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What Is a Guitar Pickup?
A guitar pickup is a device that converts the vibrations of guitar strings into electrical signals. These signals are then sent to a guitar amplifier, which boosts them to audible volumes. Along the way, the signal may be colored by stompbox effects (like a compressor pedal or a wah pedal) or by the amplifier itself (like via a chorus effect). Even the pickups themselves offer coloration to the signal.
How Do Guitar Pickups Work?
The vast majority of musical instrument pickups are found in electric guitars and electric basses, and most of these electric guitar pickups are magnetic—that is, they use electromagnetic induction to convert the mechanical vibrations of metal strings into electrical signals.
Electric guitar pickups use magnets (typically made of alnico or ferrite) that are wound by many thousands of turns of copper wire. These create a magnetic field focused on individual pole pieces that are approximately centered under each string on the electric guitar. Since most guitars have six strings, most pickups contain six pole pieces. The spacing, alignment, and power of these individual pole pieces affects the sound the pickup will produce.
Different Types of Electric Guitar Pickups: Single Coil Pickups
Electric guitar pickups are roughly divided into two categories: single-coil pickups and double-coil pickups (or humbuckers). Both these pickup types are prevalent throughout popular music.
The original type of electric guitar pickups are single coil pickups. Among the guitars are most traditionally associated with single coil pickups are the:
- Fender Stratocaster
- Fender Telecaster
- Fender Jaguar and Mustang
- Various Rickenbacher, Danelectro, Airline, Eastwood, and Yamaha guitars
Single coil pickups are known for producing bright, treble focused sounds that easily cut through a mix. They are very sensitive to subtleties in a player’s technique, and many amplifiers are designed to bring out these single-coil subtleties. Single coil guitars can be heard throughout:
- Classic rock (Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, and Eric Clapton are all famous Stratocaster players)
- Country (Brad Paisley is known for his love of Telecaster-style guitars)
- Surf music (think Dick Dale)
- Alternative rock (Fender built a Jaguar/Mustang hybrid for Kurt Cobain)
- Funk (Eddie Hazel and Nile Rodgers are frequent Strat users)
The Fender Jazzmaster is also a single coil guitar, although it uses an extra-wide pickup that fits its oversized body. In a Jazzmaster pickup, the pole pieces themselves are magnets, and this produces a slightly mellower sound than more traditional single coil pickups. Jazzmasters were designed for jazz guitarists, who largely ignored them, but they’ve proven to be immensely popular with indie rockers like J Mascis, Nels Cline, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, and My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields (whose entire playing style relies on the Jazzmaster’s famous vibrato bar).
Another popular style of single-coil pickup is the P-90, which is popular in Gibson guitars like the Les Paul Jr. and 1950s Gold Top Les Pauls. The P-90—known for its “soapbar” appearance— provides a thicker, grittier take on a traditional single coil, which has made it popular among blues players and classic rockers. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is a well-known P-90 user thanks to his affinity for Les Paul Jr. guitars.
Different Types of Electric Guitar Pickups: Humbucker Pickups
Humbucker pickups are built from a pair of single coil pickups that are wound in reverse polarity. This cancels out the natural 60 Hz hum produced by many single coil pickups, and gives double-coil pickups their “humbucker” namesake.
Humbuckers were separately invented by Joseph Raymond “Ray” Butts and Seth Lover at nearly the same time (1954), but their inventions differed. Butts’ humbucker became the basis for the Gretsch Filter’Tron pickup (most famously used by Brian Setzer). Meanwhile Lover, a Gibson Guitars employee, saw his design (called a PAF pickup) employed in a number of that company’s products.
Some of the most iconic guitars built on humbucking pickups include:
- Gibson Les Paul Standard (which can include both standard sized humbuckers and mini-humbuckers)
- Gibson SG
- Gibson ES-135, ES-150, and ES-335
- Various models by Ibanez, Jackson, Dean, B.C. Rich, Hamer, Paul Reed Smith, and others
Like their single-coil cousins, humbuckers sound good in nearly every genre, but they particularly shine in jazz and heavy rock, due to their ability to produce stronger bass frequencies than single-coils. And due to the physics of their construction, humbucking pickups tend to be more powerful than single-coils, and their high-output capabilities can help push an amplifier into overdrive. Humbuckers are popular in:
- Jazz (countless jazz greats from Wes Montgomery to Joe Pass to Pat Metheny get their tone from semi-hollow guitars with humbucking pickups)
- Hard rock (Jimmy Page, Slash, and Joe Perry are all noted Les Paul players)
- Heavy metal (From Dimebag Darrell to James Hetfield to Dave Murray—who uses a Hot Rails humbucker in his Fender Stratocaster—metal players swear by double-coil pickups)
- Blues rock (Carlos Santana gets his signature tone in part from the humbuckers on his custom-built Paul Reed Smith guitar)
Many of today’s guitars contain both humbuckers and single-coil pickups—particularly guitars made in a custom shop—so a player can change his or her sound without having to change guitars. (For instance, a single coil neck pickup and a humbucking bridge pickup is a common combination.)
While many pickups are made by a guitar’s manufacturer, certain companies specialize in pickups specifically. Seymour Duncan is particularly noted for improving on designs pioneered by Fender and Gibson, and it will often sell two or three pickups in a single pickup set. They Seymour Duncan SH-PG1 Pearly Gates humbucker was modeled after the pickup set used by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons.
What Is The Difference Between Active and Passive Pickups?
Traditional guitar pickups are passive. Any standard Strat pickup, Tele pickup, or Les Paul pickup is passive. They require no outside electricity to function (although they will need to be plugged into an electronic amplifier to be audible). Active pickups, on the other hand, utilize active circuitry to boost their overall output. An active pickup set requires an external source of power—typically a 9-volt battery—to achieve their higher output.
Most genres of music sound best on passive pickups, but certain forms of funk, fusion, and (most notably) heavy metal benefit from the high-output properties of an active pickup system. If you think of the punishing rhythm guitar of James Hetfield or the squealing leads of Zakk Wyld, then you’re familiar with the sound of active pickups.
EMG is a noted manufacturer of active pickups, and you can buy an EMG humbucker pickup set to swap into your existing guitar. The EMG 81 is a popular bridge humbucker and the EMG DG20 is an active single-coil pickup favored by David Gimour.
Do Acoustic Guitars Need Pickups?
Acoustic guitars don’t need pickups to be heard in a small or mid-sized room. But many of today’s models contain pickups so they can be heard on larger stages.
Acoustic guitar pickups tend not to work on electromagnetic induction. Rather, the most popular styles are:
- Piezo pickups, which lie under the acoustic guitar’s saddle and are noted for producing strong midrange.
- Transducer pickups, which effectively amplify the soundboard of the instrument.
- Some acoustic guitars do use electric-style magnetic pickups, but these tend to dull the character of the acoustic instrument and are less popular.
- Some acoustic players forego pickups altogether: they simply play their instrument into a microphone.