Guitar Pickups: The Basics of Electric Guitar Pickups

The Basics Of Electric Guitar Pickups

The guitar is a very dynamic instrument. It can sound drastically different depending on whether you pick hard or soft, with a plectrum or your fingers, near the bridge or near the neck. Your sound can be affected by the guitar’s wood, the type of material used in the bridge and nut, the way the neck joins the body, whether there’s any hollow space within the body… and that’s before you even get to the pickups. In the most basic of terms, pickups function as the ‘microphone’ for your guitar, and they can sound different depending on what materials they’re constructed of, how those materials are applied, where on the guitar the pickup is placed – even the value of the potentiometers you use to control your volume and tone. And that’s before your sound even hits the amp!

At the heart of a pickup is a specially selected magnet surrounded by a coil of insulated copper wire. The choice of magnet, the type of wire and the way it’s applied all shape the final tone. The magnet has its own magnetic field, and the vibration of a metallic guitar string interacts with that field. The changing magnetic flux induces a voltage in the coil of wire, and that’s what your amp receives before rocking your audience. Let’s look at the different types of pickups and what makes them what they are.


Magnets and Wire

pickup-windingThe size, type and configuration of magnets in a pickup all affect the sound it pickup produces. So does the type of wire, including its thickness, the type of insulation, how it’s wound around the bobbin and how many times it’s wrapped around. This article goes into this in more detail but basically the more turns contribute to a louder perceived output but less high frequency content, while fewer turns equal less power but more clarity. Different magnet types also affect the tone. The most commonly-used magnet family is Alnico, which is short for ‘aluminium/nickel/cobalt.’ Alnico III is the weakest: its low magnetic pull makes it a popular choice for neck pickups, where its bold attack allows it to speak clearly. Alnico II’s tone is relatively soft and clear and is often described as sweet or singing.

Alnico II, Alnico III, Alnico IV, Alnico V, Alnico 8, Ceramic magnetsAlnico V is more powerful and edgy, and is at the heart of one of our most sought-after pickups, the JB, which has lots of ‘hot-rodded’ power. And Alnico VIII blends certain sonic elements of ceramic and Alnico V magnets. For instance, compared to an Alnico V, Ceramic gives you maximum tightness, aggressive treble punch and a midrange scoop, and it’s also more compressed-sounding. Alnico VIII is also tighter and punchier than Alnico V, but with similar warmth and harmonics.


Single Coils

Stratocaster Fender Single-Coil PickupsIn a single coil, insulated wire is wrapped around six individual magnets. The tone is usually clear and detailed, and is often described as ‘snappy, twangy, bell-like or jangly’ depending on the character of the individual pickup. They’re great for clean-sounding genres like blues, country and indie, but many rock players like the edge of a single coil too. They certainly seemed to do it for Jimi. Single coils are prone to a background hiss that some players are happy to live with but others seek to eliminate. Seymour Duncan makes true single coils like the SSL-1 as well as hum-cancelling models like the Classic Stack Plus and single-coil sized humbuckers like the JB Jr.


 

Some guitars like this one mix both humbuckers and single-coils

Some guitars like this one mix both humbuckers and single-coils


Humbuckers

humbucker-pickupsA humbucker is made up of two coils instead of one, each with their magnets going in different directions (one with north ‘up’ and the other with north ‘down’) and each of their coils wound in opposite directions. When connected together, the hum that can plague single coils is eliminated. Bucked, as it were. Humbuckers are ideal for heavier musical styles like classic rock, hard rock and metal, but they can add toughness to blues, sweetness country and smoothness to jazz. Seymour designed the JB and Jazz as a matching pair back in the 1970s, and to this day they’re found as stock equipment in everything from certain Gibson Les Pauls to shred-friendly Kramers and Jacksons.



P-90s

P-90 Pickups in a Framus MayfieldThe P-90 is also a single coil pickup like those found in a Stratocaster or Telecaster but it’s much larger and therefore it ‘senses’ a wider area of the string. It has an edgier, dirtier, chewier tone that makes it a popular choice for alternative, punk, country and blues, and it’s also great for slide guitar. Some metal and stoner rock players also like the P-90 for their attack and grit. But the P-90 is a single coil so it’s affected by the same hum issues as Stratocaster and Telecaster pickups. Some players like this because it imparts a certain vintage grit. Others like to use a hum-cancelling P-90, like Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day who has been using our P-90 stack to get the tone without the noise.





Mini-Humbuckers

mini-humbuckerMini-humbuckers generally resemble the internal construction of regular humbuckers but are designed to occupy a smaller space. This means the pickup ‘senses’ a smaller area of the string, creating a more focused sound. Mini-humbuckers can sometimes fit into the same space as a P-90, so they’re a good choice if you like the feel of a particular guitar that comes with P-90s, but would rather achieve a full humbucker tone. Many players like to use a mini-humbucker in the neck position of a Telecaster for a more lively sound. Our SM-1 is a replica of the original Firebird mini-humbuckers, and were favored by the late great Johnny Winter. The SM-2 uses a ceramic bar magnet to increase upper-midrange detail, and the SM-3 is hotter than traditional minis.


Active Pickups

While passive pickups are the most common kind, an active pickup is usually wound with less turns than a passive pickup, but its signal is amplified from within the pickup itself via a preamp, usually driven by an internal 9 volt battery. An active pickup will typically give you more power and headroom and lower noise, and the sound will be the same whether you’re using a short cable or a really long one, whereas longer cable lengths will reduce the clarity and fidelity of your guitar sound if you’re using passive pickups. If you do want to use passives with long cables, we developed the Pickup Booster with a feature to to compensate; the Pickup Booster pedal will give your signal that extra kick, or you can use a buffer.


Coil Splitting Vs Coil Tapping

A lot of guitarists use the terms ‘coil tap’ and ‘coil split’ interchangeably but they’re actually two totally different things. A coil split is when one coil of a humbucker is sent to ground via a switch (effectively ‘turned off’), basically turning that pickup into a single coil. This isn’t exactly the same thing as using a true single coil though, since a humbucker and a single coil are constructed differently: a humbucker usually has a central magnet underneath the two coils, with the pole pieces focusing the magnetic field, while a single coil’s pole pieces are the magnets themselves. One exception is the Stag-Mag, which is designed as two single coils wired together as a humbucker, so that when you split it you’re getting a true single coil sound.

Coil tapping is something completely different and although it can be a feature of a humbucker, it’s much more common with single coils. It basically means there are two independent wraps of wire around a coil, and they can be either joined together into one powerful single coil, or have one turned off so you’re only engaging some of the wire, giving you a lower-output sound. This is a great way of getting high-powered tones for solos and fills when in full mode, or clearer, more roomy rhythm tones when the pickup is tapped.

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HUMBUCKER
Dimensions 6,7,8 strings

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DIMBUCKER BLADES
Dimensions 6 strings

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INVADER Hex Pole Pieces
Dimensions 6,7,8 strings


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SINGLE COIL STRAT
Dimensions 6,7 strings

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SINGLE COIL SIZED HUMBUCKER
Dimensions 6 strings

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HOT RAILS
Dimensions 6 strings


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ACTIVE PICKUPS
Dimensions 6,7,8 strings

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SINGLE COIL TELE
Dimensions 6 strings

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MINI HUMBUCKER
Dimensions 6 strings


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P-RAILS
Dimensions 6 strings

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LIPSTICK TUBE
Dimensions 6 strings

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P-90
Dimensions 6 strings