American vs. Japanese Fender Jazzmasters: What’s the Difference?

Many Stratocaster and Telecaster players will tell you that Japanese-built Fender guitars are on par with American-made guitars, and a few will even insist that the consistency of the Japanese-built Fenders makes them even better. The Japanese builders got it right with all of the classic Fender models except for one: the Jazzmaster.

There are quite a few differences between American and Japanese made Jazzmasters. A completely detailed examination would possibly crash the Internet, so we’ll focus on three critical differences and explore how much those differences matter in your personal search for the right guitar.

Pickups

Any comparison/contrast probably should start with the pickups and there is a lot of confusion surrounding Jazzmaster pickups, even from those very people who set out to reissue them.

Left: MIJ Pickup; Right: MIA Pickup

The pickups in Japanese-built Jazzmaster reissues may look the part, but that’s where the similarities end. The original Jazzmaster’s pickup bobbin was very shallow, meaning the coil radiated outward. This wide “pancake winding” is what gave the guitar it’s distinctive, mellow tone. It’s fair to ask what the designers of the Japanese reissue had in mind when they made the bobbin deeper, thus creating a narrower coil, similar to a Stratocaster or Jaguar pickup. This photograph clearly shows the difference between the two.

According to pickup guru Curtis Novak, who offers many traditional and nontraditional replacement options, the Japanese and American Jazzmaster pickups sound nothing alike. Conventional wisdom used to be that for the cost of upgrading a Japanese model — with new pickups, electronics and hardware — it made more sense to buy a USA model, which had the correct original specs. However, according to Novak, in recent years great improvements have been made not only to the Japanese guitars but also to the Mexican and various Squier models.

“If you have the opportunity to sit in a room with a lot of them, play them unplugged and you’ll hear that some of them sound considerably better than others,” Novak said. “That’s because of the wood. Find a good one, upgrade the pickups and electronics, and you’ll have a very nice guitar on your hands.”

Interestingly, many Mexican-built Classic Player Jazzmasters are assembled from parts that were made in the USA. Though there are still some differences, you’ll find plenty of people singing the praises of these guitars with only one major complaint — you guessed it — the pickups are different than those in U.S.-built Jazzmasters.

American Jazzmaster Pickup

Japanese Jazzmaster Pickup

While standard Jazzmaster pickups often are confused with Gibson-style P90s, they actually are constructed with magnetized pole pieces, while actual P90s use a single magnet under the coil. In the case of the Classic Player, however, the pickups are indeed constructed like a P90. So forget about getting a classic spec Jazzmaster by buying a Mexican-made model. Incidentally P90-style pickups also come stock in the highly praised Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster, which is built in China.

Tokai, Fuji Gen and Dyna Gakki

A major gap in quality narrowed between the Japanese and U.S. models in 1997, when Fender shifted manufacturing of Jazzmasters in Japan to Tokai Gakki from Fuji Gen Gakki. This is also the year when they began labeling them with “Crafted In Japan” (CIJ) instead of “Made in Japan” (MIJ) on the back of the neck just above the heel, which gives current buyers a quick way to tell the difference. Simple, right? Not so fast.

Though a few have made their way out of their country of origin, Tokai-built Jazzmasters are not built for export to the United States; those are made by Dyna Gakki. Is there a difference? The Tokai-built Jazzmasters certainly have their legions of followers and are regarded as the best non-U.S. models, but nobody seems to dispute Tokai- and Dyna-built instruments are much preferable to Fuji Gen Gakki models in terms of fit and finish.

Hardware

John "Woody" Woodland is a legend in Jazzmaster circles, having invented the Mastery Bridge, which is an extremely popular upgrade for these guitars, solving age-old tuning-stability and string-tension problems associated with the original Fender design. However, Woodland also is an accomplished luthier who knows the model inside and out.

“Overall construction of the U.S. models is just better,” Woodland says. “The fret wire, nut and hardware are higher quality. The main thing I tell people is, whether it’s a U.S. or CIJ model, you always have to start with playability.” Like Novak, Woodland believes the most important feature is for the guitar to feel and sound good, even before it’s plugged in.

Electronics

Well-known Jazzmaster modifier Michael Adams, of Seattle’s Mike & Mike’s Guitars Bar, insists that, along with pickup replacement, the most important major improvement you can make to your Japanese-built Jazzmaster is the electronics.

“People forget that the wiring and pots in those guitars are cheap and noisy, unlike in the U.S models,” Adams says. “It’s so inexpensive to replace those components with quality stuff, though. The most useful feature of the guitar is the tone circuit, so putting in a quality 333 capacitor will change things dramatically. While you’re in there, line the cavity with shielding tape, which is cheap. Jazzmaster pickups are reverse wound to reduce hum, but that only works when both are engaged. These upgrades will reduce hum, especially when only one pickup is in use.”

You also should know that if you decide to modify your Jazzmaster, most Japanese models use metric measurements. In the case of a pickguard swap, this could mean tapping a few extra screw holes, which is no big deal. Regarding pickup covers, however, it might mean you’ll need new ones owing to slightly different pole piece spacing. Whether you’re dealing with Novak or other respected suppliers, like Lollar, Mojotone or Seymour-Duncan, make sure to ascertain whether you’ll need to purchase new covers as well.

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How to Decide

If you are in love with the classic Jazzmaster sound, your best bet is to invest in an American Vintage Reissue, or a vintage guitar if you can afford it. However, starting with a Japanese model and upgrading the electronics and hardware to meet, or even exceed, current U.S. spec is a great choice too.

If you’re looking to add humbuckers or modify the switching anyway, there are many affordable options out there to get you started. Plus you can modify incrementally as your budget allows, rather than dropping all of the cash at once, and have a usable guitar in the interim. Just start with the right instrument as a foundation.

If you are in the market for a Jazzmaster because you love the way they look, you may find that even with their nontraditional features Mexican or Japanese Fender Jazzmasters, or even Chinese-built Squier Jazzmasters suit your needs as-is.

“It’s really so simple: a good guitar is a good guitar and a bad guitar is a bad guitar,” Adams says. “You’ll know when you have the right one.”

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