The Jazzmaster finally gets an upscale modern facelift—with enhanced playability and expressive potential as the payoff.
Improved, more-stable vibrato system. Vast tone shaping possibilities. Noiseless pickups. Bend-conducive, super-playable, compound radius neck. Tuning stable.
Noiseless pickups sound less characterful than vintage-style units.
Fender American Ultra Jazzmaster
Though the Jazzmaster ceased to be perceived as a cellar-dwelling freak of the Fender family decades ago, it's never really received the fancifying treatment so often given to its more famous Fender brothers. To date, variations and mutations of the model tend to be scattered and obscure—occurring primarily in the instrument's more affordable ranges and within the output of the Custom Shop.
The Jazzmaster Ultra is an overdue reimagining of the model. And with its compound-radius neck, noiseless pickups, phase- and parallel-switching options, and new body carves, the Ultra might soon be as revered as the Plus, Deluxe, and Elite models that marked important evolutions of the Tele and Strat.
To Fender's credit, many Stratocaster and Telecaster re-designs helped pave new expressive avenues. And the extent to which inventive players like Jeff Beck (with his Strat Plus-like signature model) and Jonny Greenwood (Telecaster Plus) made next-generation Fenders cornerstones of their art attests to the enduring, practical, and creatively enabling upside of these evolutions.
Just as those guitars estranged some Tele and Strat originalists, the Jazzmaster Ultra's new features will engender skepticism from some vintage heads. But many of these refinements are unquestionably useful and inspiring. Cosmetically, the Ultra deftly walks a line between Fender classicism and new-world bling. The body profile and hardware (save for the knobs) deviate little from tradition. And if you opted for the pretty ultraburst finish (which adds metallic flake to a classic 3-color sunburst), you might even mistake it for an American Original edition at a glance.
Our two review guitars were more extroverted. The cobra blue finish is deep, shapeshifting, and subtly pearlescent, evoking the competition burgundy of the 1969 Mustang. The striking mocha burst specimen that appears in the First Look video flashes between copper and root beer hues. Both finishes morph beautifully in sunlight and under stage illumination.
On the cobra blue version, the neck and fretboard are black-bound maple. They recall the unusual maple-and-black-block-inlay Jazzmasters and Jaguars of the 1970s. But to my eye they look a little monochrome and plain against the complex, mutable blue finish. A rosewood neck option would be nice.
The other overt deviation from trad' style is the chrome 3-knob array, and the new control configuration opens up tone possibilities no standard Jazzmaster is capable of. Though the Ultra's switching and tone circuit deviate significantly from the original Jazzmaster system, they adhere to the notion that more is more when it comes to tone shaping. Rather than activating a filtered rhythm circuit, the upper bout slider switches the pickups in and out of phase. The two attendant roller knobs are dedicated volume controls for the bridge and neck pickups in the latter mode. The volume knob is also an S1 switch that selects series or parallel pickup configurations. The Stratocaster-like tone controls, meanwhile, enable super-dissimilar tone shades between pickups and super-specific blends. At first, the myriad tone options can feel labyrinthine. But as the controls become more intuitive, tone shaping on the fly starts to feel as much like painting as playing. It's a blast.
What else is fun? For starters, the neck feels great. The 10"-14" compound radius fretboard feels fleet under the fingers, and the medium-jumbo frets and flat radius conspire to make the simplest string bend feel full of expressive potential. If you have a preference for vintage neck profiles and more curvaceous fretboards, the “Modern D" shape will probably feel pretty thin. But there's little arguing how slinky the neck feels, and players with modern neck preferences—and maybe even a few SG loyalists—will find a lot to love here. What's more, the carve on the back of the treble-side cutaway and the slimmed, sculpted heel make access to the highest frets super easy. Between the high-fret access, the flat radius, and the fat frets, you can achieve otherworldly bends.
The improved vibrato is a tactile joy, too. Mechanically, it's identical to a vintage unit. But unlike vintage snap-in arms, which can wear out, the Ultra's vibrato arm screws into the post and can be set to swing freely or tightened to remain relatively stationary. Better still (at least for my preferences), the bend in the arm sits higher in relation to the post and strings, nestling the arm more deeply but comfortably into your palm as you pick and strum. If you use the tension screw to dial in a more elastic feel, the unit becomes ideal for Kevin Shields' glide techniques and nuanced vibrato accents.
Free From Horrible Hiss
The “Noiseless Vintage" pickups are among the Ultra's main attractions. And any player that has endured the hiss, buzz, and hum of vintage Jazzy pickups in bridge and neck positions can understand the potential appeal. In general, they have less output than vintage Jazzmaster units. And each of the individual pickups, as well as the combined middle position, are mellower and less bright. These differences are super apparent with a pre-CBS Jazzmaster and the Ultra side by side. In isolation, you primarily notice that the Ultra pickups are light years quieter.
It's nice to see the Jazzmaster in a more evolutionary guise. But the real joy is in playing it. The copious tone shaping control, noiseless pickups, improved vibrato, and shreddily delicious neck all extend and enhance the Jazzmaster's already ample expressive potential. The quality is superb. And while you could argue that the noiseless pickups lack the open and wild character of vintage units, the seemingly endless and lively tones you can extract from the guitar are a tradeoff well worth considering.
Watch the First Look: