Most electric guitarists know how important the pickups on their guitar are to the overall sound of the instrument. But how do guitar pickups work? Why do humbuckers sound different than single coils?
For most electric guitars, pickups define the sound of the instrument as a whole, so it’s fun and important to have a little knowledge of the science behind these important pieces of your instrument! So let’s answer the question, how do guitar pickups work!
What is a Guitar Pickup?
Simply put, a guitar pickup is a device that turns the vibrations of the strings on your guitar into an electrical signal. This signal travels through a chord into your guitar amp, where it is outputted as sound.
The construction of a guitar pickup consists of a pin, often called a bobbin, wrapped with conductive wire. Inside of the bobbin, you have one or more magnets depending on the type of pickup.
How do Guitar Pickups Work? Electromagnetic Induction
Guitar pickups work thanks to something called electromagnetic induction. Electromagnetic Induction is based on the scientific principle that electricity can be generated from magnetism. Magnetism is the force of attraction or repulsion when two objects come together. Each magnet creates a small field around it, which is the reason that pickups contain magnets!
So, when a guitar string is plucked they produce a vibration in the wire and coil, this vibration disrupts the magnetic field from the magnets, generating an electrical signal. This electrical signal is later what we hear as sound after passing through an amplifier.
The difference in where a string is struck, the thickness of the string, and the length of it will all create different electrical signals, thus creating different notes when transformed into sound from the amplifier!
If you want to really dive into the science, the pickup building community has long been in a debate over how exactly the magnetic field is being affected. One community believes in a magnet-centric model, while the other a string-centric one.
Why do Different Pickups Produce Different Tones?
Maybe the most interesting part of pickups arent the components, but the nearly endless options you have for the number and types of magnets, the windings on the coil, the spacing between those windings, and differences in the bobbin.
Alnico is the most common magnet used for guitar pickups, but even that isn’t as simple as it sounds. There are four different compounds of alnico magnet all used for guitar pickups. Alnico, 2, 3, 4, and 5 are all used today, with 5 being the most common and traditional for many Fender models.
Ceramic magnets are the 2nd most common on electric guitars. These pickups tend to run hotter than their alnico counterparts, resulting in powerful, clear notes that really ring out. Many punk, hard rock, and metal guitarists opt for ceramic magnets. Ceramics also have the benefit of being cheaper than alnico.
Single Coil vs. Humbucker vs. P90
The original pickups were developed by Fender in the early 50’s and were all single coil by design. As the name would suggest, these pickups only had one bobbin wrapped in wire. Many household names have played these pickups and to this day they are popular for their bright, crisp sound.
In 1955 Gibson came out with the Seth Lover humbuckers. The first true competitor to the single-coil, these pickups were the answer to the lower output and hum that the single coils were susceptible to.
Somewhere between these two styles of pickup sits the P-90. A pickup that shares the size of the humbucker with the single-coil design of the original.
We’ve written a full article comparing the Single Coil vs. P90 vs. Humbucker if you want to dig deeper into the differences in sound, style, and design of the three main types of pickup!
How do Acoustic Guitar Pickups Work?
For those of us who love acoustic guitars, we understand the struggle that can come with trying to amplify these instruments. One solution is to buy a good acoustic-electric, which solves the problem instantly.
If you already have an acoustic guitar that you love, there are three options for adding a pickup to it: magnetic, piezoelectric, or microphone.
This type of pickup is most similar to those found on a true electric guitar. They are built in the same exact way, the difference is that they are clipped onto the guitar near the soundhole, rather than being mounted directly to the instrument.
This is a nice option since they can be removed just as easily as a capo, but they tend to sound the least like an acoustic guitar and won’t work with nylon strings.
This is basically a single-coil pickup that you mount near the bridge of the guitar using super glue or something similar. These pickups have very low output and will need a preamp.
I normally stay away from piezoelectric pickups, I hate the idea of gluing something to my guitar and have had big problems with feedback at higher volumes while using this type of pickup.
The third type of pickup is probably the best, and most accurate sounding one, but also the hardest to install. They will also likely be the most expensive option, but if you really like your guitar and want the best solution possible, this is it.
What Does Raising the Pickups on a Guitar do?
Simply put, there is a correct height that your pickups need to be mounted at for them to generate the correct sound. Pickups mounted either too close to the strings, or too far away, will cause problems.
If set too high (close to the strings), the magnets will actually push and pull your strings out of tune. In fact, if you find yourself constantly having to tune your instrument, you likely either need to get new strings or you need to adjust your pickup.
When your pickups are too far away from the strings the magnetic field is not optimized and at best you’ll get lower output than expected, at worst you can get strange distortions.
The Final Note
With the information in this article you should be able to not only answer the question “how do guitar pickups work?” but know the basic differences between different models and materials!
Unfortunately, that’s the easy part! With tons of options out there for pickups, and tons of variables to consider for what you want in your sound, this is only the first step. So, while you now know how to answer the question: “how do guitar pickups work?”, you still have to figure out which one makes the best sound for your needs, playing style, and ear!