Pickup Buyer's Guide
One of the easiest and affordable ways to change the tone of your instrument is changing the pickups. Let’s explore some of the various types of pickups, and their respective tones and features.
Types: Guitar pickups can either be passive or active.
Passive pickups use many coils of copper wire wrapped around a magnet (generally Alnico, or Ceramic), creating a magnetic field. When you strum the strings, the magnetic field is disturbed, causing electrical current to pass through the wire, and then on to your amplifier.
Active pickups incorporate electronic circuitry to generate signal. Because of this active pickups need a power source (usually a 9V battery), and usually feature a preamp, filters, or active EQ.
Advantages/Disadvantages: Both active and passive pickups have their advantages, and disadvantages. Passive pickups are generally lower cost, and do not require an external power source. You never need to worry about a battery dying in the middle of gig. Active pickups give you much high output than their passive counterparts, and most feature a built-in EQ giving you much more options in shaping your tone. Both can suit a wide-range of music and styles.
Who plays what?
Currently, you’ll find mostly metal and hard rock players using Active pickups. You’ll also find active pickups in many of todays’ bass guitars. The reason being – active pickups give you more output and they excel at pushing your amp to distort. However, when active pickups first hit the scene, they could be found being used by jazz players and the pop guitarists of the ‘80s due to the pickups ability to produce clean, bright tones.
Single Coil: The Single-Coil pickup is historically the older of the two major pickup designs, originally having been created back in the 1920’s. It is characterized in general by its bright, tone and excellent response to dynamics. Notable example of single-coil pickups can be seen on Stratocasters, Telecasters, and some Gibson guitars.
Strat Style: The typical Strat style pickup configuration is three single-coil pickups (neck, middle, bridge), all of which have slightly different tones. The neck pickup will generally be warmer while the bridge pickup will have a brighter sound. The middle pickup, usually the most overlooked of the three is usually used to blend the tone of either the neck, or the bridge pickup.
Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat Single Coil Pickup Set
Seymour Duncan SSL6 Custom Flat Pro Strat Pickup
DiMarzio DP416W Area '61 Stratocaster Single Coil Pickup White
Telecaster Style: The Telecaster also features two unique single coil pickups. The neck pickup produces a warm, mellow sound while the bridge pickup puts out a twangy, sharp tone with a great deal of treble. The bridge pickup gets its sound from the steel plate the pickup is mounting on, giving it a sound akin to a steel guitar.
Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound Tele Pickup Set
Seymour Duncan STKT3B Vintage Stack Tele Bridge Pickup
P90: The P-90 Pickup is a single-coil pickup first product by Gibson in 1946, and still produced today. Other companies such as Seymour Duncan and Railhammer also produce their own versions of the P-90. The sound of a P-90 is somewhere between a Fender-style single-coil and a humbucker. It is generally a bright sounding pickup with lots of mid-range, and some “twang.”
Seymour Duncan SPH90 Phat Cat P90 Pickup
Humbucker: The humbucker pickup is a “dual-coil” pickup, often associated with Gibson guitars. It was invented by Seth Lover of Gibson in 1955. The humbucker pickup uses two-coils instead of one in order to “buck the hum” or cancel out hum and interference that can happen with single coil pickups. Some notable examples of humbucking pickups are Gibson’s “PAF,” Gretsch Filter’Tron, EMG, and Fender Wide Range.
DiMarzio DP100 Super Distortion Guitar Humbucker Pickup Crème
Seymour Duncan SH4 JB Model Humbucker Pickup
Gibson 57 Classic Vintage Humbucker Pickup
EMG 81 Active Guitar Humbucker Pickup Black
Railhammer Chisel Neck Guitar Humbucker Pickup
DiMarzio DP260N8 PAF Master Neck Full Vintage Pickup
Magnetic Sound Hole: The magnetic acoustic guitar pickup usually sit in the sound hole of the guitar. These pickups normally do not require any permanent installation or holes drilled. This makes these a great option for vintage instruments that you do not want to modify permanently. Like electric guitar pickups, these read the vibration of the metal strings. These will not pick up the sound of unwound nylon strings.
Dean Markley Pro Mag Plus Acoustic Guitar Pickup
Fishman Neo D Single Coil Magnetic Soundhole Pickup
LR Baggs M1A Active Magnetic Soundhole Pickup
Fishman RareEarth Blend Acoustic Guitar Soundhole Pickup
Piezo: Piezo pickups are generally found in acoustic guitars, however there are some electric guitars that feature piezos. Piezo pickups use crystals (generally located below or behind the guitars saddle) that generate sound as you pluck the strings. It is looking for vibration to pick up the sound.
Fishman Matrix Infinity Active Guitar Pickup System
Martin 18A0058 Thinline Gold Plus VTI Acoustic Guitar Pickup
Fishman Nashville Series M300 Archtop Mandolin Pickup
Fishman BP100 Upright Bass Pickup
Electric Bass Guitars
P-Bass: P-Bass pickups are “split coil” pickups, with each half placed underneath two of the bass’ strings. P-Bass pickups typically have a very clear, fat sound and are used by many rock and (particularly) punk bass players.
Seymour Duncan Quarter Pound P-Bass Pickup
EMG GZRP Geezer Butler P Bass Pickup
Jazz Bass: Jazz bass, or J Bass pickups are the most common type of single coil pickups found on bass guitars. They are typically found in pairs (bridge, and neck), with the neck pickup being clear, and airy while the bridge pickup has a much tighter and punchy tone.
Seymour Duncan SJB3 Quarter Pound Jazz Bass Neck Pickup
Seymour Duncan SJB3 Quarter Pound Jazz Bass Bridge Pickup
EMG JSYSTEM Prewired J Pickup Set Plus Control Plate System
Humbucker: Just like the electric guitar humbuckers, these pickups are two coils that buck the hum. These produce low noise with a lot of output. These started to show up on music man instruments in the mid 1970’s and continue to grow in popularity.
Seymour Duncan SMB4D 4 String Music Man Ceramic Bass Pickup
Alnico: Alnico is the most common type of magnet found in guitar pickups. It gets its name from the combination of metals use to create the magnet (aluminum, nickel and cobalt). There are several different “formulas” of metals that are used to create Alnico pickups, and they are named by number - for example Alnico 2 or Alnico 5.
Ceramic: Ceramic magnets aren’t quite as common, but can be found in many types of guitar pickups today. These combine iron and various rare earth minerals, formed into bars under intense heat and pressure. Ceramic magnets tent to produce hotter and more aggressive tones.
Pickup Poles: Pole pieces are elements of the pickup that sit beneath the strings and shape the magnetic fields that surround them. They can be either magnetic Alnico stock or ferrous steel. Generally speaking, individual Alnico magnet pole pieces deliver bright, tight tones, while steel pole pieces sound fatter and looser. You’ll generally find Fender guitars with magnetic pole pieces, while Gibson guitars use steel pole pieces.
Alnico pole pieces are arranged as sets of individual magnets, usually one per string (though there are two per string on many bass pickups). Meanwhile, steel pole pieces extend upward from a central bar magnet or pair of magnets.
Most humbucking pickups have steel pole pieces in the form of screws and straight rods. Most single-coil pickups have individual Alnico magnets, though there are some single-coils with steel pole pieces, such as Gibson's P-90 pickup.
Copper Coil: Most pickups contain thousands of turns of fine copper wire around the “bobbins” or coil forms. The copper itself is simply regular ‘ole copper wire, but the number of times it’s wrapped is a determinant of how the pickup will sound. For example, the great the number of windings, the higher the output. However, if the pickup is over-wound the tone might seem flat and have a weak treble response. Coil-Windings today are incredibly precise, which gives almost no variation between same-model pickups. In the past it was a less exact science, which lead to certain pickups being “over-wound” or “under-wound.” Some of the happiest accidents in pickup design are due to this. The classic P.A.F. humbucker was a result being over-wound.
High Output vs Moderate Output: It’s up to you, and what style you’re playing! Just keep in mind a few things…greater output generally means “louder” but can also translate into much darker-sounding tones. Generally, if your guitar tone feels weak, you'll probably want a higher output replacement pickup. If your tone strikes you as too muddy or distorted, try pickups with less output.
How to Change guitar Pickups: