Guitar players (like most musicians) are natural “tinkers”.
We love to fool around with different string setups, different amps, different pedals. Whatever it takes to get that sound we are looking to scream from our favorite guitar.
At the same time, the one component most guitar players aren’t ever excited about fooling around with our pickups.
It’s not that you can’t totally change the way your guitar sounds with different pickups. In fact, the exact opposite is true. There may not be another thing you can swap out to totally change the way your electric guitar sounds the way that new pickups will.
No, it’s that there’s a lot going on “under the hood” with pickups – and most of us are never eager to poke around with something this complex.
But what if pickups were completely demystified for you?
What if you never again had to wonder about how guitar pickups work, what the different types of guitar pickups were and how they operated, or how your string and pickup location choices can totally transform the sound you get out of these guitar parts?
Better than that, what if you knew exactly how to pick the perfect pickup for the kind of music you were looking to play – without any headache and without any hassle?
Maybe that all sounds too good to be true.
That’s why we have put together this quick guide.
By the time you’re done with the inside information below you’ll know (almost) everything there is to know about guitar pickups.
Ready to jump right in?
Let’s get to it!
How Guitar Pickups Work
Truth be told, for as complex a guitar component as we make pickups out to be the science behind them is really simple and straightforward.
When you boil everything down a guitar pickup is really nothing more than a bunch of magnets that have been wrapped (sometimes thousands of times) around insulated copper wire.
This creation generates a magnetic field around all of your guitar strings, which in turn generates a punch of voltage when the strings vibrates – sending powerful vibrations through all of your cables and your gear before it comes screaming out your amp with a really unique kind of sound.
Sure, a lot of different components along the way change the way that sound is going to come out. But nothing is as important when it comes to generating those initial sound vibrations than your pickup and your pickup design.
This is why it’s such a huge piece of the puzzle to find the right pickups for the kind of music you are looking to play. Not all pickups are created equally, and not all string and pickup combinations – or pickup location combinations – are going to produce the results you are looking for.
But that’s all something we will get into in just a minute.
For now though, let’s dive deeper into breaking down the common types of pickups you are likely to come across, and how they all work.
Breaking Down Pickup Types
Up until 1955 all electric guitar pickups came in a singular design – a single coil form factor that was universal across the board. If you picked up an electric guitar prior to 1955 it was always going to have single coil pickups installed on board.
Everything changed when a man named Seth Lover over at Gibson guitars started fooling around with different designs, basically stumbling across the idea of combining two single coil configurations together with opposite polarities wired up.
The sound that came out of that first double coil pickup configuration was unlike anything else Seth had ever heard in the company patented the creation right away. Originally called PAF pickups – Patent Applied For – most people call do coil setups “humbuckers” these days, and they are some of the most popular coils on the planet.
Integral to the sound Gibson Les Paul guitars are beloved for, humbuckers are now considered legendary and used on an enormous number of guitars.
You get a lot more sustained, a lot stronger output, and a little less noise when you are running dual coil designs. Where single coil designs are little bit brighter dual coil configurations are a little warmer and a little darker, working really well with distorted sounds where single coils are designed to scream crisp and clear sound.
For this reason, humbuckers are almost exclusively used on heavy rock and metal tracks.
Circuitry style pickups were invented in the 1970s when company started to fool around with the idea of creating active pickups as opposed to passive pickups.
Before the seventies all pickups were passive, designed with magnets alone. But in the seventies these guitar companies started to pair their magnet pickups with a preamplifier – and that’s when things really started to get wild.
All of a sudden you are getting a lot more tonal clarity, a lot more tonal consistency (particularly in wide volume ranges), and a lot more reach overextended cables – a big hit for life performers on big stages.
On top of that the amount of amp overdrive you could crank out these active pickups was second to none.
Bass players flocked to active pickups almost immediately. The clean signal, the super wide frequency range, the buffed up sustain and extra headroom, and the shopper attack changed the game completely.
Active pickups were also able to use much weaker magnets because the signal was boosted so significantly with a bit of pre-amplification. Guitar players haven’t jumped ship to active pickups quite as much as bass players have, instead preferring passive pickups because of the sound that they generate.
As far as output is concerned, you’ve really got three different styles to pick and choose from:
- High output pickups
- Moderate output pickups and
- Vintage style output pickups
Higher output pickups make it a lot easier for you to drive your amp through distortion, with the only trade-off really being that you sacrifice a little bit of dynamic range. Moderate output pickups produce a cleaner sound with more dynamic range, but are really difficult to push to the point where you get that overdriven amp sound some are looking for.
Vintage style output pickups are a bit of a niche option when you’re looking for a really specific sound. These have the lowest output of everything. Most of these pickups are designed to closely mimic old-school guitars that would have been using super weak magnets at the time.
It’s nice to have a vintage style pickup at your disposal when you’re looking for a very particular sound. But most people are going to flock to high output and moderate output options more often not
It kind of goes without saying that the choice of magnets in a pickup heavily influence the kind of sound you’re going to be able to produce.
Magnet layout as well as magnet material are two pieces of the puzzle you will want to get right before you start splashing any cash on guitar pickups.
Three popular magnet layouts include running them at individual magnetic poles, having steel poles extended out from a magnetic bar, or running a blade style magnet that has a little bit more consistency with your string bends.
As far as magnet material is concerned, the overwhelming majority of people look for magnets that are made out of an alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt (abbreviated to alnico). Different alloys include different mixtures of these three base metals, and it’s really up to you to find a mixture that makes the most sense for the type of music you are looking to play.
Alnico 3 is the alloy used on vintage Stratocaster guitars, with a super soft tone and anything but the strongest magnetic pole. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Alnico 8, the heaviest combination, the strongest magnetic, and the alloy capable of producing the most aggressive sounds from your guitar.
Modern pickups are also using magnetic materials like ceramic that can produce some really wild sound options. But these are pretty “experimental” even still today and almost exclusively found in guitars used to play heavy metal and hard rock.
Potting is something that is almost never talked about when it comes to finding the right pickups. And that’s really unfortunate, because it is going to play a huge part in how your instrument plays from here on out.
All pickups are held together with wax, material chosen to prevent movement and vibration between different components that could have thrown off the sound that they produce. The actual potting process and the caliber of wax used as a huge role to play in preventing unwanted feedback that you would have gotten went out front of your amps.
Almost all modern pickups are 100% potted with clean, clear, unused wax. Vintage guitars with pickups that haven’t been potted are going to grab random sound from the air every now and again and introduce some of that classic rock feel, though.
It’s up to you to figure out what works best with the music you’re hoping to play.
Strings are Key
While the pickup itself is hugely important, it is always going to play off of the strings that you have wired up to your guitar – which is why you can’t make string decisions lightly.
Electric guitar strings are available in a wide variety of configurations. All of them are going to attract the magnetic field necessary to produce sound through your pickups. Some of them do a better job than others, and some transform your guitar sound to something really special whereas others mute your creativity almost completely.
It’s important to research string options that go best with your new pickup. Sometimes light gauge nickel coated steel is the best way to go. Other times you want to go with a heavy gauge 100% pure nickel winding.
Pairing your pickup to your strings is essential. Overlook this or start to think that all strings are “one-size-fits-all” and you’ll be really disappointed in the quality of music you can make until you get things right.
Location, Location, Location!
The location of your pickup (or pickups) is another big part of getting the most out of these guitar components.
Your strings are always going to vibrate most in the next part of the pickup, vibrating a whole lot less as you get closer and closer to the bridge. The difference in vibration means that different pickup positions produce different sound elements, major variations in tone, and sometimes completely different sounds across the board.
Many musicians have tremendous success with a single pickup tucked up near the neck of their guitar. Eliminating a bridge pickup let’s these guitarists float around their guitar in a way that would haven’t have been able to otherwise, as they have one less thing to think about.
Many guitars – such as most Les Pauls, have both a bridge and a neck pickup, with the ability to switch between them or use both at the same time. The neck pickup up is darker and favors bass tones, while the bridge pickup is brighter and favors higher tones. For this reason, the bridge pickup is commonly used for lead guitar, while the neck pickup is largely used for rhythm guitar.
Other musicians swear by a neck, middle, and bridge location for their pickups that they can fool around with. Some people like the versatility and richness of sound this kind of setup offers, and it’s hard to argue with their results.
The Fender Stratocaster – one of the most popular electric guitars ever, has this setup, which is why it’s considered to be so incredibly versatile.
Finding the Right Pickup for You
When you get down to it, there are a couple of things that you want to focus on to find the right pickup options for yourself.
For starters, you need to think about the type of music that you are going to be playing most often.
If you’re somebody that loves to play hard rock, heavy metal, or something that really needs a guitar to scream through your probably going to be comfortable with higher output pickups than anything else. If crisp, clear, really dynamic sound is essential, lower output (moderate output) pickups are right up your alley.
You want to think about overall external tonal influences that are going to shake your sound, too.
The pedals and the amps that you choose will play a major part in how your guitar is going to sound, working in conjunction with (or fighting with) your new pickup. Your volume, your strings, the wooden material of your guitar, and even the neck style will all play a role as well.
Lastly, the amount of “real estate” you have available to play with when it comes to installing new pickups on your electric guitar is also something that can’t be overlooked.
Yes, with a little bit of creativity you could probably stuff any pickup you want pretty much anywhere on any guitar – but the results would be less than ideal most of the time. Find pickups designed to fit your guitar (as well as the music you’re looking to make) and you’ll be good to go!
The Three Main Pickup Types At A Glance
When it comes down to it, there are really only three main types of pickups that most people need to concern themselves with. By having an understanding of each, you can look out for them when choosing your next guitar.
As mentioned earlier, this is an incredibly popular pickup, and not only because it was one of the first available on the market.
Single coil pickups are largely known for their bright, twangy sound. Rock, indie, folk, and blues music commonly utilize single coil pickup guitars. Modern pop also favors single coils.
The main downside of single coil pickups is that they get quite noisy when a lot of gain or distortion is added, which makes them more difficult to use for harder rock or metal.
Humbuckers, as noted earlier in the article, solved this problem with their clever design. Note that it is possible to have both single coil pickups and humbuckers on the same guitar, such as on the HSS Stratocaster.
Pretty much every guitarist playing heavier music will be using a guitar with humbuckers. They are considered to have a thicker, warmer tone with the mid-ranges brought out very well.
P90s are sort of a hybrid between standard single coil pickups and humbuckers, although they are not nearly as popular.
They are characterized by a gritty, dirty, raw sort of sound, which made them really popular with punk rock bands. They are also really popular with blues guitar.
They are great at what they do, but their sound is not for everyone. I highly recommend listening to a demo of a guitar or even better, playing one yourself before ordering a guitar with P90s.
We’ve covered a lot, and I applaud you for making it through this post all the way to the end!
Although there are a lot of technical details that go into pickups, they’re really not something you need to worry a lot about. Spend some time analyzing what you’re going to use your guitar for and listen for the guitar that sounds great to you – ultimately, this is truly matters most.
Of course, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them through the comment form below.
Enjoy your guitar!