Review: Nordstrand Pickups Big J-Blades

November 10, 2017

One of the most exciting trends in bass gear over the past decade has been the proliferation of high-quality pickups made in small shops. An early pioneer of this new era—and one of its most successful—is Nordstrand Pickups. What began as an offshoot of owner Carey Nordstrand’s bass-building business is now a primary focus, shifting the business away from luthiery and into audio-and bass-gear design more generally. His success is well earned; I’ve long been a fan of Carey’s smart and innovative designs, and each time he releases a new product, it deserves attention.

Ever the tinkerer, Nordstrand’s pickups represent a broad swath of design ideas and formats, but his Blades are the first to feature blade-style polepieces. The difference between blade-style and round polepieces is twofold: Blade polepieces produce a more uniform magnetic field across the pickup’s width. Since a magnetic pickup works by converting a ferrous string’s vibration into an analog AC current through induction, a broader and more uniform magnetic field can remedy the volume loss one encounters when bending strings over round-polepiece pickups. Blade-style pickups also sound different from those with round polepieces due to their even sensitivity to a string’s horizontal movement. The subject is complex, but essentially, a string vibrates in a rotating elliptical pattern, with both vertical and horizontal components. The overtones of the strings’ fundamental frequency are different along the two vibration axes, but a pickup integrates these harmonic distributions to produce a complex waveform that represents the strings’ total vibrational energy. Since the two axes of vibration have different harmonic content, a pickup’s sensitivity to horizontal vs. vertical movement is part of what defines its frequency response and timbre.

The Big J-Blades (and all Nordstrand Blade pickups) are offered in two flavors: “Warm and Wooly” (WW) and “Clean and Clear” (CC), the difference being the number of winding turns. I tested both versions of the pickups in a pair of Fender Jazz Basses. Installation was a cinch, and the pickups’ fit-and-finish was top-notch. Nordstrand utilizes precise laser-cut bobbins, potting each pickup in wax to damp unwanted resonance. The pickups look great, too. Nordstrand didn’t go for a more conventional full-blade design, but rather slots the blades in an effort to ensure that each string is sonically balanced. Once I installed the pickups, I A/B’d each type against each other and against recordings I had made with the basses’ stock pickups. A few things jumped out: First, the WW and CC editions sound substantially different. The WWs are hotter with stronger low-midrange output and a slightly mellowed top—not dark by any stretch, but definitively characterized by their burly and rich midrange. The CCs sound more hollow in the mids, with a more delicate overall personality and greater emphasis on the higher harmonics, which gives their sound the glassy detail that psychoacoustically suggests speedier transient response. Indeed, the Big J-Blades captured string bends and aggressive slap styles more evenly compared to the stock pickups. Speaking of the stock pickups, the Nordstrands were substantially more colorful and harmonically dense, with a more stout and present fundamental. My research suggests this is in part due to the blade design and its impact on a string’s harmonics, as described above.

The Big J-Blades are a well-executed alternative to the conventional J-style pickups out there, which is especially attractive if you’re a player who bends a lot and favors a colorful and richly textured sound. Given their affordable price and substantial impact on tone, it’s worth getting a pair for your J-Bass just to explore a familiar instrument’s unrecognized alternate personality.

SPECIFICATIONS

NORDSTRAND

Big J-Blades

Street 4-string, $170; 5-string, $205
Pros Excellent design; rich harmonics; even sensitivity
Cons None
Bottom Line Nordstrand’s new pickups are a refreshing alternative to conventional J-style pickup design.
Made in U.S.A.
Contact nordstrandpickups.com

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