15 of the most iconic offset guitarists
For decades, Jazzmasters, Jaguars, Firebirds and many other offsets have been the go-to instruments for pioneering outsider musicians. Here’s our pick of 15 offset-guitar heroes.
Sharon Van Etten with her Fender Jaguar. Image: Christie Goodwin / Redferns via Getty Images
Offset guitars aren’t just for hip indie kids and surf-rock revivalists – Jazzmasters, Jaguars and Firebirds have been the go-to guitars for a wide range of iconic artists across the whole musical spectrum. Here are some of the most iconic offset guitarists of them all.
The My Bloody Valentine man didn’t just play offsets – he changed the way they could be played. When MBV abandoned the goth-rock of their 1985 debut release This Is Your Bloody Valentine, it was Shields’ unusual ‘glide guitar’ technique that powered the band’s evolution into noisy shoegaze.
The band took two albums and a handful of EPs to hone the genre they helped pioneer. Isn’t Anything, MBV’s first full-length, and follow-up EPs Glider and Tremolo are like diaries of Shields’ experimentation with his favoured Fender Jazzmasters and Jaguars. He had set out to create an “infinite horizon” of near-cacophonous guitars through a combination of open tunings, unique use of the offsets’ floating tremolo and stacks of fuzz.
He would perfect these techniques on Loveless, and as a fitting tribute to the instrument that defined the record, a washed-out photo of a Jazzmaster adorns the album art. Even as he revitalised his sound with jungle- and acid-fuelled beats on 2013’s m b v, it’s impossible to look past Shields’ most significant contribution to music: that the whole hipsters-with-offsets trend sprung from his slouching shoulders.
The 2019 Grammys turned out to be an unlikely victory for guitar aficionados. Rather than the mumble rappers and DJs who dominate today’s charts, two electric six-strings snagged the leading roles at the ceremony: R&B starlet H.E.R.’s clear Strat, and St. Vincent’s funky offset-bodied Music Man signature.
The latter is much more than a showpiece instrument for Annie Clark, a player who stands shoulder to shoulder with the rock deities that came before her. Clark is known for her idiosyncratic new-wave chops that are as indebted to Elvis Costello as Prince, hence her MM’s retro-inspired good looks and versatile triple-pickup configuration.
There are practical and symbolic rationales behind the Ernie Ball’s unorthodox, retrofuturistic shape, too. One, it makes the guitar smaller and lighter – Clark has has mentioned that she considers Les Pauls and old-school Strats, as great as they are, to be unwieldy and heavy.
Perhaps more significantly, it’s an emblem of both St. Vincent’s reverence of tradition and her desire to break out from it. “I made this guitar for players,” she explained in an Ernie Ball video. “The design of the guitar… everything was incredibly purposeful, but it was also spontaneous in a certain way. The shape that I drew initially at the factory ended up being pretty similar to how [the guitar] ended up. You’re honouring the past, you’re taking the knowledge of various people who’ve cultivated and passed it forward. But you’re also going, ‘Cool, we’ll take that. But let’s do something else. Let’s find out what’s in the future.’”
Her quote mirrors what Kevin Shields had to say about the Jazzmaster body shape: “They knew how to make things look like they’re going forward. It’s kind of flying through space.” All that from a guitar – before you’ve even strummed a chord.
The Austrian artist may be more widely known in experimental and electronic-music circles, yet it’s turbulent guitar work that underpins his prickly ambient compositions. A Kevin Shields fetishist, Fennesz swapped a Stratocaster for a Jazzmaster to record all the electric guitar sounds on his 2008 opus, Black Sea.
Symphonic, vast and unsettling, the album is built upon guitars manipulated beyond recognition by digital plug-ins and custom-made stompboxes – a mesmerising mix of shoegaze, Brian Eno and Autechre. His collaborations with Ryuichi Sakamoto (Sala Santa Cecilia, Cendre) and the late Sparklehorse (In The Fishtank 15) are persuasive evidence that there’s plenty of unfulfilled potential for the electric guitar beyond the rock arenas.
“I liked the tone spectrum of the Jazzmaster better and the way you could play behind the bridge,” he told Guitar Moderne in a 2015 interview. “It is more of an improvising instrument, whereas you have to play the Stratocaster much more precisely to get great tone – the Jazzmaster is more forgiving. If you are a lousy player, it still sounds okay.”
The Nirvana icon’s love for the Mustang has been well documented in interviews, live performances and the posthumously released Journals. Cobain even went as far to admit it’s his favourite guitar in the world – no idle talk coming from a punk rocker so hostile to the worship of gear.
One of his earliest Mustangs wasn’t a Fender, but a Greco copy. He used that guitar and a Univox Hi-Flier during the Bleach era, then picked up his first Fender Mustang (a 1973 one) as Nirvana were touring in support of the debut LP. As the urban legend goes, that vintage Mustang – and the Hi-Flier – met its demise at a 1989 gig in New Jersey.
Later on, during the Nevermind recording sessions, Cobain started playing a 1965 Fender Jaguar and a 1969 Lake Placid Blue Mustang with a Competition Stripe. Both these guitars became his trusted go-tos live and in the studio, and offsets soon became as synonymous with Cobain as his oversized cardigans were.
Around 1993, the grunge icon approached Fender with a cut-and-paste collage of a Jaguar and Mustang. Two prototypes of the Jag-Stang were built, but, sadly, Cobain only used one of them for a handful of shows before his tragic passing in April 1994.
Which slacker guitar child of the 90s didn’t grow up on the Feel The Pain riff? And which one of them didn’t, eventually, pine after the vintage Fender Jazzmasters that the Dinosaur Jr. guitarist towed out to all his gigs? He may currently use 1963 and 1965 Jazzmasters as his main and backup instruments respectively, but his love affair with offsets began when he purchased a $300 Jazzmaster back in the 80s.
“The only person I ever thought of with the Jazzmaster at that point was Elvis Costello,” J said in an interview with Fender. “So I learned how to play the guitar [on it]. I used the whammy bar a lot for the songs I was writing, so it became part of my style. It kind of became my guitar because that’s the only one I had. I bought other guitars over the years but, live especially, for the Dinosaur songs, I can only play the Jazzmaster.”
Today, Jazzmaster and J are so entwined that it’s tough to think of one without the other. So it’s only fitting that Fender chose to recognise the relationship with several signature Jazzmasters for the Massachusetts native: a sparkling purple guitar with a tune-o-matic-style bridge that appeared on his first-ever Jazzmaster, and a white Squier with a vintage-style bridge and an anodised gold pickguard.
In her heyday, the proto-punk poet and leading lady of the Downtown Scene was fond of her 1957 Fender Duo-Sonic. The guitar appears in many press photos of Smith back in the 70s, and it was immortalised in the title track of her beatific 1976 record, Radio Ethiopia. “When I see Brancusi/ His eyes searching for the infinite abstract spaces/ In the rude hands of sculptor/ Now gripped around the neck of a Duo-Sonic,” she screeches.
Sure, Patti isn’t a ‘guitarists’ guitarist’ in the traditional sense. That plaudit would have to go to Lenny Kaye, who played in the Patti Smith Group, and Fred “Sonic” Smith of MC5, who collaborated with – and married – her. Furthermore, she’s more occasionally spotted with an acoustic these days. But for inspiring female guitarists such as Liz Phair (another Duo-Sonic user), Cat Power and St. Vincent, and for how effortlessly cool she looks with the guitar in those photos, we just had to save a spot on this list for her. Oh, and did we mention she also cut a record with Kevin Shields?
Although Fender designed the Jazzmaster for jazz cats, upon its release in 1958, they weren’t biting. So in their stead rode the surf-rockers, who took to the guitar’s rad looks, thicker-than-a-Strat tone and eccentric ‘tremolo’ system – and at the crest of that new wave of guitar playing, you have Bob Bogle.
The lead guitarist and co-founder of The Ventures famously rocked a 1960 Jazzmaster, in Three-Colour Sunburst, with a ‘slab’ rosewood fretboard. You’ll spy it on the covers of The Colorful Ventures and The Ventures, two of the Washington band’s earliest records. But it was Walk Don’t Run, the group’s second single, that propelled the sound of the electric guitar – let alone the Jazzmaster – to the mainstream. In fact, George Blanda, one of Fender’s master builders, admitted that Walk Don’t Run was “the first song where I really understood what ‘electric guitar’ sounded like”.
“The Jazzmaster has a certain sound that no other guitar has,” Bogle’s bandmate and rhythm guitarist Don Wilson said. “And that sound is so unique, so warm and yet tough. There’s no guitar like this.”
Sharon Van Etten
Before her 2012 breakthrough album Tramp, Van Etten was predominantly known as an acoustic player. She got a hollowbody when she started writing “more aggressive songs”, yet it wasn’t until The National’s Aaron Dessner recorded and co-produced Tramp that Van Etten found herself in the company of a Fender Jaguar. “He had a Jaguar, and I had never played one before,” she recalled in an interview with Fender. “[Dessner and his brother] introduced me to the wonderful world of the Jaguar.”
She picked up her current number one, a 1965 Jaguar, during rehearsals for that album, too. It was put on sale by the people Van Etten was sharing the space with – and she bought it. “I felt like I lucked into it,” she said. “I just fell in love with the tone, how it felt. It’s solid and heavy – but it’s not too heavy – and it has such an awesome, thick, lush sound.”
Fast-forward to the present, and the singer-songwriter is charting her way to mainstream success with the release of Remind Me Tomorrow in January 2019. And that vintage Jaguar has remained by her side through the many gigs, studio sessions and TV guest spots. The guitar even starred in the third season of Twin Peaks, when Van Etten filled in for Julee Cruise on the Roadhouse stage.
Neither Dave Grohl nor even the late great Johnny Winter can claim to be as obsessed with their Firebirds as the Roxy Music guitarist is to his Cardinal Red 1964 VII. Manzanera can be seen brandishing the Gibson in the For Your Pleasure inner sleeve, and, perhaps tired of the supermodels that grace most Roxy Music album covers, he even featured the guitar on the front of his solo record (which, aptly enough, is titled Firebird V11). Not bad for an instrument that cost him just £150 when he purchased it second-hand in the 70s.
While the art-rock band may be better known for Bryan Ferry’s insouciance and Brian Eno’s synth odysseys, Manzanera’s own guitar experiments shouldn’t be overlooked. He claims the Firebird VII worked well with effects, and in the first two Roxy Music records, you’ll hear it distorted and mangled by Eno’s VCS 3 synthesiser. Primitive Guitars, Manzanera’s 1982 solo LP, pushed him further leftfield: all its way-out-there sounds, except the percussion and bass, were produced by guitars.
It took a pair of rappers to bring the underrated guitarist back into the public eye. Kanye West and Jay-Z took his solo track K-Scope, sampled a spidery riff and slowed it down to a grind. You’ll hear the result – which Manzanera himself dubbed “genius” – throughout 2012’s No Church In The Wild. That the tune also soundtracked the trailer for The Great Gatsby makes Manzanera’s Firebird one of the most widely heard in recent memory.
After surf-rock wiped out and the titans of the 70s lorded over rock, aspiring Jimmy Pages thought of offset guitars as old-fashioned relics from the old days. But fashion, as they say, is cyclical. Enter a skinny, bespectacled Englishman of Irish descent whose physical resemblance to Buddy Holly belied a musical style infused with the raw energy of punk and classic songwriting sensibilities. And the instrument on which he staked his claim to fame? You’ll find it front and centre on his 1977 debut My Aim Is True: a Jazzmaster.
Although most of the lead work on the LP came courtesy of John McFee, that famous album cover cast a long shadow. Costello, with that characteristic bent-knee pose, was elevated to iconic status along with the guitar that brought him there. It’s ironic, given how he hadn’t even heard of Jazzmasters when he found one in a London shop and traded his CBS Telecaster for a “Strat that someone had cut away a bit of”.
Costello picked up another Jazzmaster, which was later refinished in ‘greyburst’ with his stage name emblazoned across the fretboard. It ended up sticking to him throughout his career, in studio recordings, gigs and music videos. Even as recently as 2018, Costello would sling it at his concerts, along with his original Jazzmaster, now refinished in red.
So it’s fitting that, in 2008, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Jazzmaster, Fender released an Elvis Costello signature based on his beloved instrument. “This is a brutal-sounding guitar,” Costello said at the time of the guitar’s launch. “And I’ve just always stuck with it; I always come back to it. I’ve done all sorts of different music, but whenever it’s involved electric guitar, I don’t think there’s one record I’ve made on which the Jazzmaster doesn’t feature somewhere.”
Lee Ranaldo & Thurston Moore
From the indie-rock urgency of Teen Age Riot to the noisy excursions of their own SYR label, Sonic Youth are a band that resist neat categorisation. And the twin engines that power this creative force are Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Their reliance on offsets has been well documented in guitar circles, and they even received their own Fender signature Jazzmasters back in 2009.
In an interview with Fender, Ranaldo explains how Sonic Youth got hooked on the guitar. “Sometime in ’87 or ’88, someone sold us a Jazzmaster,” he recalls. “When [Thurston and I] discovered the longer scale that it has [as compared to a Jaguar], we both immediately gravitated towards that. There’s just something about it, the way the body shape is, the way it straps on or when you’re sitting down, it just seemed like the perfect guitar shape. I find it a lot more comfortable than any other guitar shape imaginable.”
If there’s a guitarist who best represents the offset’s association with unorthodox playing styles, it’s Tyondai Braxton.
After departing the band he co-founded, Battles, he took a hard left into experimental, electronic and modern classical music. Collaborations with Philip Glass, Steve Reich and orchestras around the world followed his 2010 exit from the influential math rock outfit – no surprises there, given that Tyondai’s also the son of jazz great Anthony Braxton.
And the guitar that followed him onto the vaunted orchestral halls is an unmarked Jazzmaster-shaped instrument with, interestingly enough, a stoptail bridge. Even while he was in Battles, Tyondai used a custom Healy Guitars Jazzmaster model, which he called his “first really nice instrument”, back in 2007. He may have turned his attention to modular synthesizers in recent years, but his solo debut record Central Market (2009) remains one of the most engaging and explosive art-rock albums ever released.
The electric blues maestro is a sworn Firebird devotee, having slung his 1963 Firebird V model for the better part of his career. So inseparable were the pair that there have been a number of Gibson Custom Shop models that replicated every scratch and scuff – even the cigarette burn marks – on Winter’s original.
“I was initially attracted to the Firebird because I liked the way it looked,” Winter said in an interview. “When I played it, I discovered I liked the way it sounded too. The Firebird is the best of all worlds. It feels like a Gibson, but it sounds closer to a Fender than most other Gibsons. I was never a big fan of humbucking pickups, but the mini humbuckers on the Firebird have more bite and treble.”
Elvis Costello may have pioneered the style, but it was Tom Verlaine who laid the blueprint for the Jazzmaster sound with his 1958 Fender model. Angular, crisp and in emphatic defiance of 70s rock ’n’ roll traditions, Verlaine’s tone and style in Television was as influential as all the Pages, Hendrixes and Claptons. From Sonic Youth and Galaxie 500 to The Strokes and Nels Cline, bands of the indie-rock persuasion owe a huge debt to the Television guitarist.
However, unlike how Costello stumbled upon his first Jazzmaster, Verlaine favoured the offset simply because it was cheaper. “They’re really problematic tuning-wise, but they were the cheapest guitars in the 70s, so I’m used to them,” he said. And his workaround for tuning instability – to use really heavy string gauges – also contributed to his signature sound.
All sorts of oddball guitars have starred in The Cure frontman’s collection over the decades, from a Fender XII to a custom Dubreuille to the comparatively tame Jazzmaster. But these days, the electric guitar he uses most is his own artist model: the Schecter Robert Smith UltraCure. You’ll spot him use this exclusively on stage – at The Cure’s massive 40th anniversary concert, in 2018, he whipped out several variations of the model.
Schecter, though, only builds two production versions of the UltraCure. One’s a 12-string with a hardtail, the other’s a Bigsby-equipped model, and both sport dual Seymour Duncan humbuckers on a chambered mahogany body.
Check out our buyer’s guide on the best boutique offset guitars.
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