In 1957, Fender introduced the first mass-production split-coil hum-cancelling pickup in the Precision Bass. And ever since, hum-cancelling bass pickups have been a staple in the industry.
Before that, the electric bass hummed.
Well, up to that point, all pickups were single coil, and thus susceptible to hum. The introduction of hum-cancelling bass pickups was a big reason why the electric bass took over.
All of a sudden, bass tones were easier to record and easier to use in a live setting.
However, many modern players still prefer single coils.
But why does anyone bother with any other kind of pickup? Aren’t hum-cancelling pickups simply better?
Let's break down the difference between single-coil bass pickups and hum-cancelling bass pickups, and the reasons why some players have a preference for one or the other.
What is a single-coil bass pickup?
A single-coil bass pickup is an electromagnetic pickup that creates a signal from the movement of the bass strings in its magnetic field, and does it with only ONE coil.
As you’ve probably guessed, this is the first type of pickup that was created for the electric bass.
The first commercially available electric bass was released in 1936 by Paul Tutmarc, a musician and inventor from Seattle.
He called it the Audiovox 736 Bass Fiddle, and it was developed to help acoustic bass players punch through the mix of the big band jazz bands of the day.
And this bass, as you might have guessed, had a single coil pickup. If you look it up on YouTube, you’ll find that the Bass Fiddle, more or less sounds like a modern bass.
The electric bass as we know it took off with the introduction of the Fender Precision bass in 1951. By then, the music culture had shifted toward amplified instruments, and the explosion of Rock ’n' Roll helped boost its adoption.
And as the electric bass gained popularity, more efficient and powerful amplification solutions came to market. This meant that you also amplified the noise to which the single-coil pickups are susceptible.
What is the purpose of hum-cancelling bass pickups?
The magnets in a pickup have a similar function to an antenna. This means they are prone to signal interference from other electronics, lights, your amp, the blender in the kitchen, etc.
The hum that is produced by pickups is often referred to as 60-cycle hum because the frequencies that are most affected are around 60hz. However, the harmonics of these frequencies are also affected which makes the noise more evident.
To remedy the noise, pickups with two (or multiple) coils were designed. The additional coils are magnetized so that their polarization is opposite.
And by doing this, the hum is then cancelled. Since less noise is usually a good thing, this type of design caught on and is still used to this day.
What are the sonic differences between single-coil and hum-cancelling bass pickups?
The first thing that die-hard single-coil bass pickup advocates tell you is that hum-cancelling pickups don’t sound or feel the same as single coils.
This is true to some extent.
For the most part, this generalization came from the early hum-cancelling designs for the Jazz Bass. Which sounded noticeably different than the traditional single coils bass players were used to.
The following are some common generalizations as to what you can expect from traditional single coil and hum-cancelling pickups.
- Single Coil Pickups: Are often described as having a more 'open' and ‘dynamic’ tone. If vintage accuracy is what you’re looking for, single-coil pickups are usually the better choice. Players who are looking for the most pure vintage tone possible (especially with Jazz Bass pickups) are often among those who are willing to overlook the hum for their desired tone. Some modern pickups are made with single coils. Commonly, these pickups have the goal of creating a big and bold tone. Nordstrand’s Big Singles and Big Blades are in this vein.
- Hum-Cancelling Pickups: Due to the coils having opposite polarization, these pickups can slightly reduce high frequencies resulting in a more compressed tone. This creates the impression of a more full mid-range. Many players prefer this "fuller" tone, so one isn’t necessarily better than the other.
It’s important to point out that the art and craft of bass pickup design has evolved a great deal, in particular over the past couple of decades.
Nowadays, you can find hum-cancelling designs that sound nearly as open and dynamic as single coils. And, you can find single-coil bass pickups that have just as much output and compression as hum-cancelling pickups.
Can you reduce the noise of single-coil bass pickups?
If you're set on single-coil pickups but want to reduce the hum, you can shield your bass so that it’s less susceptible to outside noise.
The most effective way is to apply copper tape (which is superior to shielding paint in our experience) to certain areas of your bass. Here are the main areas you should cover:
1. Electronics Cavity: Shield the floor, walls, and the cover plate to block external electrical signals.
2. Pickup Cavities: While you can't create a complete Faraday cage, shielding the entire pickup cavity certainly helps. But make sure the pickup pole pieces or any exposed wires on the underside of the pickup do not touch the shielding directly. Typically, pickups will be elevated to achieve proper distance from the strings, and a non-conductive material should be used to accomplish proper pickup height if you are shielding the pickup cavities.
3. Pickup Shells: Since many single coil pickups have pickup shells that can be removed (especially vintage jazz pickups), we can shield the inside of these plastic shells. The bulk of the inside can be shielded, but avoid getting the shielding tape in a place where there is a conductive surface, such as where the pole pieces protrude through the top of the shell, or where wire wraps over the lower bobbin onto the back of the pickup.
Some very important things to remember is that the copper tape you use must have a conductive adhesive, the tape must overlap so it’s connected, and it must be grounded for it to effectively block noise.
Can you get single coil tones with hum-cancelling bass pickups?
Even if you love the single-coil bass sound, there are situations where a quiet signal is non-negotiable. Maybe you're recording at home with electronic interference or playing a gig where hum is unacceptable.
In these cases, hum-cancelling pickups like the NJ4SV from Nordstrand Audio, designed to sound like a single coil, might be your best bet.
How close do these vintage-voiced hum-cancelling pickups get to real single coils?
In our experience, some of these noiseless pickups come extremely close to the sound and feel of single coils. In other words, most bass players would only be able to tell them apart if played back to back.
Remember, single-coil pickups will always have some hum. Proper shielding and using the tone control can sometimes lessen it, but the sound might not be to your liking.
Are hum-cancelling pickups more expensive than single coils?
Generally, hum-cancelling bass pickups are pricier. They use more materials and the dual-coil design requires more work.
There are however a few caveats.
Some manufacturers label pickups Noiseless or silent, but they do not have a dual coil design that cancels hum. These pickups have some type of shielding that reduces noise but doesn’t eliminate it.
Some single-coil pickups can be at the same price point or even higher than humbuckers. For example, some pickup manufacturers reproduce in painstaking detail the manufacturing and materials of vintage pickups. This added historical accuracy and attention to detail usually entails a higher price point.
Should you just get a hum-cancelling pickup and call it a day?
For most players..... the answer is yes.
In our experience, most players will be extremely happy with a high-quality hum-canceling bass pickup. It’s easier to live with and doesn’t really have any downsides.
Having said that, single coils are still cool. You can get great tones from them. And in a properly shielded bass, the noise may be barely noticed in the context of a mix. Or like in a Jazz Bass, if you have two of them, they can be set up to be hum-cancelling.
It’s a great time to be a bass player. We’re spoiled for choice and we can surely find a single-coil or hum-cancelling pickup that will put a smile on our face.
Check out our full line of bass pickups.
If you’re having trouble finding the right pickup for YOU, give us a call or reach out to us via email. We’ll be happy to help you in your quest for ultimate tone.