Former Chicago Music Exchange sales manager, video star and photography specialist Shelby Pollard launched his Black Bobbin brand in 2020 with a series of batch project partnerships that began with coffee and Jazzmaster pickups and has now blossomed to include custom electric guitars and more. We catch up with Shelby at Black Bobbin HQ in Chicago to get the skinny on the Custom JM – a six-string love-letter to Leo Fender’s most famous offset design.
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“I had this idea to do a line of guitars because the used and vintage market is crazy,” he tells us over, inevitably, a fine cup of Black Bobbin’s flagship medium-roast blend. “The bubble is gonna burst and someone is going to be left holding this investment they made and they are gonna lose a lot of money – it’s just a really weird period in time.
“Anyway, I was trying to figure out how I was going to move guitars, because a lot of what I’d been doing was taking the pickups we’d designed, and the pots, and doing makeover kits. People would send me their guitar, or they’d buy a new guitar and have it sent here first and I’d do the work and have it sent back out to them.”
Then it struck him: why should Bill Nash and Danocaster’s Dan Strain have all the partscaster fun?
“I was like, ‘I can do this too’,” says Pollard. “I was gonna do MJT bodies and Musikraft necks and just part ’em together at the house. Then I happened to hop into a conversation with Shad Warrell at Iconic Guitars. He’d messaged me about some pickups for him, personally. I was like, ‘If you’re gonna buy some pickups, why don’t we build some guitars together?’ I wanted to do my own line of Jazzmasters and it just kind of serendipitously happened.”
Ahead of the curve
Of course, if you want to avoid a cease-and-desist letter, it’s not quite as simple as that. For a new line of instruments made in partnership with Iconic Guitars, Shelby had the challenge of creating an original headstock design that didn’t infringe any intellectual property copyrights, and wasn’t too jarring or just plain ugly. Happily, the answer already existed in the timeless outline of the Jazzmaster’s offset body.
“I had to fix the age-old problem of how to make a headstock that doesn’t suck,” he laughs. “How do I skirt lawsuits and also make something cool? I just kept staring and staring at my guitars hung up on the wall, and I was like, ‘The lines are already in the body’. So I took two of the contours from the body and mimicked them, and mixed it with a nice Bigsby-style ball.”
The Bigsby reference came about thanks to some reading Shelby had been doing on the legacy of the legendary guitar innovator. “I was reading a book about Paul Bigsby, and there was a section about the influence Paul had on Leo Fender,” he says. “What if Leo had done a proper headstock for the Jazzmaster? And what if he was still going in the direction of Bigsby? The Tele has its own thing, then we moved to the Strat that has its own thing… this is what I imagine the Jazzmaster’s headstock could have been.”
Arguably, back in 1958, the Fender Jazzmaster deserved to be unveiled with something more dramatic than the slightly enlarged take on the Strat peghead that it ended up with. Shelby agrees. “When the Jazzmaster was first released it was the top of the line,” he argues. “It was the most expensive guitar they had done – they went all-in. Obviously it didn’t take off that way, but it was really Leo’s vision for the future of the company.”
There’s a school of thought that extra headstock mass delivers tonal advantages. And when we pick up and play the Black Bobbin Custom JM, it’s a resonant beast indeed. “I’ve always been a huge believer that the neck is really where you’re getting the most out of the guitar,” says Shelby. “That was from time spent at the Fender Custom Shop talking to guys like Dennis Galuszka. If you put your head at the end of the headstock you get all that sonic experience coming from the back of the headstock, because all that information is travelling through that piece of wood.”
Rather than present prospective buyers with a bewildering array of custom options, the Custom JM comes with a smartly curated list of specifications that are baked in. These include Mastery hardware, exclusive Lollar Black Bobbin pickups and a vintage-tinted neck with a sumptuous satin finish.
“From my time at CME, I realised that people are paralysed by too many choices,” Shelby explains. “So I did all the heavy lifting. I wanted to make this as vintage-spec as possible with modern upgrades for the best playing experience, then give customers complete creative control over the finish package.
“Fretwork, the finish on the back of the neck, the tint, all of that stuff is locked in. It’s not the satin finish that Fender does – it’s a satin nitrocellulose finish that feels more like it’s oiled. The bodies have a nice, flat NOS finish so it’s gonna relic really great and age really well. I’m not doing any relics – I feel like the industry has spent so much time making guitars look old instead of making them sound old. Especially in the offset world, there’s enough out there already and I’m not jumping on the bandwagon. I want this to be the best new guitar you’ve ever played.”
The rationale is simple: as a vintage Jazzmaster owner and offset aficionado, Shelby has done the hard yards so you don’t have to. All you need to do is settle on the cosmetics. “I’m coming from a place where I don’t like to play new guitars,” he says. “That was the need I was trying to fill in my own life!
“The vintage market is completely blown out and unattainable for people and new guitars are kind of… blah! So this is something vintage-inspired. I’ve taken all of my knowledge and asked all the right questions for you. Now, what colour do you want? What kind of ’guard do you want? That’s how easy I want to make it for people.”
To find out more about the Black Bobbin Custom JM and read about Shelby’s latest collaboration – the semi-hollow Bunting Willow JM – head to blackbobbin.com.