When I first got my Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster, I was enamored with the power and midrange of its P-90 sounding pickups. They were warm, fat and drove amps and pedals beautifully. The bloom went off the rose, however, after one gig where I was unable to get the kind of clean country twang I sought, and another where the noisiness of these high-powered single-coils became problematic. Investigating the noiseless options I came across a Brett Kingman video where he demoed some Kinman pickups. I thought I would give them a go.
Chris Kinman [abridged] BIO
“This is a very brief version of the life of Chris Kinman,” begins the bio on the pickup maker’s website. It nevertheless goes on for 4000 words, so here is the abridged (albeit, less entertaining) “very brief” version.
Kinman began dreaming up inventions at age 10. In his teenage years, he became interested in music, guitars, and especially pickups. He would study every pickup he could get his hands on, recording the dimensions, wire gauge and resistance, while making notes about the sound.
Kinman later launched a business designing and making electric guitars, as well as their hardware and pickups. He also made a pickup-winding machine, producing hundreds of pickups and performing countless rewinds.
As far back as the early ’70s Kinman thought a side-by-side humbucker might be rearranged in a vertical pattern to fit into a Strat pickup cover, but realized it would suffer from tone destructive phase cancellation. Years later, other pickup companies put the idea on the market, but their tone was generally considered less than optimal. Kinman calls these “tone-cancelling pickups.”
In 1995, he bought an inductance meter and began measuring vintage-style pickups. Standard Strat pickups were around 2.3 Henrys with a resistance of around 6K, whereas a currently manufactured stack measured 1.8 Henrys and had a resistance of around 12K. Kinman deduced the reason they sounded bad was the significant low inductance reading, caused by magnetic coupling between the coils.
He experimented with methods of preventing this inductance loss and soon had a single-coil pickup that looked just like a traditional Strat pickup, used Alnico rod magnets, was passive, and yet had no 60Hz hum. After four months of intense research and experimenting, he had achieved the breakthrough that let him file for an American Patent. His system uses two technologies to reduce undesirable magnetic coupling effects to negligible proportions. His AVn-’62 vintage pickups measure 6K Ohms and 2.46 Henrys. Hand winding proved unsuitable for this new pickup design since it requires precise manufacturing techniques to keep the quality of tone and degree of hum cancellation up. Kinman’s pickups have been used by Gary Moore, Hank Marvin, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne, among others.
According to Mr. Kinman these pickups are, “Now with reduced height for easy install into Jazzmaster’s extra shallow cavities.” According to John at Carter Guitars, it wasn’t easy to make them fit in my J. Mascis, but he was ultimately successful, I believe without routing.
I picked the SurfMaster (formerly the BrightMaster) for the neck position, because it is represented as being most like original Jazzmaster sound: full-bodied with a sharp twang and exceptional piano mid-tones. I chose a SurfMaster Extra for the bridge position because Kinman maintains it offers improved balance with the neck pickup (tonally and loudness-wise). It produces the same sound as the other version but is louder, which means the neck pickup can be adjusted higher to get maximum tone.
I must confess that, while having heard them on numerous recordings and live performances, I am personally unfamiliar with vintage Jazzmaster tone. Previously, the only Jazzmaster I owned was a Blacktop model, which came with a humbucker in the bridge and a Jazzmaster single-coil in the neck. I quickly swapped out the neck pickup for a Sheptone humbucker in a Jazzmaster enclosure. As the J. Mascis came with the P-90 sounding pickups, I have never spent time with a “real” Jazzmaster.
While I can’t vouch for the Kinman’s vintage cred, I can say is these pickups sound great. The neck pickup has the kind of “tubular” tone I value in both Strat and Tele pickups, while producing a voice of it own. I was unsure about the “Extra” bridge pickup at first. It was darker than what I had imagined a Jazzmaster bridge pickup would sound like, which was vintage Strat thin. It is closer to a Tele, which means it has plenty of twang, yet still drives amps and pedals nicely. Both pickups on together offer exactly what I conceive of as vintage Jazzmaster tone: jangly and funky. All the positions evidence rich harmonics that ring beautifully through clean settings and launch evocative overtones through distorted ones.
Some people call his pickups noiseless but Kinman prefers to describe them correctly as Zero-Hum. That’s because there are two types of noise: 60-cycle hum, which is cancelled in the pickup, and a kind of buzz, which can only be minimized by shielding the wiring cavities. Apparently the J. Mascis is pretty well shielded, because with the Kinmans installed the guitar is dead quiet, even through gobs of fuzz layered onto distortion.
If you love your Jazzmaster, but are tired of neon sign, computer, or otherwise induced hum that can sometimes be louder than your actual signal, I can’t recommend the Kinmans enough.
All videos: Fender Squier J. Mascis Jazzmaster with Kinman SurfMaster neck pickup and SurfMaster Extra Bridge pickup, through a Jetter Jet Drive overdrive and Source Audio”s Nemeses delay and Ventris reverb, into a 1966 Bandmaster head through a custom -built cabinet housing a 12″ Eminence Texas Heat speaker.