The pickup(s) in your guitar are what allows your instrument to be heard. They’re just as important as the wood your guitar is made from, your strings, and your amp; and they deserve an equal amount of consideration.
However, pickups come in different shapes and sizes. Pickups also work towards different purposes. For example, you’re not going to use the same pickup to play country that you use to play hard rock and metal. And if you don’t get the right pickups for what you want to do, you’ll find it hard to get the tone you want.
Because there are so many types of guitar pickups available, we’ve set out to create an introductory resource that you can use to figure out which pickup is going to be the best fit for you. We’re not going to delve into too many technicalities, or try and list every conceivable pickup and the pros and cons associated with them, but by reading this article you’re going to have essential knowledge to make an informed purchase.
So without much further ado, let’s get started…
What Is a Pickup?
Before we get started, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. A pickup is a magnet with wire wrapped around it that transforms the vibration of your strings into an electronic signal. Pickups are used on electric and acoustic instruments.
Electric Guitar Pickups
Electric guitar pickups (and electric bass pickups) can be divided into three main categories: single coil, humbucker, and P90.
Single coil pickups use a single magnet. A good example of a single coil pickup are the pickups on a standard Fender Stratocaster (though they’re used on countless guitars, not just those from Fender!). Single coil pickups don’t have one easy to define tone because they’re so widely used, but as a general rule they’re considered to be brighter than humbuckers or P90s. The genres that use single coil pickups famously include country and surf, though they sound great in almost any genre. They’re only weakness is that they don’t handle high levels of distortion (like what you’d hear in hard rock and metal) as well as humbuckers.
Humbuckers are essentially two single coil pickups working together. Single coil pickups are subject to 60-cycle hum, a phenomenon where background electrical noise is transferred to your amp along with your strings’ vibrations. Humbuckers were designed to “buck” hum, hence the name. Humbuckers have a warm tone in comparison to single coil pickups, which is why they’re the pickup of choice for jazz. However, due to their higher output (output=volume) they outperform single coil pickups in genres where high levels of distortion are required. The only genres humbuckers don’t do well are country and surf, but beyond that they perform well in any circumstance (depending on their output of course!).
Last but not least, P90s. P90 pickups are the happy medium between single coil and humbucker pickups. They have a higher output than single coil pickups, but they don’t have the output of humbuckers. Their tone has a bit more depth than your standard single coil, but not to the extent of humbuckers. P90 pickups are best suited to blues and rock (but not hard rock), though they’re still relatively versatile.
You can see our recommendations in our guide to Electric Guitar Pickups.
Electric Bass Guitar Pickups
Bass pickups are designed the same as guitar pickups, but they’re separated into different categories: J-pickups (Jazz Bass), Split-Coil pickups, Dual-Coil pickups, and Soap Bar pickups.
J-pickups were first used on Fender’s Jazz Bass, and because of this are still associated with the instrument. These pickups have a warm and clear tonality, and are commonly used by jazz musicians. However, they’re also common in rock (Geddy Lee from Rush is a notable user).
Split-coil pickups are two halves of a single pickup, with one half resting slightly higher (more towards the neck) than the other. These pickups are generally used by rock and punk musicians due to their punchy tone.
Dual-coil pickups are humbucking pickups, though they aren’t as common as j or split-coil pickups. Dual-coil bass pickups, like humbuckers on a guitar, have a significantly warmer tone than single coil alternatives. They’re great if you’re looking for a more vintage bass tone, though do know that they don’t have the clarity of the pickups above.
Soap bar pickups are essentially J-bass pickups with a wider housing. A notable difference is that these pickups are actually sealed, which helps to protect them from degradation. They also have pins that protrude from the bottom of the pickup in order to facilitate different wiring combinations.
Acoustic pickups can be divided into three categories: transducer, piezo, and soundhole.
These pickups are known for their lifelike representation of an acoustic instrument’s tone. These pickups work by adhering to your instruments soundboard and then translating its response into an electric signal. Because these pickups “hear” how your soundboard reacts to the vibration of your strings the sound it produces is more reflective of that. The only downside to transducer pickups is that they have a tendency to be more sensitive to feedback than piezo or soundhole pickups.
These are a type of transducer, but instead of being under the soundboard they’re under the saddle (where your strings pass over). These pickups “hear” your strings more that your guitar, and are considered to sound more synthetic than soundboard transducer. They also have a strong mid-range hump, generally described “piezo quack”. Piezo pickups are generally pretty resistant to feedback, making them a great option if you’re looking to play bigger venues or play with higher amounts of volume.
These are essentially electric guitar pickups that fit in the soundhole of an acoustic guitar. These pickups have a definite “electric” quality to their tone, but higher end soundhole pickups actually sound really lifelike. Nicer soundhole pickups implement a technology that’s similar to a microphone, offering a similar response without being as sensitive to feedback. The cool thing about these pickups is that they’re generally pretty feedback resistant and can still pump out a lifelike tone, making them a happy medium between soundboard transducers and piezo pickups. Many of these systems are also affordable and non-invasive (meaning that they don’t require any permanent modification to your instrument).
Though they aren’t really pickups, many companies offer in-body microphones or systems that combine a pickup with an in-body microphone. These systems offer the most realistic acoustic tone, but they come with a couple of downsides. Microphones are significantly more feedback prone than acoustic guitars, and systems that use microphones are more expensive than other options. However, if you’ve got to have a genuine acoustic tone there is definitely enough of a difference between a microphone (or a system which uses a microphone and pickup simultaneously) and a pickup to justify the increase in price.
Acoustic guitar pickups are more controversial than electric guitar pickups because acoustic guitar players are generally looking for a reproduction of a tone that already exists. Accuracy in reproduction is generally prized over the pickups’ intrinsic qualities, and because our view of how accurately a pickup is reproducing our unplugged tone is subjective we all get different opinions on how well certain types (and even certain models) of pickups perform.
The best advice you can ever get when it comes to acoustic pickups is to keep an open mind, and to make your decisions with your ear instead of letting your preconceived notions decide for you. There are pickups that, through careful design and implementation, manage to avoid the pitfalls that plague other pickups of the same type. There are also advancements in pickup technology being made all the time, so just because you don’t like the tone of a certain pickup now doesn’t mean that will always be the case.
To see which acoustic pickup systems we recommend, take a look at our guide to The Best Acoustic Guitar Pickups.
Active and Passive Pickups
All of the pickups above fall under two classifications: active and passive. Active and passive pickups operate differently and have very different tones. So in order to get the tone you’re looking for it’s important that you know the difference between the two.
These were the first pickups invented. They’re called passive because they don’t boost the signal. These pickups have a warm and organic tone, and as a general rule they’re great for just about everything. The only thing they don’t excel at is high levels of distortion.
As the name implies, active pickups utilize active circuitry that require a power source, which is usually a 9V battery embedded into guitars. These pickups boost your signal, resulting in a higher amount of output. On active pickups you can also boost frequencies (like treble, bass, or both) from your instrument, a feature that's commonly available on most acoustic-electric guitars. On electric guitars, active pickups are generally only used for genres that require high levels of distortion, like metal and hard rock. EMG is one of the most notable manufacturers of active pickups, and the pickups they produce are a great representation of active guitar pickups as a whole.
Active Bass Pickups
Active Bass Pickups are a bit different, prized more for their tone sculpting capabilities than their higher output, which has led to their adoption in a variety of different genres. This is a stark contrast to active electric guitar pickups, which are seldom used outside of hard rock and metal).