Ever since the Jazzmaster first hit the scene in 1958, the rest of us have been playing catch-up. It’s true that Leo Fender’s unique vision wasn’t universally accepted at the time, but in the modern era the offset body shape and sound is as beloved as ever, breaking from its former underdog status and taking its place among the other revered models of the Fender factory lineup.
Among the features that keep players coming back to the Jazzmaster (as well as its slightly younger and shorter sibling, the Jaguar) is the offset vibrato. It’s responsive, stable, and best of all, musical. When set up correctly, its range of pitch as impressive as its ability to snap right back in tune.
While vintage vibratos are highly coveted, and the American-made reissues work just fine, human nature all but requires that we find ways to build a better mousetrap, and as such, two of the biggest contenders on the scene have done just that.
Of course, we’re talking about the Mastery and Descendant vibratos, each with its own spin on the 60+ year old design. With thoughtful improvements and a few tweaks that make them well-suited for a number of different play styles and preferences, one (or both) of these aftermarket upgrades may just be the thing to suit your needs.
Luthier and guitar historian John “Woody” Woodland might be a familiar name to many in the guitar world, with the well-liked Mastery bridge mounted on scores of offset instruments. His roster includes a host of great players like Nels Cline, Jessica Dobson, Bill Frisell, Thurston Moore, Warpaint, Norah Jones, and so many others. He’s also repaired, designed, and built guitars in various capacities over the years, currently in conjunction with the Nothing brand, a partnership with Des Moines’ BilT guitars.
On top of that, his contributions to the collective knowledge of the guitar industry are numerous, like his work on Andy Babiuk’s book The Story of Paul Bigsby, his work uncovering and preserving the history of Martin Guitars, as well as his in-depth research and authentication services for the recent Julien’s Auction of Prince’s original “Cloud” instruments.
It’s this wealth of knowledge as well as Woody’s genuine love for the guitar that informs the design of the Mastery vibrato. It’s firmly rooted in the familiar Fender design, but that’s not to imply that it’s a replica or a recreation. Call it a remaster, if you will.
The Mastery Vibrato takes the primitive mechanics of the early Pat-Pend designs and honing them to perfection. Take, for instance, the thicker faceplate, which prevents the sinking caused by spring tension that can be found in certain, thinner vintage parts.
It’s undeniable that the Mastery is often far smoother in operation than some stock units, and part of that comes down to the fit of the string anchor plate and internal ‘pivot’ plate, with full-width contact between them instead of two tiny outcroppings under the E strings. This may also be partially responsible for the added body and resonance that we notice when swapping a stock part for the Mastery.
The Mastery’s spring also accounts for the smoothness with its increased tension, which requires a bit more pressure to actuate the arm than those most familiar with reissue Fender vibratos might expect. This sturdier carbon steel spring lends a taut feel to the downward movement of the strings, a feature that’s much more in line with the feel and operation of vintage vibratos from the ’58-’62 model years. These vibratos are all but legendary for their stiffer operation, and the Mastery pays homage to that tradition with ample resistance of its own.
The player is able to adjust spring tension in much the same way as any other, via the center screw on the body plate. This allows you to set the overall feel of the vibrato for more or less resistance, as well as how high the arm sits off the body. With the omission of Fender’s Trem-Lock button (a mechanical tuning memory in the event of string breakage) the Mastery lacks a guide for setting tension, but this shouldn’t scare off potential users. Our advice is best summed up by the words of Qui-Gon Jinn: “Feel, don’t think. Use your instincts.”
The Mastery vibrato is almost entirely made of stainless steel, and each stainless arm is “mated” to its particular vibrato by Mastery’s assembly staff, ensuring a tight, rattle-free fit. The amount of “swing” can be fully adjusted by the player, however this requires the unit be removed from the body. However, it only takes a few moments to make the change.
Underneath, you’ll find a screw and bolt on the arm housing, or “collet.” To change the arm’s swing, simply loosen the bolt with pliers, then use a flathead screwdriver to set the amount of play and tighten the nut again to finish. Note: as is the case with original Fender vibratos, it’s not recommended to remove and replace the arm often as this can wear on the fit between the collet and the arm itself.
All of the Mastery’s fittings are beautifully rendered and polished smooth, and the pivot plate mounting screws are countersuck, which all but eliminates the likelihood of string breakage at the ball end, a common issue with offset guitars.
Strings are loaded from the rear of the unit, with ball ends hidden under the awning of the anchor plate as shown, just like on the original Fender vibrato.
The Mastery is available in right and left-handed models with two main finish options for its stainless steel faceplate: brushed ($180USD) and highly polished ($200) as well as limited runs in black, gold, and many other colors of the rainbow.
It’s designed for a universal fit, so the Mastery can be retrofitted onto vintage, AVRI, MIJ/CIJ, and Squier guitars with ease. It’s also worth noting that the Mastery is a great fit for Jazzmaster and Jaguar, as well as baritone builds and even the mighty Bass VI.
If you’re looking for an uncomplicated yet utterly solid vibrato for your guitar, one that changes the feel but not the look, the Mastery vibrato is a fantastic choice.
A relative newcomer to the offset scene, the Descendant vibrato comes to the world by way of luthier Chris Swope, a former employee of Roger Sadowsky as well as the Gibson Custom Shop. His own line of guitars under the “Swope” brand have landed in the hands of The Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood, John Oates of Hall & Oates, and guitar slinger Andrew Sovine; they are meticulously made, immensely playable instruments with a unique personality.
The same can be said of the Descendant vibrato, dressed in stainless with an industrial look thanks to its “teeth” which enable the strings to dip beneath the body plate freely. More on that in a bit.
As a vibrato, the Descendant has a somewhat stiffer feel compared to US reissues, but slightly less so when compared with the Mastery or an early ‘60s “Pat Pend” part. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing –– on the contrary, this could be viewed as a bonus for players with a lighter touch. It’s still very smooth, and in our experience, requires less force to depress the arm.
Ultimately, we’re talking shades of difference here, and certainly a matter of preference. Some players may not even register such a minute variation, so we wouldn’t say one is necessarily an advantage over the other, just an option. Still, should you require more or less resistance, spring tension is adjusted in the same manner as previously mentioned, via a screw adjacent to the arm housing.
The Descendant is an attractive if not stylistically confident part, with a busier, more mechanical look than the deceptively simple air of the originals. Where Leo Fender often covered the internals of his designs with swooping ashtrays for a sleeker, space-age look, the Swope design wears its complexity on its sleeves. And that complexity is what sets apart the descendant from other aftermarket parts.
The crux of Swope’s design is the ability to sink the strings below the surface level of the body, increasing downward force on the bridge, resulting in improved resonance as well as the strings’ perceived playing tension, or “compliance.” This is totally unlike anything else on the market, and the deed is done by way of the two removable “drop-down” plates that come pre-installed in each Descendant vibrato.
Whether or not you’ll need both plates is, of course, up to the user; every guitar is different and may not require both plates. On my ’63 Jaguar, for instance, I found that both plates weren’t necessary to achieve the kind of feel I was after, and with only one installed my short scale guitar indeed sounded a bit louder with a stiffer feel. That difference between the number of installed plates seemed less noticeable on guitars with the full 25.5” scale length.
The greater angle of the strings flowing from the bridge to the string anchor has a deleterious effect on behind the bridge resonance, which may or may not be a good thing depending on the player. To be sure, you can still strum the length of string between the bridge and tailpiece and hear them, but general sympathetic vibrations from hard strumming seem to be greatly reduced.
The Descendent is strung not from the rear, but from the front of the unit thanks to Chris Swope’s anchor plate keyhole design. To string, insert the ball end of the string into the enlarged center hole, and slide to the right or left depending on which string you’re working with. From there, string as you normally would.
Our first time stringing the unit was admittedly tricky, an issue compounded by both inexperience as well as the routing of my particular vintage Jaguar body. With both plates installed, the string anchor plate was so close to the rear edge of the trem cavity that the ball ends physically couldn’t be fully inserted through the keyhole.
Thankfully, removing the second drop-down plate mostly alleviated the issues and made it far easier to string in this instance. This issue was not present with any of the other vintage bodies we tested, which seems to be indicative of the inconsistencies found in the Fender factory’s early output rather than an issue with the Descendant itself.
When strung, the strings are meant to dip below the vibrato’s face plate, a feat made possible by the cutouts which correspond to each string’s position. They’re both wide and long enough that there’s no chance of the usual string gauges catching on them, even with both drop-down plates in use.
One caveat here: with much larger string gauges like those used on the Bass VI, those cutouts can make inserting the ball end and sliding it to one side of the keyhole a slightly fraught process. It can work, but it does take some doing. There also exists a potential for contact between the string and the sides of the cutouts with Bass VI gauges.
The mechanism for adjusting for the amount of play in the arm is accessed from the face of the unit, enabling on-the-fly changes for different play styles. This is a tinkerer’s dream, and could prove a useful addition particularly in studio environments, allowing for a quick change from a stiff arm that’s at the ready, to a more pliable arm for shoegaze style dipped strumming.
Additionally, the arm itself is designed to be removed easily at the apex of its swing in the playing position. To remove, rotate the arm so that the tip is pointing toward you and pull it out. No need to worry about wear and tear here!
The Descendant is a great-feeling, great-sounding vibrato that affords the user more adaptability as well as some 21st Century quality of life features that make it a powerful piece of kit. If you’re looking for a vibrato with more control over break angle and string path as well as a more futuristic look, the Descendant is a great option.
The Descendant is available in right and left handed versions, both at USD$175.
At the end of the day, these two distinctive and fantastic vibratos may be a bit more alike than they are dissimilar, so it’s important to understand the features unique to each vibrato. Separately, the Mastery and Descendant approach the Leo Fender design in an interesting way, so ultimately it’s up to the player to decide which best fits their needs. We hope this short guide serves you well.
Follow Mike on Instagram @puisheen.