Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Fender Jazzmaster Pickup Covers - the details of the Jazzmaster look

Today I want to talk about a subject near and dear to every Jazzmaster owner's heart: pickup covers! This will hopefully be the definitive post on the subject, and more info than anyone could ever need.

One of the easiest and cheapest ways to change the appearance of any Fender guitar is by replacing the plastic bits. On the Jazzmaster, many of these parts are standard Fender, shared between many guitars, and consequently available in various colors.

But the pickup covers are unique, and showing off those massive single coils is a huge part of the Jazzmaster look.  And Fender has screwed us all there.

Fender makes plastic for their other guitars in four official colors:
  • White - stark, bright and "new" looking
  • Parchment - slightly aged, reddish off-white
  • Aged White - very yellow beige
  • Black - like your soul
Fender USA (and Mexico) currently make Jazzmaster pickup covers in one color only: Aged White. Fender Japan also makes their covers in one color only: White. Buy a 1962 or 1965 American Vintage Reissue and you'll get Aged White; buy a Fender Japan Jazzmaster and you'll get bright White. Now, this presents a couple problems if you want a more realistic vintage look:
  1. Fender Japan pickups sometimes (often?) have slightly different pole spacing than US ones. They are not necessarily compatible with US covers and vice versa.
  2. Neither country's Fender company makes a color that really looks "right".
All Fender guitars through the 1960's came with white plastic parts - not off-white, not aged white. If you bought a new guitar in 1962, it would have come with pickup covers, knobs and tips that were white. The linked photo is a real 1965 - not a reissue - that was bought and then kept in a case all these years. That's your reference for how these guitars really looked. Here's another view. So why does Fender USA only make aged white covers these days? Simple: it's factory relicing. And while a slight off-white might be more pleasing than stark bright white, "aged white" is just taking it too far.

Aged white actually looks okay on some color schemes - for example it's not horrible on the stock black with tort pickguard:

But it looks cartoonish on any sort of guitar with a mint pickguard:

It's context - it's like that optical illusion about which box is brighter.

I have seen plenty of vintage Jazzmasters and not many of them have pickup covers that yellow. A small percentage come close, and the environment the guitar has been in plays a role, but most look like this 1965 Jazzmaster, or this one that looks a little older. 9 times out of 10, the plastic parts are lighter than any mint pickguard, more off-white than anything.

In fact, my current knobs are real 1960's witch hats, made out of presumably the same ABS plastic as Fender's original pickup covers. This photo pretty closely approximates their true color:
It's not even close to "aged white".  By the way, more on those particular pickup covers below.

So let's say you're in one of these situations:
  • Just bought a new JM, want it to look either a little less fake relic'd (USA) or a little less like a "closet classic" (Japan)
  • Just replaced your pickups and your current covers don't quite fit right, as in the below photo (where I've already tried scratching out some of the plastic to let the pole pieces through)

Your aftermarket options are basically these:

1) Mojotone - bright white, black or "cream" (same as aged white) covers to fit USA pole spacing. Their black is glossy but a little greyish.

2) Allparts - bright white or black covers to fit Japan pole spacing (regardless of what their web site says). Their black is matte.

3) No-name Ebay stuff - same color options but it's completely hit or miss whether you'll get glossy, matte, whether black is actually black, etc. Check the part numbers if any are offered, because often this stuff is Allparts (but not always).

Note that Fender has historically used ABS plastic, while Allparts and Fender Japan seem to use Nylon. I'm not sure what Mojotone uses, but see my comments on the tea trick below.

For what it's worth, the pickup covers in the two photos above are Allparts, which I bought in a futile attempt to try to fix my pole spacing with the Japanese covers. Allparts parts for JM are really frustrating, in my experience - all of their stuff looks and feels like OEM stuff, very solid, but it's just impossible to predict if it's going to fit right.  My white covers were exactly the same as my Japanese ones - they were the same cover, no doubt made in the same factory. Consequently, they did not fit my new USA-spaced pickups. I've since bought a pair of black Allparts covers that were the same - the holes did not line up (and the finish was an ugly matte, although some might prefer this).

These black ones below are no-name Ebay covers - they don't look like either Mojotone or Allparts, but they are the best I've seen and they fit USA spacing:

I just lucked out with those. I've since scratched one of them and have been searching in vain for where to buy them separately (they came as part of a black parts kit).

Here are the Mojotone white covers on the same red CIJ Jazzmaster as above (with the same pickups):

Pretty perfect fit. With USA pickups (including on AVRI guitars), I recommend these if you want to get rid of the yellow AVRI covers and still keep a light color scheme - there is no better option. The only thing I don't really like is that they seem a little thicker than my other covers - they're a very tight fit in the pickguard, and the pole pieces (which are already a little low on the Antiquity II's) are almost submerged. But this is not unusual to see on a real vintage Jazzmaster.

Here are the Mojotone vs. Fender covers:

But can you soften that stark white look any to approximate the off-white look of real vintage parts? Well, you can try the tea trick:

This is a well-known shortcut to aging white Fender plastic. Simply make some strong black tea (it works better than coffee), cool it down until it's lukewarm, then stick your plastic parts in it for a few hours to a few days. That's how I warmed up the look of my tremolo tip above (compare its color to the pickup covers, and to the actually-50-year-old knobs). You're looking for a real molecular color change, not just something you can wipe off. It's easy to be fooled when you first take plastic out of the tea - make sure you rinse and wipe your parts to see the true color. If they haven't changed enough, put them back. I've done this for up to three days with other parts - don't worry, they're not going to drown.

The problem is all the modern white pickup covers I've ever seen - Allparts, Fender Japan and Mojotone - are somehow resistant to the tea trick in a way that Fender's USA-made white parts are not.  This makes me think the Mojotones are made of Nylon too. I only noticed a slight change after nearly a day steeping in tea. But it's still worth doing to take the edge off. It's just gonna take time in the sun after that...

Until Fender USA decides to make white Jazzmaster pickup covers, this is probably the best we can do to approximate a true vintage look.

For USA pickups (either factory or replacement): Mojotone white, Ebay black (look for a parts kit), Fender USA aged white (if you like that look)

For Japan pickups (factory pickups): there's no reliable replacement pickup option. Allparts white and black both fit mine. But some years of Japanese-made Jazzmasters seem to have USA spacing, so it's kind of a crap shoot.

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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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