A Different Beast
FSOs abound. Since the early 1950s, the instrumental landscape for the electric guitarist and bassist has been dominated by that most familiar and perhaps questionably venerable equipmental homage: the omnipresent Fender-Shaped Object. Fender’s huge success in the electric guitar and bass arena had brand upon brand racing to bring similar products to market –including parts and accessories manufacturers.
Many companies since then have waded into the muddied waters of Fender-style pickup creation and recreation, and a subset of them have done it very well. But the pioneers in this field often go less noticed and underappreciated, offering something a bit less familiar and, well, FSO-like. Honey Badger Pickups is one such company.
The Company Line
Rod Banach and Marc Miller – with help from other associates – have chosen the road less traveled. Although Honey Badger does offer Fender-style and vintage-wound pickups in its catalog, the mission statement of the rural Washington state operation boils down to the use of many of the traditional methods and materials that were available to Leo and other builders of the last half century, but combining them in innovative ways to create something new and different. Their goal was to create a pickup that inherently sounded as if subtlety EQ’d through an active system, while simply in its natural, passive state. They considered success to amount to the listener’s perception of a full-range, modern tone, displaying the hallmarks of an active circuit’s involvement, without the need for any such processing to achieve it (but being highly responsive to active tone shaping, as well).
Being local to Honey Badger, I was able to pick up my set of Heavy Hitters in person and tour the shop. Rod brims with the excitement and energy of someone truly passionate about what they’re involved in, which I find to be an excellent indicator, in general. Having begun in the industry by building instruments under the Regenerate Guitar Works moniker (and continuing to do so), he soon realized a need to spin off the highly-desired pickups he was winding and installing in his axes into a wholly separate company to better meet the needs of interested builders and tone seekers, alike. While I’m at HB HQ, we talk about ceramic vs. AlNiCo vs. neodymium magnets; we talk about harmonics, headstock angles and neck profiles, pickup coil structures, foil stamping plastic covers and laser engraving wooden ones. In short, we geek out, big time. I’m sent home with the 6-string pair of Heavy Hitters that I will demo in one of my basses for the next several months.
A Real Contender
The Heavy Hitter is a perfect microcosm of the Honey Badger ethos and approach. The concept may sound somewhat familiar, but quickly differs from other similar target statements: to create a modern voiced, hum-free, super Jazz Bass style pickup, while taking advantage of the increased space a soapbar’s shell allows. Each is comprised of two coils of relatively standard gauged wire per pickup, in an inline, split-coil configuration, with magnetic AlNiCo V pole pieces, and a vaguely cardboard-like bobbin. But that’s where the similarities to other offerings end. They wear removable Bartolini P2/P4 or EMG-shaped plastic or wooden covers, and the pole pieces are much larger in diameter than a standard Jazz Bass pickup’s and are centered under each string – similar to a MusicMan configuration. The coils differ, too; they are wound in such a way as to provide more depth from the lower strings and more brilliance from the higher ones (compared to your typical split-coil humbucker), providing what I would classify as a full-range tone, while actually still attaining a bit of the upper-mid “quack” that pure single-coil J-Bass pickups are known for. Going one step beyond, separate coil and magnet ground leads are provided, in case you may want to connect one to common ground and another to an isolated ground – such as is done with an Audere preamp.
The physical construction of each pickup is well thought-out and executed, and the leads are smartly routed through channels in the bobbin substrate that deflect any undue tension or torqueing that could lead to a very sad post-installation experience. I feel a little more secure with sealed, single-unit pickups, but using removable covers over accessible coils – apart from being a nice nod to tradition – does allow for cover changes and potential alterations (closed or exposed pole pieces for example), as well as the possibility of some repair or extra shielding of the coils.
One small gripe I had with my set is that the pickup screw channels on the bridge position pickup cover (2 per pickup) were removed out of necessity, due to that pickup’s coils needing to be wider than the channels allowed to accommodate proper string spacing. This made it difficult and a little frustrating to guide the pickup mounting screws into their holes in the pickup routs. I imagine that my experience was exacerbated by the fact that the bass I installed the HHs into uses threaded inserts and machine screws for this purpose; standard wood screws with a pointed tip may have been easier to probe for their respective cavities. But for some reason, even the neck pickup, with its screw channels intact, proved difficult to get settled into place. I wonder if the sourced covers use a slightly different screw placement than either the standard Bartolini shapes they’re modeled after, or the shape that my particular bass uses?
The Heavy Hitters deliver on their promise – they reproduce nearly the whole portion of the frequency spectrum you’d want them to, and do so without a great need for additional EQ-ing – while perhaps being slightly more conservative in the very high end than a modern-sounding single-coil or active humbucking soapbar. But the mids are where they truly shine! Our ears are most sensitive to midrange frequencies, and that’s generally where our perception of tone and timbre lies. The Heavy Hitters are not scooped, nor are they mid-forward; I’d describe them as mid-present and well-balanced.
To arrive at a mental approximation of their tonal properties, first imagine a pair of evenly blended, vintage Jazz Bass single coils. Substitute in the immediacy and punch of a StingRay’s centered pole pieces for the faded response of the typical dual, offset magnets Jazz Bass pickups. Fill in the iconic J-Bass low-mid scoop and extend the lows. Add more depth and body to the upper mids, but increase the clarity and overtone series of the highs. Now, simply remove any trace of hum or buzz as you vary the volumes of either of the two pickups in this equation, and you should be in the general ballpark.
To demonstrate this, I’ve created a demo video comparing the true single-coil mode of the dual-coil Delano SBC 6 HE/S – which is a very close approximation of a typical Jazz Bass single-coil, in my opinion – to the Honey Badger Heavy Hitters. You’ll note immediately that the output of the HHs is hotter than the Delanos, as you would expect from series-wired split coils with more wire packed inside their housing. I play examples with a pick, fingers, and slapping, all with various pickup blend and EQ permutations to hopefully provide a good understanding of how these pickups react in a specific instrument, with a specific player. The recording was all done direct, with absolutely no post processing or compression applied.
Honey Badger Don’t Care
Honey Badger unapologetically does what they do, and they do it well. If you’re looking for a completely custom pickup tailor, there may be outfits that will suit you better. But if you’re someone who enjoys a more modern tonality from your instruments, with a bit more depth and mid presence than single coils typically provide, but a more focused and clear sound than humbucking soapbars often present, Honey Badger Heavy Hitters may be for you. And if you’re looking for vintage, period-correct, cloth covered wire Jazz Bass replicas … well, you’re probably not looking at anything in a soapbar shape! But you may want to take a look at Honey Badger’s vintage offerings while you’re FSO shopping.
Honey Badger’s lineup also includes the de riguer P, J, and P/J set offerings, as well as split-coil Js with modern and vintage windings, the massive TFD (a soapbar take on a souped-up single coil), and the FRS dual coil (a dual-coil take on the TFD wind, offering a “full response structure” with more full, modern tone). They’re able to accommodate a number of customization requests, including full internal shielding, different string spacings, closed or open covers, and more.
Visit Honey Badger online for more information at www.honeybadgerpickups.com.
You can also view a video demonstration of the Honey Badger Heavy Hitters at
|Manufacturer:||Honey Badger Pickups|
|Pickup housings:||Bartolini P2/P4 or EMG DC size|
|Magnet material:||AlNiCo V|
|Options:||Wood covers, customizable string spacing, copper coil shielding and other options available|
|Price:||$215/$255/$275 (4/5/6 string) per pickup|