Monday, February 06, 2012

CIJ/MIJ Fender Jazzmaster tremolo upgrade

Another in my surprisingly popular series of posts dedicated to the Japanese version of Fender's most famous "forgotten" electric guitar! How oddly specific.

One of the easiest upgrades that owners of Japanese (CIJ/MIJ) Fender Jazzmasters can make is the tremolo unit, aka the tailpiece. The tremolo in Japanese Jazzmasters is kind of a weak point in these mostly excellent guitars (another is the pickups), but luckily, it's really easy to just drop in an American one.


What you need:

* Fender USA Jazzmaster tremolo unit part #0054466000
* Fender USA Jazzmaster tremolo arm part #0054473000
* If you don't have any, you also need a Stratocaster tremolo arm tip (the Japanese one won't fit. See part #'s here, depending on color).

I found my trem unit and arm on Ebay; they can be hard to find. (Ironically, real vintage ones seem to be easier right now.) Many reputable stores that used to have them seem to be perpetually sold out these days (e.g. Angela.com). Be sure you're actually buying a genuine Fender USA unit; there are a lot of cheap imports out there, many of which are labeled as "for" American Vintage Jazzmasters. That's not the same as saying they are American Vintage Jazzmaster tremolos. You really need to be careful. The label should look something like this:


None of the cheap imports is an upgrade over Fender Japan's tremolos, which aren't that bad as it is; the only real upgrade is an American one. One clue you've found an American unit (though definitely not a foolproof one) is the price - a USA tremolo should be around $60 just for the unit, and $10-$15 more if it comes with the arm. The imports are almost always priced much less than that.

Onto the surgery! Here's a Japanese tremolo unit in place:


Remove all the strings and the tremolo arm (it will be tight, but just grab it at the bend and pull straight out) and unscrew the tremolo unit, making sure to only unscrew the screws along the outside edge:


Here's what it looks like ready to come out:


And it's out! 


If you're lucky (like I was), it won't stick. If it sticks, just try to figure out where it's sticking and gently pry it up with your fingernail if you can. There's nothing holding it on but the finish at that point, so you just want to try to avoid chipping the polyurethane when you pull it out.

Here are the two units side by side - let's play spot the differences!


There's no size difference - they kind of lay at different angles so there's a perspective effect in that photo.  But, there are some actual differences:

* The lock button is nickel-finished on the US unit, the Japanese is chrome
* The metal on the collet (the part that holds the arm) is thicker on the US unit
* The collet hole is round on the US unit, and oval on the Japanese
* Oddly, the Fender and patent number typefaces are slightly different


A more functional difference: the string spacing is correct on the US version, and incorrect on the Japanese.


The base plate is slightly thicker on the US version. Honestly, though, it's not a huge difference, and both units are pretty hefty. (It may even be slightly exaggerated here; it looks like I may have been holding the US unit closer to the camera without realizing it.)

Here's the underside:


US is on the left; Japanese on the right. Again, there are some differences, but they're not really that dramatic. The US one is slightly chunkier in general.

Here are the arms:


US on the bottom, Japanese on top. The US one has a smoother bend and a little less of a shiny chrome finish. Different arms do have different bends so I don't know if this is representative overall. I've seen some goofy looking US arms.

More importantly, the US arm is a little thinner and has screw threads for the tip. A Japanese arm won't fit in a US tremolo, and neither will a Japanese tip fit on a US arm. I had actually jammed a US tip onto my Japanese arm so I was able to just reuse that; it hadn't deformed it too much. (And I had "aged" it in tea myself, so I was happy about that!)


Reverse the process laid out for removal and... done! When you put in your arm, be sure to press it all the way in. Many people are afraid to do this and end up with floppy arms and a sloppy-feeling tremolo and wonder why. Kevin Shields famously used to leave his arms hanging out for a bit more height, but he actually used to have to tape them to the tremolo collet so they wouldn't fall out.

This is all really a five minute procedure - I spent way more time taking these photos for this blog post. Be sure to set up your tremolo after installing it! (The trem arm will probably be very close to the strings if it's really set up properly for the trem lock - I usually keep mine adjusted so the tip is a bit higher, even though it makes the lock useless.)

So, does it feel different, and is it worth it?

As a cheap upgrade, I think it's worth doing. Honestly, I think the Japanese tremolos are not bad, but the US ones are slightly better. Japanese tremolos do feel a little "loose", in that there's a little play in the system where you can press the bar down a half inch or so before it "catches", and if you're hard on it, it'll do so with an audible click. And it does this every single time. I'm not sure what causes that (probably the collet itself), but it doesn't seem to be present in the US version. Also, it's nice to have the correct string spacing, which means the strings aren't being pulled both vertically and horizontally against the bridge saddles. That can lead to broken strings - not a good thing. It also reduces sustain.

I don't actually believe there's anything wrong with the metal itself, or the spring in Japanese tremolos, as some do. My US tremolo doesn't feel any "stronger" than my Japanese did. But it does feel a bit smoother, and I have more confidence in my string longevity, and I do believe I am getting more sustain. Of course, it's hard to objectively measure any of that. But I believe it to be true.

My next upgrade: new shielding!

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful blog! You mentioned "The lock button is nickel-finished on the US unit, the Japanese is chrome". Do you think a Japan lock button and nut would fit and work properly on a true vintage trem unit or a US reissue? (I found an old trem unit from the 60's but it is missing the lock button/nut and a guy has a MIJ trem unit for sale near here.) Also, are the collets interchangeable on US and Japan units? Thank you!

    ReplyDelete

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.

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I'm married. I like to travel. I have no kids. I have a house... that I'm bad at maintaining. I used to collect classic video games. I own a lot of musical equipment that far outstrips my ability to use it. When I was younger, I was in a band. I like gadgets, and I'm an Android guy. Someday, I would like to live on a different planet.

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