When you’re purchasing an electric guitar, it’s important to consider pickups.
Many players consider pickups to be the most important feature of a guitar that contributes to its tone. While instrument material, construction, amplifier used and the playing style all effect tone, pickups are known to be responsible for determining the overall sonic response of the instrument. Pickups “pick up” the vibrations of your guitar’s strings and convert them to an electronic signal, which is then amplified by an amplifier or directly recorded. But how does that happen?
Pickups in electric guitars use magnets to create magnetic fields, in which guitar strings vibrate. This alters the magnetic field slightly, producing the electric signal that goes to the amplifier.
Pickups come in different styles, and produce different results. There are three main types of electric guitar pickups.
Single coils are pickups that use one magnet for each string and one wire coil which wraps around the group of magnets. The individual magnets are known as pole pieces. . Single coils were brought to market by Gibson in 1935 and they called them “bar pickups” at the time. Single coils are used by many manufacturers and are found on most Fender models such as Stratocaster, Telecaster, Jazzmaster, Jaguar, Acoustasonic, and many iconic vintage instruments. Single coil pickups were the first pickup type available in the market, so many vintage electric guitars utilize single coil pickups. Additionally, single coil pickups come in a variety of styles and sizes, but they are most commonly found in the typical elongated oval size. . They sound good for most genres of music, but are distinctively great for surf rock, indie/ alt rock, and country music. However, they can produce a “hum” when background electric noise is transferred back to your amp as the strings vibrate. For this reason, single coil pickups are not great for genres with heavy distortion, like hard rock or metal.
Single coil pickups continue to be a mainstay of modern guitar builders today due to the exceptional clarity and character they provide. The tonal characteristics of these pickups tend to include more high frequencies which contribute to the ‘sparkle’, ‘brightness’ and ‘quack/spank’ characteristics that musicians associate with single coil pickups. Modern guitarists such as John Mayer, Nels Cline (Wilco), J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.) Yngwie Malmsteen and Yvette Young are known for using guitars with single coil pickups.
Literally designed to “buck the hum”, humbuckers have two magnetic coils which phase cancel each other, preventing the hum you can hear with single coil pickups. The two coil pickups work together and create a warmer tone than single coil, which makes humbucker pickups great for jazz music. They have higher output, making them better for playing with distortion as well.
Humbucking pickups have lots of versatility with the tones that can be achieved. Vintage style humbuckers tend to have fewer windings of wire on each of the coils, which results in a slightly lower output, cleaner, rounder sounding pickup. A classic sound for rock, jazz and more. Many modern humbuckers feature more windings, which makes them higher output or ‘hotter’. Hotter wound pickups became more popular in the 1980’s during the advent of 80s metal. High output humbuckers continue to be the go-to for hard rock and metal musicians today due to their ability to create rich harmonics when using distortion and clarity when playing low chord voicings/ bar chords.
Over the years, humbucking pickups have become the standard option for many guitar manufacturers such as Ibenez and Gibson who use humbuckers as the default option on most of their guitars due to the wide appeal they have. Many artists are known for using humbucking pickups such as Slash, John Pettrucci, Tim Henson (Polyphia), Joe Bonamassa and Paul Gilbert.
P90 pickups are single coil pickups with a wider design and a different magnet setup. The way they’re designed allows for more output and depth than single coil pickups, but not as much as humbuckers. The twangy tone they produce is great for blues,rock, and even punk music where P90s have a long record of being used.
Many P90 pickup designs utilize steel pole-pieces that are positioned between bar magnets instead of individual magnetic pole pieces. Also in some P90 models, the height of the steel pole pieces can be adjusted.
P90 pickups are a relatively less popular option compared to humbuckers and single coils, but despite this some consider the P90 to be the ‘ultimate pickup’ due to the desireable middle-ground they cover between the two other options. P90 mitigates the disadvantages of humbucker and single coil pickups because they preserve the tonal clarity and brightness of single coils while providing the ‘fuller’, more substantial/ full sound of a humbucker. These pickups were used by artists such as Rivers Cuomo (Weezer), Matt Bellamy (Muse), Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day) and Mick Jones (The Clash).
Decisions About the Pickup to Choose
With all the options available it’s important not to overthink the decision about what to use. The good news is that all the styles available offer amazing sounding pickups. Picking an artist, band or genre to base your sound off of is a good way to narrow it down. Some guitars also offer a combination of pickup styles to give a variety of tonal options. Another feature to consider is the output level of the pickup you want. If you are a player that’s more inclined to play hard rock with more distortion, a humbucker or a higher output (hotter) pickup in general would be the standard preference. For musicians who are looking for clarity, brightness and cleaner sounds, lower output pickups are usually preferred. There are really no pickups or guitars that “do it all” which is why it’s such a commonality for guitar players to own multiple guitars. It’s not just because guitars and pickups are so awesome- players need a variety of tools for the musical tasks they take on!