What can a good pickup set do for you
Pickups are one of the most important pieces of hardware on any electric bass guitar.
To briefly describe their purpose, they’re built to “translate” the vibration of the metal strings into electric signals using magnets.
This signal is sent through the cable to the amplifier.
Bass pickups are usually mounted on the body using Phillips screws. They are also connected through soldering to the other electrical components such as potentiometers, resistors, volume knobs, and the output jack.
To replace them you’ll need to do a couple of things in a specific order, and we will describe each step in detail in this article.
A little bit more about how electric bass pickups work:
When a string vibrates, it disturbs the electromagnetic field generated by the metal poles in the pickup.
The better the build material in terms of conductivity, the better the capacity to capture and pass on the electric current containing your instrument’s signature in detail.
In other words: better pickups, better sounds (when plugged in).
We’re not going into too much detail on how they work, since knowing this isn’t exactly necessary in order to replace pickups on your bass guitar.
Reasons why you’d want to replace pickups on your bass guitar
First of all, depending on the storage conditions of the instrument, pickups will start to age and get rusty on the poles (the round metal parts that are aligned exactly under the strings) and the coils.
This could, in fact, compromise the capabilities of transforming the string’s vibration into electricity, resulting in lower quality signal, and, consequently, worse sounds.
Another reason to replace your bass’ pickups is simply that you may want to upgrade to a higher-end model.
There are a lot of options to choose from, both in terms of tone capabilities and aesthetics. It’s very easy to perceive and identify the higher quality output that a good pickup offers when in comparison to cheaper models.
DIY? – How to Replace Bass Pickups
Yes, it’s possible to do it by yourself even with little experience. But, this involves soldering iron and electrical components, so responsibility and due diligence is required.
Deciding which pickups to buy
The best pickup for your instrument isn’t always the one it came from the factory with.
However, after some use, if you were happy with the way your bass sounded before you started having issues, simply replacing faulty or old pickups with the same model will be the easiest path to take.
On the other hand, if you want to upgrade the pickups on your bass, you have to take into consideration a couple of things like:
- The model of the pickups – Single coil, Split coil, Humbuckers, Rail, active/passive), etc… each model can be much different in terms of size and proportions, not to mention requirements to work properly.
- The size of the pickup that fits your bass’ body (and shield if that’s the case)
- The specs – Bass pickups will have specific requirements regarding electric properties to work as they should.It’d be quite difficult to list all of the available options here, but getting the info isn’t usually a problem. Especially if you have a common model like a jazz bass or a precision, since the schematics are readily available on the web.
- Bass guitar pickup wires are usually color-coded – Their schematics diagrams are not so difficult to follow.
Make sure you understand which pickup models will fit your instrument both in terms of size and space requirements, but also the electrical specifications, so you don’t end up with a brand new pickup that you won’t be able to use on your bass.
Removing old pickups procedures (on most bass models)
How to Replace Bass Pickups – Preparing
Have your instrument laying on a flat surface, like a rubber mat, in order to prevent any damage to its surface.
The procedure to replace pickups is quite similar to most instruments, and the tools you’ll need are usually quite easy to get:
- A Phillips screwdriver
- A Soldering Iron
- A wrench (to remove the input jack nut in some models)
- A Wire cutter, pliers or similar
The first thing you should do is to remove the strings, so they don’t get in your way when replacing the bass pickups;
If your bass has a pickguard, remove it as well.
To do this, unscrew the pickguard from the body, remove the hex nut from the input jack, then remove the volume and tone knobs and their potentiometers as well(usually held up with a hex nut). Doing so will allow you to lift up the pickguard on most models easily.
- The next step is to remove the backplate (if your bass has one). Most basses will have their electrical connections protected by the backplate Go ahead, unscrew it with the Phillips screwdriver and remove it to reveal the inner connections.
- Depending on the bass model, you’ll see the wires coming all the way from the pickups and connecting the potentiometers, the output jack, and any other electrical components your instrument might have. Simply follow the wires until you find all the connections.
- If you are able to identify which wires are coming from the pickups, a very good idea is to take notes or photograph them, so you can simply resolder them in place later.
With the strings and the pickguard out of the way, you can unscrew the pickups from the body. Doing so will allow you to fiddle a bit with the wirings through the body’s channel, which will help you identify the connection points to the hardware.
When unscrewing the pickups, you’ll notice that in some instruments there are springs that go under the pickguard. These springs serve to press against the pickup in order to keep it a the desired height.
Pickup height will affect the volume of the instrument. The closer to the strings the higher the signal output. In any case, Take note of the current height and be very careful when unscrewing the pickups, so that you can grab these springs before they jump when they get loose.
Remember that there are electric wires connecting the pickups to the rest of the hardware. After unscrewing the pickups from the body, you’ll be able to lift them. Do this very carefully to prevent breaking any of the internal connections.
Clean it up
Whenever you get a chance to disassemble any parts of your instrument, consider the opportunity to do a bit of cleaning, especially on spots that are difficult to reach.
De-soldering the pickups
Consider searching for the electric diagrams pertaining to your instrument model prior to disconnecting these wires, they’ll come in handy later on when reassembling everything.
Now it’s a good time to pick up the soldering iron and heat up the pickup’s connection points on the potentiometers, output jack, and others
The soldering material should melt, allowing you to disconnect all the wires from the hardware, and also clean the connecting surface.
In some cases, you’ll also need to remove the ground wire, which goes in the back of the pots, or in the sleeve of the output jack. This is the case on most passive pickups.
One of the ground wire’s purposes on an electric bass guitar is to reduce hissing when your hands are in contact with the strings.
Once that is done, all that is left is to remove the pickups and prepare to install the new ones.
Installing the new bass pickups
If you decided to simply replace your pickups with new ones from the same model, things should be as easy as redoing the procedures in inverse order. Especially if you took notes of all the connections:
- Set the pickups in place
- Screw them with the springs underneath
- Guide the wires through the body if needed and solder them back into each spot in the hardware, including the ground wire.
- Install the pickguard, backplate and strings
That’s it, you should be ready to go.
On the other hand, if your goal is to upgrade to a different model, you should make sure that all adaptations are in place before you install the new pickups.
There might be a couple of things that will require some attention, like having to upgrade potentiometers, or maybe carving the extra space inside the body to set up a battery in the case of upgrading to an active pickup. This will require the use of power tools and is a much more delicate and intricate procedure.
But, considering that you’ve given it a bit of thought beforehand, and acquired the right pickups, it shouldn’t be difficult to install them. A good manufacturer will provide you with all the info you need to ensure the pickup will work the way it’s intended to, both on the owner’s manual and their website.
Resolder and reassemble
Some models will require you to set the pickguard in place before screwing the pickups in. After installing the pickups on the body and resoldering all the connections, you can go ahead and re-install all the parts you removed prior to installing the pickups. Mainly the output jack, potentiometers, and strings, but your instrument might have other parts that you’ll need to reassemble before testing.
Adjusting the pickup height
On most instruments, pickup height is adjustable through the screws on each side of the pickup. The more you tighten them, the more they will get closer to the strings.
The ideal height for a bass guitar pickup is one that allows the instrument to output a strong signal, but at the same time, it must not interfere with the strings’ vibration.
Pickups that are too close to the strings will tend to interfere with the strings’ vibration due to their magnetic properties.
Testing your new bass pickups
Once you’re done with replacing the pickups on your bass guitar, plug it into your amplifier and test the volume and tone knobs.
If the replacement was done properly, it’ll be quite easy to perceive. You should have a clear-sounding instrument where all knobs work as intended, and also a good output signal. In case you’re unsure of the levels that are being output, you can plug your bass into any DAW software using an audio interface, and visually check the VU meters when playing to see if the volume is acceptable.
If you suspect your volume is too low, it might be related to the pickup height, but also to some mistake when soldering the wires.
If the signal is too strong, you can consider lowering the pickups by unscrewing them from the body just enough so they get a bit lower and away from the strings.
In conclusion – How to Replace Bass Pickups
The procedures to replace pickups on most standard commercial bass guitar models isn’t too difficult, thankfully.
But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give some thought and understanding how to replace bass pickups before attempting it yourself for the first time, especially on expensive or instruments that you depend on.
It’s always a good idea to practice replacing the pickups on instruments that you can afford to make mistakes. This will save you a lot of time and money in case something goes wrong.
If you manage to get it right, then congratulations, but if something isn’t quite the way it should be, it’ll be a very good opportunity to investigate and understand the root causes of the problems you’re facing, and it’s obviously much better to learn on an instrument that you can spare.
Lastly, learning to replace your bass pickups will give you not only the opportunity to enhance and expand your instruments’ sounding capabilities and visuals, but it’ll also give you a deeper understanding of the inner workings, which will be much valuable for your career as a professional luthier/player.
Also, in case you’ve made a mistake and chosen new pickups that aren’t compatible for any reason, it’s very likely that you’ll be able to switch back to the old ones and get the bass working again until you research and figure out what went wrong.