Pickups – we’ve all heard of them in the guitar world but how much do you really know about them?
If you’re looking to buy a new electric guitar and you want it to sound exactly how you like then you definitely need to do your research about guitar pickups.
Electric guitar pickups are one of the biggest reasons why guitars get their distinct sound. Let’s learn about them a bit more in detail.
What Is a Pickup?
Pickups are essentially the reason why you can hear the sounds of an electric guitar when plugged in. They’re the reason why the sound is amplified. If you’ve ever played an electric guitar without plugging it in you know it doesn’t sound like an acoustic guitar – the electric guitar is basically inaudible when it’s not plugged in.
So it’s the pickup’s job to ‘pick up’ the vibrations from the strings and convert them into soundwaves. What are the pickups made of? They’re essentially magnets wrapped in copper wiring.
These magnets on your guitar are disturbed when the strings vibrate, which then converts the adjacent wire into a ‘signal.’ The signal then exits the instrument, passes through any effects pedals, and finally reaches the guitar amp to make the electric guitar audible.
If you get deeper into understanding types of pickups you will realize that you get a range of options when it comes to choosing one. There are neck position, bridge position, straight, angled and all of them have distinct tonal characteristics.
This can be quite intimidating and a full ‘information overload’. So to help you get started I’ve created a full introduction to the world of guitar pickups and simplified it as much as I could. Let’s get started!
Types of Electric Guitar Pickups
Invented in the 1930s, single-coil pickups consist of magnets wrapped in a coil of wire. The vibrating of the strings within the field of the magnet generates a minor disturbance in the field, causing a very small electrical current to be created in the coil, which is then delivered to the guitar’s output. Even if there are numerous rounds of wire, it is still a single coil.
Because single-coil pickups are prone to electrical noise, hum from neighboring electronics such as the amplifier is bound to happen. This is why the next pickup on our list was invented – to tackle to problem of humming. Genres that generally make use of single-coil pickups are country, surf, blues, folk. Because single-coils don’t typically respond well to a lot of distortion, heavy rock and metal players tend to avoid them. You can also find these in the iconic Stratocaster guitars which are also generally associated with these genres.
Humbuckers were invented in 1950s as a solution to single coil’s humming. The solution was to connect two single-coil pickups with the north poles of their magnets facing upwards and the south poles of their magnets facing upwards. The hum is essentially canceled or “bucked” by the combination. It also makes the sound heavier and meatier. This design is a very effective technique of eliminating the hum.
Humbucker-equipped guitars have produced some of the cleanest, brightest-sounding R&B ever produced. They’re also good for genres like rock or jazz – even heavier genres like metal.
P90 guitars are a combination of the two types I mentioned above. With P90 pickups you sort of get the best of both worlds – higher output and more depth than a single-coil but not as high or as deep as a humbucker.
Yet, the powerful, hefty midrange output of P-90s is well appreciated. A Gibson SG with P-90 pickups was used to record the first two Black Sabbath albums. Kurt Cobain also recorded Nirvana’s first album, Bleach, using a Univox HiFlyer with P-90s in the bridge and neck. Grunge, punk, early prog-metal, and garage are all good examples of hard, riff-oriented rock. The bottom line, it can be used for any rock n’ roll genre with ease.
Difference Between Single Coil & Humbuckers – Are Single Coil Better Than Humbuckers?
To understand the difference we need to go back in history to when the electric guitars were being invented. As the name implies, single-coil pickups are when one coil of wire surrounds the magnet. Single coil pickups are found on the majority of Fender guitars, and they offer a distinct springy sound. Gibson used to use the P90, a single-coil pickup with two bar magnets and a bigger coil that produced a fuller, more powerful sound.
Single coil pickups have the disadvantage of acting as antennae, taking up interference from other electromagnetic equipment in the vicinity, which is audible as hum. It’s especially audible when using overdrive or distortion, and because P90s are more powerful than Fender-style single coils, they hum even louder when distorted, giving them a distinctly harsh tone.
During the 1950s, engineers at Gibson and Gretsch separately discovered around the same time that using two coils side by side, connected out of phase and in series, enhanced the signal from the guitar string and canceled out the hum. As a result, they both began developing hum-canceling pickups and installing them in their guitars. Grestsch named theirs “Filter-Trons” while Gibson called his “Humbuckers”.
Soundwise, single-coils are brighter and crisper than humbuckers, which have two coils and provide a thicker, deeper, and smoother sound. But one is not better than the other – it’s just a matter of preference.
Making the decision
So you’ve tried out a few guitars with both styles of pickups at your local music store and still can’t make up your mind? Well, this is where my personal preference comes into play, because these days (and for a long time) you can obtain guitars that combine the best of both worlds.
A notable example is the Fender HSS Strat. HSS refers to a guitar with a humbucker in the bridge position and two single coils in the middle and neck positions, as well as a switch to enable/disable each or utilize a combination of two or all three!
When deciding between humbucker and single-coil guitars, always go with the one that sounds best to you. You can use a Gibson SG to perform heavy metal with single-coils or classical music with a Gibson SG. There are a wide variety of pickup configurations available, and different manufacturers use different materials and proprietary building elements in the process.
The goal, as always, is to test out as many as possible to find the guitar that best suits your needs. Take advice, study books/blogs/magazines, and watch tutorials and reviews, but ultimately, do what feels right to you.
Active and Passive Pickups – What’s the Difference Between Them?
Before we get into which pickup is better, let’s understand what active and passive pickups actually are.
Active pickups feature a small pre-amp integrated into the pickup housing or built into the guitar. The impedance of the pickups and the signal they send can be quite lower. This is because active pickups don’t need to provide a high amplitude (loud or hot) signal; the onboard pre-amp will do just fine. Pickups are often manufactured by wrapping a single wire around a magnet repeatedly.
Passive pickups will get you those higher amplitude signals by either increasing the wrapping of wire on the pickup or installing much stronger magnets. There are certain trade-offs with either of these options. The impedance of a pickup increases as the number of windings increases, the resonance frequency decreases, and the pickup loses its high end.
I can’t really say that one is superior to the other, but I would say they’re distinct. Active pickups are typically used by guitarists who require more clarity, tone, and string definition for heavier styles of music and related genres. Active pickups produce more output than passive pickups and require external electricity to operate.
So there you have it! That concludes my take on different types of pickups and I hope now you know much more about single-coil, humbucker, and P90 pickups. Thank you for taking the time to read this post; I hope you found it useful.