Since 1995, Aguilar has been synonymous with well-engineered, high-powered bass amplification. But as any bassist within earshot of a mighty Aguilar rig knows, the company has since launched very successful divisions making effect pedals and pickups. We visited Aguilar’s digs in New York City’s East Village to learn the inner workings of its thriving pickup line, which includes over 20 models and has become standard equipment in a host of basses from companies like F Bass, Spector, Fodera, and Ibanez. For Aguilar President/CFO Dave Boonshoft, there’s a clear connection to all of the gear the company makes. “We’re all about completing the instrument. A luthier builds a great electric bass guitar, and that’s the voice. It has no output or soundbox on its own, so that’s where we, as an electronics company, come in. We complete the instrument with our products. They’re the amplifiers, filters, and modifiers for the voice of the instrument. That’s where we put our expertise and try to contribute value to the musician.”
So how about pickups? “Our concept is microphones for your bass,” states Boonshoft. “You need an amplifier to make your bass louder, and you need a preamp on the amp or the bass to do the filtering and tone modification. And you need a great microphone in your bass to capture the instrument’s voice. Pickups are transducers, changing one type of energy for another; they’re not filters or tone controls or amplifiers. The voice is still the wood and the strings, and we’re turning that energy into voltage and getting it to the amp. So we look at pickups as, What’s the best transducer we can make? It’s got to have musical character, but it also has to do things in a practical way. It has to be very functional and musical at the same time. Those are the pickups we want to build.”
For Aguilar, the road to pickup-making was initially paved by the company’s popular OBP-1 onboard preamp, introduced in 1997 and now standard in a swath of production basses, including Flea’s signature Fender Active Jazz Bass. Explains Boonshoft, “After the OBP-1, we thought, What goes with a preamp? Obviously it’s pickups, but being a small company, there was always another amp to design. Finally, after a number of years, we dedicated ourselves to doing it. I thought, What do we know about pickups? We knew that it was within our engineering capacity to build them, and they’re fairly simple devices compared to an amp. But there’s both an art and a technology that had to be dealt with.”
Over time, Boonshoft talked to pickup builders and realized that the company could design good pickups start to finish. “We decided the first ones should be based on classic pickups, because there’s a model of what it should sound like, and that would help us understand the parameters we could control. That gave us a destination.” He continues, “As simple as they are, you can’t reverse-engineer a pickup, because you have thousands of turns of wire. You can count the number of turns and measure the wire gauge, both of which are important. But how it goes on the bobbin — the tension, whether it’s overlapping slightly, whether it’s going in random patterns — you can’t really analyze that. So you have to start with what you do know about a pickup, and then use your ears. We also knew that once we got a pickup to sound and work the way we wanted, it had to be repeatable. So we set up our listening test and processes, and began the journey.”
The Perennial P & J Pickups
With Fender-style pickups in their sights, Aguilar began to create its line. First came the ’60s Era J-Style 4-string pickup, in 2011, followed six months later by a 5-string version. Remembers Boonshoft, “The model was a mid-’60s Jazz Bass I had, but we listened to a lot of vintage Jazz Basses, because no two sound alike. The idea was to make something that’s the best example of that era.” Next came Aguilar’s ’60s Era P-Style. “Our goal there was to be historically accurate, both sound-wise and construction-wise. We used period-correct Formvar wire, alnico V magnets, and cloth-covered lead wires.” Hum-canceling versions of the J-Style 4- and 5-strings followed soon after. “Those were important pickups for us, as they’re our best-sellers,” allows Boonshoft.
For its ’70s Era J-Style, Aguilar was again historically minded. “Fender used a different wire coating in the ’70s, which changed the thickness of the wire and how much wire was needed on the bobbin to get to the desired DC resistance. That’s why the Fender pickup sound changed in that period. We used a unique wire size and winding pattern to get a bright, articulate, punchy pickup” A later addition was the ’50s Era P-Style. “We looked at an early-’50s Precision, noting its gooey, thumpy, old-school tone and thought, What would we slightly improve that would make it worth getting a new pickup? We worked on better string-to-string balance and articulation, which adds a subtly different voice.”
The final variety of P and J pickups are the Hot Series. Notes Boonshoft, “We knew there was a market for hot, overwound pickups. The problem is, when you overwind a pickup, the frequencies shift downward and can be very muddy. So our design project was to make a pickup that was loud, aggressive, and had a low-midrange emphasis without being muddy. We developed our own custom-size polepieces and wound the pickup until we got the frequency response and harmonic detail we wanted. What we found was, due to the output being so hot, when you play up by the neck it sounds like an upright because you have that enormous explosion of sound on the attack. Jazz and Americana bassists dig it for that reason.”
Following Aguilar’s J and P pickups, the company set out to build a soapbar-style, bar-magnet pickup, which resulted in the DCB Series (DCB stands for dual ceramic bar). “We wanted a pickup line for high-end, extended-range basses. We had made 5- and 6-string J and P pickups, where the polepieces give you a heavy initial attack with a lot of harmonic information, and then a bit less because the strings aren’t always vibrating over the polepieces. So we wanted to try a bar-magnet pickup, where the vibrating strings are always in the magnetic field, which means that after the initial attack there’s still a lot of harmonic information being transmitted. That can be a plus for bassists like John Patitucci, Janek Gwizdala, and Felix Pastorius, who are playing chords on extended-range basses.” Also available in a soapbar shape are Super Singles (’60s J Bass), Super Split (hum-canceling J Bass), and Super Doubles (hum-cancelling J Bass with two rows of polepieces). “The Super Double is an interesting pickup that has its own voice,” notes Boonshoft. “It has a sharper, more aggressive character that tends to tighten up certain instruments. If you have a bass with a swamp-ash body that’s on the light side and lacking a bit of fundamental, the Super Double adds focus.”
Music Man Mettle
Aguilar’s most recent pickup line is the M Series, based on the Music Man bass. Says Boonshoft, “The original Music Man pickup was an interesting design by Leo Fender. As far as I can tell, there was some lack of consistency in the early models; some bobbins were wound in series, some in parallel. Some have a deep body cut due to three-inch-long magnets. But they were in the beginning stages of the instrument, so it’s certainly understandable. I always felt it was a great sound — strident, bright, and part of the Louis Johnson/funk legacy.” He continues, “We purchased some vintage Music Man basses, listened to them, and tried to find a good Stingray-type sound. We wanted a bright pickup with a lot of punch and consistency across the strings.” The M/J Series adds a J bridge pickup to the package. The DCB-M Series has dual ceramic bars in a Stingray shape. “It has a slightly different sound than our standard DCB soapbar. It offers great attack and great harmonic detail, as opposed to big attack and fade; it’s a variation on a theme.”
Lessons Learned, Missions Accomplished
With a full-on commitment to pickups comes knowledge gained. “One thing we learned early on, that we’re very proud of, is a solution to the dreaded hollow B-string sound,” enthuses Boonshoft. “Players tend to blame the construction or scale length of their bass, or think their amp can’t handle the note. Often what’s really happening is you’re hearing the first octave up from the low B fundamental, because that’s what you’re reproducing, and your ear is filling in the lower note.” He continues, “What we discovered while prototyping extended-range pickups was that when we changed the angle of the wire overlap, it could change the pickup’s resonant peaks. Guitar pickups are typically wound for low resonant peaks, but that’s not good for a bass pickup, because you’re going to lose some of the fundamental and some of the harmonic information you need on the attack of the note. By controlling the angle that the wire goes on the bobbin, we were able to create better resonant peaks that are more correct for the pickup and for the instrument. In the process, all of the desirable characteristics that were being filtered out by uncontrolled overlaps in the wire and unwanted low resonant peaks were now audible. This brought the B string into focus. If you listen closely to many basses, you’ll notice that a lot of the harmonic information is missing on the B string and somewhat on the E string, as well. But not with an Aguilar pickup, in our humble opinion. We feel we’ve helped resolve that issue. All of our pickups have a great-sounding B string that sounds like it’s part of the instrument, with the same timbre across the strings. It all points back to our overall goal, which is to create value by making great musical tools for musicians.”
The Long & Winding Road
Housed in three interconnected rooms near the front of Aguilar’s spacious suite is the pickup production line, headed by Operations Manager Sam Parrish. Joined by President/CFO Dave Boonshoft and Marketing & Artist Relations Coordinator Jordan Cortese (and his trusty camera), Parrish walked us through the operation.
Step One: Bobbin Press
At the core of each pickup is the bobbin, which is made of vulcanized fiber (some models have plastic bobbins). It’s the structure that holds the magnets and that the wire (also called the coil) is wrapped around. For a process referred to as “pressing,” Aguilar has created special fixtures (plastic molds) in its machine shop, which ensures that the polepieces are pushed through with even pressure, so there’s no distortion of the bobbin. A technician then checks the bobbin and polepieces and cleans off any excess fiber or glue. There are three bobbin stations in the room, so all models can be made at the same time. Tools, parts, and raw materials are identically laid out to maximize efficiency.
Step Two: Finishing The Bobbin
Moving to the second room, techs team up in groups of two to four, all working on a batch of pickups. A tech takes a bobbin prepped the day before and applies insulating kapton tape around it by hand. This is to protect the magnets from nicks and to prevent the eventual coil wire from touching the polepieces. Next, the eyelets are inserted, which is what the coil and ground wires are run through. This a common failure point for most pickups, so high-quality, properly tinned eyelets are used (tinning is the application of a thin layer of soft solder). Next comes the first quality-control checkpoint. The bobbin is put in the pickup case and checked for the right-length polepieces and any warping or damage. “We have multiple eyes on everything,” says Parrish. “A big part of the quality of our pickups is having a crew that is so invested in what we do. Everyone who works here is a musician; they care about music and the music industry. You can hear the love in the product.” Adds Boonshoft, “Everyone in department has very good hand skills and hand–eye coordination, at the level of a jeweler.”
Step Three: Winding & Wiring Pickups
Similar to its homemade bobbin fixtures, Aguilar built a fixture addition to each of the four Tanac AX-3 coil winders for winding pickups (shoutout to Aguilar Chief Engineer Goran Stankovic). It goes on the tailpiece of the winder, and it provides super-accurate measurements of the coil wire gauge. Notes Boonshoft, “In our early, developmental stage, we wrapped some pickups using a certain gauge of wire, and then we wrapped a second batch, and they sounded different. What we learned was there’s some variation in the manufacturer’s given gauge of wire that can affect the tone. So we realized we had to find a way to get very specific measurements for each spool of wire in order to make each pickup exactly the same in tone and construction.” Other features of the Tanac winder allow for control of wrap angle, amount of overlap, random patterns, and amount of wire tension as it goes on the pickup. After the pickup is wound, the ground wires are added. Parrish explains, “The way we’re set up is there’s always something to do. You’re not going to push a button and wait five minutes for a bobbin to spin. The flow is worked out in a way to get as many finished pickups as possible, as opposed to having a tray full of half-done pickups waiting and having to catch up.”
Step Four: Serializing, Wax Potting & Magnetizing
With a batch of pickups wound, wired, and ready to go, the next step is a check by the quality control manager. The QCM will double-check all of the solder joints, polepiece aesthetics, bobbin construction, shape of the coil, wire length, and other previously added components. Everything is recorded with a serial number, which will be added to the pickup and to the company software, so it can all be traced back. The pickups then go into a wax pot — a near-universal practice by pickup builders to hold the coils in place and prevent microphonics (sensitivity to sound caused by loose or moving coils). Aguilar customized its wax pots to be able to gauge and control the temperature and time needed for various pickup models. Following potting, the pickups are placed in a machine that magnetizes the polepieces. For single-coil pickups, the magnetization comes before the wax potting (ceramic bar pickups are pre-magnetized). Serial numbers are added to the pickups after the wax potting.
Step Five: Finalization Part One
Each model has a different step for finalizing, which is related to bobbins, backplates, cases, and other factors. The finalizing tech will make sure a pickup is magnetized correctly, add a grounding plate, twist the wires to spec, clean it, and give it a thorough quality-control check. For soapbar pickups, room three also has an epoxy-potting lab equipped with heat trays. Two layers of epoxy are used. First, the pickup is dropped in epoxy to fill in all the gaps, and then it’s removed and cured to allow time for air bubbles to surface. Those are popped and a second layer of epoxy is added on top. (Like wax potting on other models, the epoxy prevents coil movement and microphonics.)
Step Six: Finalization Part Two
Final full inspection on a pickup is done both visually (with the help of a large, stationary magnifying glass) and electronically. The latter checks the polarity of the pickup to make sure it’s magnetized to the correct level, in the right direction, with the right DC resistance, and with proper grounding. It has to read within a tight tolerance range to pass. After a final sign-off, the pickup is ready for shipping. –BM
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