Series vs. Parallel Wired Pickups

Bass Guitar Closeup

Q: Could you explain in as simple terms as possible the difference between series and parallel circuitry in pickups? Could you offer some examples where one is more appropriate than the other? (I realize that this may boil down to a preference thing, if so, could you give examples where you would choose one over the other?) Thank you for your dedication to the “Ask Damian” column. With so much information on the web, it’s important to have go-to places for learning. You offer a vital and reliable resource to the bass community.

A: Thank you for the kind words! I’m thrilled to hear that people dig this series. I’m always amazed by the number of people that I meet all around the world who are dedicated readers. Thank you all!

Basically, when pickups are wired in series, the signal flows first through one pickup and then the other. In other words, the output of pickup 1 feeds to the input of pickup 2. This creates more resistance to the signal which translates into a beefier sound (as well as more volume. The output can be 30% hotter when wired in series).

When the pickups are wired in parallel, they are wired so that your signal goes into both pickups simultaneously and back out to be combined at the output. Your signal gets diverted into two separate signals and each flows to one pickup or the other, which then come back together at (or just before) the output jack of the instrument.

So you get a longer signal chain when wired in series as your one signal travels through both pickups, one after the other. In parallel, you have two shorter signal chains which are combined. This is why you have more resistance (and more beef and volume) when using pickups wired in series.

I know some players who have installed series/parallel switches on their Jazz basses in order to make them more versatile. The reasoning being that J-basses are typically wound in parallel but if you switched them to series, you could get it to sound more like a P-bass (especially if you favor that front pickup). Honestly, I don’t have a lot of experience with wiring and have typically just sought out basses that sounded the way I wanted and never dove too deeply beyond that, until a repair was necessary, at which point I’d contact a builder or repair person and ask what I needed to know in order to do the repair myself (i.e.: what kind of pot do I need, etc.) I like doing repairs myself as that’s how I learn about this stuff, and I’m still learning!

Personally, whenever I’ve had a bass with a switch for series/parallel, I almost never switched it to parallel because it seemed too anemic compared to the series wiring. But, I don’t slap and have always preferred a bigger, slightly more aggressive sound.

However, the parallel wiring does have more shimmer in the treble end of the spectrum. It’s also a smoother sound. Players who like the more modern “crispy” and pointed bass sound may prefer wiring in parallel. I could also imagine a bass made for slapping would be wired in parallel as those pops would really pop.

So, to my ears:

  • Series: beefier, more aggressive sound. More lows and mids (and volume)
  • Parallel: More of a trebly sound. More shimmer in the treble and less output

I hope that helps!

Readers, I’d love to hear from you on this subject. Please share your experience and thoughts on this topic in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to Dragan Milojevic Cancel reply

  1. David Bassman

    How about humbucker pickups? In the same pickup, ignoring other pickups in the bass, the two coils can be wired in parallel or series, even isolating a coil and sounding as a single coil (the typical 3-position-ON-ON-ON miniswitch mod).

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Dragan Milojevic

    Great post! Thanks to both the reader who asked the question and Damian for providing such a great answer!

  3. Matt

    Could the weak sound of parallel-wired pickups be caused by them being out of phase? Your description certainly leads me to think this could be a factor, but I’ll admit I haven’t tried this myself to be certain. Certainly more knowledgeable folks would have checked that before they sold you a bass with such a switch….

  4. Roy L Pennon

    Awesome post and reply Damian Erskine. Your answer and examples were dead on.