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Bass vs. Guitar Pickups

“What are the differences between bass and guitar pickups?” is a frequent question in our workshop, and a very legitimate one. This article is here to answer that question and to explain some of the technological and tonal concepts that make up the main differences .

The technological difference

In actuality the answer is extremely simple – there is NO difference.
A guitar pickup is an electromagnet  – a magnet and a coil – just like a bass pickup. The technical concept is identical, with only differences in size.

These pickups are so similar that we can actually find bass guitars that have guitar pickups installed in them… Take a look at the Fender Musicmaster Bass – you’ll see a pickup that resembles the Stratocaster pickup. Well… it is a sort of Stratocaster pickup, and even has 6 magnetic poles underneath the cover, just like an electric guitar, and not 4 like a bass pickup. Moreover it fits in the same cavity, so some customers ask us to fit a different Stratocaster pickup instead of the original. Another example would be the Supro Huntington. These bass guitars are fitted with the industry’s standard humbucker sized pickups of electric guitars.

Differences in guitar pickup’s sizes

Although the technology is the same, most bass pickups are different from guitar pickups in size. There are differences in the amount of strings (usually 4) and a significant difference in string spacing.

What is string spacing?

String spacing is the measurement of physical length between the highest string and the lowest string. Bass spacing is much wider as strings have bigger gaps between them than electric guitars. This measurement is important if you want to create a pickup that is balanced i.e. all strings play at the same volume. Wrong string spacing may cause some strings to have lower output while others may be much louder.

For example – Humbuckers usually come in one of three spacings:
49.2mm, 50mm and 53mm. Using a 49.2mm humbucker on a guitar with 53mm spacing will cause the outer E strings to have much lower outputs than all other 4 strings.

Are there differences in tone?

Most of the tonal differences are caused by the fact that bass strings are much heavier in gauge and tuned to a much lower pitch. All the same principles of electromagnetic pickups work here in the same way as in electric guitars. Coil type, magnet, design… changes in any one of these will work the same for bass pickups.
Most of our pickups at Coils Boutique are industry standard designs. Jazz Bass and P. Bass are the most abundant pickups out there, so every pickup design for these guitars relies on the original design in order to fit perfectly into the pickup cavities. However, the configuration and specifications on the inside of the pickup may differ according to the tonal requirements. We change bobbin height, type of coil, we over-wind or under-wind, change the magnets and so on – just like an electric guitar, but with special attention to the deep natural character of a bass guitar. 

Just as for electric guitar pickups, we believe that transparency is key for a great tone. A high quality pickup for bass will expand the frequency range and allow for great dynamics. An electric guitar is the same as a bass guitar, but only just… a great pickup builder will take into account the frequencies produced by a bass guitar and will work with these in mind.

In our next article, we will explore how these facts may affect you, whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned musician.