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A Comprehensive Guide to the Dizzying World of Electric Guitar Pickups

A Comprehensive Guide to the Dizzying World of Electric Guitar Pickups Two signature models from DiMarzio: Steve Vai Dark Matter 2 (left) and John Petrucci Sonic Ecstacy

It’s a no-brainer that the two most important elements of an electric guitar rig are the guitar and amp. But what is the third most important element?

The pickups. Why? Because they are the critical, essential link between the guitar and amp, transmitting the guitar’s signal to the amp while also acting as sort of a gatekeeper by boosting and/or cutting certain frequencies coming from the guitar.

While a guitar’s tone woods and construction account for much of its overall tonal characteristics, the pickups are the source of a guitar’s primary tone, shaping its personality by sculpting the guitar’s inherent acoustic tone into something that’s (hopefully) more refined, sonically attractive, articulate and dynamically responsive before it reaches the amp and speakers for further tone shaping.

One of the easiest, fastest and sometimes even cheapest ways to significantly improve a guitar’s tone is by upgrading its pickups. Simply put, a poor set of pickups can make a great guitar sound lousy, but a great set of pickups can make a cheap guitar actually sound pretty good.

Don’t believe it? Consider the example of many low-budget Teisco and Harmony/Silvertone guitars from the Sixties built out of cheesy plywood and inferior mystery materials but equipped with “gold foil” pickups, which on their own fetch almost as much on the used market as the entire guitar they were installed into because those pickups make pretty much any guitar sound divine.

While changing pickups can provide a guitar with a significant tonal makeover, a good set of pickups basically enhances what is already there instead of completely transforming a guitar into something else. One way to think of the process is like swapping engines in a car.

For example, one could install a Corvette 327 engine in a 1940 Ford Tudor sedan (and lots of hot rodding enthusiasts have done so), but while the swap will increase the Ford’s top speed and improve performance, the new engine won’t turn the Ford into a Corvette.

Similarly, one can’t turn a Strat into a Les Paul just by installing full-size humbuckers; there’s much more that influences a guitar’s tone, such as body and neck woods, scale length, neck and headstock angles, bridge construction and so on—but a pickup swap will certainly change the guitar’s performance and personality.

Illustration Courtesy of Fender

Probably the most difficult part of the pickup-swapping process is deciding which pickups to choose in the first place. Back in the Seventies when replacement pickups first hit the market in significant numbers, the choices were basically split between vintage-style or high-output models made by a handful of pickup specialists.

Today there are hundreds of choices, which include low-cost “generic” models, numerous variations of vintage classics, super high-output versions, an ever-growing selection of artist signature models, accurate reproductions of obscure cult pickups, revolutionary modern designs and much more, offered by a growing variety of guitar companies, pickup specialists and small boutique makers. Then there are various specs that confuse neophytes and old farts alike and can be as difficult to decode as a Japanese book from a native English speaker’s perspective.

The good thing is that if you have a particular, reasonable tone goal in mind, there’s a very strong likelihood that there’s a pickup out there that will deliver the goods. Of course, you don’t want to go through a dozen or so pickups before you find the right one, which is why we’re here to help you navigate through the vast and often confusing world of today’s replacement pickup market. From the terms and technologies behind pickup design to the tools you need to install pickups yourself, the following information is essential knowledge that should put you on a faster track to tonal nirvana.

For this article we’ll be focusing exclusively on standard magnetic electric guitar pickups and not on other varieties such as piezo or other contact transducers, microphone-based pickups or optical technology.

The modern electric guitar pickup that we all know and love was initially conceived in the early Thirties by George Beauchamp for the first commercially successful electric guitar—the Ro-Pat-In/Rickenbacker A-25/A-22 “Frying Pan” lap steel. Whereas previous electric guitar pickup designs focused on capturing the vibrations of a guitar’s top or body, Beauchamp’s design focused on the vibrating strings instead. His design incorporated two large horseshoe-shaped magnets that surrounded the strings near the bridge and a wire coil wrapped around a bobbin that surrounded individual magnetic pole pieces for each string.

A standard electric guitar pickup creates a magnetic flux field, which in turn magnetizes a string made of ferromagnetic material like steel or nickel. When the string is plucked, the vibrations of the magnetically charged string disturb the flux field. As the magnetic field fluctuates, the disturbances are transmitted through the wire coil as electrical current.

The overall design of a magnetic electric guitar pickup is very simple, but numerous variables such as the type and strength of the magnet(s), size of the coil(s), size of the wire, wire material, wire insulation, number of windings, winding pattern, pole piece design and so on affect a pickup’s performance, output and tonal characteristics. While it’s important to be aware of these variables and how they can affect sound, don’t worry too much about the finer details unless you plan on designing your own pickups.

In the grand scheme of things, there are only two basic types of electric guitar pickups: single-coil and humbucking. A single-coil pickup generally consists of a coil of wire wrapped around a bobbin surrounding either individual pole pieces for each string or a single, continuous blade that extends across all of the strings. A humbucking pickup involves two wire coils placed either side by side or in a top and bottom stack configuration, also with the coils surrounding the pole pieces or blade(s).

Usually a humbucking pickup has a single flat, bar-shaped magnet placed below a side-by-side configuration of coils and centered lengthwise between each coil and its set of polepieces, which are made of ferrous material such as steel to conduct magnetism from the bar magnet and generate the magnetic field.

On a single-coil pickup and some stacked humbuckers, the pole pieces are usually made of permanently magnetized material, although many exceptions exist, like the P-90 pickup design, which features two bar magnets underneath the coil with ferrous pole piece screws placed in between the magnets.

Lollar Pickups' Traditional

In general terms, single-coil pickups tend to be smaller in size, have lower output and produce brighter tones with emphasized treble, but they also tend to pick up unwanted interference like 60-cycle hum. Humbucking pickups are generally larger, deliver higher output levels and offer warmer tones with pronounced midrange, while also eliminating most extraneous noise due to the noise-canceling properties resulting from using two coils with reversed polarity and the current flowing in opposing directions.

However, over time these distinctions have become blurred, and it’s now common to find humbucking pickups in smaller, Strat- and Tele-sized configurations, single-coil pickups with noise-canceling technology and many other variations.

By far the most popular and common single-coil pickup types are Strat- and Tele-style pickups. However, there are a multitude of other varieties worth consideration that each offer their own distinct tonal personalities and performance characteristics. The Gibson P-90 (in soapbar and dog-ear housings) is a very popular choice, but Gibson’s similar and earlier design known as the “Charlie Christian” pickup featuring a single blade pole piece is also a cool alternative with cult appeal, especially among jazz, country and blues players.

The Fender Jazzmaster and Franz pickups (the latter commonly found in Guild electrics from the Fifties) look similar to P-90 pickups, but each has its own distinct voice, as do Fender Jaguar pickups, which have similar dimensions to Strat pickups but are surrounded by metal claws to focus a parallel magnetic field along each string.

A set of Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat pickups

Other interesting classic, original single-coil pickup designs include the “lipstick tube” pickups found on many Danelectro and Silvertone guitars, Gretsch Hilo’Tron pickups, DeArmond/Dynasonic pickups commonly used by Gretsch, Burns Tri-Sonic (a key component of Brian May’s tone), Rickenbacker “toaster top” and variations of the Sixties “gold foil” design found in Teisco and Harmony guitars.


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