A Guide to Bass Guitar Pickups

Pickups are integral components to creating the sound you’re after when playing bass guitar, whether it be grooving power rock or smooth funk-style music. Here is an overview of some common types:

Magnetic bass guitar pickups use magnets to convert vibrations from your strings into an electrical signal that can then be amplified.

What is a Pickup?

Pickups are what enable bass guitars to be amplified, providing that distinctive tone most of us associate with it. From gritty power rock tones to smooth funk grooves, pickups are integral parts of shaping the sound coming out of your bass guitar. Electromagnets vibrating when strings move past them produce an electrical signal which is sent through its output jack for transmission back through your instrument’s speaker system.

Dependent upon the type of pickup used, an electrical signal generated from its string can produce various sounds ranging from traditional single-coil sounds to powerful humbuckers. Furthermore, pickup placement has an effect on tone as different parts of a bass have distinctive properties (ie neck or bridge).

Most bass pickups use electromagnetic technology, using magnets and copper wire to convert vibrations into an electrical signal. Pickups may either be active or passive; active basses include an amplifier that amplifies their signal before reaching their amplifier. Passive bass guitars do not have this built-in preamp feature and therefore require greater amplifying to reach their amplifiers.

Open-coil bass guitar pickups are the most prevalent type and use a coil of wire wrapped around one or more magnets to generate an electrical signal. Some leading producers of bass pickups such as DiMarzio, Fender Noiseless, EMG and Seymour Duncan employ an ingenious trick for minimizing interference between coils by having two different numbers of wraps; this way when both coils are engaged simultaneously they cancel each other out and prevent any unnecessary humming or buzzing sounds from occurring simultaneously.

Rarer are piezoelectric bass guitar pickups which use an acoustic transducer to convert vibrations to electronic signals and produce full, rich tones with minimal distortion. These types of pickups are typically found on acoustic-electric basses.

Though there are other types of bass pickups, the three most prevalent designs – P, J and humbucker–have long been the focal points of electric bass guitars. Their longstanding popularity attests to their effectiveness at recreating tones for various genres and styles of music.

Single-Coil Pickups

Single-coil pickups consist of one coil wrapped around magnets. As strings vibrate, magnetic fields created by this coil produce an electrical signal which can then be amplified for amplification – giving single-coil pickups the versatility to produce an extensive variety of tones ranging from swampy muffled bass notes all the way through to crystal clear articulation.

Guitars with single-coil pickups can also produce unwanted noise and hum when playing with higher gain or distortion levels, especially when played at higher volumes. To address this issue, many models feature a parallel circuit designed to cancel out this extraneous noise; such a circuit can be found on a Strat for instance.

Single-coil pickups come in many varieties, with variations including windings (the amount of wire wrapped around magnets), material composition and pole piece polarity all playing key roles in how each pickup sounds and serves its respective style of music.

As a general rule, the more coils you wrap around magnets, the higher your output will be. Furthermore, the polarity of pole pieces – commonly referred to as ‘poles’ – plays an integral part in how magnetic fields interact with other electrical sources in your guitar, which in turn may impact everything from tone, volume, and sensitivity levels of your instrument.

Your decision between single or humbucker pickups ultimately boils down to your chosen style of music. If you enjoy playing Strat, for instance, then single coil might be more your speed; but if you need something that cuts through dense mixes better then perhaps humbucking pickups might be better suited.

Humbucker Pickups

Once again, bass pickups have an enormous effect on tone. Switching between single-coil and humbucker styles can feel like switching guitar models entirely; even those from the same manufacturer/model can sound vastly different when switched over to humbuckers; it is therefore crucial that you find ones suitable to your bass and playing style.

Humbuckers are constructed with two signal-producing coils instead of just one, giving them a fuller sound and canceling out the characteristic hum produced by single-coil pickups. As a result, humbuckers offer players worldwide an expansive, rich guitar sound valued highly.

Humbuckers and single-coil pickups can both be installed on an electric bass guitar, yet each type offers different sounds and benefits. A number of factors affect how a bass pickup sounds; magnet size and orientation; number of coils per coil grouping and thickness of wire among others all play into its sound quality.

Humbuckers offer more output than single-coils but can sometimes produce harsh and shrill overdriven tones. However, there are ways of controlling how humbuckers respond to overdrive and distortion; for instance, when playing heavy distortion solos you could use a high-pass filter to cut frequency of your humbuckers to prevent harsh tones from being produced by them.

One option available to bass guitarists who wish to expand their arsenal of tones is using a coil tap on a humbucker, which allows for the isolation of one coil from both. This enables you to achieve single coil sounds without the need for separate humbuckers while still enjoying parallel, series or out-of-phase modes of playback – an invaluable asset when looking for variety among their tones.

Other variables affecting the sound of a humbucker include the type of metal used to craft its pole pieces and size and shape of its magnet, as well as insulated wiring that connects coils to pickup bodies. A bass guitar with a ceramic magnet often produces warmer sounding notes than one fitted with barium magnets which may produce brighter tones.

Changing Pickups

Pickups installed in your bass guitar can have an enormous effect on its overall sound and tone, but changing them yourself may be tricky due to delicate wires and switches involved. As such, it is often recommended that a trained professional carry out this upgrade process on behalf of their client.

If you take on the challenge of switching up your pickups, it is crucial that you understand exactly the sound and tone that you desire so as to select the appropriate bass guitar pickups and reap maximum benefit from them.

Some players favor using only a specific type of bass guitar pickup, while others find using multiple combinations produces the most versatile sound. For instance, some musicians find pairing single coil pickups on either end with split coil pickups in the center gives more tones that suit various musical genres.

Consideration should also be given when choosing the ideal bass guitar pickups with regards to distortion levels. If your musical style involves hard rock and metal music, a higher output pickup could help mitigate increased levels of distortion.

As previously discussed, bass guitar pickups come in both passive and active variations. While passive models rely on string vibrations to transform into an electrical signal, active units require external power sources for operation.

Outside these major categories, there are also multiple subtypes you may employ in your bass guitar setup. A J bass pickup falls under magnetic categories; its magnetic pole pieces capture vibrations under each string to amplify them using cables. A stacked humbucker uses two sets of magnets in order to capture more frequencies than traditional single coil pickups.

One alternative to consider for bass guitar pickups is an optical pickup that uses light to detect string vibrations and turn them into an electric signal. While these pickups may not yet be commonplace, many bassists praise the unique sound they produce.