What is a Guitar Pickup?
Before we get started on the types of guitar pickups, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. A guitar pickup serves as the microphone of your instrument. It captures string (and sometimes body) vibrations and converts them into an electronic signal.
The material used, and the mechanics of picking up sound differs from type to type, but the purpose remains the same. The most common type of pickup is the traditional guitar pickup which uses a magnet with copper wire wrapped around it.
Electric Guitar Pickups
Electric guitars and basses are equipped with magnetic pickups. The magnetic field they produce allow them to capture string vibrations and convert them into electrical signal.
This is then converted into the guitar tone that we hear through the guitar amplifier. Guitar pickups are categorized into three main types: single coil, humbucker, and P90.
As the name implies, single coils are pickups that use a single magnet. The neck pickup of a Fender Stratocaster is a good example of how a single coil pickup sounds and looks. Note that this type of guitar pickup is used on countless guitars, not just those from Fender!
Because of their widespread use, single coil pickups don’t have one easy to define tone. 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 style of music. Their main weakness is that they don’t handle high levels of distortion, like what you’d hear in hard rock and metal. They also often suffer from the infamous 60-cycle hum, which humbuckers are meant to address.
The 60-cycle hum is a phenomenon where background electrical noise is transferred to your amp along with your strings’ vibrations. The humbucker pickup is designed to “buck” hum, by having two coils that are phase canceling each other. Humbuckers are essentially two single coil pickups working together.
Humbucker tones are warmer in comparison to single coil pickups, which is why they’re the pickup of choice for jazz. And 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 in are country and surf. But beyond that, they perform well in any circumstance (depending on their output of course!).
Last but not least, P90s. They are still single coil pickups but wound on a different bobbin. Tonally, P90 pickups are the happy medium between single coil and humbucker style 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 pickups, 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, utilizing magnets to convert string vibrations into electric signal. But they are grouped differently. Below are the most common bass pickup 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 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 to facilitate different wiring combinations.
Acoustic Guitar Pickups
Compared to electric guitars, acoustic guitars have their own distinct sound. And this acoustic sound requires specialized pickups. The most commonly used 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 instrument's 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 tend 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 than your guitar, and as such, it has a different voicing compared to a soundboard transducer. They also have a strong mid-range hump, generally described as “piezo quack”. Piezo pickups are generally pretty resistant to feedback. This makes them a great option if you’re looking to play in bigger venues and 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. Cheaper soundhole pickups are just single coil pickups with a mount. Higher end soundhole pickups actually sound really lifelike. Nicer soundhole pickups implement a technology that’s similar to a microphone. They offer 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. They are the happy medium between soundboard transducers and piezo pickups. Many of these systems are also affordable and non-invasive. They don’t require any permanent modification to your instrument.
Many companies 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, and systems that use microphones are more expensive than other options. However, if you want 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. But our view of how accurately a pickup is reproducing our unplugged tone is subjective. So 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 versatile and can handle for just about everything. The main 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. This is usually a 9V battery embedded into guitars. These pickups boost your signal, resulting in a high output and high gain quality. Active pickups can also boost frequencies (like treble, bass, or both) from your instrument. This is a feature that's commonly available on most acoustic-electric guitars. Further tone shaping can be done on PA Mixing Consoles.
On electric guitars, active pickups are generally only used for genres like metal and hard rock. They are used to produce tones that require high output and high levels of distortion. EMG is one of the most notable manufacturers of active pickups. 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. They are prized more for their tone sculpting capabilities than their higher output. This 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 heavy metal.
Guitar Pickup Brands
In this section, we'll look at some of the most well-known companies that produce guitar pickups. We'll look at how these brands have won the hearts of many guitarists and look at their characteristic tones and unique designs.
Seymour Duncan is one of the biggest aftermarket guitar pickup brands. They are known for their attention to detail and high-quality construction. Their pickups are used by guitarists in a wide range of music styles. Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Nuno Bettencourt and Dave Mustaine are just a few of the many big name artists that are known for using their pickups. Some of their most popular pickups include the Seymour Duncan JB (for rock and metal), the Seymour Duncan Jazz (great for jazz and blues), and the Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates (great for classic rock).
EMG is known for their active humbucker pickups. The active circuitry of their pickups allows for high output that makes them perfect for high gain tones. This made them especially appealing to rock and metal guitarists. Some of their most popular metal friendly pickups include the EMG 81 (which is great for metal) and the Het Set (co-designed by Metallica's James Hetfield). The EMG 85 is another popular pickup set from this brand, meant for clean tones. In addition to the famous Metallica frontman, other EMG artists include Zakk Wylde, Kerry King, Steve Lukather and David Gilmour.
DiMarzio is a brand of guitar pickups that is associated with elite guitar virtuosos. Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert are just some of their big-name collaborators. Given the wide range of styles that their artist endorsers play, DiMarzio has become known for making pickups that can work with various tones, effects and playing styles.
This brand is also known for their unique pickup designs. Most notable of which is adjustable pole pieces for fine tuning string to string volume balance. Aside from the signature pickups of the above-mentioned guitar heroes, other popular DiMarzio pickups include the Tone Zone (for rock and metal), the Air Norton (for clean tones), and the Gravity Storm (co-designed by Steve Vai).
Gibson is a brand known for premium high-quality guitars, but they also manufacture high quality pickups. Gibson pickups doesn't stray far from old school tones. They have the warm and rich sound that will appeal to fans of older styles of music like blues and classic rock. Some of Gibson's most popular pickups include the Burstbucker (for classic rock), the '57 Classic (for blues), and the Dirty Fingers (for hard rock). Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Angus Young are just a few of the many artists who have used Gibson pickups to craft their unique tone.
Fender is another brand known mostly for many different types of electric guitars and amps. But like Gibson, they also offer aftermarket guitar pickup options. Fender is known for great sounding single coil pickups, with their bright, twangy sound. These are the types of pickups that are perfect for Fender style guitars like the Strat and Tele. And the tones they produce cover a lot of ground, including pop, country, blues, rockabilly and even modern rock. Fender pickup users include some of the best guitar players to ever play the instrument, including Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck and more.
With all these types and brands to consider, choosing one can be daunting, especially for those who are new to pickup upgrades. The safest route is to consider the brand and type of pickup used by your favorite guitarist. That way you are sure to get the feel and sound that's close to what you usually listen to. You can then experiment with different pickups as you gain more experience.
Ultimately, you're going to make the decision of which pickup to get. The information provided here will help you make more informed decisions when choosing between the different types of guitar pickups. With patience and some luck, you'll get your hands on the guitar pickups that are perfect for you.
Mason Hoberg: 1st Edition Author
Alexander Briones: Update and Editing
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