Fender Offset: Guitar History
From their very first amps and lap steel guitars, Fender had a nice little business going. At the time, the electric guitar and bass must have seemed like a great way to sell more Fender amps. The truth is Fender solid body guitar and bass designs nearly made Fender amps an afterthought.
Eventually, Fender amps would become arguably the world’s favorite amps, but it took the Telecaster, Stratocaster, and P-Bass to drive the business to the world’s stage. Fender Musical Instrument Company’s successful and innovative designs thrust the company into terrain few tread — being a culturally influential force.
The Fender Company was in a constant state of invention and improvement, never waiting for someone else to be first to market with a “better mouse trap.” A kind of selective evolution was always at work – older models standing alongside “improved” versions. Fender could have offered only one electric model, by evolving the Tele into the Strat design. This almost happened, but thankfully it didn’t. The P-Bass evolved from its slab body to a contoured body, but stopped short of transitioning into the 1960’s Jazz Bass. It would seem more models are a good thing, a trend all musical instrument manufacturers follow today.
Fender Music Master and Duo-Sonic
The offset waist design is a natural progression. It has a more completely designed look than the simple contoured body, or the impossibly simple slab body. The first guitar to feature the offset was not a new professional model designed to attract the brightest stars of the day. But instead it was made to help create a new generation of Fender devotees. The Fender ¾ sized student model came in two styles, the one pickup Music Master and the two pickup Duo-Sonic. They were high quality guitars, but not designed to attract pro players. They were simple, very good, no-frills student guitars.
The stunningly radical, “new for ’58” offset body Jazzmaster arrived to (hopefully) attract jazz guitarists. Almost immediately, Jazz players fled in droves, knocking each other out of the way to get away from it. Jazz guitarists were not ready for a solid body or “small guitar,” as they were called back in the day. The Jazzmaster is the culmination of everything that came before it, with improvements all over. The tremolo system is an entirely redesigned, floating contraption. It creates a long, nearly slope-less break angle, much like an arched top hollowbody trapeze tailpiece. The previous Fenders all had simple, intuitive electronics that are now considered complicated and harder to operate. New roller knobs were right in the upper cutaway, where the strumming hand plays. Some will come to love the quirks, but Strat and Tele popularity was not in the Jazzmaster’s cards. The quirky Jazzmaster would find its audience, but not with Jazz players, and not immediately.
Fender Jazz Bass
Following immediately behind the beloved, but not instantly loveable Jazzmaster, was the most popular offset body design Fender would ever produce – The Jazz Bass. The Fender J-Bass marries Fender’s functional simplicity, with sleek good looks, and was a more performance minded instrument.
The Jazz Bass features a narrow, 1.5 inch neck width for faster handling, and advanced electronics which make more ergonomic sense. It also has a player friendly “pick hand” control knob layout. The chrome control cavity, pickup and bridge covers add to the overall visual appeal. Fender hit the bull’s eye with this creation. Going on 60 years now, the J-bass is only growing in popularity. Its two narrow pickups deliver plenty of bass, but are also bright, clear and bold.
Right on schedule in 1962 was the new top of the line Fender guitar offering. The offset body had an identical silhouette to the Jazzmaster. Taking cues from the Jazz bass, the Jazzmaster, and possibly someone (or something) at Area 51, Fender created the Jaguar. If the Jazzmaster was an oddball, the “Jag” was even more so. Like its taller brother the Jazzmaster, the shorter than usual, 24-inch scale Jaguar finds its home off the beaten path. The Jaguar has the same bizarreo floating tremolo system and long, shallow rear break angle. The electronics make the complicated Jazzmaster switching system seem orthodox by comparison. The Jag shares the master volume and tone knobs, and two upper cutaway rollers, in addition to 3 noisy pickup selector switches on a chrome plate located near the lower cutaway. Despite its shorter scale, it has a luxurious (by Fender standards) 22-fret neck, and is quite handy to wield. It’s a bit quieter than the Jazzmaster, thanks to Jetsons-looking extra shielding around the pickups, which are voiced with a bit more punch than the Jazzmaster. It was fairly common to find an offset guitar in Candy Apple Red, Olympic White, or Lake Placid Blue, with matching color headstocks, showing off Fender’s newer custom colors.
Surf, Hotrods, and the So Cal Sound
Perhaps it’s the punishing waves, or southern California sun, or maybe board wax? Regardless of the exact thing, something did it. The Jazzmaster and Jaguar found not only a home, but a shrine built for them, in the form of “surf music.” The Strat was still popularly used in surf music, but the Jazzmaster and Jaguar, were the choice with the rebellious, new sound pioneers. The surf rock sound’s first, most pure form was instrumental, showcasing tracks brimming with Fender tone. The tones were bright, chimey, and soaking wet with reverb, as well as that oddball tremolo system, the pro offset guitars shared. It might look corny now, but a line of guys on stage in matching suits, all playing custom color Jaguars and Jazzmasters, with Fender amps tilted back on their built in chrome side stands, was a powerful image.
Instrumental surf rock was explosive. Anybody who has ever seen or heard Dick Dale in action on his lefty Strat can tell you how aggressive and huge the sound is. The Ventures were famously champions of Moserite guitars, but made their bones on Fender offsets, like the Jag. The all-instrumental Ventures early tour of Japan spoke loud and clear, sparking Japan’s first love of electric guitar bands. Pure instrumental surf gave way to vocal surf rock, driven by Jan and Dean, The Safaris (“Wipeout,” “Surfer Joe”), and of course The Beach Boys.
The So Cal sound was potent, but short lived. Surf music, hotrod songs, and the offset Fender guitars’ popularity was about to take an extended vacation. One after another, tidal waves of new styles washed over surf music. The British invasion and electric blues were only the beginning. The monumental resurgence of the Strat, thanks to Mr. James Marshall Hendrix, rendered the offsets out of style, but not before the new improved short sale guitar arrived.
Before we close the first chapter of the Fender offset history book, let’s not forget the underdog of underdogs. 1964 gave the world the short-scale, offset body, Fender Mustang. It was sleek and kind of sexy. It was also nimble, comfortably balanced, and easy to handle. The Mustang had a newly designed tremolo (a student’s guitar with a twang bar!) and came in three cool custom colors. The Mustang had the Duo Sonic dead to rights in style and coolness factor. It was even renamed Duo-Sonic II, as a kind of consolation prize.
The Fender Electric 12
The Electric 12 was based on the now “go-to” offset design. Most of its production began after Leo Fender’s departure, but it’s a pre-CBS design. Aiming at the “folk set,” but never finding its niche — like its short-lived, 6-string brother, the pointy yet rounded, popular as Castor Oil, 1969 Fender Maverick.
Fender’s second foray into thinline hollowbody guitars (first was the Coronado line of ’67) was The Starcaster. It featured two humbuckers and a dual volume/tone layout. It lasted 4 years in production, but its popularity would never reach the stars it was named after. In fact, aside from the Jazz Bass, the popularity of the offsets was narrowing by this time in 1976. The offsets were aging in the way time treats a trend. It wasn’t a mainstream look, sound, or feel. Many lament the fact that Mom or Dad were talked into a Jaguar or Jazzmaster, instead of a ’58 or ’62 Strat (a fair lamentation I suppose, if value is a concern).
It seems to be a Strat, Tele, P, and J Bass world at Fender…or is it?
The Return of the Offset
What would bring the spotlight back to the Jazzmaster, Jag, and Mustang, was the new sign of the times – the antihero. In the ’90s, the offset became the guitar of the alternative minded, the misfits, downtrodden, and brooding set.
Saturday Night Live was a bold, edgy, late night comedy program featuring “a not ready for prime time” cast and up-and-coming musical guests. Young Declan MacManus had just become Elvis Costello. Ascending the stage with a pair of “Buddy Holly” glasses, a suit, and short hair, Costello looked nothing at all like the typical American rock star. The pop/rock charts were dominated by albums like Runnin’ on Empty, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and artists like Cheap Trick and REO Speedwagon. The time was ripe for the antihero in Elvis Costello.
Manhandling the oddball trem bar of his stripped down Jazzmaster, Elvis tore up the opening guitar lines of “Watching the Detectives.” The Jazzmaster was clear sounding, clean, and edgy. It makes a bold statement. It was an eye-opener, if you paid attention. Many did just that. Forever, the genie was out of the bottle when it comes to the offset guitar. It’s not just Dad’s old surfin’ axe anymore.
Defining the Lines (or Curves)
The offset Jags, Jazzmasters, Mustangs, and the Starcaster were not for you, Mr. Guitar God. They were for the courageously mis-fitting underdogs and alternatives to the cookie cutter pop/rock machine. It wouldn’t be too long before the offsets found a new, more permanent home. There was no room for offsets in the ever-softening hard rock that is 80’s hair metal. That genre required a super Strat of some kind.
By contrast, the ’80’s new wave set welcomed the offset guitars. One of the ’80’s new wave most highly regarded players was Johnny Marr of The Smiths. The Smith’s emo epic “How Soon is Now” boldly recaptured a Bo Diddly riff, with haunting tremolo, and a bright clean Jaguar. It was a revolutionary revisit to the 20 year old guitar, now officially out of retirement in the eyes of alternative players.
Shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, and Ride, adopted the Jazzmaster and Jaguars as their own. The roof blew off the offset’s popularity with a thing called grunge, coming out of the booming Seattle sound. Grunge became the alternative mainstream. Yes, it’s an oxymoron, but it did make kids living across the country in places like Long Island wear woolen hats on 100 degree August days. Kurt Cobain, the undisputed king of grunge, took the virtually ignored student model Mustang and transformed its perception from a tone-sucking pea shooter, to the “it” guitar of the counter culture. Offsets were back and they were the new cool.
Offset Fender, The 90s and Beyond
Adopted and adapted, mash-ups of the offset body guitars weren’t looked at with a sideways glance any longer. What started out as humbucker modifications, simplified electronics, and tweaks to fix the shallow break angle (helping the low E string to stay in its saddle) became actual official models. The Cobain inspired Jag-Stang was a mashup of the Mustang and the…yeah, you get the picture. This was only the start of a literal galaxy of stylistic variations on the offset body.
Indie and alternative music were no longer just an emerging group of players that fill small pockets of culture. Alternative was now a genre, not just a different choice. The players have spoken and the offset was the choice — nimble, colorful, and not your parents’ (or grandparents’) Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Mustang, or even Starcaster.
The 90s were brimming with offset models from Fender. The Squire Vista series was rich with offsets. The Jagmaster, Venus, Venus 12, and the wild, reverse headstock, humbucker-equipped, Super Sonic. Fender’s Pawn Shop series was based on modified old-school vintage guitars, with modern upgrades.
Still Off to This Very Day
Today’s Fender offsets have the old bugs worked out and now feature appointments for any taste, from humbuckers, to single coils, to P-90s, and combinations of each. The recent Alternate Universe Fenders mash up every appointment imaginable, including an offset Telecaster style. Today’s offsets represent taste, choice, freedom, and individualism for the guitarist. They’re for players that want it the way they want it. Most new generation Fender offsets are affordable, working-player priced, without any sacrifice in quality. Custom shop and boutique versions are abound also, but the offset is the guitar of the antihero, isn’t it? While some look back, wanting to recreate vintage classics with pinpoint precision, the offset guitars are the new voice of those who look forward, with just a sideways glance at the past.