Going through my teens and early 20s listening to and reading about Sonic Youth, I never would’ve figured in a million years that they’d have their own signature guitars. Not surprisingly, most of the people I know have had the same reaction. The band is notorious for their DIY approach to their tools—namely, their guitars and effects pedals. Both Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore have waved the flag of the Fender Jazzmaster for decades now, while also constantly trying to reinvent it by modifying the ones in their collections.
The end result, combined with an unorthodox approach to guitar playing and song writing, has been the illustrious Sonic Youth, a group that has made its mark in history as one of the most distinctive rock bands of all time. The out-of-the-box approach has never been in their repertoire. Thus, when Fender announced a pair of signature Jazzmasters (or “Jazzblasters,” as Ranaldo’s and Moore’s personal guitars are so aptly named), I was really excited to get a hold of them and put them through their paces. I certainly didn’t expect the stripped-down approach Fender took, but after much jamming and experimenting, I find I’m as impressed with their capabilities as I am with their sparse accoutrements.
If Looks Could Kill
Finished in a striking deep transparent blue, the Lee Ranaldo Jazzmaster is the humbucker-equipped instrument of the pair. The finish is sealed in a satin nitrocellulose lacquer, which allows the detailed grain of the alder body to shine through in a very striking fashion. The Thurston Moore Jazzmaster shares many of the same traits as the Lee Ranaldo model, except that it has a transparent forest green finish (and a few other differences I’ll cover later). Visually, the guitars are very distinct from the other Jazzmaster models Fender has offered. All of the complex roller knobs have been removed, leaving a lone Volume knob and a 3-way pickup selector switch, which is mounted to a classy black anodized aluminum pickguard. Following suit with the body textures, the necks are nonglossy (sure to please players with a faster touch) and are capped off with black satin headstocks.
Lean, But Very Mean
After looking the guitars over, what surprised me most was how simple and reduced to essentials they are. For a band that’s legendary for ripping out electronics and putting in odd circuits and wiring, the Sonic Youth Signature Jazzmasters are shockingly uncomplicated. However, I found after searching for some photos of their vintage Jazzmasters that they’ve experimented with this setup before. I found several pictures of beaten and well-worn models that they’ve modified with a very similar wiring scheme. Still, I was a little disappointed that the traditional Jazzmaster layout wasn’t offered, because those extra controls provide some very dynamic tones that only the Jazzmaster is capable of. After plugging them in, however, my doubts faded and I realized they were quickly becoming my new favorite Fender production models.
Thurston Moore Jazzmaster
Quite a few players out there understand that a well-built electric guitar will resonate well without being plugged in. From striking a note to chording, an electric guitar with solid construction will transfer noticeable vibrations, indicating good coupling and tight manufacture. The Thurston Moore model surprised me in this way; its unplugged response felt very nice. Jazzmaster’s aren’t really known for their sustain, but if this model is any indicator, I beg to differ. A lot of this probably has to do with the fact that it features an Adjusto-Matic bridge, which has an advantage over a traditional Jazzmaster bridge due to the added coupling to the body. Some Jazzmaster enthusiasts might scoff at this change, but I think it’s an improvement, as it also helps tuning stability, which I’m sure was a concern on account of Thurston’s often very aggressive style.
I ran the instrument through its paces with a 1965 Fender Bandmaster and a 1973 Marshall Super Bass half-stack with a Bogner 4x12 cabinet. The Thurston Moore model features Seymour Duncan Antiquity II Jazzmaster pickups, which have a great, powerful punch and glassy highs. With the Bandmaster set to a chimey clean, the Moore Jazzblaster roared with complete authority. I didn’t expect it to sound so aggressive, so it was quite a surprise. Every note through every chord rang out clear and full, almost too clear at times. I found myself taming it by keeping the Volume knob on the guitar down to about 7, as the pickups were very sensitive to whatever type of attack that I employed. With a light overdrive, the instrument delivered a somewhat piercing high end. Even after adjusting the amp to compensate, the inherent stinging highs of the Moore Jazzmaster were still rather evident. The effect was nullified through the Super Bass very well, and I decided that I really liked the tone through darker amps of similar nature. The Moore model is also outfitted with the same vintage Jazzmaster vibrato system that’s present on all of the American standard models, and it stayed in tune quite well even after some heavy use with reverb-soaked volume swells.
Lee Ranaldo Jazzmaster
The Moore model’s more guttural (but still clear) sounding twin, the Ranaldo Jazzmaster, comes equipped with Fender Wide Range humbucking pickups which Seth Lover developed in the early 1970s as Fender’s answer to the Gibson humbucker (which was also designed by Lover). These pickups actually have quite a following among certain players who covet their unique tone and response. Ranaldo’s model comes with re-voiced versions of these famed pickups, featuring an Alnico magnet instead of the original CuNiFe or Ceramic magnets (which at one time were installed in some Japanese Fenders). It also features an American Vintage Jazzmaster vibrato setup, but with a Mustang bridge instead of an Adjusto-matic one. I plugged the Ranaldo Jazzblaster into a Vox Night Train head (into a Bogner 4x12 cab) and into the aforementioned 1965 Fender Bandmaster. Immediately, the differences between it and the Moore model were noticeable. Beyond the obvious differences between Jazzmaster and humbucking pickups, the re-voiced Fenders are distinctly hot. They drove both amps almost as easily as my 2006 Gibson Flying V, but with much more midrange and clarity. What was fascinating was their ability to keep a solid, overdriven tone without becoming mushy or flat. It was almost as if I were playing with a pair of hot P-90s, but with more muscle in the low mids (and no hum, of course). Like the Moore, the response was even all across the fretboard with no dead notes, but with even more sustain and power. To put it simply, I really liked the Thurston Moore Jazzblaster for its great clean tone and excellent tuning stability, but I really, really liked the Lee Ranaldo Jazzmaster for having all of that, and more. We get some very exceptional guitars at PG, and this one has been harder to put down than most.
Another aspect of the Sonic Youth Signature Jazzmasters I feel obliged to mention is their necks. I’ve always loved Jazzmasters for their distinctive tones and versatility, but I’ve always been a Les Paul type of guy—I like fat, beefy necks with a little bit more weight on my shoulder. That being said, I was almost sold on both of these instruments for their necks alone. They feel flat-out fantastic. They’re nothing like what I’m used to, but as the saying goes, I could definitely get used to this. Their balance is very good, especially considering how long they are, and the smoothness of their feel is, for lack of a better way to describe it, to die for.
The Final Mojo
One of the best things about my job is that not only do I get to help inform fellow guitarists about gear, but I get to learn about it as well. In the case of the Sonic Youth Jazzmasters, it seems that constant experimentation and devotion can lead to the discovery that the simplest approach is often the best. The necks are great, the pickup combinations are highly distinct and the playability of both is enormous. Each model comes with a hardshell case and some great case candy: a cable, strap, a magazine with tales from their guitar techs over the years, and a nifty sticker sheet with designs from the guitarists. For those searching for a great, stripped-down Jazzmaster (or just a solid Fender in general), the Sonic Youth Signature Jazzmasters are a refreshing alternative.
you’re looking for a Jazzmaster-on-steroids tone, complete with an outstanding neck and simple controls.
you’re sensitive to highs and would prefer a tone control to tame it.
you’re looking for a Jazzmaster with a fantastic neck, and humbucking tones with great cut and balance.
you just absolutely have to have a tone control.