Pickups: Choosing Pickups for Your Double Bass
Choosing a Pickup for Your Bass
A Special "Buyer's Guide"
So, you've come looking for a pickup for your upright bass. And now you're here, and...
The good news is: there are lots of choices.
The BAD news is: HOLY COW, there are LOTS of choices!
So, with dozens of pickups, packages, and mixing and matching options available, what the heck should you get?
It's best to start at the beginning; knowing what you're shooting at will help you aim. Consider (and try your best to come up with answers to) the following questions:
- Volume: How loud do you need to get? Are you just looking for "a little reinforcement" (like in a dinner club) or is the pickup's output going to be your primary "sound" in the audience?
- Genre: What style of music do you play? Do you want a very natural, open tone, or something with a little "bite" or a specific "character?"
- Group Dynamics: Do you play in a large group or a small duo/trio? Perhaps would a sound that has more "cut" through a dense mix of instruments (rather than a more wooly, bassy sound) be to your advantage?
- Amplifier/Gear: What will you be plugged into... A bass guitar amp? An acoustic amp? A Mixing Board? Something else (or a combination?)
- The Bass: Do you own or rent your bass? Can you (or will you) make minor modifications to the bridge in order to accommodate the pickup? Does it have adjusters, or is it a fixed bridge? Are you comfortable with possibly removing the bridge from the bass to install the pickup?
- Removability: Can the pickup stay on the bass when you're not using it? Or do you need something that can be easily removed when not in use?
- Strings: What kind of strings do you use?
- Budget: Oh yeah... how much can you/are you willing to spend?
As you can see, that's quite a list. And those are just the questions; the answers are complex too -- once you have an idea what you're looking for, you need to factor in the character of each pickup, its ease/difficulty of installation, and combinations, preamps, etc... Whew.
I'd practically have to write a doctoral dissertation to cover all the variables. Considering all the pickup choices we have, it seems clear that I couldn't possibly give you enough real information on one page to help you narrow it completely down.
If you're already feeling overwhelmed, here might a good place to stop.
Still forging on? That's cool, I'd hate to think I typed all this for nothing. So let's talk about some of the differences in pickups.
We carry a variety of pickups, which generally use one of three different technologies to produce sound.
- Piezo-Electric: These pickups use "piezos"; shorthand for small transducers containing crystalline materials which react to pressure or vibration by generating an electrical signal. Your amp then turns that signal into sound. Most of the pickups for upright bass use this technology, since an upright bass creates plenty of vibration. The majority of pickups are either under, on, inside or otherwise attached to the bridge, since that's the "conduit" that takes the vibration energy of the strings to the resonant body of the bass. Common pickups of this type are the K&K Bass Max and Double Big Twin, The various Realist pickups by David Gage, the Shadow pickup sets, and Fishman's offerings. A piezo-based pickup will often benefit (tonally speaking) from the use of a preamplifier, which can "buffer" the impedance of the output as well as enhance its gain structure - but one is not required to use such a pickup.
- Magnetic: Like a pickup you'd find on an electric bass guitar, magnetic upright bass pickups mount directly under the strings (usually at the bottom of the fingerboard) and take the energy produced when the strings vibrate within their magnetic field, translating it into electrical signals for your amp to turn into sound. Since they are getting all of their information directly from the strings themselves -- and thereby taking almost none of the "wood" into the equation -- magnetic pickups tend to sound very "electric," almost like a very large electric bass. While some people actually do have a preference for this sound, others (usually those playing in very loud bands) consider magnetic pickups to be a "weapon of last resort" in the fight against feedback, since magnetic pickups are about as close to "immune" from feedback as one can get. So, for some, the trade-off for less "acoustic" tone is worth it. The Krivo humbucker and the venerable Schaller chrome pickup (now discontinued) are two common choices for magnetic pickups.
- Other/Hybrid: This could be a variety of other pickup types, experimental, combining technologies, etc. For instance, the Ehrlund EAP is said to be a combination of microphone and piezo technologies, blending them to create a product that has the sound of a microphone, but the ease of use (and feedback resistance) of a pickup.
For What Type of Music?
People often ask for "a pickup that's good for jazz" or "a blugrass pickup." While players often prefer a particular timbre for specific genres of music, pickups generally (with a couple exceptions) aren't necessarily made specifically to suit a particular genre.
The popular K&K Sound Bass Master Rockabilly System is a notable exception; it was co-designed by our own Bob Gollihur, with K&K Sound, to provide a gutsy punch while capturing the characteristic "click" sound that rockabilly slap players favor. Likewise, the Rockabilly setup from Shadow is similarly designed for that same purpose.
It's fair to assume that the goal of the pickup manufacturers is to create the sound that many people are asking for: "My Bass, Only Louder" (MBOL). And the various manufacturers all do their best to achieve that, with varying levels of success. Where they miss the mark, so to speak, is what sets their pickup apart, tonally, from the other choices.
And yes, many jazz players tend to prefer a more "detailed" sound, where the distinct sound of their finger plucks gives them a little "push" in the mix of instruments - perhaps a Double Big Twin or Full Circle would be a good choice "for jazz." And often, bluegrassers like a warm, wooly bottom end - perhaps with less "detail" - for a bit more of an "old-timey" bass tone that suits their genre better; a Bass Max or a Realist LifeLine pickup is probably a good option.
But not everyone has the same idea of what "jazz bass" or "bluegrass bass" (or any other genre-specific bass) should sound like. What's important is what YOU like. So try to describe the sound you hear in your head, using the genre you play as a secondary sort of description. Because even though you might play bluegrass, that Double Big Twin I suggested for jazz might just be exactly what you think your bluegrass bass should sound like.
Where and How
The placement of the pickup on the bass is also important; the bass has different vibration characteristics at different points on the instrument - and even at different points on the bridge. I like to suggest the "Stethoscope Test" - meaning, imagine taking an old doctor's stethoscope (like the one to the right) and holding the element against a spot on the bass. What would it sound like at different spots on the bass? If you were holding it on the belly of the bass, you'd probably hear a warm, deep tone, but not a lot of detail. If you put it near the top of the bridge, right up next to the strings, you'd hear a lot more string detail; the pluck of the fingers, the scratch of the bow...
And how the pickup is installed also can make a difference. A pickup that is under pressure (squeezed into a bridge wing, under the foot, between the adjuster wheel and the wood of the bridge) will usually have more output, and thus often a different tonal character, than a pickup that is adhered or clamped to the surface of the bridge or bass body.
Other variables, like pickup alignment relative to the strings, pickup size, material, etc. probably also play a role, but this is a buyer's guide, not a science project. While it's helpful to know some of the "whys" for some guidance, it is possible to get too brainy about it. Ultimately it's our ears that matter.
Since different pickups (in different locations, with different methods of application) can have different characters, it's not unusual to see a bass sporting two pickups, which are then blended to create the "perfect" sound. For instance, K&K Sound makes the Bass Master Pro; a package that combines the previously mentioned Bass Max and Double Big Twin pickups, using a two-channel preamp (included) to EQ and blend them.
It's no different, really, than a two-pickup electric bass guitar - think of the Bass Max as the "neck pickup" and the Double Big Twin as the "bridge pickup" - you dial in enough of each to get the desired amount of bite, sizzle, tenderness -- whatever crazy steak-based descriptive terms you prefer. But it opens up your options considerably, providing far more variables for players who like to twiddle knobs.
And you can certainly put together a dual-pickup setup by selecting the pickups you like, à la carte. (Another food reference? I must be getting hungry or something.) Anyway, we have several two-channel preamps available, and you can mix and match the various pickup and preamp brands with reckless abandon.
Just keep in mind that mixing two pickups that have very similar tone "flavors" is not very useful, and adds complication rather than flexibility. It's kind of like adding garlic powder to a plate of roasted garlic - more isn't necessarily better.
Okay, while you continue reading, I'm going to get a snack, clearly I'm very hungry.
We Are Here to HELP.
So, even though there's a lot of information above, you may not be any more sure now than you were before you started. That's okay, it's complicated. And since it's expensive and impractical (at best) for you to try every pickup on your bass, your best bet is to talk to someone who knows the character of each pickup, and who can narrow down the field to 1 or 2 good options for you.
Again, we're quite well acquainted with the pickups we sell. We're not a guitar store, we're not a brass store. What we know, play, and sell is upright bass. We're not going to just steer you to the most expensive pickup and tell you it's "the best." We will help you decide which one is best. For you.
So give us a call, email us, send up a smoke signal, whatever. We DO reply, and we're happy to answer your questions.
(Though we're not sure we actually can interpret smoke signals, so you might want to stick to the phone or email.)