The 411 on Pickups

We have a little saying around here at the shop: “A guitar is a sum of its parts.” We say this to mean that basically, no two guitars are going to be alike in tone, playability, or general style. And there is a myriad of different factors that can affect a guitar’s tone, whether those are choice of wood, internal components, strings, quality of craftsmanship, or the number of voodoo curses bestowed upon it by the psychedelic rock gods. And yes, for the record, there are, in fact, psychedelic rock gods. Why else do you think Hendrix ceremonially burned his strats on stage? It was an offering to appease the rock gods.

But even apart from the guitar itself (or divine intervention), one of the single most integral components of a guitar’s tone is the pickups. If you don’t know what those are, then boy you’ve accidentally stumbled upon the right obscure blog site while presumably on a long, exhaustive hunt for Internet cat jokes. Allow me to give you the complete skivvy on pickups. Only then will I let you return to your cats:

The Fundamentals

            In an electric guitar, you’ll most likely have one or more pickups located beneath the strings between the neck and the bridge. In the plainest sense, these little guys are essentially magnets designed to “pick-up” (hence, the name) the electro-magnetic signal created when you pluck a string. If any of you are familiar with the physics of this, the proper term for this kind of device is called a transducer, which is a fancy way of saying that it is a thing that makes one thing another kind of thing. Like…I dunno...a wizard or something. Transducers take one kind of physical phenomenon (in this case, the sound of a plucked string) and convert it to an electrical signal that can be pumped through an amp or a speaker. The speaker can then act as another transducer, converting that electrical signal back to an audible sound.

            The anatomy of a pickup is pretty simple: you’ve essentially got a bobbin or a coil-form on which thousands of winds of thin copper wire are made in proximity to one or more magnets therein. This creates a magnet flux-field that, when interrupted by say, a guitar string, creates an electrical signal. And ta-da! You’ve got rock.

            But that isn’t the end of the story. Though all electric guitars need a means of picking up and converting signals, there isn’t just one type of pickup. There are, in fact, hundreds of different options out there for pickups, all differing in tone some way or another and catering to each their own taste. I’m going to go ahead and group them into three opposing sub-types: single-coil versus dual-coil, active versus passive, and moderate-output versus high-output. Let me break them all down for you:

Single-coil Versus Dual-coil:

            Pop quiz! If you can spot the difference between these two Stratocasters (pickguard and whammy bar aside), you’ll win an all-expenses paid trip to Narnia for a week! Anyone? Anybody?

            Notice how in the bridge-position, the pickups are different from each other. A classic strat has three slimmer-looking pickups with the bridge pickup often angled down towards the bridge. Whereas, the other strat has two slimmer pickups with what looks like two slim pickups stacked on top of each other and parallel to the bridge. What’s the difference?

            The slimmer looking pickups are referred to as “single coil” pickups, due to the fact that they have only one series of winds coiled about the bobbin, all in a single direction. These were the first type of pickup (originally made for Hawaiian lap-steels), and are most commonly used in earlier electric guitars like Telecasters and Stratocasters. The fault that was eventually found with these pickups, however, was their tendency to give off feedback and pick up unwanted excess noise like hums and radio frequencies.

            So, in response to that obnoxious little detail, a Gibson engineer by the name of Seth Lover came up with the “humbucker” in 1955 by taking two single-coil structures and wiring them together but out of phase. As a result of putting their magnetic poles opposite of one another, the humming that was usually part of a single-coil was cancelled out (or, more colloquially, “bucked”). Hence, the birth of a “dual-coil” or “humbucker”. Most often, you’ll find humbuckers in Gibson or Gibson-style guitars, and a lot of the more modern, heavy-rock based instruments have at least one humbucker in them.

            As for tone and playability, what are the differences between humbuckers and single-coils? Surprisingly, quite a bit. The first noticeable difference is in the level of output, being that humbuckers give off a much fuller, louder signal than your typical single-coil. Tone-wise, they tend to sound darker and warmer than single-coils and are often incorporated in music that relies heavily on high-gain. Single-coils themselves are brighter, crisper sounding and have a little more definition between individual notes.

Here's a demo between two Mexican-made Fender Stratocasters in the bridge-position, the first with a single-coil and the second with a humbucker: 

And truthfully, this is all pretty general. Nowadays, it isn’t uncommon to see all kinds of different hybrids of the two styles, or creative variations in and of themselves. And of course, it is important to factor in all the other things that can affect tone, such as amps, pedals, a player’s technique, and of course the guitars themselves. You can still get thick, heavy, dark sounds out of a single-coil and brighter, penetrating sounds out a humbucker. It all depends of the sum of everything you’ve got, so these aren’t hard and fast rules.

Active Pickups Versus Passive Pickups:

            Before we get into these differing types, it’s good to have a solid understanding of how output affects the sound of the guitar. Having a pickup with significantly high output (meaning it provides a stronger signal for the amplifier) often means that the signal will distort more readily than a pickup with moderate output. For example, you could have a moderate output, single-coil signal to a clean amp with almost no distortion no matter how high you crank it, but if you were to switch the pickups out for something “hotter” (higher output) than you are more likely to get a snarlier, growlier signal than before.

            Now, active pickups have a battery-powered pre-amp wired up in their system, which ends up boosting the signal to the amp. The result is higher output, a louder sound, and distortion that is much easier to achieve without having to crank the gain up to ridiculous levels and blowing out everyone’s eardrums. You’ll find that active pickups are very popular with hard-rockers and metal-heads as well as a bass players because they tend to be the loudest pickups available for us mortal Earth-dwellers.

            Then again, there are advantages to having plain ol’ passive pickups. For of course, greater output often results in darker tones. Sometimes the result can be quite muddy and inarticulate or just too loud, which all depends on your taste and the type of music you’re going for. Passive pickups generally have a different dynamic as well, being that the sound tends to “bloom” or “flower” out more naturally and is more sensitive to your playing technique. Personally, I prefer the passive humbuckers in my Dean Edge-4 because I just like the natural response while playing as opposed to a more direct and aggressive dynamic as a result of active pickups. Though at the same time, I have found the advantages in the sheer weight and volume of the sound in an active pickup. “Kashmir”, anybody? ;)

Moderate Versus High-Output:

We touched on this a bit in the last section, but I’m going to elaborate a little more on the subject of output seeing as how the whole concept of pickups pivots on the idea in the first place. Generally speaking, you’re going to find two types of pickups: moderate output and high-gain output. Both have their advantages and disadvantages and both have their own unique vibe. Occasionally, you may come across some pickups that are considered to be “low-output” but those are few and far between, so we won’t touch on those much. Generally, moderate output represents the softer end of the signal spectrum.

When evaluating pickups, there are a couple of specifications that can give you an idea of what the pickup will sound like even before you test it out. The specs are often characterized by the D.C. resistance and the resonant peak of a pickup. What do these represent?

It is fair to say that the D.C. resistance of a pickup can be equated with how loud it is going to be since it is essentially a measurement of how the pickup resists direct current. Back in the day, pickups wouldn’t usually get much hotter than 6 or 7k, but these days, modern high-gain pickups can sometimes get as hot as 15 or 16k. Again, this is really more of a generalization than a rule, but it is often pretty safe to say that if the D.C. resistance is measured at around 10 to 16k, it’s a loud and hot pickup.

As for what resonant peak means, it is the point at which the pickup reaches its highest impedance level, or resistance level. Like I said before, this is not a set in stone rule, but the general idea is that the higher the resonant peak, the brighter the pickup will sound. Specs alone, however, are not always the best way to determine the pickup you want. The only way to know for sure is to try them yourself, though knowing the specs will give you at least something to start with. 

We encourage you to pop in the shop and hear some pickups for yourself! We've got quite a veritable crap ton. Have a good week and keep rockin'!

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