Miss Blue
Miss Blue

A while back I needed a bass with that “old-school feel” to support a local indie singer-songwriter. After trying every Jazz bass I could get my hands on (around a dozen), I settled for the aforementioned Mexican Fender in a pristine Agave Blue finish.

Like almost all Fender instruments, and MIM versions in particular, she had a few issues. I spent a lot of time with the bridge pickup soloed (or with a hint of neck dialled in), which meant there was always some single coil hum. Not so bad live, but terrible in the studio. Also, there was no shielding of any sort in the bass (something that has been rectified since 2007 I believe). Touching the strings lessened noise somewhat, but not completely.

The stock MIM bridges are a bit rubbish, in that the saddles can easily move laterally. On USA models, the height adjustment screws sit in little grooves in the baseplate, and are usually strung through-body, making for a very firm coupling of strings to bridge to body. I found a strong tendancy for the strings to buzz around the saddle – in a band setting, it was mostly inaudible, but you could feel it – and it felt terrible!

So, in order of what was done, here is a list of common modifications that can be done to cheaper Fender basses, and what I think about them!

1.) Shielding & Star Grounding: I used adhesive-backed copper foil in the cavities, and aluminium foil on the back of the pickguard. All ground leads went to a single lug screwed into the side of the control cavity. If you’re doing this, use a multi-meter to check your connections – make sure the back of the pickguard is connected to your shielding with a tab of foil over one of the screw holes.

Effect: almost zero noise from electrical interference, even when not touching the strings. No negative aspects that I could detect, making this an essential mod.

2.) Changing the Bridge: I installed a Gotoh 201B, which is a direct drop-in for Fender instruments. It’s a higher-mass bridge, with grooves for the saddles – the 2008 USA Standard Fenders come with a bridge that looks a LOT like this one. The Gotoh bridge was cheaper than a Bad-Ass, and not as ugly either.

Effect: no more saddle movement, but tonally I found it bit darker – lost a little high end clang, more of a bronzey bell like tone. If you’re really enamoured with the idea of the brightest bass possible, maybe use a traditional bent-plate bridge with saddle grooves.

3.) Changing Pickups: there is a ridiculous number of after-market pickups available for Fender style instruments – choosing the right one for _you_ can be difficult. Based on reviews online & the tone charts at Seymour Duncan’s website, I chose a set of SD Basslines Stk-J2 “Hot Stacks for Jazz”.

Effect: The stacked coil arrangement makes each pickup hum-free, while the combination of pickup materials makes for higher-output with more mids (and less highs). I dug it at first, but then I found that a lot of what I’d liked about the original tone was now gone. In hindsight, the “Classic Stacks” may have been what I was after.

4.) Changing Volume & Tone pots: Okay, so I’d taken my bass too far towards the dark side – fortunately, some of the easiest (and cheapest) mods involve changing the wiring of your instrument.  The stock pots on a MIM Jazz are 250K – I got my hands on some 500K Volume pots, and a Fender “No-Load” tone pot. 250K pots lose more highs to ground than 500K pots; this is why they tend to be used for single coils.  Since I was using humbuckers, it made sense to me to use 500K pots as that’s what normally gets used in humbucker equipped instruments. The No-Load is neat, in that winding it all the way to 10 takes it out of the circuit completely, something you normally need a switch to do.

Effect: This had a huge effect on the tone – it wasn’t the same as the stock pickups, but there was a very defined edge to it. With the No-Load fully engaged, there was a touch more output from the bass and some extra brightness. With both pickups engaged, the slap tone was like a razor! I’d probably not do both of these mods again in the same instrument, but it definitely got me closer to what I originally liked about the bass.

5.) Series/Parallel modification: This is a very, very cool thing to do in a Jazz bass. Parallel mode is the standard Jazz wiring, with the output from both pickups reaching the jack. Series mode runs the hot from one pickup into the ground of the other, making a huge humbucker with only one volume control. Swapping one of my  volume pots for a Gotoh 500K Push-Pull, I used this diagram from the Seymour Duncan site.  Fender achieved the same thing with their “S1” switching, but have since pulled it from their premium models.

Effect: With the Stk-J2 pickups in, there was an immense output in Series mode, with increased low mids & even more treble cut… it was too big a sound, muddy & ill-defined.

6.) Out with the new, in with the old: I removed the Hot Stacks,  and replaced them with the originals . I also took the No-Load tone pot out.

Effect: My favourite fingerstyle bridge tone has returned – I think the 500K volume pots offset the darker sounding Gotoh bridge just enough. The tone in Series mode is huge but well defined, and snarly with a pick – very similiar to a Precision bass. This a useful mod to anybody looking to get tones that a J normally doesn’t deliver.

The moral of the story is that if you like the way an instrument sounds, be very careful if you change the pickups. – sometimes you might have to pass up on convenience in favour of tone.

A bit of back-story here: said indie singer-songwriter dumped her band via email halfway through recording an LP (it took all year). I didn’t have as much need for a retro looking bass, and I have since obtained a G&L Tribute L-2000 which buries all other Fender-like instruments I’ve played. Sadly, no matter what I did to the bass,  it couldn’t find a niche in my collection, and had such a negative vibe attached to it that I let it go on eBay.  Sold it for enough to pick up a MIM Precision, which will be the basis of a few more mods!