Being aimed at jazz players of the day, the Jazzmaster was built around the use of heavy flatwound strings. The extra tension of those sets helped keep the bridge in place, while the darker sound produced by flats paired well with the brighter nature of the Jazzmaster’s wide, flat single-coil pickups. But this doesn’t mean you have to use gigantic strings!
No, it’s quite easy to achieve a perfectly playable Jazzmaster with lighter roundwound gauges. It just takes a bit more fiddling around with the setup. I use and recommend .011–.050 rounds as a good starting point, but if .010s are your thing, that’s absolutely doable. I do find it interesting that complaints about bridge buzz started surfacing around the time that ultra-light gauges became more commonplace, in the mid-to-late 1960s.
Ensuring the proper amount of neck angle relative to the body is essential to getting the most out of your offset guitar. Although the archtops that inspired him were constructed with a permanently inclined set neck, the famously pragmatic Leo Fender addressed this by specifically designing the Jazzmaster with shims in mind. If you’re not familiar with the process of shimming, it’s simply a thin spacer placed between the neck and pocket of a bolt-on guitar, allowing its angle to be easily adjusted.
The goal here is to increase downward force on the bridge. As the neck is angled down away from the body—like a see-saw, imagine the headstock dropping slightly lower than the end of the fretboard—the bridge must be raised to achieve playable action. This causes the strings to pass over the bridge at a sharper angle (this is called break angle), and thus adequate pressure on the bridge is realized. This pressure helps keep the strings in place while also increasing resonance.
It’s quite easy to perform this tweak yourself. Fender used to employ leftover fiberboard pickup bobbin material, but for DIY-ers, baseball or business cards will do just fine. Simply remove the neck, cut the material of your choice to fit (3/8" by 1 1/2" should do the trick), and then lay it down in the neck pocket, in the semi-enclosed area closest to the bridge (Photo 3). Position the 1 1/2" section so it lies across the neck pocket, parallel to the saddles. Reattach the neck, string up, and then raise the bridge until you find the action comfortable.
Manufacturing being what it is, there’s no magic number of shims that works automatically. I usually start with two shims and add or subtract according to the needs of the individual instrument. It takes some trial and error at first, but the more familiar you become with the process, the better you’ll be able to assess your guitar.
Note: If you happen to be using a Mastery or Staytrem bridge, one or two shims should work just fine. Newer Fender models such as the Classic Player and American Professional series even boast angled neck pockets, so if you have one of these, you likely won’t need to worry about shimming at all.
When I got my first Jazzmaster, the bridge positively flummoxed me. It seemed that, no matter what I did, I could not get the thing to stop buzzing. It wasn’t until I discovered shimming as part of the offset equation that I was able to quell the beastly noises coming from my guitar. Using heavier strings goes a long way to cure this.
However, I also realized that with the original bridge, the intonation screws that poke through the middle of the saddles can be just as much of a pain (Photo 4). If the bridge isn’t set up in exactly the right way, those screws can make contact with your strings, causing an unpleasant sitar-like noise.
Every time I’ve seen this happen, it was because someone set the overall action with the individual saddles instead of the bridge posts. If you weren’t aware, the offset bridge is height-adjustable by way of two grub screws concealed within the posts. Insert the appropriate hex key in the postholes on the face of the bridge and adjust the height of the treble and bass sides of the bridge to taste (Photo 5).
The saddles themselves should only be used to set radius. Doing so this way will keep the saddles low enough that the intonation screws won’t hit your strings, and it’ll make life easier down the road should you decide you want to change action. Two screws, after all, are much easier to adjust than 12.