There is such wide variety of sounds possible from them, but what factors affect pickup tone?
There are such a wide variety of tones possible from the different pickups available, that you’d be forgiven for thinking that each is a completely individual design. However, there are key aspects of their design that dictate the kind of tone that you can expect from them.
Here, we answer the question ‘what factors affect pickup tone?’
Perhaps the biggest factor affecting pickup tone is the type of magnets used within. The most common type of magnet used is Alnico. Made of Aluminium, Nickel and Cobalt, this type produces warm tone, with a very sweet, smooth top-end. These magnets are available in different grades, with different levels of power. Alnico 2 magnets produce a lower output, warm, vintage tone. Alnico 5s are hotter, with greater output, and Alnico 8s are hotter still.
Ceramic magnets produce the highest output, however. These are made of a combination of iron and other minerals. These are popular in pickups where very high output and very bright tone is required. Put simply, ceramic magnets tend to sound more aggressive than alnico magnets.
Size of magnet also affects pickup tone, as does shape. An increase in size tends to result in a louder, edgier sound.
The other big contributors to tone are the coils. Firstly, the number of coils is key. Humbuckers (2 coils) have higher output than single coils, but also warmer, thicker tone. This is because the opposing coils reinforce the lower frequencies, whilst cancelling out the higher frequencies.
The shape of coil also has an effect. Taller, narrower coils are generally brighter and clearer than coils that are wider, shorter coils. This is due to the wider section of string providing wider variance in tone. Think of a P90 pickup’s tone compared to a Telecaster.
Next, the number of windings of copper wire has a massive affect on tone; the greater the number of windings, the higher the output. This also has the effect of deadening the treble frequencies, and killing dynamics, to some degree. The thickness of wire also has a bearing on this.
In addition, the pattern of wire windings also affects tone. Many vintage pickups, and modern boutique pickups, are scatter wound by hand, as the uneven pattern results in better tone. Finding a balance between coils and magnets is key to pickup tone.
Potting is a method of shielding the coils from external vibration and causing feedback (microphonic feedback- not the good kind). It involves encasing the coils in wax.
Early pickups were not potted, which added a pleasing mid-range vintage ‘honk’. Though more susceptible to feedback, these, when wound well, can have great tone.
Pole-pieces are the round metal studs that sit underneath each string. Typically, these are made of either alnico magnets or steel. Alnico pole-pieces, like those seen on Strat and Tele pickups, lend the tone a brighter character with a tighter response.
Steel pole-pieces are usually implemented via steel screws (think of a typical P90), with central bar magnets beneath. The resulting tone is warmer, with a looser feel than those with alnico pole-pieces.
Some modern pickups employ ‘blade’ pole pieces, which have a single bar rather than individual pieces per string. This helps to give even response when bending strings.
Of course, there are other factors that can affect pickup tone, but the above key elements should make things clearer when understanding pickups and guitar specs.
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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.