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single coils: obsolete or invaluable?


hags2k

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A lot of people...dare I say, the majority(?) have advised me of the benefits of switching single coil pickups to one of the vast variety of humbuckers out there. For the sake of argument, I'm going to limit myself to J-style pickups, and their replacements for now.

 

So, anyway, nearly everyone I've ever talked to on the matter has suggested replacement pickups for a J-bass with single coils (barring a true vintage instrument). I'd say that at least half, if not more, of the replacement j-style pickups out there are humbuckers of some sort. Stacked are common. Dimarzio does great things with inline humbuckers. I've also seen side-by-side coil designs, as well.

 

I wonder, though, are single coils really so bad? I mean, they may be. We may have reached a point where there are humbucking designs out there that can do everything a single coil can do, but without the inherent hum. I wonder, though, are there soem good reasons to stick with single coils? Do they have a sound or response that no humbucker can emulate (at least not without dropping serious cash)?

 

The reason I've been thinking about this is that I recently acquired a Fender Jazz Bass V, and I am falling more in love with it every day I play it. That love INCLUDES the sound of it's single-coil pickups. Granted, they're probably not as nice as the pickups in the costlier Fender instruments, though I'd be hard pressed to distinguish between this bass and a costlier Fender Jazz with single coils. I've tried. However, I like the sound of these puppies and I really don't want to change them. Of course I know some of you will take this line and reply to me something like "well, if you like them, that's all that matters", but I want to stress that I am not trying to talk myself out of or into a purchase. I'm simply curious about the opinions of single-coil pickups in general today, given the technology and available replacements out there.

 

It seems to me that a lot of guitar players will stick with single coils, and the many of the strat players I know have replaced the stock pickups with some other kind of single-coil. They don't consider hum to be a big problem, and they don't always play them in positions "2" and "4" (the humbucking positions, for those who are not familiar with the strat), and they don't always run their amps so hot that distortion would mask any hum. In fact, the more intelligent ones I know recognize that you can tell a lot more about the "tone" of a pickup when you play it clean, as distortion adds a lot of coloration based on the amp or stompbox being employed. Now, quite often guitar players are a different breed, and will place vintage correctness over technical superiority, which is not necessarily a bad thing. However, I've come to expect a slightly higher degree of "open-mindedness" from the bass playing community regarding newer technology.

 

So, does the "traditional" single-coil jazz pickup still have a solid place in today's market and instrument (besides possibly being cheaper to produce), or am I just holding on to the past? :)

unkownroadband.com - step into the unkown :-)
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Listen to the recordings and live performances of the past 40 years and then decide if single coils are impossible to use.

 

It's just a new scare. Most of the people advocating replacements are the ones that have bought them. Keep your cabling in good repair (as you should with all gear anyway) and you'll be fine.

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Of course, if you like them don't change them. Embrace their inherently characteristics.

I think there is, and will always be a market for these pickups because the sounds we try to reproduce, and sound musical to our ears, are the ones we are familiar with. The sounds from old songs we grew up on, and inspired us to play, or at the very least (for the younger folks out there) inspired the people, that inspire them, to make music. It's a vicious circle.

If you think my playing is bad, you should hear me sing!
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You can always get the noise free thing by running both jazz pickups at the same volume.
Ah, yeah, the "Throw away most of the sounds your bass can make just to get noise-free humbucking performance" approach - practically (but not entirely defeats the purpose of having 2 different pickups and sensing positions...

 

The clue has been with us for a long time: the Precision "split coil" pickup has the advantage of having a SENSING APERTURE that is LIKE a single coil's - narrow and thus capable of a more focused sound with tighter attack. Because there is no phase cancellation from two coils sensing the same string at different point - unlike the standard wide humbucker - the P-Bass design has the advantage of single coil without the noise.

 

To closely duplicate the sound of J-Bass single coils has been more difficult, however. This is because the pickups are wound typically for DC resistance to get a certain output conversion, and twin-coil pickup that humbucks typcially is wound for about twice the resistance - and with that comes a more pronounced resonant peak at a lower frequency. This means the tone will be different if the typical approach is followed.

 

Still, among designs bassists have to choose from, the best noiseless SINGLE APERTURE pickups seem to have found the J-Bass tonal ideal and some people think even improved on it. As it was many people wanted a little more lows and and a little more top than their vintage J p'ups were producing. It's easier to get this with a SIDE-by-SIDE metamorphasis of the twin-coil P-Bass approach without losing the transient response and clarity and dynamics of the single coil NARROW APERTURE. The makers of SIDE-by-SIDE designs vary the resistance, the magnetic field and the structures producing it, to make the variations of sound that are sought.

 

The "stack" was an earlier approach to noiseless narrow aperture, and because of its constraints, it either needs to be LOW OUTPUT, or compromise on having the resonant peak at the higher frequency one associates with the J Bass sound. Bus some people liken the lower resonant frequency to an improvement anyway (I don't, if you want vintage capablity), not so different to the "Texas Specials" approach some Strat players have taken... Also, due to one coil being beneath the other, the magnetic field interaction pretty much guarantees that the heavier-wound stacks are also more compressed in terms of dynamics and tonal range.

 

I would posit that the WIDTH of the sensing APERTURE is far more important to the tonality - than whether a pickup is single coil or dual coil.

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This is precisely why I've been salivating over the possibility that Joe Barden will finally start making some bass pickups. His pickups have been the holy grail for players that want a great single coil sound with no hum. They're rail-style humbuckers (he invented them, by the way), but they sound like single coils. Danny Gatton was a huge fan of them and for good reason...they sound awesome.

 

http://www.joebarden.com/images/tele2.jpg

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As we baby boomer hippies in Berkeley say,

 

Everything not prohibited is mandatory.

 

Obviously we can invent more technologically advanced instruments and many people are working on this. In future years the Fender Jazz bass may no longer exist. However, I will not be alive then so I am not worried about it.

 

Various obsolete instruments have made comebacks. We talk about flatwound strings all the time now here on the forum and I was hoping I'd never have to play on them again.

 

I thought I would never hear a Fender Rhodes again and they seem to be returning. The Hammond B-3 is back with a vengance. In the world of classical music, there are entire orchestras using historical instruments that had disappeared for hundreds of years.

 

So we can embrace the latest technology and adjust our technique to match the arrival of new instruments.

 

Or we have the other option of taking an existing instrument and learning how to play it, despite its drawbacks. Maybe those drawbacks are what gives the instrument its character.

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People seem to have such an EITHER OR mentality. But single coils won't go away even if someone makes counterparts that sound EXACTLY like them - minus the noise. As J says, there are revivals and cult interests in that Which Has Been - though in the examples Jeremy gives, I'm not convinced the counterparts exist that satisfy the experienced player.
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BenLoy: This is precisely why I've been salivating over the possibility that Joe Barden will finally start making some bass pickups. His pickups have been the holy grail for players that want a great single coil sound with no hum.
I'd qualify that statement. There are adherents for Barden, but there are also players of caliber that think Kinman for instance is the best vintage-without-noise designer. Or _fill_in brand_name_.

 

They're rail-style humbuckers (he invented them, by the way)
He CLAIMS to have invented them. But prior art exists for Bill Lawrence (and possibly others), and this has made for much acrimony. I don't know how much patent abuse is involved.
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Well, I kind of figured that single coils were never going to die, simply because they've established themselves and there will almost certainly always be a market for "vintage correct" or just plain "vintage" instruments out there.

 

It seems, though, that in this day and age, you can get almost any sound you wanted to get from single coils from a hum-free alternative, and then some.

 

I suppose there will always be debate about the most "true" souding humbucker out there, but that doesn't mean I don't want opinions on the matter (like BenLoy gave)! There's so much out there, sometimes it's difficult to find good starting points, so information like that is much appreciated.

 

I also appreciate GreenBoy's observation that configuration seems to matter a lot more to how a pickup sounds than simply the number of coils.. I also like the observation about the P-style pickup. I really wonder why more manufacturers haven't come up with similar p-style split-coil designs for guitar. The G&L Comanche comes to mind. I wonder how it sounds? I know that it LOOKS wicked, and I'd love to own one, if only for that!

 

http://homepage.mac.com/hags/COMANCHE-honeyburst.jpg

 

Thanks for the replies. Keep 'em coming! :)

unkownroadband.com - step into the unkown :-)
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Well, just look in the Bart catalog or on the website and you'll see how the internals of many soapbars are also predicated on the P or split design. I'm guessing some guitar p'ups besides that cool looking Commanche may have this going on, but since I discovered Kinman a few years ago I haven't bothered to check.

 

Actual soapbar:

__________
|          |
|__________|


Internal coils:
A -
__________
|-----     |
|_____-----|

or
B -
__________
|----- ----|
|__________|

Lots of these out there (my Ibanez "humbuckers" are really like P pickups with a fat soapbar case ferinstance) - making anything from P Bass output and variations thereof, to J and variations of the J. So the look of a bass pickup hardly means diddly squat.

 

The only difference between Figure A and Figure B above is where along the strings each half is sensing, and that doesn't make as big a difference as one would suppose as long as you are not really close to the bridge. And in fact many of the pronounced differences pointed to are true only for an open string being plucked. As soon as you fret/stop the string the distance ratios to figure a harmonic "sweet spot" are all over the map anyway. Which means one can move their plucking hand to get all kinds of different tone3 balances too, of course : }

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Ah, the beloved soapbar form factor. Who can tell what mysteries lie therein...

 

I thought of that a little after I posted, but I think I was so jazzed thinking about that Comanche that there was room for little else in my brain at the time...

 

I seem to recall EMG having a split coil pickup in a soapbar form factor. When BPM reviewed the Shechter California Custom 5 (which uses EMG's interchangeable pickup wiring, whatever it's called), I remember thinking how cool it would be to have a setup like that, and a bunch of interchangeable EMG pickups, just to be able to pop them in and out at will to change the "voice" of the instruement. I also recall the fact that there was no way to differentiate between the J-style pickup and the P-style pickup by glancing at them, as the casing for both were identical. Too bad I don't particularly like the sound of most of the EMGs I've heard...

 

So, I guess PLENTY of people use the same fundamental design as the beloved P-pickup. :)

unkownroadband.com - step into the unkown :-)
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Seems like EMG has gotten a bad rap the past couple of years. What I recall, they're actually pretty transparent, and their preamps can show that to goood or bad.

 

And again: what's exceptional about those Q-TUNER pickups is the control they exert over APERTURE, and thus - TONE. All this without having to swap out any modules : }

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Also, Kent Armstrong has done some custom work for high end lutheirs that features coils sitting on their side instead of the traditional bobbin orientation. I'm searching for a piccie now.

 

Kent was taught pickup science by his father, Dan Armstromng, who's wound a lot of OEM stuff over the years; maybe older guys here remember his name for effects or plexi basses as well. Dan in turn got his education from Bill Lawrence (who's maybe the oldest of the early pioneeers still alive) - as have many others out there now in the biz.

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Actually it's a third generation Armstrong, Kent's son Aaron, who is doing these pickups for JP Basses:

 

http://www.jpbasses.com/A558A4/jpbasses.NSF/img/Pickups/$File/jp.jpg

http://www.jpbasses.com/A558A4/jpbasses.NSF/img/Pickups/$File/jp_struct.jpg

 

From http://www.jpbasses.com/A558A4/jpbasses.NSF/Instruments_v?OpenForm -

 

"Those wood grained epoxy pickups combine humbuncking operation but precise and punchy single coil sound. They have a narrow soapbar shape (120x23mm). The trick here is Armstrong SS design! Coils are filipped at 90° so they are horizontal and then a steel plate between them senses the strings." This continues a theme from Bill Lawrence.

 

JP Basses is beginning to build extended range instruments beyond 5 and 6 strings, and he's real big on FLAT radius 'boards and is experimenting with headless design - talks between some of us futuristic SF weirdo nerds who shake the luthier tree are of a headless design that can use ANY single-ball end sets/strings.

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Hmm, I did twice last week. Probably 16 miles to a beautiful cirque lake on the continental divide and back the first day, and two days later, nearly as far along a white water wilderness river before joining a stream that feeds it from the continental divide.

 

What was the topic again? ; }

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I've actually visited that Bill Lawrence site quite a few times. My best friend loves the technical aspects of electric guitar component design and he informed me about him a little while back... He was actually a physics major like me for a while, until he realized he could make a pretty good living doing is second-choice major, medicine. He'll make one hell of an anesthesiologist, and he plays a mean guitar, too.

 

By the way, do you really need to get your post count up? I mean, you're already over five grand! :)

 

Thanks for the websites. I've seen those rotated coil designs before, but I don't know much about them. They look pretty interesting, though, I'll admit. I'm checking out those pages right now.

unkownroadband.com - step into the unkown :-)
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I've been on the jpbasses site before, but I'd forgotten where I'd read that line about "crappy blend pots". That's what stuck out in my mind, and how I remembered what page it was... It makes sense that a blend pot would impede some high frequencies, though it offers a nice "analog" response for switching between pickups that a switch just can't do. However, I certainly don't mind switches. The seem to work for a myriad of guitar players!

 

Anyway, those designs are gorgeous. Wood never looked so good...

 

Too bad there wasn't more info on the pickups on that page. I'm still drooling, don't get me wrong.

unkownroadband.com - step into the unkown :-)
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hags2K,

 

Info on the pickups? What more do you need? Winding specs? - Don't want to give away state secrets. Just thinking slighlty outside the box, Bill Lawrence had a pickup design called the Sidewinder way back when that also mounted the coils thusly.

 

Yeah, JP builds some real incredible basses, and finds and works beautiful woods to great effect. He also has some pretty strong opinions, a couple of which I'd take exception to if I was commisioning a bass ; } ...But I am intrigued by his NO-RADIUS bent these days, and some players have reported back that the concept is great in practice on extended range basses especially. My comment being, as long as the person playing it isn't habituated to old school radiuses, it could actually be ergonomic and efficient in other regards.

 

Hope you don't mind the topic drift. To me it all ties together.

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hags, for what it's worth, about a year & a half ago I decided I wanted to try pickups in my J-bass that wouldn't hum, no matter their relative levels (that's where the tonal variation comes from), and that also had a tad more bottom. I found a nice set of side-by-side humbuckers, new, on eBay, for a very nice price. I put them in. I really like them, so I've left them in. If you want to try something new, why not just try it?
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Originally posted by Torgo's Knees:

hags, for what it's worth, about a year & a half ago I decided I wanted to try pickups in my J-bass that wouldn't hum, no matter their relative levels (that's where the tonal variation comes from), and that also had a tad more bottom. I found a nice set of side-by-side humbuckers, new, on eBay, for a very nice price. I put them in. I really like them, so I've left them in. If you want to try something new, why not just try it?

You make a good point, and I think if I can find a good deal on some interesting pickups, I just might do that. I mean, hell, I can always put my old ones back in, and resell them if I don't like them.

 

I had a funny feeling that serious consideriation of pickup replacement would be a consequence of this discussion....

 

Oh well, whaddya gonna do? :)

unkownroadband.com - step into the unkown :-)
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Originally posted by hags2k:

I really wonder why more manufacturers haven't come up with similar p-style split-coil designs for guitar. The G&L Comanche comes to mind. I wonder how it sounds? I know that it LOOKS wicked, and I'd love to own one, if only for that!

 

http://homepage.mac.com/hags/COMANCHE-honeyburst.jpg

 

One of my friends has that guitar. It sounds great when he plays it. I'll be playing with him again in about a week and a half.

 

Of course he sounds great whatever guitar he plays.

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