When playing an electric guitar there are a lot of components that effect sound. The location of your pickups is near the top of that list! So, neck vs bridge pickups? Which is better?
Pickups are responsible for transmitting the sound vibrations to the amp to produce sound, so obviously they are important!
The answer, like so many things with guitar, is that it depends on what you’re looking for. Both bridge and neck pickups have their benefits and drawbacks, and knowing what you’re looking for in each will help you choose between the two!
Single Pickup Guitars
The main difference between neck vs bridge pickups is the sound and tone they produce. Neck pickups produce a sound that is warm and smooth that is commonly used for solos and melodies. Bridge pickups sound brighter and sharper and lead to some piercing riffs, lead lines and rhythm.
While many electric guitars come stock with two or three pickups, there are plenty that still use a single. Single pickup enthusiasts argue that a single pickup is enough to get a range of different sounds that other configurations just don’t have.
The neck pickup is often used for more mellow and softer tones, while the bridge pickup has the tendency to be a bit livelier and brighter.
It is also common to hear that only having one magnet allows the strings to vibrate freely, producing a sound that is more natural and organic. For those who just like the natural tone of a single pickup guitar, there is definitely an argument for it over the more complicated multiple pickup configuration.
The last benefit to either a neck or bridge pickup in a single pickup guitar is the choice in tone and sound. Each has their own distinct sound, so finding one that you like best will greatly improve your experience with that guitar.
Neck vs Bridge Pickup Locations
Luckily, the locations of these two pickups is described by their name. If you know a little about your guitar parts, you’ll know where to find them: first, on the body of your guitar; second, near the neck or the headstock.
The location of the neck pickups are right next to the fretboard. On most guitars the neck pickup will be very close to the end of the neck. If the pickup is more than an inch from the base of the neck, you are likely looking at an instrument with a middle pickup.
Bridge pickups on the other hand are installed nearest to the bridge, where there is a magnetic string that tracks the guitar string’s vibration as it moves up and down.
The fact the pickup is so close to the bridge makes the sound it produces much different from the neck, even though they are just a few inches apart.
The Sound of a Bridge Pickup
The bridge pickup generally has a sharp, clear tone that cuts through noise because it is so clear. The pickup is close to the anchor point, so the strings have less time to vibrate. The sound is higher in pitch, too, which makes the sound brighter than that of the neck.
The bridge pickup is usually used to create rhythms and often in conjunction with the middle pickup to create a rich chord sound. If you goal is simply tonal quality, the bridge pickup is the perfect choice.
Sounds of Neck Pickups
Neck pickups tend to produce a much more mellow and well rounded sound than a bridge thanks the the extra vibration and movement of the strings. The sound is warmer which makes the neck pickup perfect for lead lines, melodies and solos.
The sound from a neck pickup is thicker than a bridge pickup, too, due to its placement at the base of the guitar neck. The added thickness of warmth makes up for the lack of pitch as well keeping the notes ringing longer and smoother.
There is no better example of the sound of a neck pickup in action than the opening chords of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. When the first drum hits, the tone switches because Slash, the lead guitarist, activates his bridge pickup.
When to Use Bridge Pickups vs Neck Pickups
Really, this is a personal preference. The pickup you choose to use, or the combination of pickups, depends on the kind of sound you want to create. A good example is the effect of a Les Paul. The sound of Slash’s Les Paul when it’s just him playing with a clean tone, with the bridge pickup and no other effects, sounds really bright and cutting through.
On the flip side, that same guitar when he uses both pickups together in a heavy distortion will completely sound different.
Experiment with different configurations to find the perfect one for you, but remember that it’s more about personal preference than one being better than the other.
Manufacturing Bridge and Neck Pickups
All electric guitar pickups are made up of four basic parts:
Wire – particularly the wire used to make electric guitar pickups is very important. It helps shape the sound that comes from the pickup. Different manufacturers use different kinds of wire and each offers a unique advantage over the others.
Cores – a core is used to create a magnetic field, which is essential for all electric guitar pickups. The size of this core determines not just how much power is used to create a magnetic field, but more importantly it effects tone, especially with single-coil pickups.
Magnets – the magnet in an electric guitar pickup is a pretty simple device, but vital to the overall sound of a pickup. The magnet’s strength has an impact on every part of the sound a pickup produces.
Packaging – this is the actual housing of your pickup. It’s one of the biggest factors in how well a pickup is shielded and how it sounds. A better housing helps reduce unwanted noise from both outside interference and internal parts.
Each pickup is calibrated for the specific location that it will be mounted on your guitar. Bridge pickups are wound more to compensate for the lack of string movement and increase volume. Neck pickups will have lower resistance and output because of the the extra string vibration at the neck location.
Other Sound Factors That Effect Pickups
When shopping for a new guitar, or just upgrading the pickups on an older instrument, there are a few factors you should think about that will effect the sound of your instrument.
Guitar Shape, Material and Construction
Both the wood used to make the body and the neck of your guitar will effect the sound produced by your instrument. A shorter scale neck will have a different tone than a longer one, as will a thinner or heavier body.
Your amplifier is also an important factor in determining what your guitar sounds like. You don’t have to pay big money for a great sounding amp, but the cheaper ones tend to distort the sound too easily and degrade it quickly.
Check to see if the magnets used in the pickups are ceramic or alnico. Many people feel ceramics have a ‘hotter’ sound than alnico.
You can also run into trouble if you have a ceramic bridge pickup and an alnico neck pickup. The video below goes into more detail!
The Final Note
Ultimately, both neck and bridge pickups have their pros and cons. The best way to find the one that you need is to play around. Try different guitars with different configurations until you find the perfect sound for you!