Guitar Pickups, A Beginners Guide

Seymour Duncan SH4-JB Humbucker Pickup

A Guide To Guitar Pickups for the Beginner

Electric guitar pickups play a huge part in dictating a guitar’s tone. To the beginner, however, pickups can be a thing of mystery. This simple guide explains what they are, what they do, how they work and which are the right ones for you.

What are Guitar Pickups?

In simple terms, a pickup is the bit of a guitar that ‘listens’ for the strings being played (i.e. it ‘picks up’ string movement). Recognisable as the piece of metal or plastic underneath the guitar strings on the guitar body, they come in a variety of different sizes and designs, but they all work in the same fundamental way. The pickup is constructed of two key elements, a magnet and many turns of wound copper wire. This creates a magnetic field, in which the guitar strings lie. When the strings are moved, this disturbs the magnetic field, creating changes in the current passing through the coils of copper wire. This current then flows through the output of the guitar and on to the amp, where the process is reversed, in essence.

The Main Types of Guitar Pickup

Strat Single Coil Pickup

There are a myriad of different pickup brands and types available on the market, but the vast majority can be divided into two main categories: single coil pickups and humbucker pickups (sometimes called humbucking pickups). A single coil pickup (see above) is built around a single coil of wire (i.e. a single magnet with copper wire coiled around it). Guitars that commonly use single coil pickups include Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters. Single coil pickups generally deliver a sound that is bright, woody, with a slightly ‘twangy’ tone. Yes, I know that’s probably not a word, but when you hear a Telecaster, you’ll know exactly what I mean… Whilst single coil pickups can be used for all types of music, they are less powerful, and have a ‘thinner’ less powerful tone which, when heavily distorted perhaps makes them less ideal for ‘heavy’ guitar tones than humbuckers.

Humbucker Pickup

Humbuckers have two coils (i.e. two magnets wound with copper wire next to each other). The unique thing about a humbucker is that, by placing the magnets of opposed polarity next to each other, background ‘hum’ is cancelled out (hence the name). A side effect of this is that pickup is ‘hearing’ sound from a wider section of the string, the tone is thicker and more powerful. In addition, the two opposing coils remove some of the higher, ‘brighter’ frequencies along with the hum, leaving a guitar tone that is warmer and less, erm, ‘twangy’, but with greatly added power and volume. Humbucker guitar pickups are commonly used in Gibson Les Pauls and Gibson SG’s. Again, there are no rules where guitar tone is concerned, ‘if it sounds right, it is right’, but the added power, warmth, and thick bass make these particularly well suited to Rock, Metal, and any style where heavy distortion or high gain is required.


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