What’s the difference between different guitar pickups?

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 coil

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!


Different types of acoustic guitars

How to learn alternate tunings

Songs that started off as jokes

Sometimes, songs that start off as inside jokes end up being gold for bands. Here are some hit songs that made it from “gag” to “gig”. 


Song 2” – Blur 

With a distinctive “woo hoo” chorus, “Song 2” is one of British band Blur’s best-known tracks. However, according to Blur lead guitarist Graham Coxon, the track was written as a prank on their record company. Coxon intentionally created an “amateurish” guitar sound for the track. However, label executives loved the song, and it was the second single off of their fifth studio album. 

Sweet Child O’MineGuns ‘n Roses

The opening riff for “Sweet Child O’Mine” is one of the most recognizable guitar lines of all time, but G ‘n R lead guitarist Slash came up with the melody as a prank during a jam session. According to a 2005 interview, Slash described the riff as a “circus melody” and was playing it while making faces at drummer Steve Adler. However, his bandmates heard potential in the riff, and within an hour, it was on its way to being “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. 


“Loser”- Beck 

As a destitute singer/songwriter, Beck would resort to making up ridiculous songs at coffeehouses and clubs to attempt to keep audiences engaged. “Loser” was an extension of those nonsensical songs. He recorded an early version of “Loser” while visiting Rap-A-Lot Records producer Carl Stephenson’s house. He was attempting to imitate Chuck D on the verses, and thought “Man, I’m the worst rapper in the world, I’m a loser” when listening to it back – a sentiment that became the chorus. 

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” – Nirvana

The title for Nirvana’s 1991 grunge anthem came from a graffiti scrawl that Kurt Cobain’s friend and Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna put on his wall, “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit”. Hanna meant to make fun of Cobain for wearing his girlfriend’s Teen Spirit deodorant, but Cobain didn’t know what “Teen Spirit” meant and took it as a compliment. 

“Fight for Your Right to Party” – The Beastie Boys 

“Fight for Your Right” was intended as an ironic parody of “party” songs like Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock”. However, it took on a life of its own and the irony was lost on most listeners. The group eventually stopped playing the track live.


“Left Hand Free” – alt-J 

While the 2014 track is one of English band alt-J’s most popular songs, its Southern-rock influenced style diverges from the band’s sound. It was written in about 20 minutes and drummer Thom Green said he deliberately played “as cliche as possible” on the track. The band describes the song as “the least alt-J song possible”. 

“Stuck in the Middle with You” –  Stealers Wheel 

If you’ve ever associated this 1973 track with Bob Dylan, you’re not alone. Scottish band Stealers Wheel performed the track as a parody of Bob Dylan’s style, and it surprised them with its success – even being famously featured in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut film Reservoir Dogs.


Five courses that will take your guitar playing to the next level

How to add tabs to Fret Zealot

The easiest rock songs to learn on guitar

Want to play guitar like Tom Misch?

Want to play guitar like Tom Misch? Learn the singer/songwriter’s signature style with the Tom Misch Player Study course. 

This course will teach you Misch’s unique techniques, including jazz chords, unusual rhythms, and use of slides and vibrato. 


Misch was born in London in 1995. He began playing violin at age 4, and later learned to play guitar and piano. He studied music technology in secondary school and studied jazz guitar at London’s Trinity Laban Conservatoire. He left after six months to focus on his own music. He had already been releasing music on SoundCloud for two years at this point, and in 2018 he released his debut album, Geography. 


Misch’s jazz education is evident in his playing, which is characterized by playing “in the pocket”. His style welds together funk, neo-soul, and R&B, with an emphasis on timing and groove. He alternates between fingerpicking and using a pick as the piece calls for it, and favors jazzy chords like 9th degrees for his tones. He often plays a melody on a single string and slides.


House Music 

While Misch has made a name for himself as a guitarist, he has recently started exploring his other musical passion, house music. Misch has dropped some house music tracks under his alias, “Supershy”. 

Once you’ve locked down Tom Misch’s signature style, you can find tabs for several of his songs on the Fret Zealot app, including “It Runs Through” and “Movie”. 

Want to play guitar like Steve Lukather?

Want to learn to play guitar like Steve Lukather of Toto? Make your vision a reality with the Steve Lukather Player Study. 

This course will teach you the guitar virtuoso’s techniques, including fast mixolydian runs, hybrid picking, alternate picking, and more.


Steve Lukather, the son of a Paramount Studios assistant director and production manager, started playing musical instruments at an early age. He started with keyboards and drums and then taught himself to play guitar at age seven. Lukather got an acoustic guitar and a copy of The Beatles’ “Meet The Beatles” album for that birthday, the latter of which he credits for “changing his life”. During high school, he met the people who would become his future Toto bandmates. 

Lukather’s first professional musician job was as a session musician for Boz Scaggs. He helped form Toto in 1976 along with fellow session musicians David Paich, Jeff Porcaro, Steve Porcaro, Bobby Kimball, and David Hungate. 

Lukather is the original lead guitarist for the band and has been the sole continuous member of the group since its inception. He also serves as composer, backing and lead vocalist. He has won five GRAMMY Awards, three for his work with Toto. 

As a session guitarist, Lukather has worked with prominent artists including Aretha Franklin, Lionel Richie, and Michael Jackson. He has also released eight solo albums. 


Lukather’s playing style is described as “melodic and intense”. He utilizes his knowledge of music theory to follow chord charts and changes in a way that’s characteristic of jazz musicians. He counts blues-rock guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page among his influences, as well as Steely Dan. 



Lukather used to utilize an elaborate set of effects pedals in his playing setup, but now plays mostly modification-free other than delay. He has collaborated with EMG on his own Lukather signature “SL20” pickup system, as well as DiMarzio on a set of signature pickups named “Transition”. He endorses Music Man guitars. 


Once you’ve mastered Lukather’s signature style, you can find tabs for dozens of Toto songs in the Fret Zealot app including “Rosanna”, “Africa”, and “Georgy Porgy”. 


Want to play guitar like Jimmy Page?

Want to play guitar like John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Songs you can play on one guitar string

If you’re starting out on your guitar journey, a great way to build up your dexterity and technique is by playing songs on just one string. It’s a lot more fun than playing scales and will keep you motivated to learn.

Just because you’re sticking to one string doesn’t mean you have to be confined to playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Happy Birthday” – many riffs and melodies of popular songs can be played on one string!

Once you’re comfortable playing these songs on one string, most of them can be beefed up with chords or more advanced techniques!

Another One Bites the Dust – Queen

The iconic bass riff for this 1980 hit can also be played on one guitar string. 

Thunderstruck – AC/DC

Angus Young’s guitar riff for this 1990 classic is one of the most memorable guitar lines of all time, but it can be played on just one string!


My Heart Will Go On – Celine Dion 

No pennywhistle needed. The theme song for 1997 blockbuster “Titanic” can be played on just the high “E” string.

Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple

Possibly one of the best-known one string songs of all time, you can learn this whole riff on the low E string and double it when you’re ready.


Running Down a Dream – Tom Petty 

The riff of this 1989 hit can be played on one string, making it perfect for beginners. The chords are also fairly simple.


Seven Nation Army – White Stripes 

The bass riff of “Seven Nation Army” is one of the best-known basslines of all time, but it can also be played on the “A” string.


Satisfaction – Rolling Stones 

This 1965 hit will be “satisfying” to learn – the riff can be played on one string and the rhythm part consists of three simple chords! 


Misirlou – Dick Dale 

This surf rock classic can be played on just one string, as long as you can pick fast enough! 


Sunshine of Your Love – Cream 

This memorable riff can be played on just the D string.



Useful guitar tips for beginners

REVIEW: The Yamaha FG800 acoustic guitar is one of the best beginner guitars of 2022

Fret Zealot’s Spring Break Playlist

There’s nothing like the first few days of spring! The Fret Zealot team made a playlist of songs that remind us of spring to get you ready.

Want to play guitar like Cory Wong?

Do you want to learn to play like Cory Wong? The Cory Wong Player Study will take you on a deep dive of his funky signature style, including his innovative strum patterns and rhythmic single-note melodies.


Cory Wong was raised in Minneapolis, Minn.  His father exposed him to classic rock and jazz music at an early age, and he took piano lessons starting at age nine. Young Wong was inspired by bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Primus, and he decided to take up bass. Wong took both guitar and bass lessons, and started a punk rock band while still in high school. 

He decided to play music professionally at age 20 while studying at McNally Smith College of Music. Wong focused on jazz music in the early days of his career, performing in local jazz clubs and releasing two albums with jazz groups. He then started playing the Nashville circuit as a session player and guitarist, where he worked with a plethora of artists. In 2013, Wong met Ann Arbor band Vulfpeck and began touring and recording with the band in 2016. He’s also a member of The Fearless Flyers and has released solo albums. 


Wong is a modern funk legend, and is an expert at utilizing his right strumming hand to propel grooves into his music. In his playing, you can hear elements of Prince (natural for someone raised in Minneapolis, as well as some of the complex chords and scales he utilized while playing in jazz clubs. 

Variety show 

In 2021, Wong added another title to his resume – variety show host. “Cory and the Wongnotes” on YouTube is a musician’s dream – it features a full band, original music, comedy skits, and interviews with experts on topics like gear and music genres. 


Once you master Cory Wong’s signature style, you can find tabs for Wong and Vulfpeck in the Fret Zealot app!


Want to learn to play guitar like Joe Bonamassa?

Want to learn to play guitar like B.B. King?

Five courses that will take your guitar playing to the next level

You’ve memorized all of the chords, familiarized yourself with the scales, and built up a repertoire of songs. Now what?

These five advanced-level courses in the Fret Zealot app will help you level up, from good to Guitar God. 

Master Your Fingers – Guitar Gym

Hit the gym – for your guitar skills. This course will have your fingers breaking a sweat through arpeggios, octaves, and scales to get you in fighting shape. 


Pure Pentatonic Power: Rock and Blues Lead Guitar Course

Stuck in the pentatonic box? If you love playing rock and blues music but feel uninspired playing the same old licks, this course is for you. It will teach you all the pentatonic shapes, 18 licks, and the patterns, bends, and techniques of guitar greats like Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour. 


Flamenco Guitar

If you’re ready for something completely different, try this flamenco guitar course! It will take you through the defining techniques of flamenco guitar, which you can incorporate into your own playing to create a unique sound. 

Triads for Guitar on Strings 1, 2, and 3

Spice up both rhythm and lead playing with this course, which will help you learn three different inversions of a triad as well as how to construct them. 

Making the Modes Easy! Pro Lead Guitar Course

What are modes? This course explains them all, as well as how to use them for playing rock music.


These are the top ten Fret Zealot courses of 2022

How to learn alternate tunings

How to find time to practice guitar each day

Want to learn to play guitar like Joe Bonamassa?

This Joe Bonamassa Player Study will fuel your “Drive” to be a better blues guitar player. This course will take you through the theory, scales and techniques Joe Bonamassa uses to create his distinctive fast runs and beautiful melodies!


Joe Bonamassa picked up the guitar at the tender age of four. His father was a big music fan and played him records of British blues players like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, which inspired the young Bonamassa. At 11, he was being mentored in guitar by “redneck jazz” pioneer Danny Gatton, and by 12 was gigging around Western New York and Pennsylvania on weekends with his band, Smokin’ Joe Bonamassa. Also that year, he opened for blues legend B.B. King for about 20 gigs. 

Bonamassa played in a band called Bloodline with the sons of Miles Davis, Robby Krieger and Berry Oakley before putting out his debut solo album in 2000.  He has released a total of 15 solo albums through his independent record label, 11 of which have reached No. 1 on the Billboard Blues chart. 

In 2020, Bonamassa created an independent record label called Keeping the Blues Alive Records, dedicated to promoting blues musicians. 


Bonamassa has cited Eric Clapton, Jethro Tull, and Stevie Ray Vaughan as some of his biggest influences. He fuses rock and blues together in his playing, incorporating atypical groupings of notes in scale patterns. He also plays “outside of the box” by starting on second beats, utilizing string bends, and repeating rhythms. 


Bonamassa has a huge guitar and gear collection. He got a head start on the collection since his parents own a music shop in Central New York.  In 2019, he told Guitar World that he has more than 400 guitars and 400 amplifiers. 

Bonamassa has said that his favorite guitar is his 1951 Fender Telecaster, nicknamed “The Bludgeon”.  He also collaborated with Epiphone in 2021 to release a replica of his 1958 Gibson Les Paul Custom. 


Once you’ve mastered Bonamassa’s signature style with the player study course, you can find tabs for 44 of his songs, including “A New Day Yesterday”, “If Heartaches Were Nickels”, and “Sloe Gin”.