Bass Pickups Types – 2021 Ultimate Guide

Craig
| Last Updated: April 6, 2021

Acoustic instruments create their tone thanks to the soundhole design.

Electric instruments on the other hand are mostly made in solid body shape.

This design makes them acoustically almost inaudible and that’s why they need some other way to produce a signal and this is what makes pickups essential to every bass guitar out there.

How Does Bass Pickup Work?

Pickups are usually made out of magnets that have a coiled copper wire. When you play the string the vibration is causing a disturbance in the magnetic field and this input is getting transferred to the bass preamp where it gets amplified to produce a sound we all know as the bass guitar sound.

Magnetic Pickup

While there are some other pickup types, most electric string pickups can be categorized as magnetic pickups:

What is a Single Coil Pickup?

Single coil pickup usually refers to a pickup with a single magnet pole. This results in a crisp and clean tone but also a tone prone to capturing external noise as well.

What Are Humbuckers?

This is just another word for double coil pickup. Humbuckers are made of two coils wired in parallel that have opposite magnet polarization facing the strings. Those coils are also slightly out of phase because phase cancellation would nullify the sound otherwise.

So, when you play a string the signal is captured by both coils and stacked together. Because of the double coil setup, the overall sound is much louder and “full” and thanks to the phase cancelation it is completely “bucking the hum”, especially hum coming out from power lines.

Photo credit: 429records.com

The legendary Fender Precision bass pickup type also belongs to this category but with different wiring. Instead of being parallel, it uses double single-coil pickups with serial wiring with the first single-coil pickup placed a bit closer to the bridge on the strings DG. Nowadays there is even an inverted P bass pickup layout available.

And actually, there are some historical reasons for this decision rather than practical - Fender just didn’t want to pay a patent for Gibson humbucker design and have come up with its setup having two single-coil pickups linked in series.

This feature eliminates all kinds of background noise, sounds loud and punchy but it trades a portion of clarity on trebles.

What is a Split Coil Pickup?

Humbuckers are superior when it comes to the overall loudness, but, for some situations, single-coil pickups felt more useful because of the clean tone character it has. That’s why some designers have created a split-coil option for their humbuckers that simply turns off one of the magnets in pickups and makes the humbucker single-coil pickup.

Quad Coil Pickup

As most pickup types were made back in the 1950s, this is just an attempt to utilize modern technology and create something new. As you can tell by its name it stacks two humbuckers together to produce some additional options not possible with a typical humbucker such as coil-tapping or running humbuckers both in series or parallel.

The biggest advantage of these pickups is the ability to run them as a single coil while having a hum canceling.

Quad Coil Pickup: Courtesy of nordstrandaudio.com

What Are Pole Pickups?

Pole pickups are usually the most usual pickups you will find for bass guitar. Poles are just the end piece of copper winding found in the pickup that generates the magnetic field. 

The most important advantage of this pickup type is the ability to tune the volume of all strings proportionally.

If you think about it, you will understand that low E string is much thicker than G string and therefore creates much more vibration when it’s played. With a pickup placed even on the tonewood, it would cause the volume difference between notes played on E string and G string. That’s why slightly tilting one side of the pickup can create a volume balancing and this is where poles jump in as every individual pole is “responsible” for tone generating. 

Electric guitars usually have one pole per string while bass guitars such as Fender Jazz Bass may have two for every string. If this is the case with your instrument, it’s very important to have the strings set between the poles to get the best tone out of it.

What Are Blade Pickups?

Also known as bar pickup, blade pickups don’t have any poles at all. Instead, the whole pickup could be considered as being “the pole”. The main advantage is that there is no aligning required to match the strings right between the poles as it generates the sound through the whole top surface.

They are more sensitive to any string movement which can be a good and bad thing as it produces even those unwanted string movements. Imagine having a pole pickup with poles standing just beneath the strings. It requires very clean playing so it’s not quite recommended for beginners.

On the other hand, experienced players can utilize it more efficiently and get that extra punch from the instrument.

Single Blade Pickup: Courtesy of gear4music.com

What Are Soapbar Pickups?

Usually, all bass pickup covers are made of black plastic. But, the soap bar pickup type derives from the guitar world because of its housing - because of its shape and color it simply reminded people of a plain soap bar.

That being said, the actual pickup inside this housing can vary a lot and there are no limitations on what can be found beneath.  

Piezo Pickups

This type of pickup is used on acoustic instruments as it captures the string resonance directly through the string vibration on the bridge position. It can be used with nylon strings as well, but, due to its output limitation, it may require preamp support. 

They feel sort of experimental on electric bass and it’s not something we would recommend as your main pickup. But, if you’re interested in this type of pickups, we would advise you to consider blending them with magnetic pickups instead of having them in solo.

Bass Pickup Comparisons

With so many different pickups, which one is the best for you? Well, let’s take a look at some of the most usual bass pickup types and see how they stand against each other:

Photo credit: octavemusicstore.com

Humbuckers vs Single Coil Bass Pickups

In general, many bass players prefer the single-coil pickup sound as it’s more transparent. It’s so rewarding for post processing as it can be stacked with various effects. Humbucker sounds a bit more produced especially in terms of sound compression and unlike single-coil bass pickups, they can be turned much louder before creating any kind of noise.

But, some humbuckers come with a split-coil option installed. This option allows players to use humbucker bass pick up the same way just like they would do with single-coil pickups. Thanks to this option, you may end up having the best of both worlds within the same pickup. 

Active vs Passive Pickups Bass

When you say Active pickup, this usually means you have several dedicated knobs on the tonewood for tone control. It usually also requires a 9-volt battery to be used and its overall tone output is much hotter than passive pickup and it will be preserved with a long instrument cable on a longer distance than passive instruments.

For passive pickups, the only control you’re about to get is the overall signal volume control and a single tone control dial which isn’t a huge drawback as modern preamps have all the options you might need.

Covered vs Uncovered Pickups

Covered pickups have an additional cover on the top which generates a few attenuated highs which might be useful if you’re playing with the picks. But in general, differences are subtle and it comes to your taste. We can see how covered pickups may work well for jazz, R&B, or funk music as it would dampen your overall sound.

Photo credit: stackexchange.com

Soapbar Pickups vs Humbuckers

As we already mentioned, soap bar pickups aren’t a type of pickup - it’s more of a housing type. The actual soap bar pickup can be either single-coil, humbucker, split-coil, or even quad coil pickup so there is no real comparison here.

They tend to look more appealing to musicians visually, though and they may also relate to the covered pickup type. What would be the actual pickup type of your soap bar depends on the manufacturer’s decisions.

So Which Type of Pickup Do I Need For My Bass?

If you have a budget bass guitar instrument and stock pickups on it, we would strongly suggest you invest in new pickups. 

Which one? 

It all depends on the most frequent usual music genres you’re about to perform. Unlike electric guitars, bass pickups are a bit more simplified in and it’s more or less a choice between J Bass or P Bass options.

Both types of pickups will work in general, it’s just a proper fine-tuning we’re talking about. Most of your tone still comes from your fingers and no pickup can substitute the lack of playing technique.

Genres close to jazz music such as funk, reggae, or some sort of blues will prefer that mellow sound J Bass provides them while modern music like rock, metal, or pop may rely on a P Bass type of bass instrument more.

But, if you’re a frequent player, doing a lot of different music genres, think about having an all-around solution. PJ Bass pickup type might be a good investment for you as it combines the pickup structure from both J Bass (on the bridge) and P Bass (on the neck position) in a single setup.

Photo credit: bettermusic.com.au

Conclusion 

It may be odd enough, but 70 years later, J Bass and P Bass are still considered as an industry standard by any given means. We’re pretty sure that this surpassed even the wildest dreams of its maker and it’s one of the most impressive showcases that the 1950s were golden years for electric instruments development in general.

People Also Ask

Here are some of the most usual questions we’ve got regarding bass pickups. Some will explain how important pickups are for overall bass tone, while others will explain to you what is that PJ bass pickup compromise everyone is talking about and could you use a 4-string pickup on a 5-string instrument.

What is Optical Pickup?

Optical pickup is a technology that may look to you like coming from a distant future. Instead of using magnets, it relies on infrared technology. It “sees” the string vibration and gives you the most natural sound from string instruments. But, it’s far from being mainstream yet.

Which is Better, a P Bass or J Bass Pickup?

There is no clear winner. To our taste, P Bass seems to be a bit more modern and versatile than J Bass, but it all depends on the genre you’re about to play. That’s why every professional bassist usually ends up having both instruments in their arsenal.

How Much Does a Bass Pickup Cost?

Based on the tone quality, bass pickups can go from a bit over $50 for some budget DiMarzios up to $300 for some Fender Vintage pickups. But, usually, most bass pickups are found within the $100 to $200 range regardless of the bass pickup type you’re looking for.

Do Bass Pickups Matter?

Bass pickups make a huge difference between bass guitars so investing in upgrading from stock pickups is probably the best decision you’re about to make. They generate the overall tone of your instrument and usually, they are being upgraded with third-party models more than any other hardware part.

What is the Best Bass Pickup?

It’s hard to pick just one pickup that stands out for all purposes so let us name a few just to give you a hint:

  • Seymour Duncan ASB-BO Blackout set

  • DiMarzio DP123

  • Fender Custom Shop ‘60 Jazz Bass

  • EMG Geezer Butler Signature

  • Bartolini 8S

Why Are P Bass Pickups Split?

Opposite magnetic fields found on P Bass coils generate a humbucking effect, like the one found in Gibson Les Paul guitars. But, as the humbuckers were patented, this was a Fender workaround. Those pickups are positioned this way to increase the spectral range of the bass guitar, especially the treble part of the sound.

Photo credit: oldtimemusic.com

What is a PJ-Bass Pickup?

Nowadays, there are special pickup sets that are made of both P-Bass on the neck and J-Bass on the bridge position and they are giving you the best of both worlds. Imagine having a Precision Bass that also has a Jazz Bass sound inside.

Can I Use 4-string Pickup on the 5-string Bass?

Those pickups that are made in the form of magnetic bars (such as EMG pickups) can be easily used on all kinds of bass guitars as long as all strings are beneath the pickup. Others that have poles on them can be a bit more tricky to use.

What is an Inverted P-Bass?

P-Bass pickups are split so that the D-G pickup is closer to the bridge than the E-A pickup. This results in significant low-end which might be too much for some users. That’s why there is an inverted P-Bass setup so that E-A pickup is closer instead of bringing in general less low frequencies this way.

What is the Difference Between Active and Passive Bass Pickups?

Physically, active bass pickups require a battery which means that the back of the instrument won’t be that clean just like you would find on a passive bass pickup. Tonally, an active bass guitar has a bit more compressed tone while the passive tone is often considered as being more natural.

Craig

Hi there, my name is Craig. I took over Gear Savvy in mid-2019 and have had a blast writing content about music ever since. My role here is to steer the ship and ensure readers have the best information available for learning a thing or two. When I’m not working on content, I’m a husband and a dad. I enjoy spending time with my family, playing guitar, or messing around in my woodshop.