Complete Guide: Guitar Pickups Vs. Bass Guitar Pickups


Pickups are common to solid-bodied guitars and basses, but not all carry the same pickup configuration. This is to be expected, considering each instrument's general sonic qualities and construction.

What are the differences between guitar pickups and bass guitar pickups? There are no differences in the mechanism. Bass pickups could theoretically be installed on guitars and vice versa. Still, there are distinctions in how they're arranged across the body, their spacing, and their size. Pickups also must account for the number of strings, gauge, and disposition.

In this article, we will go in-depth, explaining the main differences between bass pickups and guitar pickups, along with the typical arrangements of each.


The Differences Between Guitar & Bass Guitar Pickups

As stated earlier, guitar and bass pickups are basically the same in terms of functionality, regardless of whether we speak of magnetic pickups, optical pickups, or piezo pickups.

The main distinguishing factors are the design language and wiring settings, as the pickup should bear correspondence to the strings and their tonal range. For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on magnetic pickups.

With all this said, it's not impossible to adapt guitar pickups to work on bass. Some interesting experiments have been done with P90 guitar pickups on bass, with surprisingly good results. It's also worth noting that the Fender Musicmaster is reported to work perfectly with a guitar single-coil pickup.

Fender is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 13 Best Bass Guitar Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Bass Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World
Top 13 Best Electric Guitar Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Effects Pedal Brands To Know & Use
Top 11 Best Guitar Amplifier Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Guitar/Bass Patch Cable Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Acoustic Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 11 Best Bass Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 10 Best Classical Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 11 Best Electric Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 8 Best Acoustic Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market
Top 8 Best Bass Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market

Spacing

One of the first notable contrasts lies in the pole spacing. Magnetic pickups in most guitars are planned so that each pole rests right under a string. This means that the number of magnets (or magnet pairs) should match the number of strings that a specific guitar can carry.

Bass pickups will naturally have wider spacing due to the strings being more separated from each other. Besides, in J-style pickups (as we'll see shortly), the poles are arranged in pairs, so they're not exactly under each string but, rather, the poles are situated at to either side of the string.

Electric guitar strings are ordinarily spaced between 48mm to 52mm from one string to the next. The spacing in basses normally ranges from 70mm to 74mm.

Coil

Another important detail lies under the hood, as well as in the “hood” (cover) itself.

Related article: Do Guitar Pickup Covers Affect Tone?

The mechanism in magnetic pickups for transmitting signals is the same in all magnetic pickups. However, there are certain specificities with regard to coil winding and bobbin height that tend to the particularly deep character of a bass sound as opposed to the more tinkling sound of a guitar.

In that sense, while the usual Fender Stratocaster (link to check the prices at Sweetwater) had 8,000 turns per coil, the Fender Precision Bass (link to check the prices at Sweetwater) single-coil would reach 9,000 turns. Early Gibson bass pickups, astoundingly, were wound 20,000 times, but this practice has since waned due to the lack of definition resulting from such a high number of turns.

Gibson is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 13 Best Acoustic Guitar Brands In The World
Top 13 Best Electric Guitar Brands In The World
Top 11 Best Acoustic Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 11 Best Electric Guitar String Brands On The Market
Top 11 Best Electric Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market

Bass pickups are wound more because they need to account for the lower-end frequencies delivered by bass strings. In comparison, electric guitars require less due to the generally higher-end frequency production typical of their strings.

Arrangements

Finally, each guitar type is outlined with different pickup placements to optimize its sound profile. These arrangements are not set in stone but have been proven to work over the years. This is especially true in the case of bass guitars, spawning a new categorization specific to them in accordance with this and other parameters.

Active Vs. Passive

Both guitar and bass guitar pickups can have either passive or active circuitry. However, active pickups are more commonly found on bass guitars, while active guitar pickups are often aftermarket upgrades/modifications rather than part of stock designs.

Passive pickups do not require power and immediately output the signal converted from the vibrating strings (via electromagnetic induction). Active pickups require power to run their preamplifiers, which act to amplify, filter, EQ and adjust the impedance of the electromagnetically induced signal before the output.

Bass guitars benefit more from active pickups largely due to their high winding counts. As previously discussed, more windings are required to capture the low frequencies of vibrating bass strings effectively. However, these additional windings come at the cost of clarity.

With active pickups, fewer windings can be used, and the low-end can be supplemented via EQ and amplification in the pickup's preamp. The additional cost of active circuitry in these pickups is often worth it for the tonal improvement in bass guitars, though this is not always the case with electric guitars (or even basses, for that matter)!

Of course, guitars and basses can both sound great with either type of pickup, and it's largely up to subjective taste and the qualities of the individual instrument in question. With that said, bass guitars tend to benefit more and, therefore, are more typically designed with active pickups.

For more information on active and passive pickups, check out my article Are Active Guitar Pickups Or Passive Guitar Pickups Better?

Now, we'll go deeper into these differences.


Electric Guitar Pickups

The positioning of electric guitar pickups is very diverse. You may find guitars with one, two, or three pickups, and they can be all of one type or a mixture of single and dual coils.

One-pickup guitars are usually scarcer, albeit not difficult to find. Some examples include the Gordon Smith GS-1 (link to check the price at Gordon Smith Guitars) and the EVH Striped Series 5150 (link to check the price at Sweetwater). A great number of these come equipped with either a humbucker or a P90 pickup, and they're placed at the bottom, near the bridge's anchor point.

Two-pickup guitars are perhaps the most common. They posit not many disadvantages playability-wise and allow for a decent tonal range. Gibson guitars are traditionally built with two pickups (mostly P90 or humbuckers), one near the neck and the other near the bridge.

Three-pickup guitars are also fairly common. Although they have a wider dynamic range than the others, they pose the most difficulty in terms of handling and playing, for the playing hand area is more densely populated. Many Ibanez and Fender guitars have three pickups with diverse configurations, alternating between humbuckers and single-coil pickups.

Related article: Does Having More Pickups Improve A Guitar’s Tone/Sound?


Bass Guitar Pickups

Bass pickups are arranged a bit differently than electric guitar ones. While they're also built with single coils and humbuckers, there are, additionally, those with split-coil pickups (not usually found in electric guitars). Moreover, some single coils found in certain bass types are hardly seen in other guitars.

There are, generally speaking, three types of arrangements for bass:

P-Bass

Precision basses (link to check out prices at Sweetwater) are frequently endowed with a split-coil pickup at the middle, also named P-style pickup. Due to this, they are mid-range across the board. Split-coil pickups are basically humbuckers that are half-bound, so one coil is not exactly parallel to the other.

Fender Precision Bass

J-Bass

Jazz basses (link to check out prices at Sweetwater)  have a “punchier” and more defined output due to the narrow single coils, meant to accentuate the higher frequencies.

The two narrow J-style pickups are connected near the bridge, and the neck, respectively, and each coil carries one small magnet pair for each string in order to render a smoother attack.

Fender 5-string Jazz Bass

P/J-Bass

First introduced by Ibanez in the '70s, hybrid “P/J” basses (link to check out prices at Sweetwater) aimed to deliver the best features of both P-style and J-style basses. P/J basses usually carry switches that allow for shifting between the single-coil pickup located near the bridge and the dual-coil pickup located near the neck, as well as a combination of the two.

Ibanez is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
Top 13 Best Bass Guitar Brands In The World
Top 13 Best Electric Guitar Brands In The World

Fender PJ Bass

For more information on bass guitar pickups, check out my article Bass Guitar: Bridge Pickups Vs. Neck Pickups.


This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

Arthur

Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or composing music for media. Check out his Pond5 and AudioJungle accounts.

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