The Lightbulb Moment: A Tale of Two Pickups

Jazz Bass Pickups

Photo by Kirk Kittell

Imagine yourself walking through an unfamiliar house. The lights are off and you’re tentatively moving down the hallway, straining your eyes to see through the darkness and sliding your hands against the wall, hoping to discover the light switch. This scene is much like learning a song, where we listen to the bass line, pick up our instrument, and haphazardly move from note to note until we find the one that matches the record. First we’re too high, then too low, and finally, aha! B flat! At that moment, we’ve discovered a clue, a starting point, the light switch mounted on the wall. We’re still a long way from figuring out the whole song, but at least we’re on the right path.

As we learn and grow as musicians, the moments of discovery may seem few and far between. Sure, we get better at grabbing the bass and finding a note, which turns into a bass line, and then a song. If we play professionally, we get used to playing the same bars and clubs on the weekends with the same group of guys. We get accustomed to walking down the same hallway, turning on the same light switch, and illuminating the same interior. But, every now and then, we accidentally stumble into a new room—one that we never knew existed or never bothered to enter. We come face to face with a person or scenario that forces us to connect the dots in a new and exciting way.

This new series, aptly titled “The Light Bulb Moment,” highlights those moments of discovery in our musical lives: the songs we listen to, the bass players we learn about, the conversations with our teachers and friends, and the “on the job” scenarios that make us think twice or alter our approach. Call it an epiphany, the “clicking” in your brain, or the sudden realization of something that you never quite “got” before.

Most of these lessons come about unexpectedly and unsolicited… as if we’re characters in a short story who converse with a magical wizard, discover a treasure map, or need to defeat a fire-breathing dragon before the 8pm downbeat. Instead of taking a traditional or “academic” approach to lesson-based columns, I figured it was time to get creative — time to paint a picture and tell a story that, hopefully, most of us can relate to. The information will be there, but hopefully the reading will be just a bit more entertaining.

So, to all of you totally awesome No Treble readers who enjoy learning about the “Bass Players To Know,” discovering the things “I Wish I Knew That,” and sharing all of the cool videos, artist and gear info, lessons, videos, and licks, I’d like to introduce a new and exciting series, “The Light Bulb Moment.”

It was a humid, mid-summer night in 2010. Navigating to the venue seemed to take forever as the streets were bustling with 20-somethings heading to this restaurant and that, celebrating their two-day vacation from the confines of their offices. This particular club was familiar… I had played there once a month for almost a year and was confident in my ability to set up, get a decent sound, and play the typical set of top 40 cover tunes. While loading in my gear, I was greeted by a fellow band mate who mentioned that the club finally completed their outdoor stage and that we would play there this evening, as opposed to the indoor stage that we had all become accustomed to.

Thirty minutes later, the band was set up, sound checking, and trying to get acclimated to the new stage. In addition to fighting off mosquitoes, I was having a hard time dialing in my tone; the bass seemed hollow, muddy, and genuinely lost amongst the great outdoors. Despite my usual apathy towards tone, I decided it was time to troubleshoot. The current state of affairs simply wouldn’t fly and I knew that there had to be something I could do.

Unfortunately, I never had much desire to explore my tone. I lacked the patience necessary to experiment with something that, it turns out, happened to be important. My attitude was quite stubborn. I knew how to set my amp to my preferred “normal” settings: the bass knob at 2:00, the treble around 10:30, and the midrange somewhere in between. Fooling around with the EQ was usually futile, and as that happened to be the case that evening, I gave up and reverted back to my original settings.

Frustrated with my inability to find the right tone, I hopped off the stage to say hello to a fellow musician friend who came to the gig. I mentioned my sonic plight, hoping that perhaps a pedal-obsessed guitar player might offer a few words of wisdom. I described the current settings, my attempt to adjust the midrange, and the fact that I simply couldn’t make sense of the mysterious pictures below the buttons on the “pre amp” section of the amp. My bass was ambiguous mush. Clearly, I was doomed.

“You’ve got a Jazz bass, right? What pickup are you on?” he asked.

Hmmmmm… Good question. I was indeed playing a Jazz, one where I set all of the tone controls in the middle and just barely favored my neck pickup. I didn’t know much about the instrument, but at least I knew how to get the sound that I wanted to hear… most of the time.

“Try going to your bridge pickup — you’ll get more definition,” he added.

As I returned to the stage to begin the first set, I did exactly that. Suddenly, the bass sounded a bit brighter and my attack had enough definition that the eighth notes actually sounded like eighth notes! The change was significant enough that the other players looked back at me and smiled, knowing full well that I made an adjustment to help the overall sound of the band.

That was the moment that I realized the power of the two pickups. For some reason, it had never occurred to me that my bass could offer a better tonal solution than my amp. After years and years of playing the same instrument, I rarely took advantage of it (in fact, I never really knew how). With the turn of a knob, I realized that my Jazz had a trick up its sleeve… the difference between the neck and bridge pickup was extreme. In combination, it created “my sound,” but in a situation when that simply didn’t cut it, the bass offered two very different (and very useful) sonic options. Unlike a P-bass, with it’s distinctively round yet punchy tone, the Jazz bass is more malleable. It’s an instrument that can take on different personalities… it can be Jaco, it can be Geddy, it can be Marcus, and with a bit of experimentation, it can give you exactly what you need to be yourself.

As with every column, I love hearing from you. What’s been your experience with sound? What do you think of this new column? What would you like to see here? Please share in the comments!

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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Leave a Reply to Steve rosati Cancel reply

  1. Patrick Witt

    Absolutely phenomenal and RELEVANT, no matter how long a reader has been playing! KUDOS! Now…the question that I have is… you have a forum where I can ask questions about an issue I’m having? :-D

  2. Oddly 'Nuff

    Definitely something to think on. Personally I also tend to just leave everything alone once I get a sound I’m happy with. I guess I should go see what all them dials on my amp do – and vary things a bit on the bass too! Thanks for the homework!

  3. Steve Carriere

    Hmm. You know, I have a Roscoe 5 with Bart soaps. I have been itching for a P bass lately. Not sure why. Last night I sat down to play some tunes. I picked things where I wanted a “P” tone. Rolled to my neck pup, rolled a little treble off and added little mid. Not a bad “P” bass tone. Not perfect but probably good enough for my needs. Then I played some stuff where I definitely wanted a more “J” tone. I rolled to favor the bridge a bit – but still some neck. Brought back a little high and evened up the mid. Dialed in a little low to compensate for favoring the bridge pickup and got a decent “J” tone.

    I think I’m gonna keep this bass and do more experimenting. I, too, am usually a set it and forget it guy. On this bass that was usually flat EQ and even spilt between pups. Definitely need to spend more time twisting knobs. That’s is why they make them so they turn, right?

    • Dan C

      I love my Roscoe Beck 5-string. It’s my #1, along with a Rick and a J-bass.

    • Bob Gross

      I have quite a few basses and have been playing a six string a lot lately, but I always keep a P Bass strung up with a very old set of flat wound La Bellas. Sometimes you just gotta have that sound.

  4. Grames

    First thing I do is screw with every knob on the amp and bass to see what they do in a given situation. If you can drive a car with a steering wheel, gas pedal, brake, clutch, wiper controls, lights, heater and ac, radio volume, tuner and presets, ignition system, mirror controls, and do so without killing anyone, you can operate a bass guitar. 3 knobs 2 ears, it is quite simple.

  5. Brandon T.

    I remember having a similar type of “ah ha” moment related to active pickups/preamp. My bass’ tone that had once been bold and bright had become dull and distorted, and I thought it was a problem with my amp or the speakers. Not being very experienced with active electronics at the time, and just shooting in the dark, I decided to take out the 9-volt battery to test it. Low and behold I realized the thing was about dead. Put in a new 9-volt and >>voila!!<< my bass' tone was back!! It was a light bulb moment as well as a "duuh" one it, too.

  6. Anon

    I feel like this is a “no duh”… But perhaps that’s the life of a music major. I never stop switching around the settings on my Rickenbacker.

  7. Gregg

    I’m always messing around with my bass and amp settings, mostly bass because I tend to keep my amp neutral in order to get the characteristics of the bass. There are settings that I prefer, but I just like discovering different tones.

  8. Keren Lee

    The Fender Jazz Bass is the Swiss Army Knife of all basses. However, the P-Bass should not be overlooked. In spite of its apparent simplicity, it has a very broad tonal palate if you know where to put your right hand and how to use the tone knob. It also sounds phenomenal when played with a pick. A P-Bass with a Jazz bridge pickup is the ultimate way to go.

  9. Todd Morgan

    After a 10 year “hiatus” from playing bass I realized there was a lot I didn’t know about the bass itself. That’s weird for a tuba player who is an “equipment junky.” I knew how to play. I played for years. At this resurgence, became a student of the bass. I learned how to set it up. I learned that pickups do sound different and……………where the pickup is positioned makes a HUGE difference in the sound. I have 3 Jazz basses now and I tend to play heavily on the bridge side. Makes a huge difference.

  10. Kirk Bolas

    Every bass guitar and six-string guitar I own has multiple pickups. One never knows what one is walking into 100%. Having choices makes problems easier to solve.

  11. Don Conrad

    Perfect timing for this kind of article. I’ve been a go along to get along barely mediocre bass player for years because I didn’t take it very seriously. I’ve decided to change that and am having many “light bulb moments” of late. I should have had these moments years ago but can’t change that. I look forward to reading more. THANKS!

  12. Butch Black

    Good article. Open jams are good places to try out new settings. I have a mid 80’s Fernandes “jazz” with humbuckers (DiMarzio 123’s) and a slab body. Extremely versatile. Normal setting is both PU full on plucking at the 23-24 fret. I can get a passable “P” turning off the bridge PU, a n OK but not as nasal ‘J” playing on the bridge PU only. Drop the vol to around 3/4 and it adds a lot of mud. I sometime will play a 3 set gig using a different settings on each set so I get a feel for what each sounds like.

  13. I had a similar issue. I always used a J with both pups on full, but always found it lacking something. It was either too present or not present enough. There was never balance over the strings, the E was nice and bassy, but the A and D string notes turned into a mid-free hole. That’s how I’d describe it, a black hole of bass with no definition. No matter what the amp.

    Then I went exclusively neck pup and BOOM – there it was. Full fat, power, punch and in a band context it worked so much better. I had a place in the sound, rather than lots of places. I was still finding issues with fundamental definition though. Jazz basses are amazing, but complex. I find they work better in many situations than other basses, but they never cover it all to be truly worthy of the versatile status they enjoy. Jack of all trades it may be, but you know what they say about those…

    I switched to a P bass (albeit with a J neck bolted on) and I’ve not had to worry since. Thing always sounds good. Right hand technique, the tone control and pick use covers everything for me now. I think more about HOW I play and not about WHAT instrument I play. Simplicity is bliss.

  14. william kannikal

    it was informatory, but in a senario where the bass can pickup hum, that option wont work, thats where sting ray basses, also designed by leo fender years after he designed jazz bass excells. the pick up position on the stingray is the best for me so far…
    willee.k :-)

  15. Steve rosati

    I would have raised the cab off the stage, if you uncouple the cab from the floor, it cleans up that mushy tone

    • Bret

      I agree Steve and visa versa. If you are on a stage that is making your bass sound hollow and anemic then make sure your cab is on the floor. Its a very small difference for the guitar player but has a big effect with bass cabs.

    • that bass guy

      This is a point that I would like see more feedback on (no pun intended). I usually play with my combo up on a chair, partly because I can hear it better and more quickly make adjustments to the settings. But I’ve also done some gigs with it down on the floor. My opinion is that the bass is better heard if it’s not being swallowed by furniture and other low objects in a room. And while I’m on that subject, sometimes we bass players need to give thought to using the room to enhance our sound. I once played a gallery opening – big wide stage with lots of echo everywhere and in spite of a sound engineer I couldn’t hear myself. Ultimately what I wound up doing was moving my amp about 6 feet out from the wall and turning it around so that the room itself became my bass cabinet. Even the sound engineer commented on how much better it sounded.

  16. Kevin Rizer

    Ryan, I have that ‘lightbulb’ scenario at least once a week when I play my bass. Today I had a moment when I finally figured out my finger placement when slapping and popping from one string to the next. After I figured it out I realized what Chris Squire was doing on the song “Roundabout” by Yes. I originally thought the riff he does in the verse, he’s hopping from the A-string to the D-string and muting in between with his index finger, but I could never get the same sound he did; it sounded sloppy. He wasn’t! He was simply causing a mute by repositioning his thumb on the next string! This musical adventure never stops. I love it!

  17. stephen

    I’ve started using a process for setting my tone in each venue…I start with the amp set flat and both pickups full up and tone wide open…then I work the pickups rolling each off or on…soloing each pickup to see which one offers better in that certain room…then I adjust the eq on the amp if I need to. Last I take a picture off the settimgs and make notes on my iPad so when I return to that venue o have an idea what to do….although don’t this in an empty room because the sound changes big time when people fill up the space:)

  18. in this situation one of my favorite tricks is to roll off some bass on the EQ and then turn up the amp. often I find that that when my bass is going thru a big modern system with subs that the low end is too big. I have an aguilar tone hammer DI pedal and it has tons of gain, I roll off some lows ( 11 o clock or so) and then turn up the volume to compensate. you have to set the box to “post”, meaning that that the signal to the house thru the XLR jack is AFTER the EQ on the box. I have saved many gigs from Mudville using this trick. these days on a big stage I hear the bass in the house system more than my amp. use your ears, they are often more well-tuned than the sound engineers’ ears. sad but true. many engineers that I encounter these days couldn’t EQ their way out of a wet paper bag.

  19. Bob Gross

    So true. I’ve been playing a Jazz Bass for close to fifty years. The bridge pickup is always up all the way but I’ll vary the neck pickup from full up for a rounder tone to backing off if I’m playing quicker parts and want more definition. And if you use harmonics, the bridge pickup on a Jazz is in the perfect position for that. I’ll turn the neck pickup off altogether and the harmonics really pop out.

  20. Very nice article. I also used to go for the neck pickup as my main choice. I started out on an bass with humbuckers and active EQ, then tried a J type bass, but couldn’t find my tone. Finding a Precision with PJ became my holy grail. Before I got that, I tended to play only one pickup at the time. I guess I could have used a switch instead of volume controls. With the PJ I instantly favoured the P pickup, but as I switched to flat strings I (which to me was like coming home), I found that I sometimes lacked definition. My lightbulb moment was my new setting. Start with all controls on Max, and then roll off the P volume about 25%, and then roll off the tone about 10%. A full sound, but with more definition than the P alone. I also find that playing closer to the bridge gives a more defined sound. And even if I am mainly a finger picker, using a pick sometimes gives the tone an extra attack.

    It is all part of a tonal palette. For me, the EQ on the amp is for adjusting to the room. Adjustments for each song is done on the bass.

  21. Kevin Brown

    Whoever wrote that story has no rights calling himself a musician lert alone a bass player! “Bought a bass and an amp. It made sound. Left it alone”. Joker!

  22. Joe in PNG

    One of the biggest lighbulb moments for me, in regards to tone, was relayed originally to John Entwistle by his manager: “it’s all very well, you playing that fast, but I can’t hear the notes you’re playing in the back. Why don’t you try putting a bit of treble on it?”

  23. that bass guy

    Lots of good comments here so I’ll chip in my experience. I have an active jazz 5-string going through a GK combo. It’s a fretless bass and I was always trying to get a woody round kind of sound out of it but was never happy as it just sounded boomy no matter what I did. I usually set the boost/cut on the bass all the way up and had the amp set fairly flat with the delimiter “on.” Anyway, I mentioned my plight with my tone to our trumpet player who was also an award winning orchestrator/conductor. He suggested that I set the amp to favor the midrange which seemed in contradiction to what i had the bass set on. Turns out he was dead on. With the boost maxed out on the bass, what I needed to cut were the extremes of the tonal range. Not only did these settings sound good up on stage but they also sounded very clear out in the house – exactly what I was looking for.

  24. Steve Richmond

    I realized a similar situation sometime after I got my GSR. I always play around with pickup volume and position but the GSR series feature passive p/j pickups with an active preamp for bass boost control. I always left the bass knob some because it caused too much mud in the mix and tended to be far too boomy, thus I really found the control kind of useless. I always found the sound from the bass a little thin without it though. But one day I had an idea, and turned the bass knob on the bass itself up, but cut it on the amp. It actually caused the sound to be much fuller and well rounded and I did not lose the bottom end I normally would from cutting the bass control on the amp. I would like to eventually get a full active setup with low, mid and treble control on the guitar to see what level I could take that too.