5. Pickups

Swapping out your pickups is a surefire way to change up your guitar's tone. Search for pickups on the internet, though, and you'll get just shy of a billion options. Not only are there a whole heap of different pickup types—single-coils, humbuckers, P-90s, Filter'Trons, etc.—but an absurd amount of variation within each type. Hopefully this section will shed some light on one of the most common guitar modifications.

How do they work?

At the very basic level, a pickup is a magnet (or magnets) wrapped in wire. When you pluck a string, the pickup generates electricity available at the ends of that wire by way of something called electromagnetic induction. Take a peek at this interactive tutorial and the parts of a pickup.

Interactive Guitar Pickup Play with the interactive video to get a feel for how a pickup works.

Humbucker Pickup Kit (parts of a humbucker) While this is assembly instructions for a pickup kit, it does a great job describing the parts of a humbucker pickup and how they are made.

Simple, right? Well, ok, induction is pretty tough to grasp, but the effects are easily observed. While the basics of all pickups are the same—magnets wrapped in a coil of wire—the characteristics of the electricity they generate, and thus the tone, can be changed by adjusting several variables like: the amount of wire used, size of wire, magnet material, shape of magnets, position of the magnets, etc. Reverb did an excellent four-part crash course on all the variables.

Dave’s Corner: A Pickup Primer "The market for pickups is booming. ... It’s hard to know what you’re after, though, and what different types of pickups will do for you without understanding exactly what factors contribute to different sounds."

A Pickup Primer Part II: The Makeup of the Coil "Any given pickup, whether of the same type or an entirely different design, is the product of a handful of major variables, and will sound different depending on how any individual ingredient, or a combination of several, is varied in the recipe."

A Pickup Primer Part III: Magnet Type, Structure and Use "This installment, I’ll look at the different types of magnets used in pickup construction, how they are used, and the varying structures that influence their performance, all with regard to the sonic results."

A Pickup Primer Pt IV: Resistance, Impedance and Inductance "Even with close-focus details like pickups, we like to apply the numbers to draw what we assume are logical conclusions about performance and tone. But in order to get anywhere with such exercises, we need to understand what the specifications really mean[.]"

Difference between a single-coil and a humbucker (dual-coil)?

Single coil pickups are noisy—they pick up signals from other electrical devices (e.g. your computer) and they hum. The humbucker was invented to eliminate the hum, literally to buck hum. A humbucker is two single-coil pickups jammed together. The windings and magnet orientation of the single-coils are specifically chosen to cancel out the interference that the other picks up.

Humbuckers also have a different overarching tone compared to single-coil pickups:

The single-coil pickup is commonly considered to have a thin, clear and bright (more treble) sound, while the humbucker is known to have a full, but dark (less treble) sound with more overall signal output. ( source )

Wikipedia: Single coil guitar pickup All about the venerable single-coil pickup and their noise issues.

Wikipedia: Humbucker The ins and outs of humbuckers including their history.

How humbucker hum cancelling works Humbuckers cancel hum because one pickup's hum cancels the other, but how does that even work? This two-part series gets into it in an easy to understand way with great diagrams.

Difference between active and passive pickups?

Active pickups have extra electrical circuitry to boost / shape the pickup signal and thus require a battery. Usually they produce very high output and are most often used in heavy rock and metal.

Active vs. Passive Pickups – An Introduction "Active pickups are designed with weaker magnets allowing more sustain by letting the string vibrate with minimal magnetic resistance."

Other pickup types

You might see names thrown around for more "obscure" pickups. e.g. "My Les Paul has soapbar P90's." Really all pickups are just variations of single or dual-coil designs with different coil and magnet configurations.

Single-coil variants

P-90 Gibson's single-coil pickup. These came stock in Les Paul guitars before Gibson invented the humbucker. Sound: "...somewhat brighter and more transparent than a humbucker, though not quite as crisp and snappy as Fender's single-coil pickups "

Lipstick Pickup The coil and magnet are encased in a chrome plated metal tube—originally lipstick tubes. Sound: "'jangly' and is most closely associated with surf, rockabilly, and jangle pop "

Gold Foil Pickup Originally made by Teisco or DeArmond, these pickups came in cheap guitars in the 60's (Harmony? Melody?). Today, reproductions abound. Sound: ??? Several manufacturers made them and they didn't have a single, distinctive signature.

HiLo'Tron Gretsch single coil pickup. These are the basically single-coil, lower-output (often very very low output) versions of Filter'Trons. Sound: "Twangy surf and rockabilly...softer in the highs [than a strat pickup], with a wonderfully clanky ’60s-style resonance. "

Dual-coil variants

P.A.F. The original humbucker invented by Gibson in 1955. Probably the most expensive used pickup in existence. PAF = Patent Applied For. Sound: $$$$ Designed to replicate P-90 sound, but each one has a unique sound because of manufacturing variance. $$$$

Fender Wide-Range Pickup "Conceived to be sonically closer to Fender's single coil pickups than Gibson humbuckers". There are several reproductions that are just normal humbuckers in the wide-range casing. Sound: "Original[s] are described as sounding 'fat' but with improved clarity and detail over Gibson humbuckers."

Filter'Tron / TV Jones Originally a Gretsch humbucker. "The Filter’Tron’s bobbins are positioned closer together than a traditional PAF humbucker for less loss of high end and tighter bass response." Sound: brighter with more clarity than a traditional humbucker.

Machine-wound vs hand-wound / scatter-wound

Pickups are just a coil of wire around magnets. Some folks say that the process taken to wind that wire around the magnets affects tone.

Machine-wound pickups are wound entirely by a machine. The machine guides the wire around the bobbin / magnet(s) and controls wire tension, speed, and "traverse" (where the next wind goes in relation to the last). Machine-wound pickups are generally very uniform in winding—each subsequent wind of wire is right next to the last.

Hand-wound pickups usually aren't actually hand-wound in their entirety. There are thousands of turns and it would take forever. With a hand-wound pickup, the wire is guided by a human hand. This produces a less uniform coil: hand-wound pickups are scatter-wound .

There is naturally a lot of variance between the two, and the jury is out on whether hand winding is a marketing ploy or beneficial. Some people feel that, all other things being equal, a scatter-wound pickup variant is more 'trebley'.

Scatter Wound Vs Machine Wound Pickups Explains the difference between machine-wound and scatter-wound pickups and their differrences in capacitance. If you're not grasping hand-wound pickups, the video nicely breaks it down.

Why are "hand wound" pickups preferred? A more skeptical view: "There is no difference between 'hand wound' or 'machine wound'. It's all marketing nonsense. All of those famous 50's and 60's Gibson PAF's were machine wound. Even the old Fender single coils were wound on a 'machine' that a person sat at and guided the wire onto the bobbin."

Pickup pole spacing

Humbuckers come in different pole spacing configurations. All humbuckers have the same outside width, but the poles are closer together on humbuckers for a Gibson than they are for a Fender (or any guitar with a Floyd Rose). Some notes:

Questions about Gibson & Fender Pole Piece Spacing "[Pole spacing] roughly corresponds to the distance between the strings themselves, but not entirely. In general terms, the spacing between pole pieces is slightly wider on Fender style pickups, and slightly narrower on Gibson style pickups."

Frequently Asked Questions

There are a lot of pickup nuances that take a while to, erm, pick up.

What is SSS, HSS, HH, HSH, WTF, OMG? This notation specifies what kind of pickups a guitar has from the bridge to the neck. H is for humbucker, S is for single-coil. e.g. an HSS guitar has a humbucker in the bridge position, and single-coils in the middle and neck positions.

Why do some pickups have 2 wires and some 4 wires? Some humbuckers have 4 wires: 2 wires for each coil. This gives you flexibility in how you wire the pickup (series, parallel, and coil-splitting). A 2 wire humbucker will have the coils wired together in a specific way and not allow for coil-splitting.

What is potting? "Potting is the process of soaking the pickup in melted wax, in order to saturate the components, which will isolate them and reduce movement of the coils. Because of this, potted pickups have reduced likelihood of excessive handling noise, microphonic feedback or mechanical failure."

What is "RWRP"? Reverse-wound, Reverse polarity. This is the technique that allows a humbucker to cancel hum. But you can wire your single coil pickups in this configuration to cancel hum when you have two pickups selected.

Further reading

Dive deeper into the world of pickups. There are a million variations in coil, magnet and construction types to explore.

The Secrets of Electric Guitar Pickups An excellent article that delves into pickup circuits and frequency response. "Many people measure only the resistance and think they know something about a pickup. But this is a fundamental error. By far the most important quantity is the inductance."

Picking Your Pickups - Hotter Is Not Always Better "Many players of high-output pickups come to find them fairly one-dimensional after the thrill of the scorching lead tones wears off a little. That is, they did the job when asked to rock out, but for anything else they often sounded muddy, flat and lacking in dynamics. Kind of a “brick wall” sonic tool, in other words: all or nothing."

Construction of Single Coil Pickups for Fender Stratocaster (PDF) A physics student's first foray into winding his own pickups. The paper includes comprehensive measurements of the original compared with his new pickups.

Next up: Guitar Electronics

Sweet, but what about the rest of the knobs and wires in your guitar? Dig into the rest of that stuff in part 6 →