How Kurt Cobain – And Grunge – Saved The Fender Jaguar

The Fender Jaguar was meant to surpass the Fender Strat and the Tele. But this didn’t happen. On launch in the 1960s, it was something of a damp squib – until grunge came along…


The history of the Fender Jaguar isn’t pretty. The guitar was meant to be a successor model to the Fender Stratocaster, picking up where it left off with a newer, more modern design and improved electronics.

Initially launched in 1962, the Fender Jaguar was packed full of new technology and components; things like its spring-loaded rubber string mute, an innovation that was dubbed “the tone killer”, its floating bridge, and its more complex lead circuit configuration.

The idea with the Jaguar was to pull players away from Gibson’s ever-expanding range of guitars which – by the early 1960s – included iconic numbers like the Les Paul, SG, Explorer, and the Flying V. And that was fine, innovation is important. But many felt the Jaguar was needlessly “over-designed”.

Fender had also spent the 1950s playing David to Gibson’s Goliath in a remarkable game of design one-upmanship that gave the world several of its most enduringly acclaimed and successful electric guitar models. And the new top-line guitar model that Fender was preparing to unveil in 1962 included a major design departure specifically intended to appeal to Gibson players—a short scale.

Fender

But things didn’t exactly go to plan, as you’ll find out below…

The Design Concept Behind The Fender Jaguar

With Fender’s focus on adding in as much stuff as possible and upping the ante with the Fender Jaguar’s design, the cost of the guitar shot through the roof. When the Jaguar was initially released, it was more expensive than both the Fender Strat and the Tele.


The Jaguar wasn’t totally original, though; it borrowed heavily from the Fender Mustang with its “offset waist” body and vibrato unit. Physically, the two guitars are similar to look at, although I’d argue the Jaguar is the better-looking of the two.

Aesthetics aside, Fender did bring quite a few changes to the Jaguar such as its shorter 24-inch scale and a 22-fret neck. Fender also updated the pickups, using a smaller design and improved RF shielding which ensured a cleaner sound, free from interference.

The Jaguar’s lead circuit was more complex, with three slide switches on a chrome plate on the lower horn (compared to the Jazzmaster’s single toggle switch). The first two were on-off switches for each pickup; the third engaged a capacitor that served as a low-end filter, producing a more cutting treble tone (informally known as the “strangle” switch). The Jaguar’s rhythm circuit consisted of a single slide switch on the upper horn that delivered a more bass-heavy neck-pickup-only sound, with its own adjacent volume and inset tone wheels (all mounted to, of course, a chrome plate).

Fender

The Jaguar also used a rather unusual floating vibrato mechanism compared to the Strat and Tele’s “synchronized vibrato” system, whereby the bridge moved backward and forwards in sync with the strings. The idea with this was that it would allow the Jaguar to maintain better intonation, even when it was being thrashed, and hold its tune thanks to its built-in lock.

This was fine and dandy, but the initial models had other, major issues that stemmed from its threaded bridge saddles. This was a design fault, and it was fixed on reissue models. But the initial models suffered, most notably strings slipping out of alignment, which resulted in users swapping out parts and using things like tape to negate the problems.

And that’s never a good thing, especially on a guitar that was marketed as being “better” than the Fender Tele and the Strat. And a guitar that cost more than both of Fender’s most-loved guitars. But that’s just the beginning of the Jaguar’s turbulent birth and history…

The Beach Boys Liked The Fender Jaguar

The Fender Jaguar never sold well; it was pitched as a successor model to the Strat and Tele, a more sophisticated, complex model. It cost more. But it had issues, plenty of issues. And this caused the model a ton of headaches during its first few years on the market.

The intended demographic for the Fender Jaguar was Gibson guitarists; Fender wanted to lure them across. It believed the Jaguar, with all of its quirks, was its best chance of pulling this off. But this didn’t happen. The Fender Jaguar did not sell well – by Fender’s usual standards.

Who bought the Fender Jaguar then? Initially, not many people. The Fender Jaguar was popular in the Southern California surf-rock scene, however, and was used by The Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson and other experimental surf rock bands in the area.

The Fender Jaguar’s intended audience, Gibson players, didn’t bite, however, and stuck with their SG and Les Paul models. It’s also worth noting that during this era, the Flying V and Gibson Explorer were in production. And the ES, of course.

The Death of The Fender Jaguar

Fender persisted with the Fender Jaguar, though, adding in fixes for its issues, custom finishes, a bound neck, and other customizations but nothing worked, the Jaguar didn’t catch on, never enjoyed the success or appeal of the Strat, and was eventually discontinued in 1975.

But if you thought that was the end of the Fender Jaguar, think again! The Fender Jaguar did go into hibernation for a few decades, but it did make a comeback and it was inspired by a very unlikely group of men and women during the 1980s and 1990s.

How Grunge Saved The Fender Jaguar

Starting in the late-1980s and the early 1990s, the Fender Jaguar’s popularity started to skyrocket. The Jaguar was used by a bunch of prominent new wave and grunge guitarists; Kurt Cobain used a Fender Jaguar and is largely responsible for its resurgence and enduring popularity.

Who else played Fender Jaguar guitars? The list is long and distinguished and includes: Kevin Shields, Black Francis, J Mascis, Brian Molko, Rowland S. Howard, Thurston Moore, John Frusciante, Will Sergeant, and Johnny Marr.

How Kurt Cobain – And Grunge – Saved The Fender Jaguar
Kurt Cobain With His Fender Jaguar

Why was the Fender Jaguar so popular with grunge bands? Part of the reason was down to its bridge constriction. Bands like Sonic Youth used this unique bridge design to create tones and sounds that weren’t possible on other guitar models – things like chiming, this is achieved by strumming behind the bridge, and sympathetic resonance.

At this time, the early-1990s, the Fender Jaguar was extremely rare. The guitar itself was discontinued in 1975, so locating a model was extremely tricky – the internet didn’t exist back then. Tracking down a model took skill, contacts, and a big checkbook.

Rare guitars – even compromised ones – are seldom cheap.

But it was Kurt Cobain, more than anyone else, that popularised the Jaguar. He used a left-handed version which, at the time, was exceptionally rare. Cobain also played a Japanese-made Mustang/Jaguar hybrid dubbed the Jag-Stang.

The Jag-Stang hit production in the mid-1990s and was available from Fender Japan and Fender’s budget brand, Squier. The Jag-Stang remained in production for close to a decade and sold very well, again, thanks to the popularity of Cobain and Nirvana, especially after Cobain’s untimely passing in 1994.

Fender Jaguar Reissue

Following the meteoric rise of grunge and bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth, demand for the Fender Jaguar grew rapidly. Starting in 1999, Fender began making the Fender Jaguar once again. The first model released was a reissue of the 1962 version, as part of its American Vintage Reissue (AVRI) Series.

Fender Japan also made and released Jaguar models too; these were cheaper than US and Mexican Jaguars. The Fender Japan Jaguar was cheaper and used inferior components compared to the US-made versions. But the models proved popular with casual players both in Japan and the US and elsewhere.

Fender now refers to the Jaguar as “the little guitar that could” after its turbulent rise to popularity. At its time of release, the Jaguar more or less flopped. No one used it. The guitar did not sell well. And this saw it killed off in 1975. But as it turns out, Fender’s design choices would eventually save it and give it a second life as the preferred guitar of choice for new wave punk and grunge bands.

From the 1990s onwards, the Fender Jaguar has been a great seller for Fender. The model features inside its Squier brand too, allowing players to pick up cheaper, more affordable versions of the guitar. Production of the Jaguar continues today with Kurt Cobain signature models, a Player Edition, a ‘60s reissue, and a 2019 Limited Edition MIJ Traditional model to name just a few.

Kurt Cobain's Axe of Choice...
Fender Jaguar Series
$1245 - $2500

A classic guitar with a chequered history. Favored by Kurt Cobain and bands like Sonic Youth, the Fender Jaguar is quirky, unique, and totally unlike anything else. If you play experimental music, the Jaguar is one of the best in the business.

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But the Jaguar’s enduring popularity is all down to one man: Kurt Cobain. His use of the guitar resurrected the model, inspired other guitarists to use it, and helped Fender sell A LOT of guitars. And ironically, it was Fender’s insistence on adding in features that were considered overkill at the time of its initial release that eventually made the Fender Jaguar so popular with grunge bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth, as well as more modern bands like Arcade Fire, Wilco, and Placebo.

Richard

Richard has been playing guitar for over a decade and is a huge fan of metal, doom, sludge, and rock music in general – though mostly metal. Having played in bands and worked in studios since the early 2000s, Richard is a massive music production geek, a fan of minimalist recording techniques, and he really likes old-school guitars.

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