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Summary of different styles of pickups

Discussion in 'Pickups & Electronics [BG]' started by Growler, Nov 18, 2005.

  1. Growler


    Sep 26, 2004
    I've been trying to find a summary of the differences between the styles of pickups out there. I haven't been able to find one and thought this might be an interesting faq. Even something a simple as pickup style XYZ is a warm, fatter bottom end while pickup abc tend to be brighter or have more growl.

    I'm looking for

    * P
    * J
    * MM
    * SoapBar
    * Humbucking

  2. luknfur


    Jan 14, 2004

    In the pups I ran (some 75+), the only one I would speculate on would be alnico 5 MM's, which had a very consistent tone. The rest I wouldn't speculate on cause they are just shapes - the contents can vary dramatically and that alters tone significantly. Even with MM's, Bart's/LPs and ceramics sound different than the alnico 5's. Split P's appear to be made more consistently alike than other shapes, but they don't sound alike. I personally have had a difficult time getting likeable tone out of a P pup but I like bridge position and with few exceptions, I mounted P pups in P position. If I'd tried them all at the bridge, I may have had a different impression.

    The same pup moved up the neck will become progressively louder, darker, and less clear.

    Pups are only part of the signal chain. The player, technique, note selection, electronics, settings, strings, acoustic properties of the bass, amp, effects, cabs, style, tunes, accompaniment, acoustics, etc. will all affect tone. And of course who's ears are calling the shot. The signal starts with the pup but everything that follows it will impart it's own footprint on that signal.

    There are some generalizations that can be made with pups but there are enough exceptions to where it really is not reliable enough to be of any use - at least that's my experience. Plus you don't know the other variables that can alter that.
  3. djcruse


    Jun 3, 2002
    Norwood, MA
    I think you should also take pickup combinations into account. A dual J bass will sound different than a P/J.

    I find it interesting that nearly any pickup combination has been done (P/J, MM/J, etc.) but no one has popularized the MM/P configuration.
  4. S Lewis

    S Lewis

    May 23, 2005
    Charlotte, NC
    Fender American Deluxe Precision?
  5. this is more to do with location...let me explain...

    a P in the classic position would not permit an accompanying MM in its classic position...one has to give...and which one?...each one would be a compromise...

    not so with a J/MM...there's room there for both in their classic positions...

    with that said...I'd love to have P/MM...i'd just slide the P a bit forward...just enough to get the MM in its home, mind you...

    but in order of priorities, I think the next bass for me will be a double soap 5er...(sometime around 2008, maybe)
  6. louder...that is because the string movement is larger (=amplitude) closer to the 12th fret.

    darker...more fundimental is emphasized, for the same reason...longer nodes = lower harmonics emphasized

    less clear...not really a lack of clarity, I'd say as, again...less emphasis on the harmonic content of the sound.

    me...I'm a sucker for bottom end, because IMO its where all the music tones (guitars, vocals, keys, etc) get their reference. (I guess that's why they call it "roots") ;)
  7. The MM and the P physically overlap each other.

    This can be rectified by moving either one from their "sweet spot." Tone results unknown.
  8. DavidRavenMoon

    DavidRavenMoon Banned

    Oct 20, 2004
    OK, I'm going to start by generalizing the different pickup's designs. Assuming you had a number of pickups of each type, wound the same, this is what you would get;

    P) P bass pickups have a fat, slightly hollow tone. This is because the coils are short and wide, which increases the aperture of the pickup, and gives a fuller tone. You can also hear this shape coil on the Fender Jazz Master guitar, which even though it has single coil pickups, they sound much different than a Strat, because of the shape of the coils.

    P bass pickups are humbucking, but because they are a split design, no string is picked up by both coils, and essentially they are acting and sounding like a single coil pickup, but with no hum.

    They are best known in the usual P bass position, and excel as neck position pickups. In the bridge position, which is a bit uncommon, they have a very different tone than the usual Jazz pickup. The best way I can describe it is smoother, and a bit "wider" sounding.

    J) Jazz pickups are tall and narrow. This was done to make them brighter sounding, since they are a narrow aperture pickup. We all know the sound of a bridge position Jazz pickup... best described as "burpy" and percussive... but that also has a lot to do with playing style. In the neck position they have a very different sound than the P pickup... even if you were to put them in the same harmonic location.

    Both traditional design P and J pickups have two magnets per string. This was done to soften the attack of the note, since bass amps easily distorted back then. Newer designs might have a single larger pole piece (such as SD QuarterPounders) or a blade as in an EMG. Each style of pole piece has a somewhat different sound.

    Jazz pickups are usually single coil, and hum when used alone. The way Fender did it was to wind each pickup in the opposite direction and reverse the magnets. When used together you have a very wide parallel humbucker.

    Other ways to buck the hum include two coils side by side as with a P (split) and two coils stacked on top of each other (which even though many companies make was patented by Duncan). Both sound very much like a single coil J pickup.

    MM) The Music Man pickup is a very wide aperture humbucker. It has large diameter magnets for a lot of attack and bite. Dual coil humbuckers such as this have a fatter tone, with more emphasis on lows and mids, and a slightly muted top end, as compared to a single coil pickup. The reason is that the two coils both pickup the string, and are not in the same location, and therefore each one hears the strings differently. They are wired electrically out of phase, and each coil has reverse magnetic polarity. Since each coil is not picking up the exact same signal from the string, due to physical location, and also because the magnets are opposite (so when one coil is "pushing" the other is "pulling") the sound of the string is not canceled out. But any "common node" signals, such as electrical interference are summed together, out of phase, and are canceled out.

    As a by product, the spacing of the two coils slightly attenuates the highs, and if the coils are wired in series, emphasizes the lows.

    Traditionally MM pickups were wired in parallel, which gives them a cleaner tone, with more highs and lows. If wired in series, you would get a fuller tone.

    Music Man placed their pickup in the "sweet spot"... more-or-less in the middle of where you would find the two pickups on a Jazz bass. This also has a effect on the tone. But you are starting to see this style pickup in other locations on basses.


    These two overlap somewhat. A soapbar is just the shape, and although they are usually dual coil humbuckers, like the MM, they can be anything at all. EMG, Bartolini and Duncan all make soapbars with different designs on the inside. The two most common are dual coil humbuckers (like a MM), and split coil humbuckers (like a P). EMG also makes stacked single coil J type pickups in the soapbar case.

    A true humbucker would be similar to a MM pickup. EMG makes the HB, DC soapbar, and CS soupbar. Duncan makes two soapbars with HB configurations, and Bart makes a ton of humbuckers.

    Humbuckers traditionally have a fuller sound, with emphasis on the lows and mids.

    Think of a Strat as compared to a Les Paul.

    Now with each design type you have many variations... magnets, amount of windings, passive, active, etc. Each variation will effect the tone... and pickup designers will try different things to get a certain tone... vintage, modern, hot, clean, etc.

    There are others as well that don't fit into these categories.
    OrionBassMann and Bare Bass like this.
  9. luknfur


    Jan 14, 2004

    That's an excellent summation. Ivar should stick it in the FAQ section.

    This part should probably be in bold and caps as well if stuck in the FAQ:

    Assuming you had a number of pickups of each type, wound the same, this is what you would get;

    You can have a J pup in bridge position that sounds like an HB and an HB that sounds like a J with everything else in the signal chain remaining constant - cause they ain't all wound (constructed) the same and that's why there's a bunch of them to choose from. Many do sound very similar but even a little difference can make a BIG difference depending.
  10. DavidRavenMoon

    DavidRavenMoon Banned

    Oct 20, 2004
    Thanks. Yes, I was trying to point out the starting points for various pickup designs, and from there you can come up with endless variations. But some designs and shapes are better suited for certain tones, even though you can "fake it" with a different design.

    It's all a compromise ... more bottom, more top, more mids... you give up something else.

    OrionBassMann likes this.
  11. That is why you have to have more than one bass.

    Having one wife is OK, but only having one bass is simply not generous.

  12. luknfur


    Jan 14, 2004

    I don't know specifically what you had in mind for the others but it would be cool to hear your breakdown on those when you get a chance if you're up for it.

    I broke down the Dimento stuff merely based on the basic shapes because someone thinking about an MM change is not going to want to wade through J reviews or probably find much interest in the other shaped reviews. All that Dimento junk started with a personal interest in MM's (for reasons I can't even remember) and obtaining several at once to investigate for comparison. It expanded to a variety of pups on it's own. Initially I thought it would be more of an experimental thing in mixing and matching different pups than essentially reviews of the same shapes.

    I've actually read a fair amount about general pup construction and I was aware that shape is one variable that can affect tone. I can't say that I recall seeing anyone spell it out like this. There are so many other variables that affect tone in a pup that I haven't witnessed any reliable pattern in the pups I've ran regarding a correlation between shape and sound. However, I might if I was more aware of what they were, and this helps.

    I have drawn some similar conclusions but that was from running enough of the same and different pup shapes to get a feel from experience rather than from any technical understanding of the construction itself. A summary of the relationship between sound/shape could be useful information for someone to narrow their search, or at the least, a factor to take into consideraton.
    OrionBassMann likes this.
  13. DavidRavenMoon

    DavidRavenMoon Banned

    Oct 20, 2004
    Some of the more atypical layouts would be Bill Lawrence's "Sidewinder" which started out as the big humbucker on the Gibson EB series basses, the Ripper, and later he used it for his Strat sized single coils. The two coils actually lay on their sides and face each other. The magnets are on the "bottom" of each coil, and the "tops" which face each other, connect to either pole pieces as in the case of the Gibson pickups, or a blade on the Lawrence. This gives you a single coil sound with no hum.

    This same configuration is being used on a very unusual pickup, the Q-Tuner... only it has three sets of poles.

    Don Lace designed some unusual pickups with magnetic field guides... the most famous being the ones Fender used.

    Another way to do a hum canceling single coil, is to use a dummy coil. The dummy coil does not sense the strings at all... just the electrical interference, and when summed with the string sensing coil, cancels the hum. Alembic has used this method for years. Gibson humbuckers were actually designed like this, because only one coil had the adjustable pole pieces, which passes through the cover, while the other coil had "slugs" instead of pole pieces, and wasn't really designed to sense the string... but it does anyway.

    And speaking of Alembic, their original pickups on the series I basses were very wide aperture single coils, with the dummy coil in the middle. The wider the coil the fuller the sound.

    Stacked pickups can be done in a few different ways... I've made them with the magnet between the coils, and with the magnet under both coils, and the bottom coil can also be a dummy coil.

    I had a Hayman guitar that had unusual humbuckers... instead of a bobbin for the coils, it had ferric donuts, which had the magnet wire wrapped around the donut, like you might wrap a string around the length of your finger. It also used cloth covered magnet wire... looked like an AM radio antenna!

    Bartolini started out making pickups with a separate coil for each string. Besides giving you the option to have a polyphonic output, it was supposed to make the signal clearer... probably by eliminating intermodulation distortion.

    You can read some details about how the shape (as well as resistance and inductance) effects the sound of a pickup at EMG's site. They write things like:

    "...the EMG-P uses short, squat coils that have very little resistance and plenty of inductance. Because the coils are not in series like the passive types, there's about twice as much low end as a passive pickup. Ceramic magnets are used to add clarity.
    In order to make the composite bass sound more natural, we added steel poles for warmth and midrange."

    "The original Fender Jazz Bass* pickup is a long, tall, thin pickup. That's why it has such a distinctive tone. The winding length of the coil is about 6 inches per turn resulting in a pickup that has a high DC resistance compared to its inductance. Its aperture is small for long wavelengths so there's less low frequency punch and an accentuated mid-range howl.

    The EMG-J Pickups on the other hand, have a very low ratio of resistance to inductance that increases the low frequency response yet the EMG-J still maintains the narrow aperture for that typical Jazz Bass tone."

    "Music Man’s introduction of the large profile pickup changed bass playing forever. The dual-coil MM-CS has wide spread bobbins (1 inch) combined with a large coil surface area that gives the EMG-MMCS a most amazing bass tone. Utilizing EMG’s popular CS (Ceramic and Steel) Design the MM-CS is agreat mixture of design, with ceramic magnets for a transparent high end with steel added to increase the inductance for a powerful and warm low-end."

    Bill Lawrence also has some info online:


    And another excellent source of pickup info is the AMPAGE pickup forum
    OrionBassMann and Charlie Webb like this.
  14. luknfur


    Jan 14, 2004
    Yep, have read the EMG and BL stuff. Have had a couple of Lawrences pups. Firebottle I've been to but on rare occassion and had actually forgotten about it.

    Even the Lollar book material I've only skimmed. What little of it I have read I got the impression such information was scattered about and not in a brief, condensed format as you posted - although I never specifically looked for it that way to see if it was there.

    It helps to have it in one place. If for no other reason, so you make the association and don't overlook it.

    Much appreciated
  15. RE:PEAT


    Jun 24, 2005
    Los Angeles, CA
    And having a wife that will let you have more than one bass is really great! :D
  16. instigata


    Feb 24, 2006
    New Jersey
    dont forget coil tapping capabilities. so you can get single coils (like jazzs) out of most humbuckers.
  17. DavidRavenMoon

    DavidRavenMoon Banned

    Oct 20, 2004
    That's not really tapping, it's splitting. Tapping is where you wind a coil up to a certain point, and then run a lead off, and then continue to wind more wire on it. With the tap you get a lower output and a hotter output.

    Also unless both coils in a humbucking bass pickup are wound like a usual single coil, like a Jazz, the split wont give you that sound, since most humbuckers have each coil wound to half of what the total DC resistance of the pickup will be, which is not as high as something like a Jazz pickup. But splitting a humbucker does give a brighter single coil tone... hum and all.

    You can also wire up a dual coil pickup in parallel, which halves the DC resistance and gives a tone with more highs and lows, and less mids. This is how the standard Music Man pickup is wired, and also EMG humbuckers, including the P bass model.
    OrionBassMann likes this.
  18. This is important to remember, I've heard Warwick SSII's with J's in them that sound much thicker than any MM I've ever played
  19. jordan_frerichs


    Jan 20, 2008
    well you could use an old fashioned tele p pup to get both in the sweet spot, but i favor the newer p syle. the mm moved back slightly would destroy the mm sound, becase of the sound/vibration territories. the p moved tward the neck slightly would not have as great an impact on ruining the sounds, becuase it has a greater room to work with. another debatable option that i have yet to see in action, is to get a vintage pup cover(like on old fenders), but made of a non magnet-interferring material( like plastic or hard maple), and rigging one pup set ABOVE the strings on it. some see no way why it would not work, some think its will be a disaster. i think that if the magnet poles sandwitch the string, that will not be good, but in this case it doesn't, so idk. hope it will work.
  20. Mofo-Kang


    Aug 26, 2006
    Modesto, CA
    why would it sound any different to have the pickup above the strings rather than below them?