Fundamentals of Guitar Anatomy: Pickups

Gibson P-90 Soap bar style pickup. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Gibson P-90 Soap bar style pickup. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Gibson P-90 Soap bar style pickup. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Welcome back to Fundamentals of Guitar Anatomy, my four-part series examining the literal ins and outs of your electric guitar. So far, we’ve covered wood types and body styles, and today I’d like to cover all the different kinds of pickups available at your disposal, how they work and how they create different tonal shapes. An interesting pickup can make a cheap guitar sound incredible, certain pickups create louder, crisper tones, while others are more warm and rounded.

Catch up on the full Fundamentals of Guitar Anatomy series here.

Passive Pickups

Passive pickups use magnets to convert string vibrations into electrical current. Each pickup is made up of a copper wire coil wrapped many times around a magnet. When your guitar’s strings vibrate, they disturb the magnet’s field, sending voltage through the wire, which creates an electrical signal that your amp uses to generate sound. Some people call that type of technology simple — musicians call those types of people engineers. Lucky for us, we don’t have to know all that going into the store, but it does help to understand what’s going on inside your guitar, and a bit of the history behind them. We’ll start with the original guitar pickup, now commonly referred to as a single coil pickup.

Single Coil Pickup

The first modern single coil pickup was manufactured and distributed for a Hawaiian lap steel guitar made by Gibson, and that design, now called a P-90, was included on Gibson’s first line of hollow electric guitars. Fender adopted the technology and included single coil pickups on their Broadcaster (later renamed Telecaster) and Stratocaster guitars.

Three single-coil pickups on a Fender Stratocaster.
Three single-coil pickups on a Fender Stratocaster.

Modern Fender-style single coil pickups should sound bright and sparkly. At best, a single coil pickup placed in the bridge position of the guitar should sting with top-end treble, enough to make your ears hurt if you really cranked your amp, but still capable of producing a clear, singing tone. They sound shouldn’t be too thin, and definitely have the power to cut through a mix. The single coil in the neck position ought to have more bottom-end support, without being muddy. Clarity is key. The sound should be warm, responsive to the dynamics of your open chords and barre chords, but not overbearing. And if you’re playing a guitar with three single coils (or more), the middle pickups will, in theory, be the middle ground between the neck and bridge positions. Listen to the sound of each pickup individually, and then the blend positions.

The biggest drawback of the single coil pickup is hum. You should know that when going into any situation involving a single coil pickup. There are plenty of ways that a guitarist can deal with the problem, and some manufacturers offer noiseless single coil pickups, but be wary, many of them lack the classic tone of their noisy counterparts. Kinman make the best single coil noiseless pickups, to my ears.

Epiphone Casino with a Gibson P-90 pickup. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
Epiphone Casino with a Gibson P-90 pickup. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Despite the popularity of the Fender-style single coil and the development of humbucker pickups, which we’ll get into next, Gibson’s P-90 is still a notable single coil design with a strong following. Gibson included these on their original run of electric guitars, but they fell out of favor for the amount of hum they produced. A P-90 pickup ought to have all the same clarity as a Fender-style single coil. And depending on how overwound the P-90 is, it should be able to push a tube amp into overdrive. P-90s can have a slightly exaggerated midrange and a nice high output, which some guitarists will call growl, but they’re celebrated for their tone and overall versatility.

Humbucker Pickups

Now then, back to the history books. As we stated earlier, the P-90 was the pickup initially included on Gibson’s first electric guitar experiments. But, due to the whining of the guitarists who used them, Gibson employed a guy by the name of Seth Lover to rectify the hum problem. Lover attempted to make a passive pickup that sounded exactly like the P-90, but without the noise. He did this by introducing a second coil to the pickup, wrapped in the opposite direction of the first coil, which dramatically reduced the extraneous electromagnetic interference that was being amplified in the original single coil pickup design. That’s how they got their nickname — humbuckers. But the pickup hardly sounded like the original P-90.

Humbucker pickup on a Les Paul. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Humbucking pickups are known for being far more aggressive than their single coil brethren. Higher gain stages are hardly a problem for these beasts: with twice the coil, you get a far crunchier sound to start, and because of the advantages of the reverse wound coil, noise is less of an issue.

The Les Paul is arguably the most iconic guitar to have humbucker pickups, but the Gibson catalog is stocked mostly of guitars with humbuckers, and many guitar manufacturers offer guitars with both of types of pickups. I like to equate playing a live show with a humbucker guitar to what I imagine driving a Lamborghini would be like — it doesn’t take much to go from zero to sixty, so to speak. They can offer more power than one needs, depending on the situation. If you’re in a Zeppelin cover band, go on with your bad self. If you’re backing up a soft spoken folk singer, you may want to consider a different option, or at least be aware of the fact that you’ll be taming your guitar throughout your performance.

Coil-split humbucking pickups on a Gibson Invader.
Coil-split humbucking pickups on a Gibson Invader. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When trying out a humbucker-loaded guitar, listen for the way the pickup and the amp interact. Does the pickup push the amp into a light breakup? Can you clearly hear each note in a chord? Are you satisfied with the tone it produces without any effects, reverb included? Nowadays, there are plenty of guitars that come with a mix of humbucker and single coil pickups. Some guitars have the option of “splitting” the coil of a humbucker, emulating the sound of a true single coil. The tonal variety can be a nice advantage. As always, play the guitar first, and listen with open ears — don’t be fooled by hype or reputation. If you like something, go with your gut!

+ Read more: Keep your gear in top shape with “The Art of Being an Organized Guitarist.”

Other Pickup Styles

For the most part, the pickups you’ll see are going to be some variation of the single coil — Fender or P-90-style — or a humbucker. Within these parameters there are plenty of variables, but now we have a basic understanding not only of how they work, but what they’re designed to do and how to gauge their function. Of course, even acknowledging these variations, there are still two types of pickups worth mentioning. You may have noticed that we’ve been talking about passive guitar pickups this whole time. Well, that’s because there’s another type of pickup, popularized by the company EMG, who make active pickups.

Gibson Les Paul loaded with two EMG active pickups
A Gibson Les Paul loaded with two EMG active pickups. Courtesy of Gibson USA.

Active pickups

Active pickups are battery powered. Yes, that means you’ll have to keep a spare battery in your case, just in case it dies mid-show. The biggest advantage to an active pickup is a wider frequency range, especially handy for hard rock guitarists using big distortion sounds — it can retain a bit of clarity through a saturated sound. But for guitarists using a clean sound, they can sound stale and lifeless, because active pickups use less winding (hence the need for the battery for power).

Also, be aware that as the battery drains, the sound of the pickup will change. Unless you’re especially into playing hard rock or metal, I would recommend a passive guitar pickup.

gold foil pickup
Jason Lollar’s gold foil pickup.

Gold Foil Pickup

Lastly, we ought to recognize the gold foil pickup, initially found on old Japanese guitars but popularized by guitarist Ry Cooder. In fact, the modifications he made to his Strat are so popular, it’s been dubbed “Coodercaster.” The original gold foil pickup, made by brands like Teisco, use rubber magnets, and have less winding than traditional single coils. But the magnetic field is large because of the amount of steel involved, and the position of the magnetic poles allows for great deep overtones and overall clarity. Lollar currently leads in the production of modern gold foil pickups, but gold foils aren’t found on many guitars.

So there you have it! Between your knowledge of electric guitar body styles and wood types, you’re ready to head out shopping, or get to work on customizing your own guitar.

Check out the full Fundamentals of Guitar Anatomy series here. Did we miss your favorite type of pickup? Let us know in the comments below!


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