There was a time when Fenders had single-coil pickups and Gibsons had humbuckers, and people were okay with that. You paid your money, took your choice. Then hard rock happened and suddenly everyone wanted more power from their pickups.
By the early 1970s, the chisels were out and humbuckers were in, no matter what you played. Fender got the message and released the twin humbucker-equipped Tele Deluxe and Thinline in 1972.
Later in the decade, tinkerer extraordinaire Edward Van Halen drove the point home by forcing a humbucker into the bridge position of a 'Strat-style' body and, well, the rest is history.
The legacy of that early tonal cross-fertilisation can be seen in these new Fender Blacktop guitars. The range consists of four classic Fender models - Telecaster, Stratocaster, Jazzmaster and Jaguar - each modified with humbucking pickups and a bunch of other features that include bolt-on maple necks with a gloss urethane finish, a 241mm (9.5- inch) fingerboard radius, medium jumbo frets and 'skirted' amp-style knobs.
The fact that the Blacktop Series is being marketed with downloads of sticker designs and stencils is a good clue to the type of player Fender is hoping to snare with this range. Young punk, metal and indie guitarists who wouldn't have considered a Fender as 'their thing' but might be tempted by the extra firepower on offer.
But where does that leave the rest of us?
Hand them the new Blacktop Jaguar HH and we reckon they'd say (even Kurt, hypothetically) something along the lines of, "Er, what happened to all the rollers and switches?" That would be shortly before they noticed that the floating vibrato with the long arm has also done a runner.
The Blacktop Jaguar HH has been stripped down to a point where we're not even sure if it qualifies as a Jag any more. The silhouette might be the same as its surf-friendly ancestor, first launched back in 1962, but this latest incarnation is a very different beast.
The original Jaguar came loaded with a pair of single-coils, but the HH has the same complement of Hot Alnico humbuckers as the Blacktop Tele and Strat.
To put it as nicely as possible, the original spec Jaguar is not without its quirks. It's over- engineered to a certain degree, with a dizzying layout of controls and a complex vibrato. Even die-hard Jaguar fans would have to admit that it suffers from annoying buzzes and rattles if it isn't set up right.
The height adjustment grub screws in the bridge saddles can work their way loose (a drop of clear nail varnish is one solution to that problem) and the vibrato can make a grating sound when the arm is moved.
So, while it's true that some of the charm of the original guitar is missing from the Blacktop version, the simple control layout and fixed tune-o-matic-style bridge and tailpiece arrangement make perfect sense for contemporary rock players.
The Jaguar's shorter 24-inch scale has made its way onto the spec sheet of the Blacktop model. When you figure in the same 241mm fingerboard radius and 22 medium jumbo frets you end up with probably the most playable Jaguar yet. By way of comparison, vintage spec Jags come with a 184mm (7.25-inch) fingerboard radius and thin frets.
The guitar was set up perfectly straight from the box. Heavier strings would be good, but that's a personal choice. Playability is uniformly excellent, with a comfortable action and easy string bending right up to the top frets.
The Jag has a slightly dark tone. It sounds good clean in all three pickup settings, but it really doesn't perk up until you dial-in some overdrive. Sustain is fantastic and you can really noodle away above the 12th fret. Not something you can say about a vintage Jag, that.
Some will see the Blacktop Series as a cynical marketing ploy designed to squeeze a bit more juice out of some very well-established designs. We did wonder about that, but what we discovered was an excellent guitar: the Jaguar HH represents one of the best instruments to come out of the Fender factory in Ensenada, Mexico. The build quality, playability and tone on offer are fantastic for the asking price.
There's no doubt that Fender is hoping to win some new fans with the Blacktop Series. That may or may not happen, but there's also something here for existing Fender fanatics.
The addition of humbuckers hasn't diluted what makes this classic Fender design great; instead, it's thrown up a bunch of great new tones.
The gene-splicing experiments that tone fiends inflicted on innocent guitars back in the day are now available as standard. And that means the chisel can stay in the toolbox where it belongs.