If you are like most guitarists, you’re probably on a never ending search to squeeze every last bit of tone you can from your instrument. Pickups are a great way to do this, and can make a huge difference in the sound and response of your guitar. When confronted with all the pickup brands and models, however, it can be a little daunting. Get a grip on the basics below, and then check out some of these popular “pickup-grades”.
To understand how a pickup works, it’s worth recalling your high school physics. Pickups use a well-known electromagnetic effect: when a guitar string vibrates, changes in the pickup’s magnetic field are converted to an electrical signal that is sent through the coil and down the wires to the amplifier.
The basic elements of a guitar pickup are simple: a magnet, a coil, and wire to carry the signal. This simplicity means endless variation is possible. The type of magnet and wire, the number of turns in the coil, and the position of the pickup all affect your guitar’s sound, as much as the strings, picks, and amps you use. So before you drop into your local guitar outlet, familiarize yourself with the basic pickup options available.
The pickup you need may depend on the music you play. Jazz guitarists will prefer the light, clean sound of a single coil pickup positioned away from the guitar’s bridge, with fewer coil windings, and an Alnico II magnet. (Alnico is an alloy made from aluminum, nickel, and cobalt.) Rock and blues musicians might prefer a double-coil pickup with an Alnico V magnet and more coil windings for warmer mid-range tones. Hard rockers tend to like double-coil pickups made with ceramic magnets positioned close to the bridge.
The most obvious difference between pickups concerns the combination of magnets and coils. Early experiments produced three basic variations that became classic styles still with us today. The chart at the right explains these differences. It’s also a good idea to read pickup manufacturer catalogs to understand differences between the various models of single-coil, dual magnet, and humbucker pickups. Output is one of these differences: high output models make overdrive easier, while low output models give a cleaner sound.
Once you’ve purchased your pickups, it’s a good idea to have a qualified guitar repairman install them for you. It’s also advisable to buy retrofit pickups that will install with minimal to no modifications to your guitar. In some cases, however, it may be necessary to buy a new pick guard, or have your guitar routed to accommodate bigger pickups or active electronics.
Once installed, it’s important to take some tweaking time with your new pickups to find the “sweet spot”. If the magnet is too strong, or the pickup is too close to the strings, the excess magnetic force can actually deaden your tone and kill sustain. If the pickup is too low, it will not send a strong enough signal to your amp, and the tone will be weak. Adjusting your pickups to the right height is not difficult, and usually requires simple tools. Then, plug it in and enjoy your axe’s new tone!
Types of Pickups
These classic pickups, made famous by the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster guitars, were once infamous for also picking up interference from other electrical devices to produce “60 cycle hum.” Fender has since developed many innovations to reduce hum yet keep their single coil pickups’ signature crisp tones. Look for “noiseless” variations on the original Fender single coils, employing reverse coil windings, enamel-coated wire, and samarium cobalt magnets instead of Alnico V magnets.
There’s one serious drawback to traditional single coil pickups: they are extremely sensitive to outside interference, and can hum and buzz to the delightful sounds of your home’s electrical wiring, and even your computer monitor. Double coil “humbuckers” were introduced in the 1950’s to address this problem, and came standard on many Gibson instruments, like the Les Paul. By using two balanced coils, outside interference issues are eliminated. A consequence of the double coil pickup is a fatter, darker and, dirtier sound favored by blues and jazz musicians, like B.B. King, for example.
In the 1940s Gibson developed its own single-coil pickup that featured two Alnico II magnets. The ES300 model was the first guitar to use this oversized single-coil, the forerunner to the “humbucker” pickup. Immediately popular with electric blues guitarists, a variation on the classic P-90 “soapbar” and “dog-eared” pickups—nicknames based on their shapes—is the Blues 90, used on the BB King-inspired Gibson Little Lucille guitar.
An early attempt to eliminate 60-cycle hum led to the invention of “humbucker” pickup by Gibson engineer Seth Lover in the 1950s. The classic humbucker “bucks the hum” by using two coils connected out-of-phase around an Alnico II magnet. The extra width of this style of pickup also means more string vibration is picked up for a fatter tone than a traditional single coil, a sound now associated with Gibson’s Les Paul, SG, and ES model guitars.
The latest technological advancement in magnetic pickup design is the advent of active electronics. This means that the signal from the coil is sent through an onboard preamplifier and EQ, effectively giving the player more output and tone control. Some other pros associated with active electronics are smoother, more consistent tone and virtually noise free operation. The need for an external power source, usually a 9 volt battery, and the involved modifications necessary to install the extra hardware is a deal breaker for some. Also, many guitarists regard the tone as sterile and flat in comparison to traditional pickups, but, alas, to each their own.