As guitar players, we’re always on the never-ending quest for better tone.
We try different strings, amps, pedals, etc…
But one thing that most us dare not mess with is pickups.
Because quite frankly, they’re intimidating.
And the mere thought of tearing out the guts of your beautiful electric guitar can be sickening…
Even to the “more-experienced”.
If you’re one of the brave few who dare to explore this aspect of the instrument, you’re at a huge advantage.
Because…at the front of the signal chain, pickups generate that initial “tonal foundation”…upon which everything else is built.
And so…for today’s post I’ve created a detailed introduction to the world of guitar pickups to help you guys get started on this in-depth topic.
Sound good? Then let’s begin…
How Pickups Generally Work
A guitar pickup is essentially a series of magnets wrapped thousands of times in insulated copper wire coils…
- Which generates a magnetic field around the strings…
- Which then generates a voltage when the strings vibrate…
- Which travels through your cables and gear…
- And eventually leaves your amp as sound.
And while the tone of that sound is determined by MANY factors along your signal chain…it all begins with the pickup design.
So right now, let’s look at the different design options to see how they affect both tone and performance.
1. Coils (single vs humbucker)
Guitar pickups come in two basic designs:
- Single Coil
- Humbuckers (double coil)
While all guitar pickups were originally single coils…
Everything changed in 1955…
When Seth Lover at Gibson, discovered that by joining two single-coils together, wired with opposite polarities…
The noise cancelled out, while the useful signal remained intact.
Originally known as PAF (Patent Applied For) pickups…this new dual-coil design eventually came to be known simply as humbuckers.
Over the past many decades, the Gibson Les Paul is the guitar style most closely associated with humbuckers…
While Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters are most known for single-coils.
In terms of performance, humbuckers have:
- more sustain
- stronger output
- less noise
And while it may seem that humbuckers are superior to single-coils from a technical standpoint…what really matters is how they compare in tone.
- Single-coils are brighter and crisper, while humbuckers are warmer and darker
- Single-coils work better with clean sounds, while humbuckers work better with distorted sounds
- Single-coils have more note definition between strings, while humbuckers have less
But despite all these “tendencies”…understand that almost any sound can be achieved with almost any pickup.
- You can still get dark heavy sounds from single coils
- You can still get twangy sounds from humbuckers
Because the final guitar sound depends on so many other factors besides just the pickups. And this same truth applies to everything else we’ll cover in this post.
So I won’t repeat it again. Got it?
Now up next…
2. Circuitry (active vs. passive)
Pickups generate a voltage using 1 of 2 methods:
- passive – (with magnets only)
- active – (with magnets, and boosted by a preamp)
Originally, all pickups were passive…
Until several companies began designing active pickups back in the 70’s…and the two designs have been competing ever since.
Advantages to active pickups include:
- greater tonal clarity
- more tonal consistency at different volumes
- better reach over long cables
- stronger amp overdrive
Bass players especially, like them for their:
- cleaner signal
- wider frequency range
- sharper attack
- added sustain
- extra headroom
One notable problem with passive pickups is they require stronger magnets to generate a sufficient voltage, potentially causing a condition known as “string pull“, which negatively impacts both tone and sustain.
Active pickups solve this problem using weaker magnets, and boosting the signal later with the preamp.
As you can see, the benefits of active pickups go on and on. Objectively, they win in almost every comparison.
Ironically though…the majority of the guitar-playing world STILL prefers the sound of passive pickups. And it may be for no other reason than it’s the sound we’ve become accustomed to over the years.
And so again…there’s no clear-cut winner here.
3. Output (high vs. moderate)
Although still not quite as “hot” as active pickups…
With passive pickups…you can actually increase the output, simply by adding more winds of copper wire.
At least that’s true up to a certain point…
Because beyond that, more winding results in a dull, flat sound.
So you basically have 3 options to choose from here:
- high output pickups
- moderate output pickups
…which are the two most common.
And then there’s “vintage-style” pickups which have the lowest output of all, and designed to mimic the weakened magnets found in old classic guitars.
As a general rule of thumb:
- Higher outputs – make it easier to drive your amp to distortion, but they give you less dynamic range.
- Lower outputs – give you a cleaner sound with more dynamic range, but make it harder to achieve that overdriven amp sound.
ANOTHER major factor that affects a pickup’s output (and tone) is the magnets themselves.
Particularly, the magnet’s layout and material.
So first, let’s look at the 3 popular layouts:
- Individual magnetic poles – which have a thinner, brighter sound, and are commonly used on Fender guitars and other single coil pickups.
- Steel poles extending from a magnetic bar – which have a fatter, dark sound, and are commonly used on Gibson guitars and other humbucking pickups.
- Blade style – which replaces the individual pole pieces with a single metal bar, and is known to have more consistency with string bends.
Next let’s look at exactly what these magnets are made of:
The most common material is a metal alloy that blends aluminum, nickel, and cobalt…and is known simply as “Al-Ni-Co” for short.
And one reason why this alloy so popular is its ability to maintain its magnetic properties over time.
The 4 most common varieties of Alnico are:
- Alnico 3 – which has a soft gentle tone and the weakest magnetic pull, and is commonly seen on vintage Stratocasters.
- Alnico 2 – which has a similar vintage tone, but with a slightly stronger output than the Alnico 3’s.
- Alnico 5 – which has an even higher output and bolder sound, and is commonly used by guitarists who play in multiple genres.
- Alnico 8 – which has the most aggressive heavy sound of all, and the strongest magnetic pull.
The only material with an even hotter output is ceramic, which has a more “trebly” sound, and is used primarily in heavy metal and hard rock genres.
Potting is one of those rarely discussed topics…
That up until now, you may have never heard of.
So here’s how it works:
In order to hold every component of the pickup in place…
And prevent any movement or vibration between parts…the entire pickup is dipped in wax.
In terms of sound, the potting process has the effect of preventing any sort of unwanted feedback when standing in front your amp.
The problem though…is that not all feedback is unwanted.
Many vintage guitars with UN-potted pickups will catch random sounds in the air…which sounds bad in theory, but actually has a unique vintage charm that some players absolutely love.
Unfortunately these days, almost all modern pickups are potted by default, so it’s tough to get that effect with newer guitars.
6. Wiring (parallel vs series)
Humbucker pickups can be wired using either of the following 2 techniques:
In almost all cases, parallel wiring is the standard method used with modern day pickups. And series wiring is considered as more of a custom modification.
So here’s how each one works:
- with parallel wiring – the signal is split in two in the beginning, then re-combined at the end. This results in a brighter sound, with a comparatively lower output.
- with series wiring – the signal travels along a single path through both coils. This results in a warmer sound, and higher output.
NOTE: In order for these 2 methods to have their desired effect, BOTH pickups of the humbucker must be engaged, not just one.
7. Pickup Locations
Depending on the exact position of the pickup in relation to the strings…
The resulting change in tone can be SOOO dramatic…
You could easily argue that positioning is as important as anything else we’ve covered thus far.
So here’s how it works:
- The pickup nearest the bridge sounds brightest, with the shortest sustain.
- The one nearest the neck sounds warm and full, with a longest sustain.
- The one in the middle (if there is one) sounds somewhere in between.
Some players take advantage of this by using the exact same pickup in each location, and switching from one to another depending on the tone they want.
Other players do the exact opposite, by choosing a different pickup for each position, either to accent or offset the natural tonal variations.
So that wraps up all the first half of this post. In the second half, we’ll move on to the next subject:
Choosing the Right Pickups for YOU
We’ve covered a lot so far, haven’t we?
But all the good information in the world isn’t worth much…
If you can’t use it to solve your actual problem.
So…the next obvious question is:
How do you actually choose the ideal pickup for your guitar?
So up next, we’ll cover some useful tips to help narrow down the options.
1. Examine Your Preferences
While no pickup model is solely designed for a particular style of music…there are certain pickups that “generally” work better with certain tones.
And as I’m sure you already noticed from what we covered so far, the biggest factor affecting tone is output level:
- Higher outputs work better for heavy distorted sounds.
- Lower outputs work better for cleaner, more dynamic sounds.
And it ultimately boils down to just that.
So pick and choose your features based mainly on the sounds you use most often.
2. Determine external tonal influences
We all know that you guitar tone is based on numerous factors besides just the pickups, right?…
However there are also some subtle factors on the guitar itself which you may not have considered.
These are the 4 big ones:
- Volume Knob – 250k pots are warmer, 500k pots are brighter
- Strings – pure nickel is darker, while steel/nickel-plated steel are brighter
- Woods – maple, ash, and alder are brighter, while mahogany and rosewood are darker
- Neck style – bolted necks are brighter with less sustain, while set-in neck are warmer with more sustain.
And so…based on the existing tones of your current guitar…it makes sense to adjust your pickup selections accordingly.
3. Find What Fits
Depending on whether your guitar currently uses single-coils or humbuckers…
The body will be cut to fit that specific-sized pickup inside the cavity.
If you’re switching from one single-coil to another, or one humbucker to another, the change is simple.
If you’re switching from one to the OTHER, you can see how that might present a problem.
But don’t worry, because there IS a solution that doesn’t involve cutting new holes in your guitar.
These days, there are plenty of single-coils shaped like humbuckers, and vice versa.
And up next we will cover the options for both.
4. Humbuckers for Single-Coil Cavities
If you wanna fit a humbucker into single-coil slot, you have 3 options:
- Reverse wound single-coils – which winds the middle pickup in the opposite direction, so it cancels noise when combined with either the bridge or neck pickup.
- Rail Humbuckers – which are dual-coils that sit SIDE BY SIDE like normal humbuckers, but can fit into a single-coil slot because they’re half the size. These are intended to perform like true humbuckers, both in sound and noise cancellation.
- Stacks – which is actually a dual-coil stacked TOP TO BOTTOM, rather than SIDE BY SIDE like normal humbuckers. They sound similar to, though not exactly like single-coils, and have the noise cancellation as well.
On occasion, you can even find pickups that combine rail and stack designs to essentially cram 4 single-coils into one extremely high output humbucker.
5. Single-Coils for Humbucker Cavities
If you wanna get single-coil tones with a humbucker slot, these are your options:
- single-coil in a humbucker sized casing – which sounds and behaves exactly like a normal single-coil would.
- Coil-Split humbuckers – (aka 4 wire humbuckers) which, when engaged, performs like a lower output vintage single-coil by essentially shutting off one of the two coils. This method does NOT cancel hum.
- Coil-Tapped humbuckers – which, when engaged, uses only a fraction of the winding in both coils to get a sound similar to a single coil, but with hum-cancelling as well. (this option is usually a custom modification, and not commonly seen.)
With coil-splitting and coil-tapping, you have the option of BOTH single-coil and humbucker tones with the flip of a switch.
Pickups I Recommend Checking Out
So now that we’ve covered virtually every nuance of guitar pickups…
The only thing left to do is to use your newfound knowledge to finally choose something.
And to help make this part easier, I’ve compiled the following list of the most popular and well-reviewed pickups, sorted in each of the categories covered in this post…
Passive, High Output:
- Seymour Duncan SSL-5 – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
- Fender Tex Mex – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Fender Hot Noiseless – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Fender Custom Shop Texas – (Amazon/Thomann)
Passive, Moderate/Vintage Output:
Passive, High Output:
- Seymour Duncan SH-PG1 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Seymour Duncan Hot Rodded – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Gibson ’57 Classic – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Seymour Duncan SH13 – (Amazon/Thomann)
Passive, Medium Output:
- EMG Zakk Wylde – (Amazon/Thomann)
- EMG 60 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- EMG James Hetfield – (Amazon/Thomann)
- EMG 81 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- DiMarzio DP100 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Gibson Dirty Fingers – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Seymour Duncan SH8 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Seymour Duncan SH6 – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Seymour Duncan SH4 JB – (Amazon/Thomann)
And finally, there’s the last step of all:
Changing Your Pickups
For many of us, it’s the REAL reason we’ve been hesitant to mess with pickups all these years.
Not because we didn’t understand that pickups actually mattered. But because we were scared to actually change them.
So once you’ve got your new pickups, and you’re ready to switch them out, you have two options:
- Take them to a guitar tech – which you can do if you want to “play it safe”.
- Learn to do it yourself – which is what you should ideally do in the long-run.
So if you’re ready to give it a shot, here’s a quick tutorial on how it’s done: