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Why should you consider changing your bass pickups?

Ever looked at your bass and thought, "I love you, but is there a way to make you sound way better?" 

You’re not alone.

As an electric instrument, a bass relies on its pickups to transform its string vibrations into electrical currents that can then be amplified to create the sounds that we all love. 

This is the reason why many players choose to replace their bass pickups when looking to expand the tonal possibilities of their bass. However, finding the right pickup for your tonal goals can be a challenge. 

Whether you're wrestling with limitations in your current setup or simply yearning for a sonic transformation, this article will help you understand how changing your bass pickups can take your tone to the next level.

Is it time for a bass pickup upgrade? 

Swapping out the pickups on your bass is a great way to explore different tones without having to buy a new bass. 

A pickup swap has the potential of transforming an average-sounding, but great playing bass, into a truly inspiring instrument. 

Here are a couple of reasons why our customers come to us when looking for new bass pickups. 

Poor Quality OEM Pickups

If one considers the number of hands that a sub $1000 bass passes through before it makes it to the player- Manufacturer > Distributor > Retailer- one can estimate that the manufacturer doesn’t have a whole lot of money tied up in the instrument.

This makes electronic components one of the places where manufacturers cut costs to meet a price point.

For the most part, mechanical components (tuners and bridge) tend to be OK on instruments that are in the affordable to mid-range price brackets, but the bass pickups and electronics are rarely going to be high quality.  

Even when leveling up to a $2000 bass, the focus of the manufacturer will often be on playability.  At this level, a human may be leveling the frets, and the finish may be of a very good quality - but, these improvements are geared towards the betterment of the fit and finish.

This is a good thing since a player buying an instrument that costs more than $1500 expects it to play better than a $399 bass. 

But from a strictly "tone" perspective, they might not be so far apart from each other. 

Something we’ve seen in recent years is the rise of entry-level basses that are solid from a playability perspective but with sub-par electronics.  Once you swap out the electronics for something higher quality you now have a low-cost bass that plays and sounds good. 

Changing the tone of your bass

Let’s use the iconic Fender Jazz Bass® as a point of reference. The Jazz Bass® has been professionally played and recorded in nearly every genre of music - from country to reggae to metal to bebop to experimental music.

Name a genre, and you’ll probably find someone playing it with a Jazz Bass®.

That being said, players may want tones or features that deviate from Fender’s original design to better match their use case or tone preferences. 

For example, using hum-bucking pickups can allow pickups to be soloed on noisy stages. Installing pickups with extra presence in the midrange can help cut through a wall of guitars in a loud rock band. Active pickups, like EMG bass pickups can help keep your signal intact through long cable runs.

Bass pickup manufacturers have recognized these needs and have designed Jazz Bass pickups (and every other bass pickup design) to suit the whole spectrum of tonal goals and player needs.

It’s pretty great that we can have two seemingly identical basses that have the same basic makeup but sound dramatically different because of the pickups that we install in them. 

One bass can have a big thump-dance hall tone with a rolled-off top for a reggae gig.  The other could have pickups that are very mid-heavy and designed to get in front of the guitars in a rock band.

We now have a lot of options for aftermarket bass pickups, and we do not have to settle for a sub-par tone, be it on a $199 or $5999 bass. 

What should you know before you buy a new set of pickups?

Now that we’ve established that you can get a lot of tonal mileage from upgrading your bass pickups, here are some aspects you need to consider. 

Bass Pickup Size and Shape

When looking for replacement pickups, knowing the size and shape of the pickups in your bass is the place to start.  

As bass players, we have instruments that have far more shapes and sizes than our guitar-playing brethren.  

This happened because different bass types have evolved in unique and original ways, and to some extent, they've been less focused on copying each other.

Outside of 4 string P and J basses, pickup size standardization has not truly happened in the bass world.

Fender itself has used 3 different sizes of Jazz Bass pickups over the years for their four-string basses. Nowadays they have been largely sticking to the standards that they created in the 50’s and 60’s, but that is a relatively recent development. 

As you look for a set of replacement pickups, start by taking some measurements of the pickups you already have installed.  

For Jazz Bass® pickups, measure the length of the pickups (here is our article focused on Jazz Bass® Pickup replacement).  For soap bar pickups, measure the length and width of the pickup. 

Once you’ve done this, go check out the pickup on our website to see if the dimensions match. 

Keep in mind that in some cases, you may find out that the pickups you’re interested in won’t fit in your bass’s pickup cavity. 

This means that your only option might be to nudge the pickup cavity a bit with some manual tools. If you’re not comfortable doing this, then reaching out to your local tech is the best idea. 

If you are OK with permanently modifying your bass, you can fit a pickup that your bass was not originally equipped for by routing a new pickup cavity. For example, you could add a Jazz Bass pickup to a Precision Bass, or you could install something entirely different like an oval-shaped Delano Xtender. 

If that’s what you’re trying to do, we offer plexiglass pickup routing templates which will help you make sure your routing is done with the exact measurement of your new pickup. 

Bass pickups dimensional difference within the same winding type

Above Image: Bass pickup size differences but with the same winding and tone

What about the rest of your electronics?

As mentioned earlier in the article, electronics are one of the areas where OEM manufacturers cut costs. In other words, unless you have one of their top-of-the-line models, you should consider swapping out your electronics (potentiometers, jacks, and wiring) for high-quality ones. 

You’d be surprised how many of our customers have found out that their bass pickups are perfectly fine, but it was the electronics that were sucking the life out of them. Whether due to poor installation, low-quality components, or regular wear and tear, upgrading your electronics is a great low-cost way of improving your tone.

Upgrading your electronics is even more important if your bass comes equipped with an onboard preamp. 

In many sub-$2000 models, the onboard active electronics end up doing more harm than good to your tone. Many of our customers find that by upgrading their onboard pre-amp they can get the tone they were looking for. 

We offer a large variety of onboard preamps and pre-wired passive harnesses if you want to make the upgrade process easier.

How to choose the best bass pickup for you?

As long as they’re made to a high-quality standard, bass pickups are a matter of personal preference. 

That’s why you may find that some people will consider a pickup as the holy grail of bass tone, while others will absolutely detest the same pickup. 

Said differently, there’s no best pickup, but there is the best pickup for you.

Does this mean that you just have to roll the dice and hope for the best when choosing a new pickup? 

Not at all. 

We’ve classified the Jazz Bass® and Precision Bass® pickups on our website in a way that will help you find the right one for your needs. To do this, we’ve created a pickup voicing category that you can filter through on our website. 

What is bass pickup voicing?

Pickup voicing refers to the design goal of the pickup manufacturer. To help our customers, we tend to group pickups into four main buckets. 

  • Vintage Era Correct: Whenever you see a pickup described as vintage era correct it means that the manufacturer is trying to replicate a specific design from the 50s, 60s, or 70s. Keep in mind that tonally, this can mean a lot of things. Manufacturing during those decades had a huge amount of variability. For example, you could grab two pickups from a 64 Jazz Bass and they would sound noticeably different. This means two manufacturers can replicate to the best of their ability a 64 Jazz Bass, but they can sound very different since they are basing their designs on different sets of pickups. 
  • New Vintage: This is the term we use when a manufacturer designs pickups based on a vintage example, but with some added tonal quality that would make it more practical in a given setting. An example would be hum-canceling pickups that aim for a vintage tone.
  • High Output: Some players like the way higher output pickups sound and how they make the rest of their signal chain react. For example, some players love the Seymour Duncan SPB-3 due to how it makes their amps react to their playing. 
  • Modern: We use the term modern (in a relative kind of way) since what is usually considered a modern voiced pickup, like active EMGs, is now a 40-year-old design. Our definition of modern is any design that has an entirely different tonal goal from a vintage design. For example, some J Bass pickups are designed to be full range and have a flat response across the frequency spectrum. So even if they’re in a J Bass casing, they’ll sound very different from a Vintage Era Correct design.

In conclusion

Changing your bass pickups is a transformative step towards unlocking the full potential of your instrument. 

Upgrading your bass pickups not only addresses limitations in a modestly priced bass but also has the potential to propel your bass into a new realm of tonal possibilities. 

Understandably, choosing the right pickup for you can feel overwhelming at times. That’s why if you’re still on the fence about which bass pickup to choose, give us a call or shoot us an email. 

We’ve helped hundreds of bass players find the right upgrades for their bass and helped them transform their bass into an instrument that inspires them to play more.