The chrome look of pickup covers was a staple of early bass guitars. While they are less common nowadays than in the 50s, there are still basses that have pickup covers on them today. But why have they gone in and out of style, and what is the point of bass pickup covers?
Early Fender basses had pickup covers for aesthetic reasons and to protect the bass from interference and shielding issues. In later years, pickup covers have been shown to not provide any noteworthy electrical shielding. Therefore, they are now generally used for their looks, or for serving as a place to rest the thumb when playing the bass.
When I tried a Fender P bass with a pickup cover on it for the first time, I remember it feeling cumbersome and awkward. It obstructed my picking hand when playing fingerstyle, and I can’t even imagine what slapping would have been like.
Still, many bassists like them, and in recent years they even seem to have been having a resurgence. So what is the cover over the bass strings for, and what makes someone choose a bass with pickup covers over one that doesn’t?
In my experience, the main reason bassists like having pickup covers on their bass is that they simply look cool.
Aesthetics was a big reason the bass had chrome pickup covers in the first place. When Leo Fender brought the precision bass to the mainstream market in the 1950s, chrome was commonly used in guitars, car wings, furniture, and home appliances. The chrome bass pickup covers were thus a product of what was considered visually pleasing at the time.
Not only was the chrome cover meant to look good on its own, but it was also designed to hide the pickups. The pickups were thought to be part of the guts of the bass and were thus covered up to make it look more pleasing.
Despite being a product of the 50s, bassists still gravitate towards pickup covers for their retro look. Furthermore, I am yet to meet a single bassist who used a pickup cover without doing so at least partially because they thought it looked cool.
Bassists who play a bass with a pickup cover tend to either rest their arm or thumb on it. One, in particular, claimed that being able to rest his hand on the cover allowed him to pick the string faster when playing fingerstyle.
However, many of those who get their hands on a bass with a pickup cover elect to remove it.
The reason for this is that I and many other bassists tend to find that it obstructs our playing. Rather than being a convenient place to rest the thumb, the pickup cover gets in the way of the picking hand.
Thus, it’s difficult to say for certain whether pickup covers are going to help or hinder your playing. However, if you are used to playing without one, I`d say chances are good that you’re not going to find it helpful; I certainly did not.
Being so close to the pickups, it`s reasonable to assume that covers will impact how they pick up sound.
Some bassists prefer this change in tone, while some will claim that they dislike it. Another common opinion is that there is no noticeable difference in tone regardless of whether you have a pickup cover on your bass or not.
In terms of tone, the claim is generally that the pickup covers make the sound of the bass darker and less bright, which can be a stylistic preference.
Regardless of what camp you fall in, one thing is certain. If a bass pickup cover changes the tone of the instrument, it does so to a very small degree.
With a cover over the pickups on your bass, it becomes harder to hit or damage them. It also becomes harder for dust and dirt to get into your pickups.
In my opinion, this is the only truly useful feature of pickup covers. While the pickups are placed so that they will rarley hit anything, they are also prone to being damaged if they ever do.
Thus, pickup covers add a layer of protection to your pickups. Furthermore, dust and dirt will accumulate much slower in your pickups, which will result in a lesser need for maintenance.
5. Stopping interference
The original purpose of pickup covers was to shield them from unwanted noise. By providing a shield for the pickups the cover was designed to stop the bass from humming as a result of outside interference.
Early basses even had a ground wire connected to them for this purpose. However, since first launching in the 50s, it has been established that pickup covers do not stop interference.
There are many possible reasons for bass hum. A pickup cover will do little to nothing to reduce any of these possible reasons. Nowadays, few bassists use pickup covers for stopping interference. However, in the early days of covers, it was one of their main purposes.
When slapping or popping a string on a bass with a pickup cover, the string will hit the pickup cover if it is plucked hard enough.
As a result, this impact will have an effect on the sound of the plucked string. In part, this can be used to compress notes. This is because the strings will not be able to be pulled back as far as they otherwise would. This results in a more balanced sound without noticeable peaks.
Another effect of this is that the impact of the string hitting the cover will produce a tone of its own. The pinging sound can add some flavor to a bassline when used fittingly.
So what are bass bridge covers for? Nowadays mostly for the looks. While preferential, some bassits also find that they aid the playability of their instrument and their tone.
If you like the look for pickup covers, I recommend trying a bass with a cover before purchasing one. It is hard to tell how you will feel about playing with one, but chances are good that you will either love it or hate it.
If you do decide to try playing with a pickup cover, they are easy to get your hands on and install yourself. Amazon has a good selection of bass pickup covers, and I find most of them to be quite affordable.
Also, removing a pickup cover is as easy as installing it. While it does need to be screwed into the body of your bass, it is an easily undoable modification. Thus, if you like the chrome look of them and they impact the playability of your bass positively, I do recommend getting your hands on one.
Whether you have a pickup cover or not, it is the pickups themselves that ultimately determine what your tone is going to sound like. To learn more, proceed to read about the difference between J and P bass pickups.