Rags to Riches: The History of the Fender Jaguar
by Nick Katzban-Beren
The Fender Jaguar™ was once dubbed “one of the finest solid body electric guitars that had ever been offered to the public”. However, that Slogan became an ironic joke following the failure the Jaguar received in its early days, although, a triumphant Second Coming prompted two reissues, and a new generation of Jaguar lovers all over the world gave it a place in history.
The Jaguar’s story begins way back in the late 50’s, with the invention of a guitar known as the “Jazzmaster”. Forrest White, one of the three main Fender men, back then, had been experimenting with double circuit guitars. He had worked on a guitar with the ability to set two totally different tones and change between them with the flick of a switch. Forrest submitted the idea to his friend and co-worker Leo Fender. “Leo didn’t play guitar, he couldn’t even tune a guitar, so he didn’t think this was important.” Said Forrest later. Luckily for all of us, a musician named Alvino Rey came into the plant and Forrest pitched the Idea to him. Alvino loved it and Leo was sold.
So the new guitar that was created came with two separate circuits. The Rhythm was controlled by two rollers on the upper wing, which set the tone and volume. On the lower wing, for the lead circuit, a toggle switch controlled the sound and the two knobs marked tone and Volume controlled just that. The guitar also introduced a locking system so as to save tunings in case of a string break, a separate bridge and tail piece, and an “offset waist” body which was design to be more comfortable when played sitting down. The Guitar was Fender’s top of the line guitar. Sadly enough the guitar just didn’t do well. Part of its problem’s stemmed from its huge single-coil pickups, which attracted static currents and caused too much of a squeal.
However, Fender didn’t just sit around and bemoan their failure, they went right to work and improved on the idea of the Jazzmaster with new twists. This guitar came to be known as the Jaguar. Released in 1962, the Jaguar featured a shorter neck with 22 frets, new chrome plates and instead of the toggle switch were 3 slider switches, and thinner pickups with metal shielding to reduce the squeal. The Jaguar also featured a spring-loaded mute device, which automatically muted the strings. The Jaguar was also bestowed with the honor of being the first Fender guitar to have the “Chunky” fender emblem on its headstock. The Jaguar was a more complicated and technologically advanced than the Jazzmaster and Fender was sure it’d do great in the market. Sadly enough the Jaguar failed like its predecessor and was discontinued in 1975.
What it all comes down to is the fact that it was just too much. One fact of the guitar industry is that simplicity is the key (i.e. Electro-Harmonix pedals, Les Paul Jr. and Telecasters, being simple ideas that went on to become legends.) so a guitar as complicated and ambitious as the Jaguar just didn’t fly. As the years went on and Fender went through its dark period with CBS (see my article “Post ’65: Garbage or Jive?”), the Jaguar became the guitar that time forgot. It became an unwanted treasure. Vintage Jaguars could be found for $200 easy, it seemed as if no body cared anymore.
Then some thing happened. The Jaguar seemed to have some sort of Underground appeal. Several underground alternative rock bands started to exploit the cheapness of these vintage castaways, and Jaguars and Jazzmasters soon became a staple of bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. and of course NIRVANA. When NIRVANA first burst onto the mainstream scene in 1991, young guitarists started to notice the cool looking red and brown thing hanging around Kurt Cobain’s neck. Kids started collecting Vintage Jags in record numbers. The Jaguar was born again!! The only downside was that soon enough Guitar shops around the nation noticed the Jaguar’s new popularity and realized they could be making money off this new trend. Sure enough you started to find 60’s Jaguars with $1200 dollar price tags!! It was ridiculous. People would talk about getting vintage Jaguars at a steal at $900! It was ridiculous.
To answer this new demand for Jaguars and Jazzmasters Fender ran a line of cheap Japanese made Jaguar and Jazzmaster reissues. The reissues of course were far from an exact copy from the originals. The Tuners wouldn’t stay in tune, the wood was cheap, and the finishes wore off easily. Still the reissues were popular until the late 90’s when they were discontinued. However, it wasn’t over for the Jaguar. And in 1999 Fender released an exact copy of its original vintage Jaguar as a part of ts American Vintage series.
The Jaguar was a beautiful guitar with an adventurous story. After being deemed “one of the finest solid body electric guitars that had ever been offered to the public”, to becoming yesterdays news, only to resurrect in one of the guitar industries greatest comebacks, the Jaguar has finally found its place in history as a legend.
Authored by: Nick Katzban-Beren