A Quick Study on Guitar Pickups
If you are new to the guitar, working on beginner guitar songs, or perhaps switching over from acoustic to electric, you may not be familiar with the pickups used to amplify the sound. In fact, wood is not as important a feature in an electric, the guitar pickup will affect the tone more. Each device has a unique way of altering sound waves into a signal and it all boils down to how the pickups are made!
Why Were Guitar Pickups First Used?
The guitar was not that common of an instrument before the 1920’s, banjos and big band instruments were louder and fit the live settings of the day. The guitar and bass had serious sound competition problems for many years until the pickup was invented. The guitar pickup not only allowed it to be heard, but to eventually become the central instrument of popular music genres.
The basic principle of the pickup is that a transducer converts the energy of the sound waves into electrical energy that can then be amplified. Some early inventors used magnetic coils to make that energy change, while others used piezo crystals that vibrated and changed the voltage of the signal. Piezoelectric pickups are used to amplify an acoustic guitar as it picks up the vibrations of the waves.
There are no sound waves to reverberate in a solid body electric guitar, so magnetic pickups were the best way to increase the sound. When a metal string is plucked it disturbs the magnetic field and generates the signal. How the coils are made and wrapped will change the final tone, which has led us to the selection of popular guitar pickups we have today.
The Two Main Kinds of Magnetic Guitar Pickups
As the name implies, when we have one coil at a time it is called a single coil pickup, and these are famously used on Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters. If you notice the Strat has always had the iconic three separate single coils. The amount of copper wire wrapped around the magnet will pick up different frequency ranges allowing you to alter the sound depending on which coils you are using.
The single coil is perfect for bright and cutting music, it breaks through the mix with a crisp sound. They also have better note definition between strings, but they have a hum to them, so any deep gain runs into problems. If you wanted to classify some genres that fit a single coil pickup, it is common in pop, country, surf, funk, and blues. Try using a single coil guitar on some easy guitar songs in these styles!
A guitar pickup that has two wrapped and reverse poled magnets is a double coil or a humbucker. The single coil was known for having noise interference issues and doubling the coils resolved that issue. Getting rid of the single coil hum is where it got the nickname humbucker!
The other guitar great Gibson was the first to use humbuckers in mass production with the Les Paul model. This addition of the extra coil leads to a deeper sound, more sustain, and less noise. The humbucker pickup is often more associated with jazz, hard rock, and heavy metal. Of course these specific examples are not set in stone and many other factors can make big changes.
There are other ways to manipulate the coils. If the pickup is passive (like most are) it doesn’t need any external power, an active pickup on the other requires power and provides a boost and compression to the signal. Most active pickups are humbuckers, but it is seen on single coils occasionally. Guitarists have tried every way possible of mixing and placing these magnetic coils to alter their final tone.
There are plenty more details to get into, like how coiling different ways can affect the output. There is also the wiring and the potting (wax covering) that can all add up to final tone changes. But you may not need to get that detailed, it is easier to focus on what guitar pickup arrangement you like the best.
The Most Common Pickup Patterns and Locations
Single coils hum but they are crisp, while humbuckers get rid of the hum and provide some depth. So why not use both on the electric guitar? Many artists have experimented with both single and double coils together, and they have also altered where the pickup is located. When the strings vibrate the location of the pickups will also shape the end tone.
The Fender Telecaster has only two single coils, the neck is for the lower end and the bridge pickup is slightly angled up toward the treble. This simple diagonal position may seem trivial or for looks, but the position and location are necessary. That way the bridge coil gets more vibrations out of the treble strings vs the bass.
The three single coils on the Fender are placed in each location so the final tone can be changed to emphasize different frequencies. The neck pickup emphasizes the low frequencies while the bridge is for the high and treble like sounds. Of course the middle coil is for a nice mix of both. Notice again a slight angle in the bridge pickup for the same reason as the Tele.
The Gibson Les Paul uses two humbuckers, one near the neck and the other almost to the point of the bridge. This position gives it lots of middle and bass frequency range and a very full tone. If you want more power and gain the HH is a better choice than an SS.
With humbuckers on all three positions you can bet this will be a thick and deep sound that is perfect for high gain and distorted playing. Generally two humbuckers do a fine job but some rockers like Pete Townshend wanted to add another!
The HHS combo is used on the Ernie Ball Music Man Cutlass guitars, it provides a higher gain and less hum in the mids and highs while we keep the crisp and cutting clarity on the low frequencies.
Some Telecaster models replaced the single neck coil with a double to get more gain in the low frequencies. These combinations aren’t that common and are often custom made.
If you want the single coil brightness but with a little distortion we replace the single coil bridge pickup with a humbucker. This guitar pickup setup allows for many sound combinations and the ability to play in lots of genres. It is kind of the best of both worlds if you like to play a variety of music.
This is quite the versatile tone changer on the deeper end that was seen on guitars like the Ibanez Jem created for Steve Vai. The neck and bridge humbuckers help to create a lot of gain while the middle single coil still provides some clarity to the very heavy sound.
Some modern humbuckers can split the coil and give it a single coil sound. Modern technology has really made it possible to have a huge variety of pickup sounds to choose from. When buying a new guitar you want to be able to try as many out before purchase, or at least listen to all styles and arrangements. Different approaches to the guitar might alter the kinds of pickups you ultimately choose; whether you’re playing dense guitar chords or articulate guitar scales.
Some guitarists even go so far as to create their own pickups and configurations, it’s possible to do with research and care. There is a world of sound to find in guitar pickups, their makeups, and their configurations. And if that is not enough, the strings you use on the electric guitar also affect the tone! There is a lot to learn when it comes to guitar signals and all the ways to change your final sound!
Shawn Leonhardt is a writer for Guitar Tricks, the original online guitar lesson platform.