The Fender Jazzmaster’s Story, From the Fireballs to Lee Ranaldo
Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore

Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore. Photo courtesy of Fender.

There’s a cycle of musicians and technology that goes like this: Certain kinds of new tools become popular; lots of artists who are chasing success buy them; eventually they become overfamiliar and unfashionable, and everyone unloads them. A few years later, a new generation of musicians picks them up, because they’re cheap, and figures out a new way to use them.

That’s been the career arc of the Fender Jazzmaster guitar, the signature instrument of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, whose solo album Between the Times and the Tides (Matador) came out a few weeks ago. (The video for “Angles” is above; the guitar that’s floating through the air is one of Ranaldo’s battered old Jazzmasters.) Fender launched the Jazzmaster in 1958 — a solid-body instrument intended, as its name suggests, for jazz guitarists, with a tremolo arm, very little sustain, and unintended propensities for feedback and going out of tune. It didn’t really attract a lot of jazz guitarists, but it became the signature instrument of a lot of instrumental rock bands.

One of those bands was the Fireballs, a group from Raton, New Mexico, who recorded the kinds of short, blues-inspired instrumentals that were favorites on radio stations and jukeboxes. 1959′s “Torquay” was their first chart hit, and showcased guitarist George Tomsco‘s particular style on the Jazzmaster, with its terse, muted low notes.

That was followed by another twelve-bar instrumental, “Bulldog,” in 1961 –

– and 1962′s “Quite a Party,” which fit in nicely with the then-incipient surf-rock phenomenon.

The Fireballs initially had a singer, too — Chuck Tharp — but the instrumentals the band played caught on in a way that his songs didn’t, and he left the band in 1960. Their manager Norman Petty (who had also masterminded Buddy Holly‘s career) suggested that they could add another frontman, singer/guitarist Jimmy Gilmer. Meanwhile, another of Petty’s bands, the String-a-Longs, had had a huge instrumental hit with 1960′s “Wheels,” which featured another Jazzmaster-playing lead guitarist, Jimmy Torres.

The String-a-Longs’ rhythm guitarist, Keith McCormack, had written a vocal song called “Sugar Shack,” and via Petty, it ended up being recorded and released by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. “Sugar Shack” was a gigantic hit — it spent five weeks at the top of the American charts in October and November, 1963, and seemed to herald the appearance of the kind of high-powered American rock ‘n’ roll band that there hadn’t been in a few years. And its distinctive sound came, in part, from Tomsco’s clipped, buzzing low-end Jazzmaster playing.

The Fireballs didn’t have much else in their arsenal at the time, though: McCormack also wrote their follow-up, “Daisy Petal Pickin’,” a “Sugar Shack” sound-alike that was blown off the charts by the appearance of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and the subsequent torrential influx of Merseyside bands who’d probably picked up a riff or two from “Torquay” and “Bulldog.”

By the end of 1964, the String-A-Longs had split up; the Fireballs, though, kept on touring. In 1968, Petty got them to record an instrumental album under the String-A-Longs’ name, which he owned, with George Tomsco approximating Jimmy Torres’ guitar sound. Around the same time, the Fireballs had one more Top Ten hit, a cover of New York folksinger Tom Paxton’s “Bottle of Wine” adapted into a party anthem. Shortly after it was released, Jimmy Gilmer left the band, and was replaced as singer by their former songwriter Keith McCormack.

It wasn’t long, though, before the old surf scene was strictly a niche market. Jazzmasters were unwanted kitsch totems by the mid-’70s, cluttering up pawn shops and used instrument stores. That made them attractive to impecunious young musicians. (Tom Verlaine of Television, another brilliant guitarist who plays them exclusively on stage, has said that “in ’73, ’74, you could buy a Jazzmaster for $150 easily.”) When Ranaldo and his Sonic Youth bandmate Thurston Moore started buying up guitars to customize in the mid-’80s, they were naturally drawn to the cheap ones with a cool feedback effect, too–Sonic Youth’s gear page lists 30 different Jazzmasters they’ve played over the years.

The end of the Jazzmaster’s story, as with any good pop fall-and-rise tale, is its rehabilitation. So many musicians with underground cachet started playing the “worthless” old guitars that they gradually turned collectible and desirable; Fender started manufacturing new ones again, first in Japan and then in the U.S. The stickered, scraped-up Jazzmaster that Ranaldo plays with a bow in the “Angles” video looks like something he might have picked up at a thrift store — but the one he plays on stage, as often as not, is the signature Jazzmaster that Fender manufactured with his name on it in 2009.

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