Guitar Pickup Guide

When it comes to guitars, details count and great players know this better than anyone. It's amazing how many options we have these days when it comes to electric guitars.  There really is something for everyone out there. A big part of our job here at the store is steering customers in the right direction based on the feedback they give us. As a general rule, the more a customer knows about their gear the better feedback they are able to provide us. That really is the purpose of the articles that we write. We know that each player is different and each probably have a different idea of what "good tone" is. We feel that the more information we can provide to a player the better we can help them find the right gear for their needs. We know that a lot of purchases take place online these days and most of the time a player doesn't have the opportunity to play before they buy. For this reason it's imperative that a player have at least a basic understanding of the different aspects of their gear so they can get a rough idea of what to expect without having the luxury of hearing it beforehand.

Guitar pickups may be one of the best examples of a small detail that has a pretty large impact on the tone of an instrument. The better a player can understand the different types of pickups and how they sound the better they can narrow down which one best fits their needs. This guide is not really meant to tell you specifically which pickup you need. Honestly you are the only one that can really answer that question, but we hope after you finish reading it you will have at least a basic knowledge of what to expect out of each type of pickup.

Understanding Output

There are many "specs" related to pickups, but by far the one that is the most important to understand is output. It will have the most drastic effect on tone of any of the other characteristics. Knowing the output of a pickup will give you the best idea of the basic character of a pickup. Most of the time this is expressed using Ohms as it relates to the DC resistance of the pickup. Don't be freaked out if that sounds very technical, it is actually not as involved as it sounds. Furthermore, it is actually more important to understand the how the measurement itself affects tone rather than how it is measured. In general the higher the number the "hotter" or more output the pickup is going to have. There is not a standard range but most pickups are going to fall somewhere in between 6k and 20k ohms.

As we just mentioned, the reason that this measurement is important is that it will give you a basic idea what to expect from the pickup.  The hotter (higher DC resistance) a pickup is the more it is going to push an amp and typically the more it is going to overdrive/distort. There is not a cut and dry rule, but in general as the DC resistance drops the pickup also tends to have a brighter character.  As the dc resistance rises the highs tend to be rolled off a bit giving the pickup a warmer and often more "bassy" quality. Neither is better than the other, just more suited for different needs. For example, for the player that is looking for a lot of rich crunch and sustain they are going to get this sound more easily out of a higher output pickup than something the 6-8k range. That is not say that it can not be done, but a higher output pickup is going to drive an amp harder and produce more crunch. On the other hand, for the player that wants lots of presence and "pop" to their sound a nice vintage voiced medium to low output pickup is going to be tough to beat.

Single Coil and Humbucker?

 As we mentioned earlier, output is the most important attribute to take into consideration when looking at different pickups. Another thing to consider is the design of the pickup. Anyone who has played guitar for any period of time has heard the terms "single coil" and "humbucker". Excluding a few "progressive" designs pickups are going to fall into one of the two categories.

Single Coil - This is the older of the two designs and it is still a very common pickup found on many guitars these days. In general, the tone on a single coil is typically bright and chimey with great response to pick attack and dynamics. Output can range from anywhere from the 6-8k range in "vintage voiced" pickups all the way to the mid teens in some hotter designs. There are several different designs of single coils but here are a few notable designs and guitars that use them:

"Tele" Style - This is a very widely used design and its bright "twangy" voice have made it a popular pickup among a wide range of players for more than half a century. It is a great pickup for a player that really loves the dynamics of there picking to come through an amp. Though often thought of as a "country" pickup, it honestly is as useful for a chicken-picker as a "rocker". In terms of output this style can be found in a vintage style of wind as well as hotter more progressive setups.

Here are a few guitars that use this style of pickup:

"Strat" Style - Along with the Tele this style of pickup has seen a lot of action in the half century since it was first introduced and for good reason. The bright "glassy" character of this pickup make it a very versatile design and suited for a wide range of applications. Output typically is on the lower side of the spectrum, however there are some hotter winds available these days. Even with the typical lower output this pickup is a good choice for clean as well as overdriven applications.

Here are a few guitars that use this style of pickup:

Soapbar/P-90 - Yet again another vintage design that is still very much in demand these days. When compared to the strat/tele style mentioned earlier this type of pickup typically has considerably more midrange and output. When clean it is bright, but with just the right amount of body. When pushed into overdrive, it's articulate and often has an edgy "chainsaw-like" midrange that many players have come to love. Strangely enough, this pickup is as popular with the jazz guys as the "rockers".

Here are a few guitars that use this design:

Humbucker - This design employs two coils that are wired to act as one. This has two major benefits, the first being that since the the coils are wound with the poles opposing one another (opposite polarity) they in effect cancel out the natural "hum" often present with single coils. Hence the name "Humbucker". The other being that the output is typically higher than single coils making the pickup more able to drive an amp. That being said they are not just for crunch, humbuckers come in a variety of winds from vintage style which has a warm, mellow tone all the way to extremely high output which is extremely hot. Depending on the output they are extremely well suited for a variety of applications.

Here are a few humbucker driven guitars:

Looking to Upgrade?

We also offer a variety of pickups that can be installed in a guitar that you already own. It is amazing what a good set of pickups can do for your tone. You can often turn an "okay" guitar into a great guitar with just switching out the pickups. If you are not mechanically inclined and you are interested in learning how to work on guitars installing a set of pickups is a good way to "break the ice". It is a reasonably quick and easy project with limited tools needed. Most pickups include a wiring diagram as well as directions how to install them. It is a great way to learn a little more about your guitar and if you like to tinker it is a quite fun project. Here is a link to some of the pickups that we carry:

Guitar and Bass Pickups