Finally -- a traditionally configured Jazzmaster that nearly anyone can afford.
$599.99 MSRP, $379.99 "street"
By Phil O'Keefe
One of Squier's Artist Model series instruments, the "pickups, hardware and finish" of the J Mascis Jazzmaster (Figure 1) were all specified by the Dinosaur Jr. guitarist. This is a guitar that has been a long time coming for many players; a Jazzmaster with practically all the "correct" traditional features at an under $400 price point. The question is, what does your $380 buy you - a real Jazzmaster, or something else? Let's dig in and find out.
Figure 1: The Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster
HISTORY OF (the) JAZZ
The Jazzmaster was originally released by Fender in 1958, and was intended as a higher-end guitar than the Stratocaster, and designed to appeal to Jazz musicians. Unfortunately, very few jazz players ever adopted the model. It did become a hit with early rockers and surf musicians and saw some success in the first half of the 1960s, but even at its peak it never sold like the Stratocaster or Telecaster. Once Hendrix burst onto the scene in the late '60s, the Strat completely eclipsed the Jazzmaster and sales continued to decline until Fender discontinued the model in 1980.
It wasn't until the late 70s and into the 1980s and 1990s that New Wave, Alternative and Indie musicians began to really catch on to the Jazzmaster. Bands and artists like Elvis Costello, Sonic Youth, Nels Cline, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr discovered that these cool vintage Fenders could be purchased for practically nothing in pawn shops and used gear stores, and soon the model was given a second lease on life courtesy of these guitarists and the exposure they gave it. Unfortunately, the days of the $200 pawnshop pre-CBS Jazzmaster ended many years ago, and today, vintage Jazzmasters sell for thousands. New "vintage correct" models are available from Fender USA, and in some markets, from Fender Japan, and the Mexican built Classic Player model is also available new for $800 "street", but for many players, even that has been too much for them to afford. Fender and Squier have offered other less expensive models with the basic Jazzmaster body shape, but many players wanted more traditional features than they offered. Strat and Tele players have had full-featured, lower-cost models available for years, but not "offset" players. Not until now.
THE MODERN JAZZ
The quality of the build and workmanship is generally very good on this guitar, with a couple of minor setup caveats that I'll get to in a moment. The Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster certainly looks authentic, and the feature set is bound to please all but the most picky of traditionalists. The cosmetics are reminiscent of some of the earliest vintage Jazzmasters from the late 1950s, with the Strat style volume and tone knobs, gold anodized pickguard and large headstock. The finish is flawless. The creamy aged white paint looks really good against the gold pickguard, and the aged cream colored knobs, pickup covers, switch knob and trem arm tip match the paint almost perfectly. The satin finished neck has a nice golden-tan shaded hue to it. It's not heavily ambered like some vintage reproduction necks, but it's not bleached and pale looking either. It "fits" with the look of the rest of the guitar. I should mention that I really liked the feel of the finish on this neck. It never feels sticky, and always feels fast and smooth. Fender says the neck profile is a C shape, but it's a narrow-shouldered C, with almost a very soft-v shape. It's not a particularly narrow neck (1.675" at the nut), nor particularly thin from front to back (I measured 0.864" from the back of the neck to the center of the fingerboard at the first fret), but it feels quite comfortable to play, even with my somewhat small hands. The fretwork is a mixed bag. The frets are well seated and leveled, with no sharp edges, but out of the box, the tops of the frets feel a bit gritty when you bend the strings across the top of them, and they could have used a bit more polishing. It's nothing that didn't work itself out with time, but the initial feel is somewhat cheapened by this, which is actually a bit unfair to an otherwise very nice playing instrument. On a brighter note, the neck pocket fit is really snug, with no gaps. (Figure 2A and 2B)
Figure 2A and 2B: The neck pocket fit is as tight as you could hope for. Not even a business card will fit between the neck and body on either side.
MASTER THE CONTROLS
The controls on a Jazzmaster can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated. As with a traditional Jazzmaster, the J Mascis features dual control circuits, with a second "rhythm circuit" mounted above the strings on the upper horn. (Figure 3) When the slide switch is in the down or "lead" position, these "extra" controls are bypassed and the primary controls work as you'd expect, with the three-way pickup switch selecting the pickups and the master volume and tone knobs adjusting the overall level and amount of treble rolloff. However, when the upper bout slider switch is thrown into the up position (away from the strings), the "rhythm" circuit kicks in. This bypasses the main controls (the master volume and tone controls, as well as the three-way pickup selector switch), and engages the neck pickup alone along with the auxiliary volume and tone controls. The independent volume and tone control roller knobs can be pre-set to adjust the sound and level of the neck pickup and switched in whenever you want, or switched out and back to whatever you have set on the standard controls. It's a handy arrangement that lets you quickly change between two different volume, tone and pickup settings, and it is pretty easy to use once you get the hang of it.
Figure 3: The J Mascis model features the traditional rhythm circuit that previous Squier Jazzmaster models have lacked.
When you select either one of the pickups, there is some hum and noise, as you would expect from a Jazzmaster with single coil pickups. The pickup and control cavities are painted with conductive paint for shielding to help minimize this. Fortunately, the pickups are RWRP (reverse wound / reverse polarity), so when used together, they are hum canceling. These are not weak pickups. DC resistance measured at 8.20 kilohm for the neck pickup and 8.34 kilohm for the bridge pickup. The pickup coils are wider and flatter than a Strat pickup, as you'd also expect. Unlike vintage models and American reissues which have non-adjustable, individual magnet "slugs" for the polepieces, the Squier uses two bar magnets beneath the coil to magnetize the six adjustable polepieces. The coils are also a bit taller than vintage style. (Figure 4A and 4B) This combination of features is somewhat similar to a P-90, and the sound of the Squier is somewhat brighter than the vintage Jazzmasters I've played. It's a very nice sounding guitar, and it has some cool punchiness to the tone, and there's richness to the sound in the rhythm mode, but overall, it's not quite as warm or as deep as I was expecting.
Figure 4A and 4B: The stock pickups are slightly taller than traditional Jazzmaster pickups, and use alnico bar magnets and adjustable polepieces.
About here is where I should mention my wood bias… I'm not normally a fan of basswood. It sometimes lacks midrange complexity and depth, but I must admit, this guitar sounds good, both plugged in and unplugged. I don't think the wood is responsible for the somewhat brighter sound as much as the pickups are. The wood doesn't feel particularly resonant, it's a bit more inert. At least it doesn't feel like it's sucking the life out of all vibrations, as with some basswood guitars I've played. Basswood can sometimes be fairly light in weight, but this is not a particularly light guitar (the review unit weighs 8lb, 8oz) , and due to the amount of wood in the larger body, it should be expected that a Jazzmaster will weigh a bit more than a Strat or Tele, all other things being equal. I would have preferred an alder body, but at this price, allowances have to be made, and it's really not nearly as bad as I feared.
The tuners are vintage style with traditional "split tops" for string insertion. They do their job without slipping and feel reasonably smooth. The vintage style floating tremolo lacks the "trem-loc" button, which means that if you break a string, the guitar is going to go out of tune. Other than that, the basic design is similar to the classic Jazzmaster tremolo, with a threadless vibrato bar that pushes in until it clicks. The tremolo acoustically creaks and moans a bit when you use it heavily, but it returns to pitch quite well the majority of the time, and the spring tension was well adjusted from the factory. The internal collet for the tremolo bar is also "just right", and the bar can rotate easily, yet stays where you leave it.
Like the Fender Blacktop and Classic Player Jazzmaster models, the J Mascis has its vibrato tailpiece (called a "floating tremolo" in Fender-speak) located further forward and closer to the bridge. This results in a greater string angle over the bridge and increased sustain. This is the one feature of this guitar that may disappoint some purists, since it changes some of the traditional Jazzmaster characteristics - especially for those who are fans of "3rd bridge" techniques, the traditional Jazzmaster's greater string length "behind" the bridge, and the corresponding overtones it adds to the sound. However, I can't fault Squier (or J Mascis) for moving it closer. Not only is sustain increased, but the strings are less likely to jump out of their saddles with this arrangement than the traditional one. This is further helped by the use of a fixed Adjusto-Matic bridge instead of the traditional "floating" bridge. Players will be much less likely to throw the guitar out of tune when palm muting with this bridge as opposed to the traditional floating bridge design. Since many players who are in the target market for this guitar probably have never owned a Jazzmaster previously, and may be younger players with little experience setting up and adjusting their own guitars -- especially a trickier to set up model like a traditional Jazzmaster -- making the setup and operation of the guitar as easy as possible for them makes sense.
As far as parts interchangeability with other Jazzmasters, I wasn't able to do any side by side measurements and comparisons, but the routing of the pickup and tremolo cavities (Figure 5) looks fairly standard, as does the mounting hole arrangement, so swaps of those parts may be possible. Similarly, the pickguard also seems to be configured in the traditional manner, although anyone contemplating a pickguard swap due to cosmetic preferences -- or anyone thinking of replacing any parts for that matter -- would be smart to measure and compare before ordering.
Figure 5A and 5B: The tremolo mechanism and route are fairly standard.
Like many Jazzmasters, this one could use some setup tweaks to get it to play its best. It's not bad out of the box, but it's capable of more with some adjustments. Again, the fret tops could use a bit more polishing for smoothness and the nut slots can use a bit of cleaning up. A little Teflon added to the nut cured some minor "pinging." The stock strings didn't last long before the high E string began to slip at the ball end. The Adjusto-Matic bridge (Figure 6) works great and was fairly close out of the box in terms of intonation, but I was getting some string buzzing. The action was set very low from the factory - the studs for the bridge height adjustment were literally about as low as they could go. While the action was admirably low and the guitar was playable right out of the box, it was a little too low. In light of comments that I have heard from J Mascis about his preference for high action, I found the overly low action kind of amusing, but if this guitar is typical of the model, I'd recommend budgeting a little extra for a professional setup job. If you can do it yourself, that's even better, but although Squier includes a truss rod adjustment wrench, there are no instructions or manual of any kind to walk beginners through the process, which is unfortunate -- although plenty of instructional help can be found online. Once this guitar has a proper setup, it plays like a dream -- far nicer than you'd expect, given its low price tag.
Figure 6: The Adjusto-Matic bridge needed a little adjustment to set the ultra-low action for buzz-free playing.
It's been a long wait, but it was worth it. You can buy a lot of guitar these days for under $400 if you're smart about it, and this Squier is a serious over-achiever in terms of value. This is the first "proper" Jazzmaster to come equipped with practically all of the traditional Jazzmaster features and still come in at an under $400 price point. The Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster is somewhat close, and does feature the floating tremolo, but lacks the rhythm circuit and uses a humbucking pickup in the bridge instead of the traditional Jazzmaster single coil. It's also more expensive, with a "street" price of around $499.99.
The Squier J Mascis Jazzmaster looks better in person than it does in pictures. It's very classy. It may need a little setup help to help it meet its potential, but that's a relatively minor complaint, and once it's adjusted, it really is a nice looking and sounding guitar that plays great. Based on how long people have been asking for this very thing -- a "real" yet affordable Jazzmaster -- and the level of excitement and interest I've seen expressed in this model on the forums, I predict Squier is going to sell these by the boatload. It's pretty much everything everyone wanted, and the majority of you won't be disappointed - come and get it!
Body: Offset and contoured basswood body.
Control values: Main volume: 1 Meg Linear. Main tone: 1 Meg Audio. Rhythm volume: 1 Meg Linear. Rhythm tone: 50k Linear.
The attached audio clips feature the Jazzmaster playing both lead and rhythm parts over a basic drum beat. The recording setup was a '71 Fender Princeton Amp (volume at 4, treble and bass both at 7), miked on-axis with a Cascade Fathead II ribbon microphone running into a Yamaha preamp and then straight into Pro Tools. The only effects were from a Line 6 MM9; in an attempt to allow you to hear the basic sound of the guitar clearly, I used only a touch of reverb and delay for ambience, with a little overdrive added for the lead parts. Clip 1 uses the bridge pickup for both guitar parts, Clip 2 uses both pickups, and Clip 3 uses only the neck pickup for both lead and rhythm parts.
PS Knowing how some of you folks are about pictures, I took a bunch of extra ones... enjoy!
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines.