Last March, at the Brooklyn venue Roulette, the guitarist Nels Cline began his segment of a live tribute to John Abercrombie alone. He interpreted the late jazz hero’s “Memoir” in swells of trademark legato phrasing, with a gorgeous, crystalline tone—distinctly Fender-like but with a deeper, darker midrange. The oversold house went pin-drop silent.
The late great American inventor Leo Fender surely would’ve been tickled by Cline’s performance. Here was one of the most acclaimed guitarists of his generation, playing a ’59 Jazzmaster on a program featuring some of the finest modern-jazz talent on the planet. Cline was even using the instrument’s legendarily unpopular “Rhythm” circuit to dial in a smokier, more conventional jazz tone. Finally, in the year of its 60th anniversary, the Jazzmaster was being deployed as its creator intended.
It’s been a long, circuitous road for the instrument, but somehow its delightful quirks and sheer quality have seen it through. “The Jazzmaster had this ebb-and-flow, rise-and-fall thing that kept it on the cutting edge throughout a 60-year arc,” says Justin Norvell, Fender’s senior vice president of products. “[B]y being that other one”—a pawnshop alternative to Fender’s landmark models like the Stratocaster and Telecaster—“it became the most attainable one, even though it was supposed to be the top of the line.”
Fender introduced the Jazzmaster in 1958, on the crest of a wave of innovation that had been generating one iconic instrument after another. The luthier’s company had become the go-to outfitter for rock-and-roll acts, but Fender’s own tastes ran toward Western swing and jazz-oriented music, and he saw an untapped higher-end market in jazz and studio pickers. The Jazzmaster, Norvell explains, “was built to appeal to jazz musicians: the offset body suited the typical seated jazz musician at a gig; the treble-cut switch up top, to get more of that archtop/muted tone.” It was designed for use with the heavy-gauge flatwound strings of the jazz-guitar tradition, and it was to be, as Norvell says, “the Cadillac of Fender’s lineup.”
History had other plans, and the Jazzmaster didn’t exactly become the new ES-175. A few jazz-leaning players picked it up—studio ace and Lawrence Welk Show guitarist Neil LeVang; country-jazz virtuoso Roy Lanham; Joe Pass, who can be spotted playing a loaner Jazzmaster on the back of the 1962 LP Sounds of Synanon—but most archtop devotees weren’t willing to take the leap.
Fender continued to produce the model, and in the early ’60s it became a useful tool for the surf bands, alongside Fender’s Jaguar and Stratocaster. But by the second half of the decade and well into the ’70s, the instrument was mostly forced into hibernation. “The Jazzmaster, when I was in junior high and high school, was a guitar that nobody considered playing,” remembers Cline, now 62. By the ’80s, when the model had been taken out of U.S. production, Cline was finding inspiration in its experimentalist saviors—players, like Television’s Tom Verlaine and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, attracted to its thrift-shop price tag and design elements that made for all sorts of musical provocation. After a run with the Jaguar, Cline finally made his way to the Jazzmaster in the mid-1990s.
Since then he’s become, as Norvell says, “the quintessential person I would hold up as representative of what the potential of the Jazzmaster [is], and as a present-day incarnation of its entire history.” Not a bad way to put it: From the furious bebop-style unison lines he plays with guitarist Julian Lage in the Nels Cline 4, to the Television-indebted journeys of Wilco, to the effects-heavy guitar-performance-art of his solo recitals, Cline expertly utilizes every angle of the ax’s sound and architecture. When asked what it is about the Jazzmaster that keeps him coming back, his answer is at once effusive and detailed: the strings behind the bridge; the tremolo and its tuning stability; the body shape and neck profile; the single-coil pickups which, although noisy, he finds to be great-sounding and exceedingly versatile; the invincibility of a Fender guitar with a bolt-on neck.
As Cline’s relationship with the Jazzmaster has deepened, so too has Fender’s. Over the last decade or so, after recognizing a still-growing appetite for the guitar in the alternative and indie-rock scenes, the brand has taken to “treating it like the Stratocaster, the Telecaster, as a platform that should really go through the whole line,” Norvell says. (This being the 60th-anniversary year, that means choice new entries like a limited-edition ’58 model, based on a prototype that was featured in advertising but never produced.) And it’s become far more common to see great young jazz players on the instrument as well—like D.C.-based Anthony Pirog, who counts Cline (and Cline’s own heroes) as an abiding influence. Also like Cline, he talks about the Jazzmaster in ways that evoke a musician describing a favorite fellow improviser. “It was one of those things where it just felt like my instrument,” he says, “and I could speak on it and I feel like it gives me ideas.”
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