Bass guitars have come a long way since their inception in the 1930s. What were once essentially oversized acoustics outfitted with rudimentary electronics have evolved into a versatile array of sleek but thunderous music machines. Nowadays, bass manufacturers have given us a slew of body designs and several bass pickup types to choose from.
You might think a bass is a bass, but there’s quite a sonic distinction between a Thunderbird with dual humbuckers, a Jaguar with a split-coil “P” pickup, and a Rickenbacker fixed with a couple of single-coils. Today we’re taking a look at the key characteristics of the different bass pickup types to give you a bit of insight into which electronics you’ll want to choose to match your desired tone. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to grab the right bass for when you want your basslines to quack with a clear-cut spank, wobble with warmth and resonance, or walk smoothly down the middle path.
Basically, a pickup serves as a way to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. Like the pickups used in electric guitars, your typical bass pickups are made of magnets, wire, and a container called a bobbin. Magnetic poles are inserted into holes in the bobbin and then wrapped many times with a conductive wire.
This creates an electromagnet—the electromagnetic pickup exudes a magnetic field, and in turn, magnetizes the guitar string. When your strings vibrate, they cause a magnetic flux which is transferred as an electrical charge through the wires surrounding the magnets. This then travels through your bass’s wiring, down the instrument cable, and is finally converted into sound through your amplifier.
The sound generated by bass pickups depends on several factors, like the magnets used, the direction and method of wrapping the wire, and where they are placed on the bass. Different pickup manufacturers utilize various combinations of all these elements to define their signature tones. Additionally, the tonewoods used in the body, neck, and fingerboard of the bass shape the tone, further influencing the terminal output of the electronics. As such, there are no hard and fast rules to be able to say “pickup X sounds just like this, and pickup Y sounds just like that.”
There are, however, some commonalities to be found in each category of pickup—some defining characteristics that make different bass pickup types preferable for certain genres or playing styles. These are what we will focus on today.
Pickup History and the Rise of the Electric Bass
Pickups were the result of a lot of experimentation by various inventors pioneering the field of electrified instruments. Their first successful incarnation is generally credited to Texas-born George Beauchamp. Beauchamp, an innovative multi-instrumentalist, began designing and testing various pickup designs in the 1920s.
His first big success came in 1931 after co-founding the Rickenbacker instrument company with Paul Barth and Adolph Rickenbacher. The team improved upon Beauchamp’s earlier designs to release the first mass-produced electric guitar, the Rickenbacher A-22. This electrified laptsteel featured a large single-coil pickup composed of two horseshoe magnets.
Around five years later, Paul Tutmarc, another electric instrument pioneer, released the very first horizontally-played electric bass. Though of his own design, the pickups used in Tutmarc’s breakthrough instrument were largely similar to Beauchamp’s. This bass, known as the Audiovox Model 736 Bass Fiddle, never saw large commercial success, and only around 100 were ever manufactured.
Carrying on until the late 1930s, single-coil pickups were typically either the horse-shoe style of Rickenbacker, a static-coil design used in early Loar electrics, or the blade-style “Charlie Christian” pickups popularized in Gibson’s ES-150. In 1939, Harry DeArmond, in partnership with Rowe Industries, introduced the first mountable pickups with individual magnetic poles, known as the DeArmond RH (round hole) and FH (f-hole) Guitar Microphones. Then in 1946, Gibson developed the highly popular P-90 “soap bar” pickups, further paving the way in single-coil innovation.
Hail the Humbucker
P-90s remained Gibson’s pickup of choice for the next 11 years, until Les Paul’s debut of the famed PAF humbuckers in 1957. Though humbucking pickups were originally created in 1934 by the company Electro-Voice, these PAF pickups were Gibson’s first entry into the world of noise-canceling electronics and made quite a splash in the guitar world. For years, they completely overshadowed the formerly prized P-90. Following on the heels of their competitor, Fender, Gibson first applied its humbucker to the electric bass in its 1958 model, the EB-2.
It was from many single-coil predecessors that Leo Fender, an electronics repairman, drew the inspiration for his own pickups, first featured in his 1950 Fender Esquire. These early Fender pickups coupled the slim bobbins and permanently-magnetic slugs of the DeArmonds with the adjustable pole functionality and in-body mounting of the P-90s, resulting in a sleek, versatile single-coil with a well-focused magnetic field and a highly accentuated treble response. With a streamlined manufacturing process thanks to their bandsawn bodies, single-piece bolt-on necks, and removable control plates for easy wiring repairs, Fender guitars soon boomed into production, becoming the first mass-produced solid body electric guitar on the market.
Substantially following the design of its new Telecaster, Fender released the first widely available electric bass guitar, the Precision, in 1951. In its initial design stages, this Precision bass had a similar pickup to Fender’s guitars, albeit with four magnetic poles (one for each string) opposed to the Telecaster’s six. The Precision electric bass steadily grew in popularity, thanks in part to the publicity awarded it by Bill Black, bassist for Elvis Presley during the filming of Jailhouse Rock. Six years after its debut, Fender swapped the single-coil of the Precision for the split-coil format that has now become known as the P pickup. The P (Precision) pickup, named for the bass it was birthed in, was the first of its kind. It blended the clarity of single-coils with the noise-canceling attributes of humbuckers in a truly unique fashion. As evidence of its efficacy and sonic virtue, the P pickup has maintained prominence in the bass guitar realm since its inception
Then, in 1960, riding on the success of their newly issued Jazzmaster guitar, Fender unveiled the Jazz bass. Enter the true J (Jazz) pickup. Fitted with dual single-coils featuring two poles per string, the Jazz bass delivered a brighter, more focused tone than its forerunner. While it never quite became the heavyweight champ of the jazz scene the way the name would imply, this J pickup-driven electric bass became a hit with the emerging surf rock genre. In time, this bass pickup type’s barking, spanky tone became the preferred choice for an array of bass guitar legends such as Larry Graham, Jaco Pastorius, Flea, John Paul Jones, and Geddy Lee.
These three bass pickup designs—the P, the J, and the humbucker—have been the mainstays of bass guitar electronics for the greater part of the last century. Try as you might, it will be difficult to find a bass that doesn’t use one of or a variation of these bass pickup types, a true testament to the achievements of their inventors. Up next, we’ll look at how they work, their differences in tone, and a few loose recommendations for styles they’re best applied to.
J Bass Pickup Types
J Bass Pickup Mechanics
Seeing as how J bass pickups are essentially single-coil pickups with extra poles, they’re probably the easiest to explain in terms of functionality. We’ll take a close look at them and build the other two styles off of what you learn here.
Like I explained earlier, pickups are electromagnets. In simplest terms, they magnetize your strings, which, when vibrated cause a flux in the surrounding magnetic field. This is transmitted through the pickup, into your guitar cable, and out of the amp.
In the J pickup, this electromagnet is composed of eight magnetic polepieces and several thousand wraps of feedback-dampening coated copper wire. Each string of the bass falls between two of the polepieces, and in this position, transfers more harmonic overtone than fundamental tone in the signal. The magnets used in J’s are typically Alnico V’s, lending strong magnetism to the focused tone of these pickups. Depending on the manufacturer, they may or may not be staggered, meaning different J pickup models can have quite a lot of tonal variance.
All in all, J bass pickup types are pretty straightforward single-coils, but the addition of an extra polepiece per string shifts the tone in a way that’s been an obvious crowd-pleaser since their introduction.
J Bass Pickup Tone
Generally, J’s are thought to be the more biting of the bass pickups. They deliver a defined high-end and a mid-range with just a little scoop. Of course, the low end is present, but it sits further back in the mix than the upper range, making the overall voice of the J pickup clean and focused. As such, basses outfitted with J’s tend to be highly audible in an ensemble, doing much more than simply beefing up the band’s sound from the background. Positioning polepieces to the side of each string rather than directly below them increases the aperture of the magnets and results in a smoother attack and greater sustain. All in all, the J pickup provides a complex tone with a lot of flavor and variable opportunity.
More often than not, you’ll find J pickups in pairs. A J sitting in both the neck and bridge positions of the bass body gives you a good deal of sonic control when you utilize the volume and tone knobs to blend the two together or dial in the sound of one on its own. Furthermore, these dual-pickup configurations are usually set up so that the polarity and direction of the coil wraps are opposite one another. This, in essence, works to cancel mains hum when both pickups are cranked to full power, making the J pickup resistant to annoying feedback.
What Are J Bass Pickups Good For?
As mentioned earlier, the J pickup first found its crowd in early rockers—think the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jefferson Airplane, and Led Zeppelin. Over the years, it’s made waves in any genre that calls for a pronounced, in-your-face bass, having been a favorite of slap and pop artists like Larry Graham as well as Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford, Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, and Rush’s Geddy Lee. It’s a versatile pickup that can be shaped in many different ways, whether you want to ride subtly in the backseat with the kick drum or blast into an epic 4-string solo like Stu Hamm or Jaco Pastorius.
P Bass Pickup Types
P Bass Pickup Mechanics
P pickups are an interesting piece of work. Much like a J pickup, P’s feature two magnetized pole pieces per string, but they have the unique trait of being cut in half and reverse-wound. This was a change made to Precision basses in 1957 to compete in the newly emerging humbucker pickup arena, fighting off the buzz that plagues single-coil designs. Though Fender had a patent pending for a double-coil humbucker at the time, the decision to implement the split-coil allowed for more precisely modding the Precision’s tone.
In P bass pickup types, you have what is basically a single-coil pickup split in two. Each half has four magnetic slugs, two for each string. These slugs are staggered to get the greatest range and balance of tones, often set to match the radius of the bass neck; so, the E- and G-string slugs are lower than the A- and D-string slugs in order to balance the pickup’s response to each string.
One half of the pickup has coils wound in a counter-clockwise direction with its magnetic poles north-end up, while the other half reverses this, using a clockwise winding and south-up magnets. The two halves are separately cased but wired together to function as a single pickup.
The benefit of this reverse-polarity and reverse-winding is the humbucking effect. Though most guitarists are familiar with the term by now, humbucking is actually a fairly complex concept, but if you want to brush up on your instrument nerdery, this next section explains it in as simple a way as we could. If physics tends to put you to sleep (we get it), skip ahead.
Sidebar: All About Hum
First, we need to understand what the hum is. The wire coils of a pickup serve as an antenna for electrical energy. Ideally, this antenna would only pick up the signal from your strings, but there is an everpresent interference feeding into the mix from all the electrical devices around you. The wiring of your home and all its many appliances are sending out signals of electrical energy that the coils of your pickups will catch and send down the signal-chain out through your amp. This is the hum we need to get rid of.
Double-coil pickups cancel this hum by reversing the direction of the interference’s wave. Picture your humbucker’s separate coils of wire. We’ll call our coils A and B. We also need to imagine a timeline of sorts. The zero-point of this timeline can be thought of as when the signal starts. So, Coil A, with wires wound counterclockwise, receives this interference and sends it in a wave, where the first peak of the wave is at our timeline’s 1 and the first trough is at 2, then a peak at 3 and a trough at 4, and on and on. These peaks and troughs are the air being stretched (peak) and compressed (trough), at a regular frequency.
Coil B, wrapped clockwise, is responding to this interference with a similar, but opposite wave. On our timeline, Coil B has a trough at 1 and a peak at 2. At the same time that Coil A is stretching the air, Coil B is compressing it, and vice versa. Due to this opposition of forces, the sound wave generated by the electrical interference is greatly reduced. This is known as phase cancellation. Because of minor differences in construction and positioning, the hum can’t be entirely eliminated, but it is brought down to a point where it is much less noticeable than in single-coil pickups.
So that’s humbucking in a nutshell. If you still don’t understand it (I have a hard time with this too), don’t fret. All you really need to know about the P pickup’s humbucking mechanics is that it is designed to get rid of feedback and background noise and does so in a really clever way.
P Bass Pickup Tone
The naming system of these pickups can generate a little confusion. It would be reasonable to assume that a Precision pickup has a precise tone, right? The Precision name actually comes from the fact that these were fretted basses, contrasting with the fretless stand-ups they were marketed to replace.
In fact, the tone of P pickups could be described as less precise than that of J’s. It’s altogether warmer and duller, with a lot more thump and fundamental focus. The role of a P pickup is to give a bass the power to fill out and reinforce the band’s backbone. It’s got a big-bellied tone that rumbles in the low-end and sings sweetly in the high-end. The middle-range carries significant force, rounding out the sound of the P pickup with a well-balanced strength.
What Are P Bass Pickups Good For?
Though not as sonically versatile as the J pickup, P’s give what I might call the quintessential bass tone- big, booming, and bottom-heavy. These pickups are perfect for solidifying a group’s aural foundation, filling in any low and mid frequencies left short by the guitars while never overpowering the mix. If you want to rumble in the low-end with minimized mains hum, P pickups will more than do the job.
The P pickup shaped the signature sounds of Motown and surf rock and went on to be featured in plenty of other genres. They’ve been featured in the rock stylings of Mike Dirnt of Green Day and Nate Mendel of Foo Fighters, the fundamental funkiness of Parliament’s Billy “Bass” Nelson, the ramblin’ country lines of famed bassists Leland Clark and Willie Weeks, and of course, the legendary basslines of the legend himself, James Jamerson.
Humbucker Bass Pickup Types
Humbucker Bass Pickup Mechanics
For the most part, we’ve already got the mechanics of humbuckers out of the way. If the act of humbucking is still unclear to you, think about it in terms of numbers. One coil is transmitting a positive, +1; the other a negative, -1. When you add ‘em up, you get zero—like they were never there at all.
Aside from this basic principle, “humbucker” is a rather broad category of pickups. There are mini-humbuckers, rail humbuckers, split-coil humbuckers, stacked coil humbuckers, covered and uncovered humbuckers, etc. Depending on the make and model of the bass, any one of these could be used. Despite their differences in size and shape, they all utilize two coils with reverse-polarity and reverse-winding to buck hum, leading to their other common name, double-coil pickups.
Humbucker Bass Pickup Tone
Since humbuckers give you the power of two electromagnets, you get a big boost in signal strength. This gives humbuckers a huge, aggressive punch that is accentuated in the mid-range. Their phase-cancellation means that you lose some definition of tone—particularly on the high-end—but in exchange you get an increase in output, giving your bass a fat, round, driven voice that sings with might and vigor.
Now, it’s important to understand that the different builds of humbuckers mean there is a pretty big range of tones to be had from them. Two humbuckers may sound almost entirely different depending on their specs and placement in the bass. My advice is to listen to as many as you can, note what you like and don’t like about each, and aim to find the humbucker that best fits your style.
What are Humbucker Bass Pickups Good For?
Humbuckers find their fame in the rock genres; the heavier the music, the more likely you’ll find humbucker-equipped basses. They’re gritty, powerful, and can do everything from keeping the beat bumping with mellow low-end force to burning through blistering speed metal riffs with clarity and rigor.
You’ll see humbuckers everywhere, from AC/DC and Children of Bodom to the eccentric jazz of John Patitucci to the fretless explorations of Pino Palladino and the brilliant slapping of Louis Johnson and Bernard Edwards. They’re flexible, fiery, and full-bodied, and while they may not have the historic popularity of J’s and P’s, they’re definitely making their mark today.
You’ve got many options when it comes to choosing your bass pickups. Any of these three bass pickup types can be combined in a single instrument to mix and match your tones, and there are plenty of other factors at play as well (consider the differences between active and passive pickups for example).
Bass pickups have had a long and colorful history and continue to be progressively developed, but it speaks to the ingenuity of their initial inventors that vintage remakes remain hugely popular to this day. Whatever your style, you’re bound to find your bass tone needs met in the J pickup, the P pickup, or in one of the many humbucker varieties.