What I wanted was something that sounded like a “real” USA P-Bass from the ’70s – the sound of Heavy Rock and Punk / New-Wave when I was growing up1. This shouldn’t be difficult in principle as the ’70s was before all the aftermarket pickup options anyway, so the sound in my head was almost certain to be coming out of a normal mass-produced stock pickup made by Fender.
I theoretically wasn’t in a hurry, but I thought I’d do some research and see what people replace the pickup in a MIM precision with and… oh dear. This search leads down a twisty tunnel of infinite choice where there are hundreds of options and no-one agrees on anything2. Ok, this was not going to be easy 😉
bit lot more internet searching reveals that the choices divide into 3 groups:
- Sounds exactly like an “authentic” vintage pickup from ’58, ’62, ’63 (or whatever).
- Sounds like an “authentic” vintage pickup from ’58, ’62, ’63 (or whatever), but better!
- Sounds like a huge rock juggernaut that will crush everything in its path, destroy worlds, as hot as the centre of the sun etc. etc. etc.
This made things easier as better = more than I wanted to spend and huge = not what I was after, so I could eliminate those. The exactly category was a broader church that included a few cheaper pickups that people recommended and I wasn’t looking for a perfect facsimile anyway, so no point paying a fortune3.
I eventually came up with three candidates: Seymour Duncan SPB-1, Fender “Original Vintage” and EMG GZR. These were all in the £65 – £90 price range and there were good-sounding demos on YouTube of all three. None of them stood out though so it wasn’t an obvious sonic choice. In the end I chose the Fender, mostly because if anyone can make a Fender-sounding pickup it should be Fender themselves, but also because it came with a period-correct brass shielding and mounting plate and the spacer foam, so should be an easy replacement.
The cavity was shielded with a thin layer of conductive paint and the controls are all full-size with a decent jack socket.
All the pot fixing nuts were a bit loose and there was remnants of the plastic film that the pick-guard was covered with under them, so I removed that and tightened everything up properly.
The 50nF capacitor was a tiny ceramic disc, these aren’t great components4 and I had some proper 47nF film capacitors5 so I immediately replaced that. This will not make a significant difference to the sound, but it’s a small upgrade.
The next step was to snip the wiring, remove the old pickup then fit the new one. That is simple, although I had to loosen the strings off a bit to get the new pickup in as the brass grounding plate meant I couldn’t wiggle the two halves of the pickup around to slide under the strings.
I test assembled the new pickup and got the scratch-plate in position to check the fit and position of the mounting screws. Everything lined up fine after a bit of jiggling about so I temporarily put it together minus most of the pick-guard screws and gave it a test play to check the wiring was OK and I could adjust the heights properly.
Hmmm… it worked, but there were two small problems. The springy mounting foam wasn’t thick enough to get the pickups high enough and the magnet pole pieces stuck out proud of the covers. The sticking-out magnets are bad news as I am quite heavy-handed with my picking hand and it is possible for the strings to strike the magnets. This makes a horrible clack! sound, so I had to fix that sharpish.
Fortunately there is an easy fix to both problems. A couple of small rectangles of 4mm plywood made packers underneath the brass baseplate to raise the pickup enough to give the proper range of adjustment6.
Then taking a couple of sections cut from a cable tie and fixing with double-sided tape inside the pickup cover raises it just enough to drop the pole pieces below the level of the cover (the picture shows that on the fitted cover).
Perfect! I can adjust the height to where it needs to be and there is no danger of the strings striking the magnets.
Re-fit the scratchplate, tweak the pickup height and off we go…
Now, this is the point where most people get over-excited and sing the praises of the new pickup, how it has transformed their life and saved their first-born etc. I’m not that daft, and I also took the precaution of making direct to PC recordings of the old pickup so I could compare it with recordings of the new one and not just rely on an imperfect memory.
So, how does it compare?
It’s pretty similar, the old stock ceramic pickup wasn’t bad at all. There are two main improvements I can hear though; the new pickup is clearer and slightly more “detailed” sounding7 and the balance between the strings is better with a more forward and present high end8. I’m not sure this would all be very audible with a loud band behind you, but it does sound a bit better in a close listening situation or on a recording. I’d say it’s enough of an improvement to be worth the £79 delivered that the pickup cost me. I’d strongly suspect that spending much more on a high-end boutique pickup wouldn’t yield any further improvement though; certainly not worth £40 – £100 more.
Interestingly, I checked the resistance of the old ceramic pickup in circuit (4,700 ohms) and the resistance of the new alnico5 pickup (10,900 ohms) so I could compare them. The old ceramic pickup has slightly higher output, so higher resistance does not necessarily equal higher output – it’s more complicated than that. Wire gauge, bobbin design, magnet type and magnet strength all play a part too in deciding the characteristics of a pickup, so beware of simplistic comparisons!
Altogether a successful exercise in upgrading and it has made my P-Bass a little more authentic 🙂