Monday, February 18, 2008

Fender Jazzmaster Setup and Maintenance - or How I Learned to Love My Guitar

Tonight's patient: my Fender Jazzmaster. I'll be setting it up (it never has been) and doing some preventative maintenance, and I'll show you the process so you can do it too. Save yourself approximately $35 vs. having it done by a pro!

I love to get my hands dirty. Some guitarists don't. They play for a while and then decide their guitar sounds like crap and they take it to a repair shop and pay someone to fix it. That's fine, but setting up and maintaining a guitar really isn't all that difficult, and it'll help you feel more of a connection to your guitar. It'll sound and feel the way you want it to. And if you can do it on a Jazzmaster, one of the most intricate instruments out there, then you can do it for any guitar. One of my most popular posts here has turned out to be my earlier Jazzmaster post, so it seems like there's plenty of interest in these guitars out on the interwebs.

I basically followed Angel Romero's great Jaguar setup guide, now hosted at the Higher Evolution of Offset-Waist Guitars site. I didn't really get quite as precise as he does in the guide, but I don't think it's really necessary. When you're doing a setup for yourself, you just do it by feel.

Also, make sure before doing any of this that you first do a tremolo setup using the excellent guide for it at the same site. This doesn't take very long, but you should do it first.

Here are the tools you really should have (though the ruler's honestly kinda useless - a straight-edge is recommended):

The capo and file are also sort of optional; the setup guide says to use a capo, but I didn't. The file is for your nut if it happens to bind (as mine did - explanation to come later). The other tools that you really do need are an electronic tuner, a small Philips screwdriver, a large Philips screwdriver, and a hex driver that matches your bridge hex nuts. (I'm pretty sure the size varies between US and Japanese models.)

One simple question that gets asked a lot in discussion forums is how you remove the Japanese tremolo arm. The simple answer is you just pull it out. It can be very tight and feel like it won't budge, but you just get some good leverage and make sure you're only pulling straight up and you just firmly (but gently) pull it out. After the first 2 or 3 times, it slides more easily.

After removing the superficial hardware (including the bridge cover), it was time to do some neck work. I'd never removed the neck on this guitar before tonight, but my neck had developed a slight bow and I wanted to correct it. In addition, the extreme low humidity in this area at this time of year had sapped the moisture out of the fretboard and I wanted to remedy that. I also have been having a little trouble with the guitar staying in tune, and after someone suggested checking my nut, I discovered the strings were binding. This happens when the slots in the nut just aren't quite wide enough to accommodate the strings.

A little digression: yeah, I'm dumb, I wasn't using a humidifier during this year's winter. I am now. That may have caused my slight neck bow, and it can cause other problems too. Make sure to maintain your humidity. I now have a hygrometer and a humidifier near my guitar.

Because I was going to completely remove the neck to do some more in-depth work than most setups require, I removed the strings rather than simply loosening them. This neck has never been totally de-tensioned before - I always change my strings one at a time. So even this part was a little scary for me. Here it is without strings:

Time to remove the neck. I flipped the guitar over, being careful to buttress both the body and the neck with foam blocks that I salvaged from the box that my wife's new guitar shipped in. The last thing you want is to break the pickup switch off or something while unscrewing the neck. Of course, you can always just buy a guitar work stand, but I don't think it's strictly necessary unless you plan on doing a lot of work on a regular basis.

The screws are coming out...

And there it is, the CIJ Jazzmaster neck. No neck stamp like the American version, just a JM-66 model number near the heel.

I was surprised at how easily the neck popped out. It didn't stick to the body; if I hadn't been holding it, it would have fallen right out of the neck pocket. That made it pretty easy; older necks that haven't been removed in a lot of years can stick and mar the finish if you yank it out the wrong way.

Here's what the neck pocket looks like:

No shims! Most Jazzmasters have at least one to maintain the correct neck angle; it's normal for a Jazzmaster. Mine has none. Doesn't need one, I guess.

The first thing I did was a truss rod adjustment; just a quarter-turn to tighten and get rid of that bow. I didn't want to go further than that, and that is the recommended increment. If you need more, you can always do more later. But a quarter turn is supposed to be enough in most cases, and it was in mine. You won't really want to go further anyway; you can really feel that rod pushing against the wood as you turn it, and there's a certain point where you say "ok, no more."

The second thing I did was file the nut. I just gently filed the sides of the slots a tiny bit with a metal emery board, making sure not to file downward and also trying my best not to overdo it. I figured I can always file more if I need to, but if I go too far and need a new nut... well, that's probably beyond my ability right now.

I left out one tool I used in my tool photo above because it's strictly optional and somewhat controversial:

Lemon oil.

Some say it's unnecessary, others say it's actually harmful (they're flat wrong), still others swear by it. I'm in the last camp.

The people who say it's harmful have confused two different products. There's lemon oil furniture polish, as in the photo above, and there's lemon (or orange) oil cleaner. The cleaner is a mild solvent - it's citric acid, it will eat your guitar's wood for breakfast. The furniture polish actually has no lemon or citrus in it at all. It's really mineral oil with a mild lemon scent (hence "lemon oil"). It's probably the best thing possible to use on unfinished wood. This is the stuff Queen Elizabeth's staff uses to refresh and maintain the antique wood furniture in Buckingham Palace. I always say that if it's good enough for her, it's probably good enough for your guitar.

Those who say it's unnecessary are probably right in certain environments. But I live in an area of extreme humidity swings. Humidity drops under 20% in winter and stays there. Even with a humidifier, I'm probably not going to be able to keep the humidity at really optimal levels all the time. If you're like me, you're gonna need to oil your fretboard to keep the frets from popping out and to avoid other problems (like a bowed neck). Some people swear by olive oil, and I dunno, it might work. (Probably smells, though.) But lemon oil is really, really good for wood. I use it on all sorts of things, and have for years.

After the neck work, it was time to screw the neck back on, re-string and tune up - I made sure to keep my bridge straight as I did so. I've learned from experience that it's easy to let the Jazzmaster's floating bridge fall backwards when re-stringing, and that makes for massive bridge saddle buzz.

And no, it's not your imagination, the neck did darken nicely from the oil:

Then I let the guitar sit for about an hour to re-set, and then I tuned again. It's at this point that you should check that your neck really is straight, using a straight-edge or the string itself as mentioned in the setup guide. I just did it visually, looking down the neck from the bridge.

Now to adjust the bridge height. My action has always been kind of high - within spec, but not completely satisfactory for me. The neck bow made it even higher near the top of the neck. With the neck now back to spec, my action was about where it was when I bought it... but still a little high for me. Adjusting this is as simple as turning the two hex screws that the bridge rests on, lowering the bridge:

There's obviously a compromise required in action height. Too low and you will fret out. The Jazzmaster's not really intended as a shredder guitar, so you're never gonna be able to get your strings pressed right up against the frets (well, not if you want to actually play it). I got mine pretty low, though, and I only get some occasionally slight buzz on low E on certain higher frets. I'll see if I can live with it; if not, it's simple to just raise it up slightly.

By the way, you should technically lower your pickups if you're lowering your strings. For me, I don't notice much difference with the strings lowered by a millimeter or so, so I didn't bother. I also am planning to replace my pickups within the next couple weeks, so I'll deal with pickup height at that point.

Now for intonation - time to make the guitar sound good!

Ok, for the beginners looking here for info on their new guitars: intonation is how well your guitar stays in tune all the way up and down the neck. It's kinda pointless for your guitar to be in tune on open strings but not when you're actually playing notes somewhere else on the neck. So this is really important.

Adjusting intonation can be kind of a long, laborious, annoying process. It's simple (the process is described in the guide), but there's just a lot of back and forth checking and re-checking and adjusting and re-adjusting, because to a certain extent the strings are interactive with each other and the tunings need to be absolutely perfect. You can't just do one string and call it done, you have to assume that any other adjustments you make will affect that string and go back and re-check them all again afterwards. And you have to do it multiple times.

My intonation was atrocious when I first checked it, as I kinda suspected from playing it that it would be. It took me about 45 minutes of checking tunings and moving bridge saddles back and forth before all of my strings were in tune both open and at the 12th fret. But when I got it, holy crap! It's a huge difference. It's the difference between sounding like a beginning amateur and sounding like a pro. Seriously.

And with that, it's done!

And hung back up on the wall:

It really is amazing how much better a guitar can feel and sound after a proper setup. And now that I've done some neck adjustments, it really doesn't seem so scary to me. Most setups won't even require adjustments like that, so really anybody can do this. It just requires a little time and patience, but not much skill. If you've never set up your guitar or had it done for you, do it and do it yourself!


  1. Anonymous4:22 AM

    Hey Jeff, its Ali. I emailed you months ago about travelling in Japan and you were nice enough to email back. I land in Tokyo in about 2 weeks so thats very exciting.Plus I was in New York, I ventured into alphabet city briefly, thier wasnt much their and it took me ages to find a subway so I could go somewhere more interesting. Anyway back to the point do you have like a comprehensive what not to miss in Japan list or know of any decent websites. Would be helpful. Plus is Japan as expensive as people say?

  2. Anonymous4:55 AM

    Hi Jeff,

    great site, very useful. Building me a Jazzmaster from scratch I was Googling for 'angle Jazzmaster neck' and came across your page. Have seen pictures of shims in the neckpocket of a JM before indeed, but I routed the pocket in an angle, by tilting the template I made for this purpose. Was hoping to find anywhere what the correct angle to the body should be, but I did not. Guess it will be just fine when strings get to the bridge without rattling or ending up with an action of about 3 inch. Parts list of Fender tells me there's 1 MEG potentiometers in the lower VOL/TONE, but don't sell this kind of values and they have sent me 250K's for both. Would you know by any chance if that makes such big a difference? Well, play on, greetings from Holland,


  3. Anonymous5:01 AM

    another small comment: lemon oil is fabulatastic! I clean my fingerboard with it, removes the grease from my finger yet keeps the wood from drying out. This will prevent the wood from chipping whenever it's time to renew the frets. Even clean stainless stell in my kitchen with it.



  4. Anonymous3:21 PM

    I have an almost identical jazzmaster (minus the bridge cover, which is something i'd remove anyway) made in japan. same finish/matching headstock and all. It's a great guitar, especially after a setup.

    I have to add a little bit of information to this guide though:

    The Jazzmaster (and much more so the Jaguar) is infamous for a major design flaw with the bridge - the strings pass over at such an obtuse angle that there's not a lot of tension put on it, and as a result, the saddles and screws rattle like mad. I actually nearly lost a grub screw for saddle height adjustment as a result of this rattling - it rattled it's way out of the saddle! this is a common problem, but i solved it by wrapping PTFE tape around all the grub screws for the saddles and the 2 for the bridge assey, and re-fitting them. The guitar now operates flawlessly, and the rattling and buzzing at the bridge is cured.

    Some people also complain about the strings jumping from one groove in the saddles to another, causing them to be misaligned and incorrectly tuned/intonated, though this is a more common problem with the jaguar. This can be solved by fitting a buzz-stop which forces the strings against the bridge, or some people adjust the saddles on a tilt so that it's harder to knock the strings out of place from heavy downstrokes - this is what i've done, and it has worked for me, although i never had the string slippage problem in the first place :)

  5. See here about the bridge:


    I do not recommend a buzz stop. It kills the harmonics behind the bridge, which is one of the things responsible for Jazzmasters sounding like Jazzmasters.

    My goal in writing this was to show how I got the most out of my Jazzmaster and maybe to help others do the same. What I really don't want to do, though, is alter anything that makes the Jazzmaster what it is. I think they are great guitars in their own right and I don't really feel they need to be modded at all (the Japanese ones do in some ways, but mainly to make them closer to what a "real" Jazzmaster is like). So, I wasn't meaning to really talk about mods above, although I do have a post about changing pickups, and I might do some other things in the future.

  6. Anonymous8:29 PM

    Good point on the Jazzmaster not being a shedder. As good as you can set it up it will never be able to be a strat. There will be no Gilmore solo's high on the neck with that smooth strat action, but it is a phenomenal rhythm guitar and lead guitar with the right playing style. I own a '69 and love it to death.

  7. Anonymous12:16 PM

    I have just been given what I think is a Japanese tremolo arm for my Jazzmaster (CIJ 2007). I thought I would have trouble inserting it but it slips right in and out and sits right up to the bend in the insert arm, this makes it next to useless (it sits about 5mm above the bridge and hits it when you press down). So two questions:
    1. have I got the correct arm? This one is 5mm thick, about 20cm tip-to-bend and the insert is approx 5cm deep. White tip. Correct shape for a Jazzmaster.
    2. Is there something wrong with my tremolo system? The lock works with the arm in okay but I figure there must be something up.
    Hope you can help.

  8. Jupiter Jones (London)5:27 PM

    i'm totally inspired. i'm all over it this weekend. thanks Jeff!

  9. Anonymous7:15 AM

    I have a little question. I have a MIJ JM, and I recently bought a bridge cover. I have no idea how to attach it, there aren't any screws so I'm guessing I may have to put it on and bend the metal a little to get it to stick, but somebody told me you can only do that with the original models. How did you attach yours to your MIJ?

  10. No, you can bend any Fender JM bridge cover, new or old, they're pretty much the same. (The only difference that I know of in the original ones is that for a few years they had a little "ear" on each side, but only until something like 1964.) I bent the tabs on mine, that's what you're supposed to do. Just cover the thing with a towel and use a pliers.

    The fit is a *tiny* bit off on the MIJ bridges, or at least my CIJ is... the bridge cover is a little too big, so I can't push it on all the way or it interferes with the strings. I don't actually keep it on when I'm playing for that reason, it's just for show. Most JM players don't use it when playing that I've seen.

  11. Oh, I missed one comment - two comments up there, about the tremolo. You've probably figured this out by now, but I'll answer anyway.

    1. I think you probably have the correct arm.

    2. I think your tremolo is probably at least a little bit out of adjustment.

    You say the lock works "okay" - it needs to actually be exact for your tremolo arm to sit right. That said, the JM tremolo wasn't made to be used over the bridge, Kevin Shields-style. He modified his tremolo so he could do that (I think he basically just didn't put it in all the way, and taped it so it'd stay in place). So I think your trem is probably not far off from where it should be, but if you want it to work the way it sounds like you do, you might need to do something extra to it.

    My CIJ trem arm goes in all the way to the bend too.

  12. Jérôme12:54 PM

    Hello Jeff,
    Thanks a lot for all the useful tips.
    I'm trying it right now on mine,
    Looking forward to reading stuff about your new pickups,
    Jérôme (Paris-France)

  13. Anonymous5:39 PM

    Since I've referenced this blog a few times over the past few months when it comes to Jazzmaster related issues, I figured I'd chime in with this as I haven't seen it mentioned.

    It's an expensive, but interesting take on the Jazzmaster bridge. I haven't used one myself, but it's in use by some big names and I'm definitely curious. I'm thinking about picking one up after the holidays. Anyway, I've been looking for replacement bridge options for a while and only came across this one by accident earlier today.

  14. Anonymous11:28 AM

    First off, great article Jeff, wonderful reading.
    I am very close to buying a jazzmaster, but one thing has nagged at me for a while. What is all this talk about it not being a virtuosic guitar?
    I play weird instrumental and improvised music, I am an advanced player, and I like to play fast sometimes. If I recall this guitar was originally made for jazz players, who are most likely the most virtuosic of all. Nels cline plays a vintage jazzmaster, and he shreds, that's for sure.
    One poster above mentioned not being able to get a Gilmour sound. I assume he's talking about David Gilmour, who, being one of my old favourites, is far from a virtuoso. So what does that mean, no Gilmour sound.
    Could you Jeff possibly dive into this subject a little? It'll help me spend my 1500 a little more wisely.
    Thaks alot. And keep up the good work.

  15. Anon:

    The JM was made for jazz players but it was never all that successful in that role. There are a couple reasons why standard JM's are not that well suited to being a fast playing guitar:

    1) It works best with heavy strings. This is mostly because of the bridge design.

    2) It's got a 7.25 radius neck. That's a classic radius better suited for chords and slow solos than super-fast soloing.

    Some people also think that it's impossible to get low action on a JM, but that's wrong - the action can be as low as you want if you set it up properly for it. Mine is very low. But out of the box, JM action is quite high and I'll bet a lot of people just get used to it that way and never change it.

    The string gauge is the biggest obstacle to playing fast. Most JM players use .012's both for sound and stability. I use .010's, but I'm kind of an oddball. You really can't go lighter than that, though. Even with .010's, my sound is a lot thinner and jangly than most JM's, which are strung with heavier strings. But I just can't get used to anything heavier than .010-.052.

    If you want to use a JM to shred, the Classic Players are your best bet because they have a different bridge and tremolo and can get away with lighter strings. They also have a 9.5 neck radius. They're not built like an AVRI and I don't think they're even as good as the CIJ/MIJ's (I've covered that elsewhere), but they're made for a different play style than standard design JM's.

    As for Gilmour, his sound comes from a combination of his playing style, his pickups and his effects. He says 90% of his sound is effects and he's not ashamed to admit it. The JM has totally different pickups than a Strat, so it'd be hard to replicate his sound anyway, but you probably could get close with the right effects. But like with Kevin Shields, you'd need to spend thousands of dollars on the right effects and then tune them all the exact same way he does. It'd be massive amounts of trial and error just to match one particular sound on one particular album.

  16. Hi Jeff, I'm not sure how much you know about the MIM Classic Player series JM's, but I just scored one on ebay for super cheap and your setup guide has great information - I figured I'd ask a few questions before screwing it up...

    1.) The seller tells me this guitar has been through his and a previous owner's hands, but it wasn't too heavily-played. I'm a Strat owner myself, and honestly have never touched a guitar other than to string it, and lem-up the fretboard. In this guide, you say Jazzmasters are one of the most intricate DIY setup guitars. Do you recommend I have the guitar setup professionally first? And if I choose to do it myself, is this guide still relevant and dependable for the MIM series?

    2.) This is probably a stupid question, but how bad is it to completely unstring a guitar? I've been removing all the strings and then putting new ones on for years now, with my stratocaster. As I said, I don't really toy with it other than re-stringing it, but I'm looking to get "personal" with my Jazzmaster... so I'm guessing you recommend unstringing string-by-string... Why though?

    Sorry for the long post, but I figure you're definitely the guy to ask.


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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