There are several main electric guitar pickup types, each with their own unique voice- here’s a mini guide to them…
There are few components within a guitar’s construction that have a greater effect on the overall tone of an electric guitar than pickups. There are several major electric guitar pickup types, however, and each has their own unique characteristics.
To help understand the differences between them, here’s a short guide.
The single coil pickup
The first pickup design was a single-coil pickup. The first commercially available guitar to feature a single coil is credited as being the ‘Frying Pan’, developed by George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker.
The pickup itself was (you guessed it) a single coil of wire, with 2 horseshoe shaped magnets.
Arguably, the brand that made the single coil pickup its own was Fender. The original Esquire model featured one single-coil pickup, which evolved into 2 when the Telecaster was launched in ‘52, then 3 with the Stratocaster in’54.
The characteristic tone of a single-coil pickup is bright and cutting. Telecaster-style pickups have a distinctive ‘twang’, with sparkly highs and punchy mids. Stratocaster style single coils are not as narrow, and not as bright and ‘twangy’ as Tele pickups as a result, but more ‘rounded’ and warm, with a snappier, punchier tone.
The drawback of typical single-coil pickups is that they tend to be quite noisy, with mains hum a contributor to this. Modern ‘noiseless’ versions do tend to reduce this problem, however.
Other single coils tend to be somewhere between these two examples, depending on the width of the coil, as this greatly affects how bright or dark the tone will be. Which brings us onto the next pickup type…
Gibson has contributed a huge amount to the development of the electric guitar pickup over the years. The P90 was introduced after the Second World War, and replaced its previous bar or blade design pickups.
Initially, these were fitted to the impressive range of archtop guitars that Gibson produced. However, it was when the Les Paul Gold Top was released in ’52 that the P90 was truly brought to the masses.
The P90 is a single coil pickup, but one with a wide coil. This increases the area of the strings that the pickup ‘hears’, and results in a bigger sound, that is less bright than a typical single coil.
The P90 is generally sought after for its high output, with powerful mid-range. The resulting tone can range from rich, creamy cleans to edgy, growling overdriven tones.
The P90 is found in several forms: the ‘Soap Bar’ is a rectangular design, with mounting screws contained within, and usually a plastic casing, which is generally white, cream or black. The ‘Dog Ear’ is similar in shape, but has ‘ear’ screw mounts either side. Finally, P90s are sometimes found in humbucker style casings.
All feature the same inner design, however.
In many ways the humbucker is Gibson’s greatest contribution to the guitar world (and there’s plenty of competition, in that regard). Seth Lover designed this twin coil PAF electric guitar pickup in 1955, with the aim to use the two opposing coils to ‘buck’ the ‘hum’.
This worked a treat, but had some very desirable side effects. The two coils increased the output of the pickup, but also rolled back some of the higher frequencies. The resulting tone was richer, warmer and more powerful. And as time would prove, when overdriven, it would provide rock music with its voice.
Active versus passive
You may have read guitar specifications that indicate a guitar has active pickups, which means that there are passive pickups, by simple reasoning.
The vast majority of well-known guitar models (Teles, Strats, Les Pauls, SGs etc.) have passive pickups. Active pickups first appeared for bassists, and used an active, battery-powered circuit to produce a powerful output, with balanced tone across the frequency range.
In the ‘70s, Jazz guitarists adapted this technology for the guitar for the same reasons, and obtained a hotter, balanced clean tone as a result.
Later, those guitarists playing in more extreme styles of guitar-based rock exploited ‘hotter’ active pickups. It allowed players to drive amps and distortions even harder, and more easily. This is the most common reason for using active pickups these days.
However, the increased gain can mean that the entire signal path, from guitar to amp, has to be altered to accommodate the increase in gain- to reduce the input gain to the amplifier, for example.
As a result, for those who play in a variety of styles, passive pickups are often a more practical option.
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.