Fender Standard P-Bass – Pickup Swap

As I mentioned in my previous posts about my 2012 Mexican Fender Precision I had recently bought and set up, a pickup swap was always on the cards.

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 😉

Fortunately a 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.

On to the bench and off came the scratchplate.

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.

The Mexican P-Bass Ceramic Pickup

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 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Fender Standard P-Bass Setup – Part 2

The Bench & a pile of tools…

Real life got in the way for a few weeks and I didn’t get the uninterrupted time I needed to do the fretwork until a bit later. I knew this would take at least 3 hours and I didn’t want to get into it and have to stop… but at last I had time.

So, what needs doing? – three problems:

1) Rough fret ends.

2) A couple of high frets.

3) Top two nut slots a touch high.

Only the first thing badly needed doing, the others could have been left if I was short of money and needed to pay someone else to do the work. That is why it is nice to have the skills and tools to do all the work yourself, it’s just having the time needed to do the job as the materials cost is tiny.

 

I like to do a “map” of the fretboard high/low spots first just so I see what I am looking at and get an idea of the amount of work. Here it is:

Fret 19 was the worst and fret 18 was also high so it would be a bit chancy just shaving the individual frets down, it is easy to end up playing whack-a-mole chasing the high spot between frets. It’s more efficient and safer to do the whole lot with a levelling beam and get everything dead level and consistent. I was going to have to polish the frets anyway as fixing the sharp ends and doing a slight fretboard edge roundover would involve sanding and polishing the end part of the frets, may as well run the beam over the lot and do a complete job.

First task was to sort out the rough fret ends by filing them smooth. The little Stewart McDonald fret end dressing file is the best one I have found as it is small, precise and a fine cut. There is one safe side that is rounded with no teeth and this rides against the fretboard to avoid digging in and damaging it.

Unfortunately the numpties at Fender had decided to part-lacquer some of the rosewood edge of the fingerboard (and not do a very good job) so my little file safe edge started to flake this lacquer off, but only at the headstock end where it had ended up much too thick. This looked terrible!9

The “After” picture… they’ll never know 🙂

After a bit of experimenting with using a single-sided razor blade as a scraper I found that this excess lacquer came off quite easily leaving a nice smooth rosewood finish underneath and I only had to part-scrape the first 5 frets on either side anyway. I had placed masking tape along the line between maple and rosewood to make sure that I didn’t touch the neck, so this made a nice line to scrape up to10.

Having solved the lacquer drama I carried on with my little file taking all the rough fret ends off. This is pretty quick and you can immediately feel the massive difference it makes. The ends had already been part-filed at the factory when doing the bevel, so it didn’t need a lot of work, just the sharp edges softened.

Next step was to smooth the filed ends with various grits of sandpaper to make them really nice. I also wanted to do a slight round-over of the fretboard edge as it was really a dead right-angle, so felt a bit uncomfortable under the fingers. There is not much information on-line about ways to do this with an already fretted neck and I wasn’t that happy with my previous test attempts on various scrap necks11.

Fortunately, I had recently seen a Crimson Guitars video on YouTube which demonstrated a technique that I had never seen before to do a combined fret-end polish and slight fretboard edge bevel. I wanted to keep the round-over mild so I skipped the levelling beam step (and the filing part that I’d already done) and went straight to the 240 then 320 grit tightly-rolled sandpaper cylinders (3:45 onward in the video) and then the higher grit papers and fret erasers to do the polish. This worked great and gave a really nice result with a lot less chance of going wrong than the other methods I had looked at and tried. Tick V.G. to Crimson.

Next up, the fret level. As I said earlier, I could have got away without this as it wasn’t buzzing, but the fret end finishing had left the ends of each fret really shiny and it looked odd with the rest of the fret quite dull. I’d have wanted to do a full fret polish anyway to make them all look nice, so may as well level first.

First step is to get the neck dead straight and flat by adjusting the truss rod with a notched straight-edge on the fretboard. This was really easy on this neck, it went flat as soon as the truss rod was backed off – always a good start. I re-checked with the fret rocker with the neck flat to see if any of the high frets had changed in any way; nope, exactly the same.

400mm Levelling Beam

Next the tops of each fret were marked with a black sharpy so the effect of the beam could be seen. I usually use 320 grit paper on the beam as it cuts quite slowly so is quite forgiving. This levelling went pretty quickly – most of the frets were level anyway so the beam just kissed the tops. I had to do a bit more work on the two high frets to get them level, but still not too bad12.

Then I re-marked the fret tops with a sharpy and crowned with a 300 grit diamond crowning file – also very quick as most frets hadn’t got a flat top so only needed a few strokes of the file.

The next bit is the very tedious process of polishing each fret by working up through the grits of sandpaper from 400 to 250013. I tried a new method and started out doing each fret individually using a metal fret protector as I have seen some people do, but this was so fiddly and annoying that I quickly gave up and went back to my normal method of taping up the whole fretboard with masking tape so I could use a foam pad with the sandpaper round it and run it along the whole fretboard in one go. Much quicker!

Looking nice now!

Once I had finished the polish I took off the tape and cleaned the fretboard with naptha14 to get any dirt or sandpaper dust off and then finally applied a conditioner to the rosewood. I have started using Howard “Feed-n-Wax”, an American product that I saw recommended by one of the Luthiers on YouTube.

I really like it as it very slightly darkens the wood and leaves a nice smooth slick finish15.

This fretboard was quite light in appearance before I conditioned it, it actually looked a lot like the new Pau Ferro fretboards that Standard P-Basses are made with post the CITES regulations. I think it looks nicer slightly darker, so I was pleased with the effect.

 

 

Nut files – 48 / 65 / 85 / 105

The final step was to sort out the high nut slots on the D and G string.

Now; I always find it quite nerve-wracking cutting the nut slots. It is very easy to over-cut the depth and write the nut off 16, so I am always very careful. I used my 65thou and 48thou nut files to deepen the slots slightly and I stopped as soon as a 22thou feeler gauge was a sliding fit.

That was enough to play comfortably, but still a conservative clearance, so no danger of the dreaded 1st fret buzz17.

 

And that was it – job done. Put the bass back together, set it up again and it’s ready to go. I dropped the action down to 5/6418 (E) to 4/6419 (G) while I was at it and the fretwork handled that no problem20.

I’ve got some new strings ready to go on when I get round to it and I’ll tweak the intonation then and go back over the setup to get it just right.

Splendid!

Fender Standard P-Bass Setup – Part 1

2012 MIM P-BassAfter playing bass for years, but never owning an actual Fender P-Bass1 I recently got this nice clean 2012 Candy Apple red Mexican Standard P-bass second-hand for very sensible money.

I wanted a MIM P-Bass as it is much cheaper than the US models and also easy to modify. It doesn’t deviate much from the “standard” 1960s design, so almost all the aftermarket parts just fit. Post-2008 is also a good period for Mexican Fenders as the designs got pretty close to the US instruments and the quality improved too.

It was owned by someone that had hardly played it or messed about with it, so it was pretty much in mint condition and completely stock specification.

Over the years, due to lack of adjustment, the neck had got rather bowed with a massive relief (over 40thou) and the overall action was very high, over 9/64in at the 17th fret. So I had to fix that so it would at least play before doing anything else.

After about 2/3 of a turn of the truss rod and a bridge saddle adjustment I got it to 12thou relief and 6/64in (E) – 5/64in (G) action (Fender stock suggestion). The intonation was very close already so I didn’t touch that. The first fret action was a bit high on the highest 2 strings – not painful, but 30thou-ish instead of 20-22thou so a tiny bit stiff. I went with it for now.

Result – it plays. The sound is pretty respectable on just the stock pickup, so my plan of doing an immediate pickup upgrade is not the priority I thought it would be2.

The only serious snag as far as I am concerned is that the fret ends are a bit too rough to be comfortable when sliding my hand up and down the neck. It’s the G-side where it shows up mostly, the frets don’t stick out proud of the fretboard edge, but the bevel isn’t smooth at all. I also quickly went over the frets with a rocker and there were 2 up the dusty end that were a touch high, not high enough to buzz at the action I had set, but they would be a problem if I tried to go much lower than my usual action for any reason.

Ironically, it’s the fact that this bass is almost unplayed that is the problem, normally a 5-year old bass would have seen a guitar tech at some time in it’s life and the neck issues would have been sorted out with a decent fret dress and thorough setup (£95-ish maybe outside of London).

Now, at this point on the discussion forums everyone piles in with “Mexican Fenders are rubbish, should have bought a US Fender…” etc. This kind of misses the point that I would have had to pay at least 2-3x as much for a s/h USA P-bass and it is still not guaranteed to be perfect3. The cost of a MIM P-Bass and a setup is still far cheaper than a USA P-Bass and the MIM instrument is a great modding platform. Yes, the US P-Bass has slightly better components4, a better finish and so on, but the MIM bass can play just as well as the US bass when the setup work is done.

Fortunately, I do all my own instrument teching and I have all the tools to do fretwork. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this bass that I can’t fix.

To the workbench!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TO BE CONTINUED…