Thursday, July 20, 2006

Fralins vs. Nordstrands

The eternal question....what are the differences between Fralin and Nordstrand pickups! I have probably been asked this question a hundred times (if not more), and since I have already given a hundred answers (if not more), I thought that this blog would be the perfect place to post a general overview of some of the similarities and differences between these two boutique pickup manufacturers. I have posted similar comments and opinions on various on-line forums, PMs, and e-mails over the course of the last few years, but hope that this will serve as a resource for those who may be thinking about upgrading the pickups in their bass or basses and would like a little clarification on the issue.

First and foremost, both pickup brands are excellent. Even though I am a Nordstrand dealer and am not a Fralin dealer, I would not even try to make the argument that Nordstrands are far superior to Fralins and that one should ONLY buy Nordstrand pickups. Not only would that be completely irresponsible on my part, but it also would not be true. I think that BOTH pickup lines are excellent. Up until relatively recently, when Carey Nordstrand decided to make his pickups available to the public, Fralins were widely regarded as one of the premier aftermarket pickup options available. I routinely spec out Mike Lull basses with Fralin pickups and readily recomend them to customers of mine who order custom Lull basses through Blueberry Hill where I think that Fralins would be appropriate for the type of tone they are looking for. The bottom line is that, while there are differences between the two brands that many players feel are significant, both pickup lines are excellent, and I like both pickups lines a great deal. But...let's talk about some of those differences.

Speaking in very general terms here, both pickup brands are essentially shooting for the same goal, but each takes a slightly different approach. Both Fralins and Nordstrands (whether we're talking about single coils, hum-canceling jazz pickups, MM-style pickups, split-P pickups, etc.) are attempting to recreate the sound of vintage bass pickups from the 1960's and 1970's. Both use alnico V magnets and traditional pickup winding materials and techniques. While Fralins are handwound, Nordstrands are "simulated hand wound". In the case of Nordstrand pickups, the master pickup for each model was handwound by Carey and then the process by which that pickup was made was coded into a winding machine that reprocess the handwound pattern. Many vintage purists and pickup enthusiasts believe that a handwound pickup sounds more sonically pleasing due to the way that the scattered windings impact the upper frequencies reproduces by the pickup. But...when you handwind a pickup, every one will be just a little bit different. By creating a "master", Carey has chosen the precise characteristics of a single pickup that he feels captures the ultimate tone for that one model. By using a simulated handwound process to make that pickup, he can now reproduce that handwound pickup over and over again, retaining the sweet tonal properties of the handwound master, but ensuring that there will be no deviation from pickup set to pickup set. Being able to make more sets faster and with precision accuracy over time yields a more consistent result. In other words, everyone knows exactly what they're getting right out of the box!

So, now that we know how pickups from the different brands are do they SOUND? In my experience, Fralin P and J pickups tend to have a very "raw" tone to them. I have used this descriptive term a lot, and am seeing other Fralin owners use the same term in posts on on-line bass forums to describe the tone that they perceive from Fralin pickups as well. I tend to like this "rawness" in certain situations, but the effect tends to also create a bottom end that is a little loose and open. Again...this can be a good thing, depending on what you are looking for. The entire line makes for a great approximation of what vintage pickups sounded like 40 or 50 years ago, but they definitely have their own flavor.

The Nordstrands, by comparison, tend to have a very full, balanced sound from top to bottom. They have great string-to-string balance, and they also tend to have a tighter, fuller bottom end. As with the Fralins above, whether or not these traits are desirable depend on what you, the individual, perceive as "good tone". I have received a lot of feedback indicating that players really like the midrange punch and sweet high-end response of the Nordstrand line, and many players also appreciate the balanced nature of the pickups as well, with the tighter low end standing out as a positive attribute that a lot of players appreciate. Whereas the Fralin pickups have a more rough, "raw" edge to them, the Nordstrands also tend to be very warm, but without losing clarity and detail. Many vintage pickup companies lose the plot by overwinding pickups too much and by trying to make them too "warm" sounding. The end result is often a mid-heavy, muddy pickup that lacks low-end punch and detail. This seems to be where the Nordstrands really excel...they deliver vintage warmth without losing detail and clarity.

I hope that this very broad overview will help you decide which set of pickups might be right for you. Of course, you might also decide that neither pickup company makes a pickup or pickup set that is right for your situation, depending on what you are looking for. I am also planning on adding another post describing, in more detail, the differences between the three Nordstrand jazz pickup models. This seems to be another source of much debate and contemplation among bass players. For more of my thoughts on these two pickup brands, and to read comments and reviews from many other bass players who have tried these and many other aftermarket pickups, do a search in the Talkbass Pickups Forum. You can search under Nordstrand, Blueberry Hill, JPJ (my user name at Talkbass), or by the model name of the pickup or pickup set you are interested in. Good luck with your research!



Blogger yo4rker said...

I really enjoyed looking at your site, I found it very helpful indeed, keep up the good work.

1:45 PM  
Blogger Jeremy said...

thanks. i appreciate your thoughts. i was pretty torn between the two. "raw" is what i'm looking for, though; much more in league with my style. thanks a bunch.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Longer said...

Thanks So much...

This just con concurs and to my descion of going with Nordstands.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Michael Coppin said...

Great site and information! You break it down very easy with out opinion!

3:43 PM  

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