster neck and a sweet black anodized guard. Special thanks to Mark Agnesi of Norman’s Rare Guitars for letting me have an unforgettable hour with this thing. What. A. Guitar. Expect a short article about that hour in the future!

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If I only had $100K.

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Demystifying the Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar, Pt. 2: Bridge Over Troubled Vibrato

IMG_2101By Michael James Adams

A few weeks back, we took some time to fully explain the electronic innerworkings of Fender’s paradoxically well-loved and oft-maligned models, the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. For many players, the tonal options available on these guitars is a breath of fresh air; for others, the switching becomes an exercise in futility, leaving them to wonder how to just turn on the bridge pickup. Hopefully we helped!

In today’s column, we’re going to dive into what be the most misunderstood and subsequently damning design element on these amazing guitars: the bridge.

It’s a common occurrence for players who are used to Strats and Teles or Les Pauls to get the Offset itch and pick up a Jazzmaster or Jaguar and find that it doesn’t play quite the way they expected: strings will slip out of their grooves with moderate pick attack, the bridge sways back and forth with vibrato action, and sympathetic ‘ghost’ notes will ring out from behind the bridge, prompting many stymied players to install a Buzzstop. Please, don’t do that just yet – I’m begging you to get to know your seemingly unwieldy friend before you do something rash.

Shim Shenanigans

Conventional guitar wisdom tells us that shims are bad. They’re tone-sucking, sustain-killing, useless pieces of paper that shouldn’t come anywhere near a neck pocket, right? Well, about that…

That's A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

That’s A Bruce Campbell, not THE Bruce Campbell. Unfortunately.

Most of the vintage Fender guitars we love came from the factory with at least one shim installed, and I’ve seen vintage guitars with four or more original shims! Telecasters, for example, might have a shim in the front edge of the neck pocket so that when the guitar is strung, the strings sit closer to the top of the ashtray bridge instead of down in the middle, which isn’t exactly the most comfortable place for picking. Also, the height adjustment screws on the brass bridge saddles could be longer than necessary, which means sharp pieces of metal digging into your picking hand. Not fun.

Many players operate under the belief that a shim will kill their tone, and to an extent they have a point. Obviously, for maximum sustain and tonal transfer, it makes sense to have a tight neck pocket with full wood-on-wood contact. Here’s the thing: tone is subjective, and the vast majority of us won’t be able to hear the difference between a shimmed and un-shimmed guitar. Add to that the fact that many of the old-school tones we’re all chasing were created with shimmed guitars, and the argument gets even more murky. And, unlike Strats and Teles, Jazzmasters and Jaguars were actually designed with shims in mind!

Break Angle Benefits

You see, Leo Fender knew that his floating bridge design needed a certain amount of downward force to work properly, so he used shims in the leading edge of the neck pocket to adjust the angle of the neck, causing the strings to pass over the bridge at a sharper angle. This is called the break angle.

The further back he tilted the neck, the bridge would have to be set higher to achieve playable action, and thus, more downward force on the bridge. More downward force on the bridge also means greater tonal transfer via the contact between the bridge and its thimbles, which in turn transfer that vibration to the body, and then who the hell really knows how much sustain and resonance you’re losing or gaining?! It boggles the mind.

When players complain about their strings slipping out of the tiny grooves on their saddles, more often than not the problem isn’t the saddle, it’s the aforementioned break angle.  A sharper break angle means more downward force on the bridge, which in turn helps to keep the strings seated! One other solution is to deepen the grooves with a file, which is a fine solution that I’ve had to use a few times. It’s not my first choice fix, but with some guitars with worn or import bridges, there’s not much else you can do, short of replacing the bridge. More on that later.

Players will also cite excessive mechanical buzz from their bridges as a source of frustration, but again, I point to neck/break angle as the first solution. Most of the time, the bridge buzzes because of a weak break angle and thus, less pressure, which means the saddles themselves aren’t tightly seated on the bridge plate. Tilt that neck back and voila, the buzz disappears. At least, it usually does; new bridges that haven’t been played-in will often make noise because they don’t have years of oxidation helping to tighten things up. In that case, either sweat a lot or dab some blue Loc-Tite* on the saddle screws, which will not only diminish rattle but also ensure that screws don’t turn when you don’t want them to.

The other solution to this problem is the Buzz-Stop, an add-on unit that screws into the trem plate and forces the strings down toward the body. While this solution certainly works, it also kills the vibe of having a Jazzmaster or Jaguar; the strings behind the bridge are deadened – a huge part of what makes these guitars  so fun! – and the vibrato has another point of friction to contend with, making it work less efficiently. It also makes the guitar feel different in terms of playability, but feel is subjective.IMG_4061

Rock. YEAH. Ing. YEAH. Bridge. YEAH. YEAH. YEAH!

For the Jazzmaster, Leo Fender designed a new “floating” vibrato system which revolved around a bridge that rocks back and forth as the whammy bar is actuated and promised unparalleled control and flutter as well as better tuning stability. But if this system was supposed to be so great, why does it seem like everyone complains about it?

A lot of people don’t understand that the bridge is supposed to rock, which understandably freaks them out. I’ll admit that this feature isn’t my favorite element of the design, but it really does work, but not perfectly. The bridge doesn’t always return to its zero position, but this is a problem just about every trem system on the market has, and if we lived in a perfect world it would be enough.

If the rocking bridge bothers you and makes your intonation spotty, a lot of us will wrap the bridge with foil tape, which locks it into place in its thimbles. The vibrato still works well like this, but again, it’s not a total solution. This is yet another issue addressed by the Mastery Bridge, with its larger diameter posts that fit snugly into the bridge thimbles.

A Word About String Gauge

When Leo was rolled out the Jazzmaster, he intended to market the guitar to Jazz players, hence the addition of the darker preset rhythm circuit. Because of this, the guitar was also designed with heavy-gauge flat-wound strings in mind. Back in the day, light guitar strings weren’t readily available, especially when it came to flats. That’s why you so often hear older guitarists talking about using a banjo string on the high E and moving the rest of the set over one string! Jazz players were often using sets as heavy as .014”, and .011” sets were considered pretty measly by comparison.

When the Jazzmaster rolled out, the idea was that these jazzers would be using at least .012” flat sets on the guitar, which have much more tension than today’s slinkier round-wound strings. Heavier strings equals greater tension, get it? If you ever try to put flat-wound 12s on a Jazzmaster, they usually won’t go anywhere.

When you want to use light strings on a Jazzmaster or Jaguar, you’re going to have to compensate somehow. You’ll need to increase the break angle and adjust the bridge, but if you’re going lighter than .011” sets you might also consider swapping out the bridge for those found on Fender Mustang guitars, which have a single, deep groove for each string. Or, you could go for the ultimate upgrade, the Mastery Bridge, but I’d make that recommendation to anyone regardless of string gauge. The Mastery Bridge is hands-down the best upgrade you can make to your Fender Offset guitar in my opinion. With it, you may still need a bit of a neck angle adjustment, but your strings will definitely stay on their saddles.

Next time, we’ll take a brief look behind the bridge and how to work with the vibrato unit for greater tuning stability and control. Wanna go wild and return to pitch? We’ve got you covered!

Mastery on a '58. Yessir.

Mastery on a ’58. Yessir.

*CAUTION: Never, ever use the red Loc-Tite on guitar parts unless you want them permanently frozen in place. The blue variety is meant for a non-permanent bond, allowing the user to make adjustments down the line. I think they’ve just come out with a green formula as well that’s not as strong, but I haven’t used it. Also, that stuff dries clear, so don’t freak out when you put blue goop all over your shiny new guitar. It’s cool. Simmer down.

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