Bass Pickups: A Guide to Formulating Your Sound

Bass Pickups

There are a number of variables to consider in the search for your ideal tone. To date, we have discussed options relative to amplification. Key among the variables that impact bass tone is pickups thus this column concentrates on pickups.

While there are many things that contribute to the timbre and tone of your bass (tone woods, strings, etc), pickups are major contributors that deserve our full attention. Let’s start with an examination of some basic pickup types used in basses, and we’ll take a look at their composition and tonal characteristics.

There are two main types of pickups: Magnetic and Piezoelectric. Magnetic pickups do just what their name implies: they use magnetic fields to “pick up” the vibrations of the string, and transmit that signal from your bass, through the cable, and into your amp. Magnetic pickups lie just under the strings, and pick up the vibrations through the air. Ideally, they should be set up so they do not make any contact with the strings.

Piezoelectric (piezo, for short) pickups use crystals that pick up vibrations as well. However, piezo pickups are usually mounted under the saddles or bridge of your bass, and directly pick up the vibrations from the string’s contact with the saddle/bridge. This is the fundamental difference between the two types of pickups. Piezo pickups are commonly found on acoustic guitars and some higher-end basses. On basses, they are usually paired with standard magnetic pickups, with a preamp to blend the two types or bypass one in favor of the other. Now let’s look at some common types of magnetic pickups and their compositions.

Single-coil pickups feature one coil wrapped around the magnetic part of the pickup. Single-coil pickups are often bright and clear sounding, but some people describe them as shrill and noisy. This is because they tend to pick-up extraneous noise caused by (among other things) fluorescent lighting and computers. This is often referred to as “60-cyce hum.” Some pickup manufacturers have developed “noiseless” single-coil pickups to help alleviate this.

J (Jazz Bass) Pickups are the most common type of single coil pickup. These are long, slender pickups. J bass pickups are often used by jazz bassists (hence the name, “jazz bass pickup”), but many rock bassists such as Geddy Lee of Rush use these pickups. J Pickups are typically used in a pair, one at the bridge position and one at the neck position. Many basses utilizing a pair of the J style pickups have wiring that supports separate volume controls for each pickup so the bassist can carefully dial in the desired volume contribution from each pickup. The neck position pickup is typically clear, fat and airy, while the bridge position is punchy and tight.

Split-coil pickups are two halves of one single coil pickup, and each half is placed underneath two of the bass’ strings. This type of pickup was made famous by Leo Fender’s “P-Bass” that came out in the 1950’s. Many rock (particularly punk) bassists use P pickups because of the clear, fat sound they produce. They are also occasionally used with a J bass pickup at the bridge (or, instead of a j-bass pickup at the neck, using a P pickup, giving you a P/J combination) in order to get some different tones from each.

Dual-Coil pickups are often called humbuckers or humbucking pickups because they “buck” the 60-cycle hum. Originally designed in the Gibson guitar factory, they were made by wiring two single coil pickups out of phase. This cancels-out the hum of most single coil pickups. Humbuckers tend to have a fatter, richer sound. They’re used in older basses like Epiphone/Gibson, Hofner, Gretsch, etc. Music Man also uses a humbucker, but they are usually referred to as “MM” pickups. Humbuckers are perfect for getting an old-school, vintage sound.

Soap bar pickups are a description of the pickup housing, which looks like a wider version of a J bass pickup. They look like bars of black soap and are found on all sorts of basses, but usually on basses with more than 4 strings. As far as commercial bass manufacturers, Ibanez uses these a lot. Bartolini and EMG make a lot of bass soap bar pickups. Some perceived benefits of this style of pickup are derived from the pickups’ sealed (typically in some sort of epoxy) nature; because the pickups are hermetically sealed they are not really subject to degradation that can occur from sweat and other foreign matter being introduced into a pickup’s guts.

Furthermore some soap bar pickups feature multiple pins that protrude from the bottom side of the pickups which can be easily wired, in conjunction with various switching mechanisms, to yield various in and out of phase sounds from one pickup with the flick of a switch or turn of a knob. Bartolini (originally launched as Hi-A) pioneered this popular capability.

These are some of the key considerations to evaluate when thinking about pickup options for your bass. With all the pickups out there on the market, it can be an overwhelming process. However, armed with a clearer understanding of your pickup options actually helps transform pickup selection and options evaluation (e.g. placement, wiring, etc) into an exciting search for your special bass sound.

Make sure to ask around to see and hear what other bassists are playing, especially those who play similar styles to yours. Ask other bassists about the “hows and whys” concerning their pickup choices. Don’t forget the knowledge folks at your local music shop—these men and women make it their business to stay current with many of the development that may very well impact your choice of pickups. Use all your knowledge sources and you will likely save a lot of time and get a lot of valuable insights.

There are many considerations to make when one is thinking about pickup options for their bass. With all the pickups out there on the market, it can be an overwhelming process. Make sure to ask around to see what other bassists are playing, especially those who play similar styles to yours. Remember that pickups are but one factor in the sound of your bass. As we dive deeper over the next few months into refining your tone, we will look at pickups on a closer level, including more detailed information about construction, tonal characteristics, and adjusting pickups, and we will start to examine other factors that impact your pickup’s sound.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Tim

    Thank you so much for this awesome and informative article!!! :D Can’t wait to read more!

  2. Allen Blankenship

    Thanks, this will help when I’m ready to upgrade my pickups.

  3. Thanx good information I’ve used many styles of basses and pickups I really enjoy the voicing that I can get out of my music man 5 string again 4 me I’m able to get that fat yet punchy funk sound out of it also love the fender jazz older ones.

  4. PhiDeck

    Have a P/J starter bass (Yamaha RBX170). Because I practice with headphones, I would like to replace the J pickup with a humbucker. Don’t yet understand the pros and cons of split-coil vs. stacked-coil J pickups. Wish the article had explored that.

  5. Joe

    Hi, I am considering my first bass purchase and I’m looking at Violin Bass’s. I am also considering making one. Any suggestions on pickup brands and impedance I should look for if I choose to build. I am thinking the pickups on those kits are not the best.

    • Rob

      Seymour Duncan is one of the big names in pickups, they’re sure to have something at least tolerable. I believe my Jazz bass got EMG actives when the factory Fenders shorted out, the other bassist I know here has EMG actives in his P-Bass for the same reason. If you want botique, there’s always Bareknuckle Pickups. I’ve been drooling over a set of theirs for a Strat I built for several years now. In my opinion and experience, most aftermarket pickups, other than “couldn’t find any cheaper” sound better than cheap, vanilla factory pups. I’ve got Fender Custom Hots in a Strat, my bass with EMGs, and even some cheap no name Amazon Chinese ones that aren’t great but aren’t awful. Don’t forget to check and for used gear. Got an immaculate PRS from Music Go Round in Fort Worth for cheap. Hope this helps, and if you build, wet sand your finish to 800 to 1500 and use an automotive rubbing compound for the final neck polish, makes it glassy smooth like years of use but not sticky.