REVIEW: DiMarzio Area J bass pickup set
DiMarzio’s Area J set is designed to sound as close to original J bass pickups as possible, but in a humbucking configuration to remove any background noise. Nobody likes excessive noise at the best of times but this is especially important today where bass distortion and biamped rigs seem so much more common than any other time I can think of. Who wants to plug into a multi-amp rig of doom, spend hours dialling in punchy clean low end and a growly, distorted treble, only to have the whole thing overwhelmed with 60-cycle hum? No-one, that’s who.
I installed the Area J set in my Fernandes Jazz Bass copy. It’s a great instrument with a very playable neck and an authentic natural tone, but the stock pickups were a little lacking in character. They were also noisy as all get-out despite extensive and very high quality shielding throughout the electronics and pickup cavities. See?
As you can hear from that sound clip (with both pickups at full volume), the bass didn’t exactly sound awesome with the original pickups… especially because there was a ground hum that needed to be repaired. It was there when I got the bass and I hadn’t had a chance to fix it yet. But if you can listen past that problem, you’ll hear a bass that has definite Jazz Bass character, but is a little one dimensional.
Installing the Area J set was extremely easy. After unsoldering each original pickup and lifting them out, it was simply a matter of sitting the Area Js (the back unit is slightly longer than the front one) on top of the pickup shielding plates, screwing them down, soldering the red wire of each pickup to the centre tag of its respective volume pot, soldering the green and gray wires to the back of the pot, then joining the black and white wires together and shielding them off. While I was in there, I diagnosed the cause of the ground hum – a broken wire from the tone control to the output jack. The pickup set came with a little instruction leaflet (also available for download on the DiMarzio website) which, in addition to a simple text outline of how to remove the old pickups and install the new ones, includes a couple of alternate wiring methods which take further advantage of the pickups’ humbucking nature. I just went for the standard Jazz Bass wiring. I left plenty of wire for future experiments with push-pull pots and the like, and plugged in.
The bridge pickup is bright yet warm. By itself the sound is clear but not sharp – especially suited to that classic Geddy Lee sound, where you want to jump out from a mix and leave some low-end real estate for the drummer and rhythm guitar to occupy. This pickup seems to respond especially well to playing with the fingers, especially when you get a little bit of nail involved for some clarity and definition. The neck unit sounds fuller and rounder than the bridge, which makes it useful for John Paul Jones-style fingerpicked lines around the 7th-12th fret region. The lows are not overwhelming, and the high end is smooth and clear.
Here’s a Rush-sounding clip using the bridge pickup:
Here you’ll hear the bridge pickup panned hard right, the neck pickup hard left, and both pickups (blended 100% neck, 70% bridge) in the middle:
Here’s the neck pickup, both as a main bass part and as a lead instrument (with unhealthy amounts of compression and a smattering of delay to play up a vintage vibe):
And finally here’s a big ol’ distorted demo – a little bit Chickenfoot, a little bit Audioslave:
After much messing about I found my ideal Jazz Bass tone with the front pickup at 100% volume and the rear one backed off to about 70%. This gave all the fullness of the front one but with a little more definition, especially when using a pick. I also really like the sound of this particular ratio when run through heavy distortion with the amp’s treble wound back a bit for that growly Billy Sheehan kind of tone. Billy’s tone is a lot more complex than this, of course, thanks to the special pickup layout of his DiMarzio-loaded Yamaha Attitude basses and the particulars of his amp rig, but the Area J set can get you somewhere in the general area thanks to its clear tone and lack of hum. You won’t get those hi-fi bass-and-treble-boosted slap tones without further processing, but you’ll get great natural jazz, soul, R&B, blues, classic rock and metal sounds with ease.
Thanks to DiMarzio for providing this pickup set for review. Thanks also to my 3-year-old son who wanted to help me, so I talked him through typing the colours of the pickup wires.