Pickups: haulin’ your tone since 1931!


Pickups are what make electric guitars electric. Fundamentally, pickups convert your guitar’s string vibration into an electrical current that an amplifier can boost to an audible level. They are extremely important in defining your tone.

Not all pickups are created equal and there are different varieties that create different tones. So how do you chose between them when buying a new guitar? Well, check it out below:

Single coil pickups.
These pickups are known for their clarity and punchiness. (Yeah, that’s not a real word but it works.) Single coil pickups sound very good played through a clean or slightly distorted amplifier. Here is a great example of a single coil pickup played through a mostly clean amp. This is “Little Wing,” performed by Stevie Ray Vaughan using a Fender Stratocaster:

Their versatility is apparent when you use them to play heavily distorted tones as well. Listen to Eric Johnson’s classic “Cliffs of Dover,” also played on a Stratocaster:

Pros: Versatile; great for many styles; exceptional clarity; lots of dynamic punch!
Cons: Some varieties are susceptible to hum; not as high-output as a humbucker, so not great for heavy metal.
For more details and photos, see the Wikipedia article here.

Humbucker pickups.
As the name suggests, these pickups were originally designed to eliminate the unwanted “hum” that single coil pickups can produce when positioned near sources of radio frequencies.

This was achieved by placing two single coil pickups side by side, with one of the pickups running the opposite polarity as the other. The opposing polarities cancel out the RF noise.

A byproduct of this design was that the dual-single coil configuration sent a higher-level, or hotter, signal to the amp that was darker and thicker in tone. A humbucker works an amp harder then single coil pickups. That means a humbucker pickup makes the amp distort much sooner than single coil picks would. Consequently, humbucker pickups have been adopted by many hard rock and metal players for their aggressive stance. More distortion? Humbuckers will deliver!

Here, James Hetfield of Metallica plays “Enter Sandman” with his ESP Explorer guitar. This shows you how aggressive humbucking pickups can sound. The solo by Kirk Hammett is also played with humbucking pickups:

Humbuckers aren’t just for the hard rockers. Jazz players often prefer them for their darker and thicker tone. Check out Grant Green perform “Favorite Things”:

Pros: High-octane, amp-driving tone; darker, heavier sound. Cancels RF hum.
Cons: Sometimes can be too hot for certain styles of playing; less dynamics than a single coil.
For more details and photos, see the Wikipedia article here.

So how do you decide which type of pickup is right for you? Well, that answer can be difficult to answer. The easiest way to find out is to do two things:

1. Go to the music store and play guitars with single coils and guitars with humbuckers. Play them through a variety of amps and settings. Which do you like better?
2. What music do you want to play? Look up your favorite bands and find out what guitars they are playing. If your collection of music is pretty homogeneous,  you should see a trend toward one pickup or the other. Go with the type of pickup that you find is the most popular in your music collection.

Follow your ear. It will lead you to the right choice.

For more information about me and the guitar lessons that I give, visit www.ewguitar.com.

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About ewguitar
I am a private guitar instructor in Glen Burnie, MD.

3 Responses to Pickups: haulin’ your tone since 1931!

  1. Thanks, I know this article was just for us. I learned much from this info. Almost feel like I know what Raven is after. She has not put down the new guitar much!!

    Peace, Tom

  2. Earle, I wonder if you still have that paper you wrote on the electromagnetic pickup for the “History of Technology” class? That would be interesting to read!

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