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November 18, 2022 3 min read

Our resident Tone Concierge, Stew McKinsey is back with this article about what is "best" when ordering a pickup.

One of the communications we see regularly here is from people who want “the best” pickups or preamp, but the problem is that this doesn’t exist. There are things that cost more or offer different functionality, but the simple truth is that what’s best for you is what’s best.

Marcus Miller can have anything in the world he wants for his basses, but he uses single coil J pickups. Does he want them because they’re best? No, he wants them because they are the right choice for him as an artist and performer.

Some of our studio musician customers need the flexibility of having each pickup in a bass wired to a switch and have those pickups running through a 3-band preamp with active/passive capability. But this doesn’t inherently make twin coil pickups the best pickups, they are the right choice for the bassist who needs flexibility as the top priority because he or she would rather bring one or two instruments to a session rather than half a dozen.

This is why we have ‘What tonal qualities are you lacking from your current setup?’ as a question on our “Help Me Choose a Pickup” form. We are trying to find out what is best for you. This is also why we will reply to your questionnaire with a few more questions to try and find what is best for you.

So let’s look closer at the above two players.

Suppose you’re a fan of the Marcus sound. This is not just a matter of playing an ash/maple J-bass. His instrument, built in the CBS era, has the 70’s located bridge pickup and the different wind/wire the factory was using to make the pickups then. He has modified the bass with a very specific choice of preamp. More than all of this is the way he plays. If you have never seen Mr. Miller in person, you need to understand that he is one of the most physical players of an electric bass you will find. Does this mean you can’t get his sound? Of course not. But it does mean you are not him so your route to getting the sound may not be the same as his. If you’re not as aggressive in terms of your technique, maybe a 60’s wind set is better for you. If you want a hair more warmth and a bit more growl, AlNiCo III poles could be the right choice. It could be that you need something beefier and throatier to get you there and Big Singles or Big Splits may be the right choice.

If your goal is to get the kind of flexibility that a studio player may want, the bigger question is how much flexibility will you really use? More to the point, a studio player may need a very neutral sounding basic tone, so something like Dual Coilsare a great choice. But you may need something with more personality in your sound and may find that BigRigs (Which Matt Denis is playing above) or Zen Blades will still give you flexibility but with a range of tones that makes more sense for your situation. If you aren’t in the environment where you need to be a chameleon and blend into the music as a studio or backing musician does, we really want to help you find what’sbest for you and not just have you spend money needlessly when the solution could be less crazy than you think.

This is why we will ask questions about your instrument as well as about the way you play and the rest of your gear. These things are as important as the kinds of music you play in finding you the right gear. What’s best for Marcus Miller or some top tier studio player may not be what’s best for you andYOU are the one we want to help. So if you’re into sludgy doom rock or bubblegum pop, we want to help you realize the sound in your head.


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