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 strings vibrations 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 and the single coil pickup. These two pickups are talked about in detail on on the Difference between Precision and Jazz post.

Single coil

The single coil pickup is widely used on many basses. The most notable model is the Jazz bass. Jazz basses 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 twang. 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 dialled 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.Single coil bass pickup

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, 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.

Precision Split Coil pickup

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.Soapbar bass 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. Bass pickups rail

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.

In practice

The prices of pickups vary as each model will bring something new to the table in desired tone or flavouring. Pickups are a very creative market and many niches of sounds are available. The vast majority of basses come with adequate stock pickups which are functional and that’s fine to start with. For a new player, the stock bass pickups shouldn’t concern you. 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 sound it is you want.


Bass features guide

This guide for Bass pickups is part of the Bass Feature 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.