Bass pickups explained – A guide to pickup types

Beginners guide to bass pickups

What do bass pickups do?

Bass Pickups are the heart of analogue instruments they produce sound through an amplifier. They are a transducer which captures the string vibration via a magnetic field. The magnetic field then fluctuates and again transforms the vibrations into an electrical current. This in turn is amplified by your amplifier and is then heard by your ears out of the speaker.

Pickup designs

The pickups listed below have specific features in their style and design. Some are better for other genres than others. The two most common bass pickups are the split coil pickup usually found on Precision Basses and the single coil pickup on the Jazz. These two pickups are talked about in detail on on the Difference between Precision and Jazz post.

Split coil

Split coil pickups are almost always found on a Precision bass. They are built in a way that the signal they pick up is out of phase. This is how they get their nickname “the humbucker” as they ‘buck the hum’. Single coils (on a Jazz), when turned up loud enough have a slight hum from the open circuit. Split coil pickups were created to eliminate this altogether.

While having an interesting feature, they do unfortunately loose some of their top end range. The overall sound of this pickup is more notably in the middle and bottom ends giving the sound more presence.

What it sounds like: Full bouncy and booming lows end, a punchy midrange and clear high end overtones with slight a twang.

Precision Split Coil pickup

Single coil

The single coil pickup is widely used on many modern basses. The most notable model is the Jazz bass which have a single coil in both the neck and bridge position.

Using the volume pots on the bass will let you dial in your preferred pickup. Characteristically, these pickups have a brighter tone with much more of a warm honk. It is also possible for these pickups to be very aggressive sounding and have a lot of bite.

Conversely, these pickups are known for having a very smooth and tight sound with the right EQ dialed in. The sound is more consistent dynamically than that of a split coil which has “bouncy” tendencies.

This pickup is commonly paired together with a split coil (like the Fender Aerodyne) to help provide a wider spectrum of sound.

What it sounds like: A low-end warmth that’s smooth. A biting midrange with a bit of a honk.Single coil bass pickup

MusicMan pickups (MM)

MusicMan pickups characteristically have larger magnetic pole pieces. As a result they provide a similar thump to a Split Coil but have a lot more definition with a tight, articulate tone.

What it sounds like: MusicMan pickups are punchy with a clear sonic definition. With lots of clarity and solid bottom definition.

Musicman pickup

Rail pickups

Instead of having pole pieces like on a single/split coil. Rail pickups are configured with two rails like that of a train track. This configuration combines the four coils into one super coil with a very high output and consistent level of dynamics. Moreover an additional benefit of rail pickups is that they are not bound by string spacing. Split and Single pickups  by comparison cannot change their positioning.

What it sounds like: Depending on the shape it will mirror that pick up type but have a consistent output with no quiet patches.Bass pickups rail

Soap/Bar pickup

The name refers to the shape of this pickup. Realistically, most soap/bar pickups for bass are split coil (humbuckers). It is possible for some manufacturers to put any type of pick up in this enclosure. Modern soapboars have also been known to add rails into their enclosures also.

What it sounds like: Soapbars are more or less similar sonically to rail pickups, being loud and consistent in terms of string placement.Soapbar bass pickup

Rickenbacker pickups

The iconic crescent waves shaped Rickenbacker not only innovated it’s own style but it’s own pickups too. Whilst they look unique they aren’t too dissimilar from regular pickups with pole pieces and they operate the same. The only distinction between types would be how they sound.

What it sounds like: The classic Rickenbacker pick up is know for its tone. A subtle and deliberate tone that cuts through the mix. While praise for it’s warmness and definition it lacks a high volume output.

Rickenbacker pickup

Are you interested in Bass Rigs?

We have a WhichBass channel on YouTube listing all of the famous bass players guitars, amplifiers, effects pedals and more. If this is something you’re interested in you can watch the most popular videos in the playlist.

Active vs Passive bass pickups

Active bass pickups are powered by a 9 volt battery which acts like a pre-amp. This will boost your signal before reaching the amplifier. Using active bass pickups will make your sound more consistent and remove subtle dynamics. This can be useful for genres that play at one volume like Punk or Metal. Your output will be louder with active pickups but there are trade offs in doing so.

Pickup genres

The bass pickups above will play in almost all genres. There is no hard and fast rule to adhere by. For a general starting pointing the following combinations are widely accepted.

  • Split Coil (Precision Bass)- Blues, Funk, Metal, Punk, Punk-Rock, Reggae, Rock.
  • Single Coil (Jazz Bass) – Disco, Jazz, Metal, Pop, Rock.

Upgrading bass pickups

The bass guitar is customisable in many, many ways. The pickups too are open to huge amounts of experimentation, with many products catering to every type of musical style imaginable. Just like changing your strings, changing your pickups opens up a whole new world of tone and or phrasing.

With that said the vast majority of basses come with adequate stock pickups for beginners.

Of course once you are well rooted in bass playing you will have the opportunity to swap it out for a different model with relative ease and find out what tone suits your style.

What pickup should I buy?

Pickups are extremely subjective and much like bass strings there is a lot of trial and error. Do your research, read reviews, listen to samples and keep an open mind.

Generally speaking here are two interesting choices for the Precision bass. If you like Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden try the Geezer Butler Signature Precision Pickup or the Steve Harris Precision Pickup.

For the Jazz bass players take a look at Seymour Duncan’s Quarter Pound set. For Guns’N’Roses fans listen to the Seymour Duncan Hot Stack used by Duff Mckagan.

Bass features guide

This guide for Bass pickups is part of the Bass Guitar Parts series. In this series we dissect the parts of the bass guitar and explain in detail how each part works. When you know and understand how each part works in conjunction of the other, it opens up your imagination to “what if i change this variable”.

Next in this series is the the guide for Bass guitar wood – The body, neck and fretboard. The wood used on your bass guitar can have many impacts on your sound. More sound, more sustain. Rounding out the sound or make it more aggressive.