Fender Jazzmaster pickups are an underrated design often assumed to be only useful for surf music. According to published material on the subject, Fender was trying to sophisticate their image, while at the same time expand their territory into Gibson's hold on the jazz player market. Due partly to the radical look of the guitar design, the Jazzmaster never developed a following among jazz players, but did do fairly well with rock and surf players. But they can actually make good blues and rock guitars. Some notable players include Mickey Baker, Magic Slim and Don Wilson.
The Jazzmaster is one of my favorite guitar designs. I was fortunate to obtain an original 1959 model with the gold anodized pickguard and what appears to have been burgundy mist finish. According to the Fender custom shop this finish was available that year on a few instruments that were displayed at the 1959 NAMM show. It's really comfortable to sit or stand with, and I like the slower action of the whammy bar compared to the strat. Because I like the design so much I had ivory and black pickup covers made for sale with our Jazzmaster pickups in addition to the standard bright white finish. The black pickup covers are not available anywhere else.
The Lollar Jazzmaster pickups have a tone that falls somewhere between a Strat (sparkle and chime) and a Les Paul (midrange and bass). The fat tone is accomplished by the large surface area—approximately 1.5" X 3.5" inches. In comparison, a Strat pickup has a surface area of approximately 9/16" X 2-9/16" inches. The detailed treble of the Jazzmaster is partly due to its single coil design and its rod magnets used as individual pole pieces. The fuller bass and midrange is due partly to its large surface area that senses a longer portion of the string. In comparison, the much narrower Strat design senses a shorter length of string, resulting in a more focused, bell-like tone.
Vintage design Jazzmaster pickups have a coil only 1/8" tall, compared to the height of a strat at about 7/16" tall. Having such a short coil limits the amount of wire you can get around the magnets. It takes a far wider coil for the same amount of turns on a more traditional design single coil like a Strat, Jaguar or Tele pickup. Wound to the same amount of turns, a Jazzmaster is 1.5" wide compared to a Strat at 9/16" wide. This means the coil wire travels at a greater distance on the Jazzmaster bobbin, resulting in more feet of wire per turn. The Jazzmaster dc resistance (in K-Ohms) reads much higher than a Strat, even though the output is very similar between the two designs. The Jazzmaster and Strat actually have a similar amount of turns and share a lot of similarities in design, yet they have quite different tone from each other. Wind a Jazzmaster and a Strat coil to the same amount of turns and the Jazzmaster will read about 8K ohms but the Strat will only read about 6.4K ohms. The frequency response is quite different but the output is actually about the same.
The Jazzmaster seems somewhat louder than a Strat pickup due to the increased bass and mids, but the extra fatness is somewhat misleading as far as the actual voltage produced. You'll notice the amount of distortion the amp produces is similar to running a Strat at the same volume level, whereas a pickup like a humbucker or P-90 will drive an amp a lot harder at the same volume setting. Japanese made Jazzmasters (CIJ models) have pickups made like Stratocasters and do not sound the same as vintage or American made models. These pickups use a standard Jazzmaster pickup cover but underneath is hiding the equivalent of a Stratocaster pickup. Another factor that affects tone is pole piece magnet length. The Jazzmaster magnets are only 1/2" tall compared to typical Strat pole piece magnets at about 5/8" tall. The shorter magnet has less power, so this softens up the treble response of the pickup.
Idiosyncrasies, Overall Design, and Helpful Mods
People often comment about the overall brightness of Jazzmasters. The treble quality can have an aggressive, biting tone, but it's due to the idiosyncrasies of the guitar design…not just the pickups. Some of the brightness is due to loss of the "body" of the tone (and sustain) because of the bridge design. Possibly part of the delegation of the Jazzmaster to surf music is its lack of sustain compared to a Strat or Tele. Tonal "body" and sustain are directly related to the bridge having a low angle of string break which robs sustain and fullness of tone. You either have to run very heavy string gauges, or change the geometry of the bridge and neck angle by shimming more angle into the neck and raising the bridge up to increase the angle of the string over the bridge to the tailpiece. The extra break angle exerts more downward force onto the bridge and helps maintain a solid connection between the strings and the bridge saddles. You can also use a lighter gauge string if you increase the downward force…otherwise a low angle of string break would cause the strings to pop out of the saddles if you get aggressive with the pick.
Another mod you can do (that is completely reversible) is to add a part called a buzz stop. This is a roller you attach between the bridge and the tailpiece that further increases the string break angle. I use one and highly recommend it if you play hard and use strings lighter than .012, or bend strings quite often.
One more idiosyncrasy with the Jazzmaster…the string ground on the early Jazzmasters and possibly others is poorly executed. The bridge fits loosely into a couple of ferrules which the ground wire is attached to. This is the same case in the telecaster model that came with the factory installed Bigsby. When the whammy is used, contact with the ground wire can be broken and the guitar can become noisy. A fix for this problem is to move the ground wire to the whammy bar/tailpiece combination.
Noise levels on a Jazzmaster are higher than on a Strat pickup due to its larger surface area. You can expect more 60 cycle hum than a typical Fender (more of a P90 level hum), but Jazzmasters were always RWRP sets, which reduced the hum when the pickups were used together.
Understanding Jazzmaster Switching for Optimal Tone
One of the significant differences between Jazzmasters and other Fenders is that the main tone and volume controls use 1 Meg ohm pots. When set on 10, these pots do not roll off much signal. The result is more high end and presence than you are use to hearing on an electric guitar. The extra treble can be annoying if you use an amp that can reproduce high end treble (like a blackface Fender amp). On Fender tweed amps that extra treble is nowhere near as noticeable.
So the trick to getting a good tone with the Lollar Jazzmaster pickup is to roll either the tone or volume down a click or two. This will roll off the extreme high end. (I prefer using the volume) The idea is to roll it a minimal amount—far enough to affect the tone level, but not too far to actually start hearing a volume drop. If done in this way, the tone will change long before the volume is affected. Using the volume control this way will leave treble in reserve if you need it occasionally to cut through a mix. On tweed amps if you are pushing them pretty hard you can leave the volume on 10. Another option is to replace the volume and tone pots with a lower value pot. The 500K would probably have about the same tone as a one Meg pot on 8. I personally like the one Meg pots, so I have never tried other values to determine what works.
Everyone wants to know what the black switches on the upper bout do. There is one slider switch and two rollers. The slider switch defeats every pickup selection except the neck pickup alone. Once the slider switch is activated only the neck pickup functions, and the main 3-way switch for the pickups will no longer work. When the guitar is in the neck-only mode, the two rollers act as an additional volume and tone for the neck pickup. These allow you to preset a volume and tone level different than your main volume and tone controls. You can play normally with the main controls working…put it in the bridge pickup position with full volume for a solo then hit the slider switch and it drops you into the neck pickup with whatever volume and tone you have preset with the rollers. It's an interesting idea but I have never found much use for it.