You Tell Us: What’s the difference in sound between a "P" and a "J" pickup?

I’ll admit up front that the title of this article is a totally unfair question for the reason it’s actually very difficult to describe in words what a pickup sounds like; it’s kind of like trying to describe what an orange tastes like (yeah, think about that one). 🙂

That being said, I’m going on the assumption that yes, you, the person reading this right now, have in fact played both styles of pickups, that being the split-coil “P” and the straight single-coil “J”.

What some say and what others say

Some say there is no difference tone-wise at all between the two, and that what tone you get is dependent on the position of the pickup in the body rather than what shape/coil style the pickup is.

Others say there is absolutely a difference between the two, generically saying that the “P” has “boom” while the “J” has “bark”. If that actually makes sense to you, please feel free to post a comment and say why it makes sense. Or alternatively, you can say why it doesn’t make sense (could you give a better explanation?)

Do you think a player is better off having a “P/J” setup?

Many bass guitars today are constructed with a “P/J” pickup configuration.

Small side note on that: Why is this configuration called a “P/J” and not a “J/P”? Because traditionally, the pickup closest to the neck is called the “front pickup” and the one nearest the bridge is called the “back pickup”, and since everyone describes things in the order of front-to-back, that’s why it’s “P/J” and not the other way around; it is accurate.

Some players believe a P/J pickup set gives you the best of all worlds tone-wise where you have both the “boom” and “bark” in the same instrument…

…but then there are many players who would disagree with that and say there are alternative pickups that can get the same tones (plus a few more, depending on how you wire it) just by using the right soap-bar style pickup set.

What’s your opinion? Is there a difference between the sound of “P” and “J” or not?

Whether you’re just starting out as a bass player or have many years of experience, your opinion counts here.

Think of it this way: For those building their own bass guitars for the first time, getting the real info from real players and luthiers will be of great help, so go ahead and start commenting. Long comments are welcome.

58 thoughts on “You Tell Us: What’s the difference in sound between a "P" and a "J" pickup?

  1. since i started recording, P pickups are very easy to use in a mix, compare to J at neck position.

    however, JJ is good on its own. I think traditional style music really work well with P pickups rather than J, tho i keep finding J to sound better alone and P to sound compatible in most live sound settings.

  2. Given that they are both single coil pups the argument can be made that the boom and the bark have more to do with position on the body, noting that P\J combinations locate the P pup near the middle/front of the body giving us the boom and the J pup is always positioned close to the bridge thus providing the bark.

  3. The difference, to my ears, is in the mids and highs; you can get good lows from just about any pickup by moving it closer to the neck. “P” pickups have a more “rounded” high-mid and treble range, while “J” models have a “sharper” or “thinner” tone. I’ve read that this has more to do with the width of the pickup coils than their position on the instrument; a wider coil reads from a longer section of the string due to the wider magnetic field, providing a wider range of frequencies that (generally) results in more mids with less highs and lows. As always though, check out a few basses with different pickups in them to get a good feel for what they sound like – there is no substitute for using your own ears and hands.

  4. The differences between a P and a J pickup are subtle, but basically, having a P in the neck slot means you can get a pure P bass only sound, which is certainly a bit boomier than a J. And with a J in the bridge position, you can still get a bass that sounds almost just like a J bass. The only other issue is how the P bass pick up is split. Having the lower pick-up in front can provide a richer more even tone across the strings as the D and G have a higher timbre. Playing a Trussart bass the other day, where the steel body seems to magnify the output of the instrument, really made these points obvious.

  5. I think the “humbucking” thing is the key thing. The J in practice requires you to use both PUs to get an even, hum-free sound. Not so the P. I know this is a discussion re the J and P in singularity, but at a gig or in the studio, that’s not often the case.

  6. I find that the Jazz Bass has a much more focused tone than the precision . The Precision is very thick and deep in tonality, where the Jazz has a brighter upper mid presence…to my ear, the Jazz is more appealing !

  7. I think the biggest difference between a P/J or J/J configuration is the appearance. A P/J has more highs than a straight P. And a P/J or a P/P configuration, again it’s appearance.

  8. Some folks might think, what, are we comparing a P pickup to a J neck pickup and forget about the bridge pickup or the blend? That seems kind of artificial to me. I’ve yet to see a bass with just a J neck pickup. So I’ll type about P vs. J.

    The P is all about reliability for functional bass. It ensures that however noisy or boomy the hall, you will be able to clearly feed the band pitch and pulse so you can do your GPS thing, showing them where they are and what’s coming up both at the macro (form) level and micro (next chord).

    The P cuts through dense mixes like nothing else. Even if you have to gut the lows in a lively hall, that low-mid P hump keeps it sounding like a bass. If you have a REALLY dense mix, consider using flats, which filter out lots of stuff that steps on folks, letting you sneak a bit further forward.

    Even gutted, the P remains the authoritative anchor that a big band or horn rock band needs to hear so they can power out. Wherever you end up, however noisy, the P will work.

    In a thinner mix and quieter room, the J works better. If you’re too forward and you’re stepping on the other voices, or just feel you’re inhibiting their freedom to depart from what you’re laying down, blend the pickups for the precise level of phase cancellation you need to unfocus your sound.

  9. i own both, with one i like more? well that drive’s me crazy. i play my p-bass more, nobuddy talked about this, bigger neck more wood more mas =more boom, sean from redford,mi

  10. Not a subtle difference at all. However, with poor strings or poor amplification the true sound of the instrument might not come througn, in which case a proper judgement might be difficult for some folks. The P is fat and the J is thin, not just in looks, but in sound for sure.

  11. I have both P’s and J’s (and two P/Js). I love all 3 types for what they do. Which I prefer depends on the gig and even song, what my tone goals are on a given song. Ps are the standard Classic Rock and R&B tone that is immediately recongnizable thanks to the countless cats that played them back in the day. Yet, it can’t do some of the things you can do on a Jazz with that bridge pickup burpy/gnarly tone that many other cats fancy. A P/J is a good compromise instrument, but it IS a compromise, if you can’t own one of each. There are so many good instruments out there these days, find what you like and play it till the strings fall off!

  12. They are very different pickups. The P is a split coil humbucker. It’s wound much hotter than the J, and has wide/squat coils with shorter magnets. This gives it a wider string sensing aperture. Also having a lot of the turns of magnet wire farther from the magnets, along with the extra turns of wire gives it a mellower/fatter tone.

    The J is a single coil, it’s taller with linger magnets, and has a narrower coils. This gives the J a brighter tone with more top end. Even if you put a J neck pickup in the same position as a P, they wont sound the same.

    Another example of this is a Strat vs. a Jazzmaster, or even P-90. They are very different pickup designs.

  13. I have a both a Jazz bass and a P/J 5 string and have played several Precisions. I think that the P pickups have more thump or bottom end in the fron’t position than a J or a Soapbar which I also have.

  14. Depends on so many other factors as well – ie, pick vs. finger, active vs. passive, flat vs round strings, guitar body, direct vs. mic’d, etc. etc. etc. My MIM Jazz w/Barts added ‘density’ to the thin tone the stock pups offered. On the other hand, P/J Barts w/ 3 way EQ on my Pedulla MVP offered a wider range of tonal possibilities than I thought existed. Play em all!

  15. I recently built a 70’s Jazz bass–followed up a month or two later with a 70’s P/J. The Jazz is alder–rosewood board–with an Audere preamp and Fralin single coils. The P/J is swamp ash–rosewood board–and is passive with Duncan 1/4 pound pups. Both sound fine in the mix, however the P/J has a little more mid-range fatness to it. I’ve found that P pups are generally mid-range heavy with a rounder hollowness . The J pups have a little more growl to my ear. And yes—the type of wood you are using will make a difference as well. But the bottom line is that you also have to factor in the technique used in which ever hand you use to attack the string—and where you play on that string. I’ve heard J bass players make theirs sound like a P bass by simply moving their playing hand toward the neck. I’ve done it myself. In the final analysis for my ears: P = fat, J = growl.

  16. The J pickups have a more punch/bark sound, the neck pickup have a low/deep frequency sound, the bridge pickup have a high/articulated sound on a J/J configuration bass. The P pickup is a humbucker split coil so it has a sonic/boom sound with more resonance/vibration because they have less wiring.

  17. Basically, what it comes down to is tone. P bass pickups have a more bottom tone. However, the jazz pickup is designed for more versitility to give you the best of both worlds. For example, bass bottom and a more treble sounding tone and the capability of combining the two if chosen. To give another example, Geddy Lee…….Pbass. Jaco Pastorius………..J style.

  18. The article recognizes that the topic as such is subjective — but that said, the conversation is a little silly. In order to have a really good test, there needs to be at least two basses that are as close to identical in all other aspects as possible. One with a P and J in the traditional layout, and one with them reversed, and all pickups from the same manufacturer, same model, preferable made on the same day. (Made consecutively if possible.) Even better, have two more identical basses, one with two P’s and one with two J’s, with all the same criteria.
    Wanna find out what the difference in sound really is while taking into account the positions of the pickups? That’s how.

  19. The tone that you want on a bass depends on how much wire the pickups have, the materials/wood, frets or not frets, strings, the position of your fingers playing between the neck and bridge, technique and the volume/ tone knobs.

  20. I have 2 Fender Js and a Fender P (and a Ric, and an AEB, and an upright). I prefer the Ric… but the P pays the rent. That P tone just sits in the right place. Leo got it right the first time!

  21. In my opinion, far FAR too much emphasis is placed on this since there is a wide range of variation in the tone produced by the variety of P or J pickups. Add in the variability of playing styles, techniques, amplification, room acoustical effects, string types, bass neck and body materials, etc. etc. – not to mention what is actually audible in a mix of instruments – and you are left with a personal preference.

    Look no further than the different and conflicting answers to this question.

  22. A J pickup has a wider frequency response and a scooped midrange as compared to a p which has more mids and more punch in the low end. I dont like the mixture of a p and j but prefer either 2 J pickups or one P. Of the two I perfer a single P for cutting through a mix good with a punchy low end.

  23. i’ve played both in my time and love them both thanks leo. the p bass is the bass i love using for the blues that thump is its trade mark, warm bottom end. the jazz for me is far more versatile definately brighter and the one i use for the hendrix, guns and roses type sound.the key to the jazz is the two pick up volume nobs and tone knob dial one against the other and you can get a terrific amount of different tonal qualities. pups in the jazz are highly important . top range pups bring out the jazz bass qualities. i have just put seymour duncan ant 2s in my jazz and the range i get from bottom end to top end is immense warm p style bottom end bright jazz top end highly recomend these pups.

  24. There are so many factors that affect tone and these can include, but are not limited to, body woods (some are bright and some are warm etc), strings (big difference between stainless and nickel wound for instance), speaker configuration (10″/ 12″/ 15″ or a mix of these will affect the sound you hear), type of amp and your personal settings i.e. valves vs solid state have a huge bearing on wha you hear. This is very much so with what you hear from one pickup manufacturer to another. They claim that their pickups are the closest you will hear that actually sound like a vintage P-Bass or Vintage J-Bass, but again depending on the reference instrument used as well as the setup of the instrument, amp choice and speaker set up etc and especially the playing styles between individuals you are going to get differing results. There is definitely a different sound between J-Bass and P-Bass pickups in most, but not all, cases. i find a P-Bass can sound very fat and full with nice rock style punch but a lot are quite flat sounding with an almost metallic type grind when used with a pick or hte tone control is wound up full and through a clean amp/speaker set up whereas the J-Style seems to have a wider tonal range and of course you generally have two pcikup positions to choose from and they both sound quite different. Both with unique tones but mixed together you get an almost out of phase tone that you just don’t get with a P-Bass pickup as it doesn’t have another pickup signal to mix with. I have neck J-Bass pickups that have sounded similar in tone to the P-Bass pickups but they just don’t have the big fat punch to them and still sound much clenaer in tone. It’s all speculative. For me I like both tones but I find the mix of both J-Bass pickups on full is my preferred tone. At other times I’m looking for that nice warm fat punch P-Bass tone and not something so clane as a J-Bass tone.

  25. After playing a MusicMan StingRay (single pickup) and a Fender Jazz for years, I finally got a Precision for use mostly in blues. I never got it to sound right to my ears and now it is up for sale. If you want a boomy round sound, the P is the bass for you. I just found it totally one dimensional. If that’s the sound you like, terrific. If not, there’s not much you can do. I think Leo intended the StingRay to be the modern replacement for the P, and if so, at least in my book, he succeeded. I’ve had my ‘Ray for 30 years, and nothing cuts through any mix better. Although, my fretless Jazz with the epoxy coated fretboard, Rotosound rounds, and an Audere preamp certainly does a good job too. Too each their own.

  26. In the P/P configuration that I tried (fretless), I couldn’t get a strong enough “Mwaw” sound out of the bridge PU. Whereas a J in the bridge location had what I needed. I have a feeling there are truths to both thoughts in regards to pickup locations and what pickup tones are available. I can hear a difference. My current configuration is a P/J with a balance pot to change the tone. “Your Results May Vary”.

  27. I’ve all ways tried to explain the difference in sound to someone one new to playing bass as to think of the sound like colors. The Jazz Bass tends to sound bright or and the P Bass tends to sound dark. That’s not to say that you can’t get each to sound somewhat like the other but for the most part right out of the box with all controls up on is light and one is dark.

  28. In my case I have a mex j5 and a mex p/j4, both with east pre’s. The j is def stronger on the very bottom and on the very top whereas the p/j is tighter in the mids and basically even toned all the way up and down. I think part of what is going on is the fact that on the p pickup you can adjust them so they are the same distance from all four strings unlike the j pickup. This is due to the neck radius versus the straightness of the j pickup. Peace

  29. I find a p is fatter, and a j is brighter but thinner. I do prefer a p/j set up, so I can have the fat bass of the p, and can blend in a little brightness if I need it. Best of both worlds.

  30. P has thick, solid lows and Han get a really ganky, snarly mid sound with a rounded off top end. It is heaven in a band mix. A JJ gives more definition, more scoop, but has a baked-in tone of “scoop” and a pointed high mid sound. In my experiencs a P/J blended gives all the definition but a more neutral voice, not so much baked-in scoop. More even.

    The Neck pup on a J is 1/4 inch closer to the neck than a P, with the treble side a full inch due to the split cool design of the P, and is constructed differently. So while it gives a boomy rounded low sound solo’d, the tone lacks thickness and mids of a P.

  31. I have both. A 58 P that absolutely sings, and a JV that is impressive in it’s tonal range. They are vastly different in How you play them and the sounds you can get from them. I use D’Addario EXL strings on both. Also it is worth noting I play through an Ampeg amp. The amp has to be reset between the two guitars. If I leave it set for the P bass, the J sounds overly bright and “tinny”. If I plug in the P after playing the J (and do not change settings) The P sounds overly dark. All that being said, I find myself reaching for the JV when playing alone WAY more often than I reach for the P.. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll ruin the value of the P (That’s why I bought the JV in the first place) or maybe the JV has more tonality. Whatever, I LOVE them both!!

  32. I owned, until recently, a 78 P bass and found it too boomy, couldn’t get enough highs for my liking. In saying that I loved it but ended up trading it in against a Stingray. I still own a Precision Elite II, now that’s a bass. Active, stacked tone pot and any tone you want. Needless to say that one is going nowhere. I had a USA J bass and found it a great all rounder, tone-wise. P or J? definitely the Elite P. The 78 P didn’t have enough cut for me but the neck was amazing, just thought I’d add that.

  33. I have a Fender P deluxe with active p/j pickups and for me the p at the neck gives a more organic round tone with strong mid/bass tone hence give you the boom. A J in the same place dose not have the same bottom it’s mids are weaker and has stronger highs. The J at the bridge has that trumpet sound partly because it is so close to the bridge and because a J pickup has strong highs with balanced mids/bass. I am a believer in the p/j setup! With the right blend and playing technique you can do it all with one bass. So says a mountain man from Virginia!

  34. I think it’d be easier to answer the opposite question. That is – Are there similarities between a P and a J? Yes. The Fender brand. That’s all. P and J pick-ups have nothing in common and placement of P and neck J p-up is different too. Hence, the sound can only be very different. How different has been described here quite effectively by a few. The two basses are build very differently abd that seem to affect the way most play them. I think that, any bassist with even a superficial knowledge of these two basses will know how different they are. But this sounds rather academic after decades of music recorded with both axes 😉

  35. Funny – read through all of these fine insights and didn’t see the “nasally” word once in regard to the sound of a P. (?!) Along w/boomy/fat etc, it seems like another good word to describe the full character of a P. And for me, J’s (in the neck position) are poppy/punchy/percussive/articulate.

  36. I have a PJ yamaha, its my first and still a big part of what i play, i usually have them both on full, because it gives a more full body sound, but i use my p for a lot of picking cause its got a fatter and midranger sound for picking, but i use the j for more expressive stuff, say slap, tapping, harmonics and soloing cause it gives more twang like strats and teles, along with a warmer sound.
    PS i know this isnt quite related, but i absolutely hate p or j extremeists, the guys who love one and dispise the other, but hey everyones got an opinion.

  37. For some reason I’ve always played jazz basses or jazz bass clones. I have done the active thing, changed pickups and spent much time trying to convince myself that it sounded better than a stock-passive fender. I play regulary in different clubs and rely on what ever amp is provided by the club. My passive Fenders work well and help me in passing the groove to the audience and fellow band members. I will favor the neck pickup and blend about 60% bridge pickup in just to smooth the rawness out. But, my thoughts lead me here: I have gone to many shows with multiple bands, and many times the groove-playing-P Bass-devote takes the cake. A P, to my ears just sounds happy and musical in almost any situation or style. So, I will keep and cherish my Jazz Basses and add a Fender P to my arsenal.

  38. Ive been a p bass player since the 60s, the p bass fill’s up the band better, to me the jazz bass is a little thin, p bass has a strong foundation. Tim Marshall Nashville tn.

  39. Ive been a p bass player since the 60s, the p bass fill’s up the band better, to me, the jazz bass is a little thin, p bass has a strong foundation. Tim Marshall Nashville tn.

  40. The reason it is labeled as a J/P style bass is because guitars are traditionally labeled from bridge to neck. So for example HSS strat style guitars would have a humbucker in the bridge and two single coils moving closer towards the neck of the guitar. I imagine bass guitars follow suit the same way.

  41. I have a P/J Deluxe P with the J neck and J bridge pickup. The J pickup is not usable, at all. If you turn it up or solo it, there is a very weak sound. If you turn it off a little or a lot the std P pickup sounds great. I’m planning to mod this (otherwise great) instrument to get a decent sound out of the bridge pos pickup. As long as the body is already cut-out I want to try to fix the sound so it’s a true option. — Iradw

  42. The reason the words bark and boom make sense in describing a tonality is simple. When one says an ar sound a midrange tone is produced and when one says oo a somewhat lower pitch happens. You hear soundpeople making different letter sounds at soundcheck. With a little practice you can quickly find frequencies for equalization this way.

  43. I love both, depending on what tone I need to get. I began playing in 1991 and my first bass was a 72 J just like Geddy’s (sold it for a Riverhead headless silly me) but got my first P only last year. And it was a revelation. Love that tone! I had previously modded my current J with a series/parallel switch to get more low mids.

  44. I think it makes no difference in sound. As one person said, it depends on how you set them–both individually and as they relate to each other. You probably know what you want to hear. Then set the amp to all middle, and twiddle the bass knobs until you get that sound. Then tape them! I think there is a difference in tembre (tone quality) between humbucking and active pickups. The later have more presence (less reverb or hollow sound) than humbucking. I have both and like both. Depends on my mood. The active bass is a different brand and has rubber strings, so there’s really no comparison. It sounds very much like an upright bass, but it the size of a barritone uke. OK, my mind is wandering. The sound of instruments is highly subjective, but generally, the more expensive it is, the better it sounds to most people. The feel of an instrument is v. important, too, I think. It it looks pretty and feels good in your hands, you will love playing it. This is also directly to price, which is in turn related to quality of engineering, materials, and workmanship. So therefore, I’d say the difference between P and J pickups is academic. I.e., a non-concern. What’s important is what you like. And you will like a more expensive instrument vs a less expensive one.

  45. I just purchased the Fender American Elite P Bass (it has the P/J combination-active) and I have a question.
    When I fade into the Jazz position it sounds nice and booming but as I fade into the p coil position the sound becomes very “trebley” almost like an AM radio. It looses all low end and volume when I go from the j position to the p position on the pickups. Does anybody know if this is normal or possibly what is wrong with it?

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