What is a Guitar Pickup?
Posted on February 01 2023
Guitars are iconic instruments that transformed music and brought us legendary stars whose talents made it seem like their guitars were an extension of themselves. The extraordinary guitar solos and unforgettable songs left their marks on music history. They sparked the interest of fans that wanted to learn how to play the guitar like their classic rock and metal genre idols.
Whether you're a fan of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Eddie Van Halen, or any other guitar greats, the credit for making their talents heard can be partially attributed to something called a guitar pickup. For those that are unfamiliar with guitars, you may have questions like what is a guitar pickup and how do they work. Learn more about how all your favourite artists achieved incredible sounds to perform ripping solos and chugging riffs.
Pickups are a befitting name, but it may help to think of them as a microphone for an electric guitar or electric bass. The purpose of a guitar pickup is to pick up the strings' vibrations and carry them through the amplifier to produce sound. Pickups are an essential part of a guitar and are one of the main components that affect a guitar's tone.
Many brands manufacture pickups, each with unique processes and materials, but the basic structure and functions are the same. So, what is a guitar pickup exactly? The device is made up of magnets wrapped in wire coils and mounted on a bobbin. Each has six magnets, one for each guitar string. Typically, a guitar will have two or three pickups affixed to the guitar's body underneath the strings (one is simple but has limitations). There are various types of guitar pickups, each with unique sounds, but we'll get into that later.
How Guitar Pickups Work
A guitar pickup works via electromagnetic induction, which is a fancy way of saying that the vibrations of the strings disrupt the magnetic field, and a current is sent to the amplifier, which broadcasts the sound. Without pickups or amps, electric guitars wouldn't be audible enough to be heard through the mix of other instruments and vocals, especially not in a concert setting.
Various factors affect the sound produced through pickups, such as the materials used, manufacturing techniques, the placement of pickups on a guitar, and the types of guitar pickups a player uses.
What Are They Made Out Of?
The three main components of pickups are the six magnets (some use metal rods with long magnets under the bobbin), coils of wire, and the bobbin. The magnets, wire type, and how the wire is coiled affect the guitar's sound. These components are consistent with all pickups, but brands use different materials. The materials have evolved as innovators discovered new, better ways to make pickups.
The first pickups were made from iron, steel, and silicone. The magnets changed to metal alloys called Alnico, which is a combination of aluminium (Al), nickel (Ni), and cobalt (Co). Alnico has many types that vary in strength and sound but are typically warmer, fuller sounds. Alnico magnets used for pickups include:
- Alnico II: The tone is described as soft, mellow, and clear
- Alnico III: The "weakest" of the magnets, which produces a darker tone
- Alnico V: The "hottest" of the magnets, which have bright, more aggressive sounds
Ceramic magnets are a more modern alternative to Alnico magnets and are usually found on less expensive guitars. They have a more powerful output with a brighter sound, but because of the high output, the sound is distorted more easily. Critics describe these pickups as making a harsh, brittle sound which is true of cheaper ceramic pickups but less common with ones of higher quality.
Pickup wires are typically made of copper, but some brands use silver, which is more expensive. The wires' differing effects on tone are because of their thickness and insulation. The most common wire thickness or gauge in pickups are 42 gauge wires. The wires are coated with insulating materials such as plain enamel, formvar, polyurethane, and many others. The insulation prevents the wire from shorting itself out. Thicker wires that are more tightly wound create more resistance resulting in a brighter tone, while lower resistance results in a warmer sound.
The method used to wind the wire has a significant effect on a guitar's sound and the pickup's distributed capacitance, which refers to the air space between the coil layers. The more windings a coil has, the higher its output and the warmer the sound with fewer top-end frequencies. The fewer windings there are, the brighter the sound will be.
There are three winding techniques: machine, hand-winding, and scatter-winding (also called random winding). Machine winding is excellent for mass production and consistent results because a machine evenly winds the wires. Hand-winding uses a device to spin the bobbin, but a person controls it, which results in unique winding and sounds. Vintage pickups were made this way which is why the sounds during their golden eras are so iconic. Scatter winding is like hand winding but is intentionally more random and produces one-of-a-kind results.
Types of Guitar Pickups
The types of guitar pickups are where it gets more complicated. Pickups are divided into two main categories, which are further divided into types. The two main categories are structure types and style types.
There are three main types of guitar pickups: single coil, double coil (humbucker), and P90.
Single coil pickups have one magnet and are known for their bright, twangy sound with a focus on treble that allows them to cut through a mix. They are more popular with country music and blues for their crisp sound. However, they are more likely to emit a humming sound from a build-up of static which may be unwanted by some guitarists. Others prefer their organic, raw vibe and sensitivity to their playing technique. You'll hear single-coil guitars in classic rock, country, alternative rock, and funk.
Double coil pickups are better known as humbuckers. They are basically two single-coil pickups facing opposite directions, which cancels out the humming sound of single-magnet pickups. Humbuckers produce a warmer, darker, thicker sound and stronger bass, making them popular with hard rock, jazz, blues rock, and heavy metal genres.
P90 pickups are similar to single-coil pickups because they have just one magnet, but the bobbins are wider and shorter, resulting in a higher output and a warmer, thicker, grittier sound. They have an increased tonal range making them versatile for many genres, from country and blues to heavier rock. While they are less likely to emit a hum than single coils, it is still possible to experience it. P90s are popular with classic rock and blues genres.
Active vs Passive Pickups
Guitar pickups are also categorised as active or passive. On a basic level, they function the same way, but they sound and work differently. While neither is better than the other, they have their pros and cons. The type you use depends on personal preference, skill, setting, and budget.
Active pickups are more expensive because they use a battery which powers a preamp to produce a more powerful signal resulting in a cleaner sound. The battery as an external power source means the pickups don't need as many coil winds. They are commonly used by heavier genres with higher gains because of their sustain and lower impedance, which allows for long cable runs. Their clarity and lack of interference make them ideal in recording studios.
Passive pickups are the OG pickup and do not need an external power source, which is beneficial if you don't want to worry about charging them or replacing the battery. They get their power from the coil winds, but the treble and clarity are weakened if they are overwound. Passive pickups are known for their organic, natural sound associated with vintage tones and are more sensitive to a player's style, allowing for greater musical expression.
Pickup Combinations & Configurations
Guitars typically have two pickups on them, but it is possible to have just one or up to three. They are placed at the bridge, middle, or neck positions. Different combinations of them produce dramatically different sounds. There are three main combinations: single coil only, humbucker only, and mixed (single coil, humbucker, P90).
Using three pickups on an electric guitar allows for more versatility and more pickup selection options. However, some find that the pickup in the middle position gets in their way when they play. To remedy this, they will place it slightly lower, decreasing the output, which is a disadvantage in some situations.
Most guitars have two pickups placed at the bridge and neck, which is seen as a happy medium. You still get versatility, but the middle pickup doesn't get in the way. The bridge pickup has a brighter, crisper sound with more focus on treble, while the neck pickup has a softer, mellow sound with more emphasis on bass.
Several pickup configurations are commonly used. The terminology used to describe them include S for a single coil pickup and H for a humbucker. The letters' order starts at the bridge position and ends with the neck position.
A single pickup configuration uses only one type of pickup, and the most common are S-S, S-S-S, H-H, or H-H-H. A mixed pickup configuration may have two pickups (e.g. S-H or H-S) or three pickups (e.g. H-S-S or H-S-H). The more pickups there are, the more versatility you will have and vice-versa.
Coil Splitting & Tapping
Another important topic to cover when discussing pickups is the techniques players use to get different effects from their pickups. There are two techniques used with coils to achieve different goals: coil splitting and coil-tapping. These sometimes get mixed up, but knowing they are two different things is important.
Coil splitting refers to making a humbucker sound like a single-coil guitar pickup by turning off one coil and relying on the remaining coil. An easy way to do this on many guitars is by turning the tone control up, which activates one coil. In the down position, the typical humbucker sound is activated. Doing this allows for the versatility of a single coil pickup while having a humbucker.
Coil tapping refers to single-coil pickups and taking the signal from somewhere other than the end of the coil, usually the midpoint, which reduces output. The lower output makes achieving the vintage sounds of classic rock and old-school music vibes easier.
These techniques allow players to use more modern pickups but still have a vintage tone and increase their tonal range. It is more commonly used with high-output pickups by players who want a lower-output option.
Legendary Pickup Brands
Now that we've fully answered questions like what a guitar pickup is and how they affect guitar sounds, let's look at some of the brands that create them. A discussion of pickups would be incomplete without mentioning the most legendary guitar pickup brands that helped shape these incredible performances. A few of them include:
- Seymour Duncan: David Gilmour used their single-coil, SSL-5 Custom pickup in his famous black Strat
- Fender: Created the Stratocaster (the best-selling guitar of all time) and pickups used by Keith Richards, Buddy Holly, and Jimi Hendrix
- EMG: A favourite of metalheads and hard rockers like Metallica, Slayer, and Prince
- DiMarzio: Guitarists including Kurt Cobain, David Gilmour, and Pete Townshend used their pickups
The transformative effects electric guitars have had on the music industry are undeniable. From Jimi Hendrix's unforgettable performance of the U.S. national anthem at Woodstock in 1969 to Pink Floyd's David Gilmour and his infamous black Strat, guitarists have left fans in awe of their talents and inspired many to pick up a guitar themselves. If you feel inspired or want to add to your collection, Monty's Guitars can help you build the perfect axe, whether you're looking for that classic vintage sound or a custom build.