I modified my Fender American Standard Jazz Bass V with Aguilar AG 5J-HC pickups. Although I was hesitant at first, I’m completely satisfied with this modification. My bass sounds a bit more modern now, which is a subjective plus for me, and the notorious single coil hum is completely gone! Other musicians also commented on how nice my bass sounds. Unless you are a die hard vintage fan, can’t recommend them enough.
Although I love my Jazz Bass, one of its typical problems was buzzing me off every now and then. Yes, I’m talking about the single coil hum, which is also known as the 60-cycle hum. In plain English; most jazz basses will produce a hum when you emphasize / solo one of the pickups. But when you turn the pickup volumes full simultaneously, the hum disappears.
This happens due to the complex nature of magnets and electricity. In basic words; one of the pickups is wired clockwise, and the other one is wired counterclockwise. When you solo the bridge pickup, it exposes a polarity of +100 and produces a hum. When you solo the neck pickup, it exposes a polarity of -100 and produces a hum. When you turn them both on, +100 – 100 = 0, so they balance each other out and the hum disappears.
This is not the exact physical model of what happens, but rather a mathematical analogy to help you understand.
Precision basses don’t have this problem, because they have a split coil design. It has the single coil pickup split in two, and guess what? One of them is wired clockwise, while the other is wired counterclockwise. Therefore; in terms of hum, a precision bass is dead quiet because +100 – 100 = 0.
Why did I prefer a Jazz Bass then? Well; if I wanted that deep low-mid emphasized bass sound alone, I would probably end up with a Precision Bass, but that’s not the case. The reason I purchased a jazz bass in the first place is its tonal versatility.
Emphasize the neck pickup, you get close to that Precision sound; ideal for low-mid thumping. Emphasize the bridge pickup, you get that nasal burpy Jaco sound; ideal for soloing. Emphasize both pickups, you get a nice funky tone; ideal for funk / slap / pop / etc.
It’s all fun and games until you try this out on stage volume. Especially with a fuzz pedal or something. When you emphasize either pickup, the small hum on your practice amp becomes a colossal noise; inducing raised eyebrows from the band members and dissatisfied head shakes from the sound guy.
It all comes down to how you feel about the hum. Some players don’t care about it. Some find workarounds. Me? I totally dislike the hum and started looking for ways to get rid of it.
That’s not the first time I have encountered this problem; I have experienced alternative solutions before – with varying degrees of success.
I owned an American Deluxe Jazz Bass with N3 Noiseless Pickups in the past. It is a subjective matter of taste, but those pickups didn’t sound very organic to me. Some basses have a phantom coil, which is actually a hidden pickup inside your bass – its only function is to provide a -100 polarity to your single coil pickup with +100 polarity. That works fairly well for me, but I don’t want to start digging my beloved Jazz Bass. Using a noise gate pedal is also common; but I dislike this option because it modifies your tone and the hum is still there when you start playing.
Therefore, I started to look for alternative hum cancelling pickups on the market. Being a proud owner of an Aguilar based rig, it didn’t take me long to end up in Aguilar’s website, inspecting their AG 5J-HC pickups. They had a very clever approach to get rid of the hum. This pickup looks like an every day single coil Jazz Bass pickup from the outside. However, it actually has two distinct coils inside – one wired clockwise, the other one wired counterclockwise. Much like a Precision Bass, you can say. The coils mutually cancel out their polarities (+100 – 100 = 0), so each single coil is hum-free on its own.
In plain English, you can solo / blend the single coils however you want – but you won’t get a 60-cycle hum out of them.
Due to my former dissatisfaction with other noiseless pickups, I started listening to sound samples of Aguilar’s hum cancelling pickups. To be honest; despite being hum-free, the sound samples in the videos were good – but not great. Now I see that it’s probably due to loss of sound quality somewhere in the digital world, because they do sound great actually, but didn’t know it back then.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take me long before I decided to see what those pickups can do for me, so I hit the road to visit a music shop & luthier. Just before my next rehearsal, the pickups were installed and ready to play. I was still tentative about my decision, but I figured that I can switch back to stock pickups anytime. So I walked into the rehearsal, unpacking my bass with a hesitant emotion.
And what a rehearsal it was… Although the pickup heights weren’t balanced yet, the tone was amazing. All of my band members commented on the great tone I had. There was absolutely no hum, that’s one thing. But the tone was also very organic and real. Unlike any other noiseless pickup I have tried before. They sound very organic, transparent, alive, and respond great to dynamics. They sounded great in the mix too.
Tone-wise, I can’t put them into the same category with traditional 60’s Jazz pickups. They lean towards a 70’s Jazz sound, with a modern touch. Taste is a very subjective matter, but I have simply loved the tone. It was almost like a tasty meal which you can’t stop gnawing on.
I knew I did the right thing then. I could blend the pickups any way I want, they all sounded great (samples settings available below) – and without any of that frustrating hum! The more I played, the more I wanted to play – that’s the feeling you get when you nail the correct gear.
My only complaint is; the pickup covers have relatively pointy corners and sharp edges – unlike the stock jazz pickups which have rounded corners & edges. They don’t feel as good as the stock covers when you rest your thumb on the neck pickup. That’s not a major issue, but I might change the pickup covers at some point; or stick a tiny cushion on top of the cover. Time will tell.
Coming back home, it was time to set up the pickup height. Fender suggests 8/64″ (3.6 mm) for bass side and 6/64″ (2.4 mm) for the treble side for their stock pickups. That’s the distance from the bottom of the string to the top of the pole piece when the strings are depressed at the last fret.
However; I contacted Aguilar and they had a different suggestion. For their 60’s, 70’s, HC J and Super Single pickups, they suggest 6/64” (2.4 mm) on the bass side and 5/64” (1.9 mm) on the treble side. That kind of makes sense because some of their pole pieces stick much further than stock Fender pickups. Marco Passarelli from Aguilar customer service also said: “I actually set them a little bit higher, but you will not have an issue with too much magnet pull.”
Now, let’s inspect some of the tones I seem to enjoy with those pickups.
Neck 100%, bridge 75%, tone 100%: This is my Precision oriented tone. Lots of thumb, emphasized low mids and transparency. Ideal for Motown, blues, pop, rock, reggae, etc – anywhere a Precision Bass would go, actually. To reduce finger noise, tone can be slightly dimmed.
Neck 100%, bridge 75%, tone 50%: This is my dark tone where I eliminate most of the upper frequencies, leaving a deep bass. Ideal for electronic, dance, new age, R&B, etc – where I only want the bass sound; without anyone noticing that it’s coming from a guitar. Tone can be reduced even further if you like.
Neck 100%, bridge 100%, tone 75%: This is my Jazz Bass tone for times I want my Jazz Bass to sound like a Jazz Bass (doh!). Balanced sound with emphasized high mids – with a little treble cut to reduce clickiness. Ideal for funk, slap, fusion, latin, progressive, etc – anywhere you intend to play the bass a little more melodically and / or cut the mix.
Neck 100%, bridge 100%, tone 100%: This is my StingRay oriented tone. Obviously, your Jazz Bass will not duplicate the classic StingRay sound, but that’s as close as I can get. This tone covers the same ground with the tone above, but with a different vibe – imagine Flea instead of Marcus Miller. Has more clickiness to it, and cuts the mix a little more.
Neck 75%, bridge 100%, tone 75%: This is my Jaco oriented tone. You won’t magically start playing like Jaco, but your tone would get one step closer to him. That’s also my default solo tone. I sometimes increase the tone to 100% to make the sound more trebly and help with cutting the mix. A rough analogy would be; tone at 75% leans towards a Les Paul’s neck pickup, tone at 100% leans towards a Les Paul’s bridge pickup. At times I use an octave-up pedal, the difference is more dramatic.
Aguilar is a great company, focusing on bass alone, with great products. AG 5J-HC was no exception for this. I highly recommend them to anyone looking for an organic, transparent, semi-modern, hum free 70’s oriented Jazz Bass sound.
Remember that they have AG 4J-HC for 4 strings and AG 6J-HC for 6 strings as well!
Turkish speaking readers would be interested in my post dedicated to guitar hum.
Not all hum is related to pickups. You might be interested in my post How I Got Rid of Pedalboard Noise .