Troubleshooting a Clicking Sound From Your Bass


Q: I read your column on active vs. passive basses. I have been playing for a lot of years and am having issues with any Bartolini preamp/pickup combination that I use. I think one thing missed in the article was active vs passive pickups (or maybe I overlooked that). Anyway, I’m hearing a clicking sound. I know what you’re thinking: fret noise, and so did I. However, I play with low action and didn’t have this issue with boost-only bass electronics. I think the cut/boost and selectable midrange is keeping me from my sound. It also distracts me from what I’m playing. I have had this issue with all Bartolini preamps and pickups. I’m now thinking Sadowsky 2 band electronics and Sadowsky or EMG active pickups. I have owned a lot of basses, from Fodera to Alembic, F-bass, Warrior, etc. I now have an Elrick and the Bartolini electronics is rearing its ugly head again. Your comment about wood combinations made me think. I don’t believe the exotic top woods make much difference but, certainly the body/neck/fretboard woods and neck through or bolt on does. I need low round notes with midrange bark, more depth/low-end than Jaco, but in that vein. I play a style similar to Prestia but add a bit of Jaco influence and you’ve got me. A friend told me about a pickup I think he called Ulante or something similar that he is replacing his Nordstrand pickups with in his Sadowsky J/P. He says they are more aggressive in the mids but still round. I am at a loss at this point. Life was simpler when you grabbed a Fender Jazz put EMG pickups and a badass bridge on it and played through your SVT. Rob Elrick mentioned that some class D amps like the Mark Bass and TC Electronic can also be the culprit, I play TC amps so there is more to add to this bass problem gumbo. Any thoughts about a bass, wood combinations, electronics and amps (maybe back to a tube amp) are appreciated. Love your work and your approach to bass playing and studies.

Thanks for the question! Once again, I thought this was a subject better answered by a pro, so I asked Carey Nordstrand to tackle this one. For those of you that don’t know, Carey is an A-list luthier, designs some incredible pickups and is also a helluva bass player. Carey knows his stuff.

Here is Carey’s take:

A: Thanks to Damian for letting me attack this question. And wow, what a question. There’s a lot to unpack here. To start with I don’t think we have enough information to really assess where the issue might be coming from. Were I standing in front of you while you show me what’s happening then I might be able to help. But since that’s not the case, then let’s give this a shot.

How do you run the preamp on the bass? It sounds like you might be boosting top end a lot, which could very likely result in a clicky sound. Also, excessive bass boost might be a part of the problem. If you’re overdriving something somewhere the annoying “click” could be something clipping anywhere between the pickups and the speakers. How hot do you have the input gain on the TC amp? Are there any lights to indicate clipping? If so are these lighting up? Maybe you’re simply playing the amp too loud? Does the issue show up at lower volumes?

In my opinion, the last thing that could be considered to be a part of this problem would be the woods the bass is made out of. Almost any combination of woods should be basically usable as long as we’re not dealing with extreme pickup or preamp issues. And an Elrick bass in particular really shouldn’t be so far out in left field that I’d even be remotely inclined to suspect that’s part of the problem.

Another question to ask: does the bass have an active/passive switch? Most Bartolini setups have this option in my experience. Does the issue persist in passive mode? If not then it’s pretty much down to how you are running the preamp. Again, a lot of aggressive boosting might be either a part of the problem or the whole of it.

While we’re attempting to cover all the potential bases here, we’d be remiss if we didn’t address your action. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had players come in with unrealistic setup expectations. Assuming your bass doesn’t have any inherent quality issues (which again is the last thing I’d think with a super high-quality bass like an Elrick) then you simply might have the action set too low for how you attack the strings. There are issues of geometry and physics that even a perfectly set up bass can’t overcome. Also, your string tension can have an impact. Low tension strings are more easily overdriven by a heavy right hand and a setup that’s too low will make all kinds of noise.

Bottom line, I think you need to take a step back and start at ground zero. Evaluate each piece of the puzzle between your fingers and the speakers starting with your technique.

  1. With the bass not plugged in do the strings make the clicking sound? If yes then address your setup (raise the action). If not move on to #2.
  2. With the bass plugged in run it in passive mode at low volume. If it’s clicking then you have what is likely a fault somewhere in the wiring. If no clicking move to #3
  3. With the preamp on and the amp at low volume adjust your eq settings to what you normally use. Does the clicking show up? Well then it’s your eq settings, isn’t it? If not then keep going.
  4. Turn the amp up gradually. Is there a level where the clicking shows up? If yes you’ve discovered the limits of your amp setup.

If none of this is in the ballpark then maybe what you need to do is what you suggested: Get a Jazz bass and plug it into an SVT. IMO that very rarely goes wrong.

Best of luck to you.

For more about Carey Nordstrand, check out:

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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