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Fender Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo Signature Jazzmasters

The Jazzmaster, a visually striking and tonally versatile instrument manufactured by Fender, has enjoyed one of the electric-guitar industry’s strangest and most ironic existences. Introduced in 1958 as Fender’s most expensive piece, its original purpose was to steal the jazz-guitar market away from Gibson, whose hollowbody models were bop staples. With its gentler, single-coil soapbar pickups; an “offset-waist,” contoured alder body that better accommodated a seated playing position; a new vibrato system; and precise circuitry that allowed for two tonal presets, it could provide cool, rich tones while harboring the attributes of Fender’s massively successful Stratocaster: a full, 25 1/2-inch scale length, comfort, durability, modern aesthetics and that novel tremolo arm.

All of that surely looked fabulous on paper, but go ahead and try to find documentation of a traditional jazz master playing a Jazzmaster. Guitar buffs frequently point to Joe Pass, who very sparsely used both the Jazzmaster and its shorter-scale sister instrument, the Jaguar, which debuted in 1962. As the story goes, Pass played a J-master only because it was the lone guitar available to him during his stint at Synanon Rehab Center. (The guitar actually belonged to the facility, and can be heard on Pass’ curious 1962 LP Sounds of Synanon [Pacific], recorded with other musician-patients.)

Instead of Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell, the model’s earliest high-profile advocates were ’60s surf and rock and roll instrumentalists like the Ventures’ Bob Bogle. Later, in the mid-1970s, the Jazzmaster was adopted by singular artists searching for an equally conspicuous instrument. These players, coalescing under the banner of punk, included Elvis Costello (whose signature Jazzmaster was released last year) and Television’s Tom Verlaine. Jazzmasters had fallen out of general favor, and could be obtained cheaply at pawnshops and second-hand stores.

Of all the bands who eventually came to the Jazzmaster through the punk prism, none were more dependent on (or inventive with) the instrument than Sonic Youth, who took to the J-master’s larger scale length in the late 1980s after having played Jaguars for years. The group’s guitarists, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, are products of postpunk and New York’s experimental downtown scene in equal parts, Glenn Branca disciples who’ve become unlikely guitar heroes by fusing their explorations with keen songcraft. (They’re still very much at it, having released an excellent new album, The Eternal [Matador], earlier this year.) These two men are, in a funny and bizarre fashion, extremely deserving of signature-model guitars while also being some of the last guys you’d expect to receive (or even accept) them.

As Sonic Youth has carved through its fascinating, nearly 30-year-long career, Ranaldo and Moore have become increasingly active in free improvisation, collaborating often with members of the jazz avant-garde. Ranaldo has a longstanding union with the drummer William Hooker, and Moore has recorded with such out players as saxophonists Evan Parker and Paul Flaherty; while some of these experiments are more successful than others, all prove the indelible connection between rock-guitar sonics and fire-music skronk. Another fearlessly improvising guitarist with whom Ranaldo and Moore have performed and recorded, last month’s cover subject Nels Cline, religiously plays a ’59 Jazzmaster. While he is also a member of an A-list alternative-rock band, Wilco, Cline came from the improvised-music scene and commands respect in jazz circles. He’s been a member of Julius Hemphill’s band, interpreted John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space with drummer Gregg Bendian, paid album-length homage to pianist Andrew Hill (2006’s New Monastery), and long been a principal of the L.A.-based Cryptogramophone label.

So, in its odd and circuitous way, the Jazzmaster has become something of a jazz guitar-known not so much for Johnny Smith-style subtleties but rather for its physicality and ability to channel swaths of earsplitting feedback. (Not surprisingly, a primary complaint in the late ’50s was that the guitar fed back too much and that its pickups were too noisy.)

Released this past summer and retailing online at around $1,500 each, the Moore and Ranaldo Signature Jazzmasters were developed through years of “research” by two guitarists who exploit the electric guitar’s idiomatic elements to the point of abuse: two-plus decades of behind-the-bridge picking, sledgehammer strumming, hard-wrung vibrato setups, alternate tunings and heavy-gauge strings (as one guitar tech says in the included booklet, cleverly designed to look like a ‘zine, the lightest string on any Sonic Youth guitar is a .014).

While this sort of extreme use has turned Moore and Ranaldo’s instruments into lovingly mangled workhorses, the Sonic Youth signatures are stunning instruments out of their black hardshell cases. Both instruments have satin-black painted headstocks and alder bodies finished in satin nitrocellulose lacquer, the Moore model in Forest Green and the Ranaldo in Saphire Blue. Both feature Fender/Gotoh vintage-style tuning machines, C-shape maple necks topped with 21-fret rosewood fingerboards and anodized aluminum pickguards, a feature of the 1958 models that was abandoned by the ’60s. And both of these very different-sounding guitars boast a sleek, minimalist look provided by a barebones electronics scheme: Each model features a three-way toggle and a master volume control and nothing more. (On the Ranaldo, the knob is set closer to the bridge pickup, inviting volume swells but getting in the way during more aggressive picking.)

Therein lies these guitars’ most dramatic modification, and biggest to-buy-or-not-to-buy factor. Standard Jazzmasters-say, the great American Vintage Series ’62 model Fender currently offers-include separate controls for two circuits. One circuit is tweaked via the toggle and volume and tone knobs; flipping a two-position slide into the “up” position activates only the neck pickup, at that point controlled by volume and tone wheels. Moore and Ranaldo, for maintenance’s sake, and after too many gigs during which they accidentally moved the rhythm/lead slide, began removing all that clever circuitry long ago.

This effectively renders the guitar a weapon of sorts, and after seeing how dramatically Moore and Ranaldo manhandle these instruments live, it’s easy to see why they’d want to streamline the electronics and save their knob-twisting efforts for the amp heads and pedals. Tested with a variety of Fender tube combo amps and a Roland Jazz Chorus, each guitar delivered terrific harmonic overtones and, when fed through a bevy of choice stompboxes, among them an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi and a BOSS Space Echo, shaped distorted feedback with a rare sense of control.

Different pickup configurations granted each guitar a unique sound. The Moore, with its Antiquity II Jazzmaster pickups by Seymour Duncan, holds all of the classic Jazzmaster tones and quirks while running a bit hotter and crispier, especially at the low and high ends. They’re noisy, especially in the bridge and neck positions, though when your Pro Co RAT is clicked and cranked that buzz will be an afterthought. In clean settings, activating both pickups by flipping the toggle to the middle position yields the reverb-friendly surf sounds that are this instrument’s bread and butter. Ranaldo’s model, correctly termed the “Jazzblaster,” features two of Fender’s Wide Range humbuckers, revoiced to sound properly vintage, like the pickups he ripped out of a favorite old Telecaster Deluxe. This guitar has the fat, authoritative sound typical of humbuckers, with a crystalline quality indicative of the Wide Range models in particular.

As far as playability, these slabs just feel right, especially if you, like Moore, Cline and this writer, are lean and lanky with big hands. It’s like a guitar by the Big & Tall Shop, with its fleshed-out scale length and long body, and it sits brilliantly on the lap when playing seated (an original lure for the jazz picker). Both guitars feature Fender’s American Vintage Jazzmaster tremolo system, with different bridges: a thinly veiled copy of Gibson’s Tune-o-Matic, dubbed the “Adjusto-mastic,” for the Moore and a Fender Mustang bridge for the Ranaldo. The extra-long, lockable trem arm is great for surf-style shimmer or Sonic Youth-ish squawks, and keeps decent tuning and intonation without the finicky qualities of a Floyd Rose (though something Rose-equipped would be more dimensional, pitch-wise). Problems arose with strings popping out of their saddles, particularly the thinner strings on the Ranaldo, and especially during single-note lines. (Jazzmasters have adapted well to alt-rock, but they still don’t host heavy-metal tomfoolery.) The addition of a simple “buzz stop” device would add saddle stability and increase sustain.

But again, the largest caveat here is also a premier selling point. Unless you’re the most savage experimental picker the Lower East Side has ever known, or, probably more likely, an ardent collector of all things Sonic Youth, you’d probably get something out of some additional tone controls. A vintage Jazzmaster’s rhythm circuit can help dial in those warm, phony-hollowbody tones for comping, and when playing in more rocking settings, the two-position slide can act like a sort of kill switch. And while the SY axes are clearly designed to the needs and whims of two brilliantly eccentric players, a single tone knob wouldn’t have destroyed the aesthetic here; the Ranaldo’s humbuckers would take beautifully to dull, ’70s fuzz tones, and the Moore to original Jazzmaster plunk. Though it’s hard to expect such compromises from a band whose reputation is as a beacon of artistic integrity-that one Starbucks compilation notwithstanding

Originally Published