No matter how you look at it, there’s no way around it…
Pickups are the single most important element of the bass when it come to sound…
So you bet choosing one is a big deal.
The thing is, nowadays the range of pickups is broader than ever, and it’s easy to get lost with terms such as:
- Single Coil
So how do you know which one is the best for your needs, and your bass?
And whether you’re looking to upgrade your current bass…
Or buy a new one, you’ll find out that the sound you’re looking for relies almost entirely on the type of pickups used.
So whether you’re a newbie who doesn’t know the first thing about pickups…
Or an advanced player looking for new possibilities…
I have in today’s post everything you need to know about bass pickups and how to get the sound you’re looking for.
Sounds good? Then let’s start.
Types of Pickups
First off, let’s take a quick look at the 3 main categories of pickups:
- Magnetic – which are the most common ones and work by capturing magnetic field changes and converting them into voltage
- Piezoelectric – which are common for acoustic basses and uprights. On electric bass they’re mostly used as an extra pickup together with magnetic ones.
- Optical – which is a fairly recent innovation and uses infrared light
Now, for this article I won’t go in depth as to how exactly magnetic pickups work. If you want to learn more about them, check out this article:
However, there are still some things you need to know when looking at magnetic pickups on basses. And so…
Magnetic pickups are the most common type of pickups.
Although there are some variations, ALL magnetic pickups are either Single Coil or Humbucker (double coil).
As I said, bass pickups are the single most important factor to define the whole sound of your bass…
So much that single coil pickups are refered to as “J-bass pickups” and humbucker pickups are refered to as “P-bass” pickups, because of the type of basse they’re used on.
In case you don’t know what these letters stand for, they’re the initials for Jazz bass and Precision bass, the 2 most popular bass models in the world.
So although we’ll cover these 2 iconic models in the next part, you can read more extensively about the different types of bass guitars in this article:
And so, first off…
Single Coil or Humbucker?
Single Coil pickups are the first pickups ever created and were the only option available up until 1955. As their name suggest they use a single coil which creates a noise, or hum.
To address this issue, double coil pickups — or humbuckers — were created, which do exactly what their name suggests, they buck the hum.
So, you would actually think that humbucker pickups are better in every way… But the truth is that both types are equally as popular, mainly because Jazz and Precision basses use single coil and humbucker pickups, respectively…
Which is also why they sound so different. Watch this video to hear these differences for yourself:
Now, as you can see on the image above, there IS a difference between P-bass pickups and humbuckers (both double coil pickups)…
Because, although they both are humbucking pickups, humbuckers have 2 coils under each string, allowing them to ‘pick up’ a wider area under the string, and creating some phase cancelation…
Resulting in a ‘fatter‘ sound, with attenuated highs and strong lows and mids.
On the other hand, P-bass/split coil pickups are essentially 2 single coil pickups one next to the other…
So why do they sound different compared to regular single coil pickups? Well, this is due to the size of the coil used on each of these pickups:
Since split coil pickups have a smaller coil than single coil pickups, this very coil is wound more times, creating a different inductance.
To conclude, you don’t necessarily need a humbucker pickup to buck the hum. This can also be achieved with single coil pickups thanks to either of the following options:
- Use a noise cancelling/humbucking single coil pickup – which were created to keep the sound of single coil pickups while eliminating their inherent hum
- Set both single-coil pickups to the same volume – this will cancel out the hum, while creating a trademark “mid scoop” sound
And the truth is, nowadays, most single coil pickups are noise canceling.
P/J bass are a hybrid of Precision and Jazz bass.
Now, bassists have always modified their instrument by tweaking and changing the pickups, but in the 1970’s the company Ibanez started producing the first true PJ bass.
It wasn’t until the 80’s that Fender would start making its own models and it took them several tries before adopting the definitive PJ pickup setup.
This type of bass offers:
- The body of a P bass
- The neck of a J bass
- The pickups of both J and P bass – so you can switch between both sounds, and even blend them
On top of that, these basses are actually both active and passive. There is a passive/active switch that allows to easily switch from one mode to the other.
So although the typical PJ bass customer is just a bassist who plays various music styles, some people seem to particularly appreciate the fact that you can BLEND both pickups…
For example, some people like the sound of a P-bass but also like adding some mid-range to it, which is possible with a PJ bass.
So, in other words, it’s undoubtedly the MOST versatile bass to date.
Here’s a good demo of how PJ basses sounds like:
And many bassists actually think it’s a great alternative to having to carry 2 basses around, on top of having the ability to actually blend both pickups for a unique tone…
PJ basses are particularly popular with bassists who play various types of music. since they get a wider range of sound to choose from.
And although they’re still pretty new on the market, it’s actually hard to find a SINGLE negative review of these basses.
Check out my recommendations:
- Squier PJ Bass – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- Fender Mustang – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- Fender Artist Series Duff McKagan Deluxe – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- Fender American Elite Precision – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- American Elite Jazz Bass (single coil active/passive) – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
Instead of sensing the changes in the magnetic field like regular pickups do…
Piezo pickups sense the changes in pressure on the guitar itself, produced by the string, which is why they’re used on acoustic instruments mainly.
Piezo sound is much brighter and has much more attack than magnetic pickups, and some bass players have found that by adding a piezo pickup to their bass, they could dramatically change, and improve their sound.
Now, on electric basses (and guitars), piezo pickups are built inside the bridge (like the one on the picture above), and each string has its own pickup.
And though it began as an experimentation in search for a different/better sound, the result was so compelling that some manufacturers simply started building their basses WITH built-in piezo pickups…
Such as the one on this video which shows various combinations between both types of pickups, so you can hear how different they sound when used each one on his own, or blended together:
Sounds sweet, doesn’t it?
If that’s the sound you’re after, here are the best pickup options available:
- GraphTec Ghost (full 5 string bridge) – (Amazon)
- GraphTec Ghost (single string) – (Amazon)
- Schaller E-Bass bridg (4 strings) – (Amazon)
- Schaller E-Bass bridge (5 string) – (Amazon)
But keep in mind you’ll have to do some work on your bass in order to install a piezo bridge, since you need to install one pickup in each bridge saddle…
So if you’re not the do-it-yourself type, you might want to hand out the job to a luthier.
And if you don’t want to go through any of this, you can also just buy a bass with a built-in piezo pickup. Here are the best models currently available:
- Ibanez Workshop SRF700 (fretless) – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF)
- Traveler Guitar Bass – (Amazon)
- Ibanez Workshop SRF705 (fretless 5 strings) – (Amazon)
- NS Design CR5 (5 strings) – (Amazon)
And now for the final and least common type of pickups…
Optical pickups have been around for nearly 50 years now but it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that professionals in the industry started considering them more seriously…
And actually using them to build their basses or guitars.
Now, the fact is that they’re nowhere near as popular as magnetic pickups, partly because many musicians haven’t even heard about them…
However, they have unquestionable advantages compared to magnetic pickups.
Optical pickups “see” the string vibrations rather than sensing them, like magnetic pickups do. In other words, there is no mechanical process involved, which leads to some major improvements compared to magnetic pickups:
- They’re immune to noise and hum – since the pickup doesn’t interfere in any way with the string’s motions, there is virtually no hum
- They have a broader frequency range – no matter at what sound level you play, optical pickups don’t lose out on dynamics or sensitivity
- They have a flat response – again, since there is nothing n the way of the strings’ vibrations, they’re free to vibrate as long and as naturally as the can
- They have an extended sustain – since the optical pickups doesn’t exert any kind of pull on the string – as is the case with magnetic pickups – the string is free to vibrate much, much longer
Here’s how they work:
- The pickup points a light source towards the strings
- When the strings vibrates, a sensor that converts light into electric current sees the movements of the strings and sends the signal out
Now, this isn’t to say that optical pickups are better… Because the truth is, many musicians still like the sound of magnetic pickups better…
Often because they tend to prefer a ‘dirty’, more traditional sound. And it seems that, for some applications optical pickups aren’t ideal…
For example, they sound GREAT with clean sound, but not nearly as good whith overdrive.
Anyway, here’s what you can expect from an optical pickup to sound like:
The main company to built optical pickups right now is Lightwave, which builds them for the brand Willcox Guitars. You can check it out here:
Also, keep it mind this pickups works with batteries that you’ll need to charge before playing.
After the pickup type, the next most important factor is where the pickups are placed on the bass:
- The closer they are to the neck, the muddier the bass will sound, producing more “oomph”
- The closer they are to the bridge, the brighter the bass will sound
Which is why most basses have 2 pickups, so you can choose between the one you prefer, or even blend both.
Here’s a pretty conclusive video that demonstrates well how pickups placement affects tone:
Exposed or Covered Poles ?
Some pickups have their pole pieces covered an other don’t.
So what’s the difference? Well, apart from aesthetics not much it seems.
Basically Some people like the look of one more than the other, although some say that by covering the poles you eliminate the risk of “pop” in case the string touches the pole.
Overall, there is no clear consensus in the bass community as to what the real differences are, apart from aesthetics.
Still, I can promise you’ll have a hard time finding a J bass with covered poles.
Covered poles are typically used to create a more modern look, whether exposed poles look inevitably more vintage/old school.
How to Change the Pickups On Your Bass
Changing your bass’ pickups yourself is not too complicated and as long as you have the right tools and instructions you’re good to go.
Watch this video to learn how to do it:
Now that you’ve been thoroughly educated on the matter, let’s see which models and brands are the most popular.
Right now, there are 3 main competitors in the industry:
- Seymour Duncan – which arguably have the widest range of pickups
- DiMarzio – which introduced the first separate pickup back in 1972
- EMG – which are the typical metal pickups
Somehow all these companies were founded roughly at the same time, in the mid 1970’s, at a time where rock music started getting louder and louder…
And musicians needed evermore powerful rig, which is maybe the reason why DiMarzio and EMG “specialized” in rock/metal music.
But regardless of their endorsers, all these brands offer J, P, humbucker, single coil etc…
Here are my recommendations:
- STK J2 (J-bass) – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- Quarter Pound (P-Bass) – (Amazon/GuitarC/Thomann)
- Quarter Pound (5 Strings P-Bass) – (Thomann)
- Quarter Pound (PJ bass) – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- MusicMan Stingray – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- Ultra Jazz Bass (J-bass) – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- DP250BK (P-Bass) – (Amazon)
- Model P+J (PJ bass) – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- Ultra Jazz Bass 5 strings – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF)
- EMG Geezer – (J-bass/Active) – (Amazon/Thomann)
- EMG Geezer – (P-Bass) – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- Model P+J (PJ bass) – (Amazon/GuitarC/MusicianF/Thomann)
- J5 (5 strings) – (Amazon/Thomann)
Note: as you can see, the J-bass pickup is active, so unless you own an active bass that you’d like to turn into a Jazz bass, you might want to check out EMG’s solderless J-bass prewired pickup system…
Which lets you convert your passive bass into an active bass. Check it out:
And that’s it.
Hopefully you now know enough to make an informed decision.
‘Til next time!