Buying a guitar: Electric Guitar Pickups
Prepared by Alan Humm
Well, OK, not Martin, although they did offer an electric line between
1962 and 1982.
OK, those of you who turned your noses up at the previous section should
know that the first electric guitars were from National (see the section
on resonator guitars) for their lap-steel guitars. That National would
be involved should come as no surprise, since their original goal was to
make guitars that could compete (volume-wise) in the big bands. That was
in 1931; electrified 'Spanish' guitars soon followed and by 1935 pretty
much everyone who made guitars (at least in the US) had jumped on the
One thing you should figure out right away, is all that stuff I said
about top-wood is completely useless in the field of electrics. Unless
you are actually micing your guitar (some do use piezo mics for this
purpose) its vibrating properties have only minimal impact on the tone
of the instrument. I will talk about exceptions as we progress.
Basic Humbucker by Seymour Duncan.
When you are shopping for an electric, the electric equivalent to a fine
top is a fine set of electronics, and in particular, the pickup(s). In
their natural state, pickups tend to hum, particularly around other
electrical stuff, like your amplifier, the lights, and whatever is in
the area. Quite early on, a method was developed to cancel out the hum
by using two pickups with the magnetic cores in opposing directions
which are then wired in series, and out of phase. This creates a phase
cancelation which removes most hum. Double coil pickups, such as those
used in most Gibson guitars locate are constantly running in this serial
The Stratocaster dealt with this problem by having three pickups, with
the middle one out of magnetic phase, producing a sort of dual coil
sound when the center pickup was activated with either the bridge pickup
or the neck pickup.
Fender Single-coil (Tex-Mex) pickup.
Nevertheless, there is some loss, particularly in the high end, relative
to single-coil pickups. Some players distinctly prefer the humbucker
(double-coil) sound, but others want the brighter sound, and were
willing to live with the occasional hum to get it. This was the backbone
of the Fender market and sound.2 In the last 10-15 years,
single coil designs have moved forward, largely solving this problem,
although not addressing the obvious issue of individual preference.
Lower end single pickup guitars are likely to still have the problem,
but mid-range instruments have generally moved along to the point where
the final issue comes down to aural preference. Many higher end
instruments will give you both single and dual coil pickups,
theoretically offering you the best of both worlds.
Even if you are a kind of veteran, you may not be aware of what the
posts are for on your pickups. They are there to balance the output of
your strings, which do not all produce the same magnetic field
interference. They are setup for the type of strings your manufacturer
expects you to play. If you play anything remotely unusual, they might
need adjusting. Sometimes this is possible (e.g. humbuckers); other
times not (most Fenders). If you think this is something that might need
to be done, and it can be done, you should talk to a setup or repair
person. Better not to do it yourself.
Many microphones use what is called, "phantom power." This requires your
amplifier or some external box to send 48 volts to your microphone. Some
guitars are now being made to make use of this feature, although it does
require an extra wire, so the normal guitar cable will not work.
Some newer manufacturers have addressed the noise issue by using higher
impedance piezo pickups which, however, need some boost prior to leaving
the instrument. Since it is not unusual these days for an instrument to
have an internal preamplifier, this lower output has become an
non-issue. Of course, not everyone is happy with having to keep a
current battery in their instrument at all times. And Murphy's law
pretty much guarantees that it will choke on you at precisely the most
inconvenient time. One of my guitars requires not one, but two
batteries, which is oodles of fun.3
Ultimately, the bottom line is that you need to try out various
different pickup configurations, hopefully with otherwise identical
amplifiers and rooms, to see what you personally prefer.
If you plan to play through effects boxes (most electric players do
these days), most of these issues may be completely leveled for you by
the circuitry between your guitar and your amplifier, so don't loose too
much sleep over it. Of course, now, picking your effects units is a
whole topic unto itself, and I am not going there on this page.
Unless you are very new this you are doubtless aware that the pickup
next to the bridge tends to sound more trebly than the one right next to
the fingerboard. If there is a third one in the middle, it will sound
sort of in the middle, if it is allowed to sound by itself at all. The
toggle switch (usually three positions, although five position switches
do exist) selects which of these is in use, or both. The reason for this
sound difference is not about pickups. It results from the fact that
near the ends of the strings you get more overtones, and that is where
the bridge pickup is located. If you have only one pickup, you will
loose this quick tone selection option, so be aware. Generally more than
two pickups is a waste of money, although the Fender Stratocaster, as I
mentioned earlier, and some others use their middle pickups like a
humbucker with either of the two outside ones, to cancel hum, so they
are not wasted.
Piezo add-on Pickup for Archtop (Shadow).
Piezo pickups work differently and are generally the pickups of choice
for amplifying acoustic instruments since they have a much wider
frequency range (and by the way do not have the problems with hum). They
have very high impedance, and so require an on-instrument amplifier.
Because of their sensitivity differences, some electrics are now
including these attached to the bridge, allowing them to make use of the
acoustic properties of the instrument. This is particularly true for
hybrid guitars, but even solid bodies can use this to give the performer
more tonal options. They are especially popular on basses.
Just a capacitor to suck off treble and make it sound more bassy; you
also lost volume, predictably. Many modern guitars, if they have
pre-amps built in, will give you actual tone circuitry that doesn't cut
stuff. Of course you pay for that, and you keep paying every time you
have to buy new batteries.
The last thing I am going to mention has to do with the controls that
appear on the surface of the instrument. As with, it seems like,
everything I have discussed in this section, some of this is a matter of
taste. There are two different philosophies: easy to use and full
control. Back in the day, before even I was born, and that is saying
something, electric guitars came with one pickup and a volume control,
and that is it. Later on someone decided to add a treble cut
knob4 and called it a tone control. Later still manufacturers
decided that two pickups were better than one. From that point on,
things got more complicated. You need a switch to select which pickups
are being used at any given moment (the toggle switch) and you need to
control volume and tone. So, do you need to control volume and tone
separately per pickup (four knobs) or just have a one each to cover both
(two knobs). If you choose the first option you can get fine control on
tone while you are playing with both pickups running, and by setting the
volume differently between them you can change volume output quickly
with the toggle switch (say between the rhythm and lead sections of a
song). But you have more to think about; and if you want to turn the
volume or change the tone on the whole instrument you have more knobs to
mess with. At those moments you want one volume and one tone.
When you go shopping the salesperson will gladly fill you in on the
features you absolutely have to have.
Lots of options on the Gibson Firebird X.
Simplicity from Music Man.
All this is only the beginning of the story. Now-days many guitars allow
you to run the pickups in and out of phase (out of phase is more trebly
even than the bridge pickup), in parallel or serial (parallel gives a
little more of a distorted feel), and other things that are not
occurring to me right now.5 If you have a piezo pickup, that has to be
mixed in, too. The bottom line is that pretty soon you don't have any
more room on the front of your guitar for all the knobs and switches,
and you have to have a master's degree in electronics just to figure it
out. Now, just because you have them doesn't mean you have to use them.
I use mine some, but mostly I just played with them until I liked the
sound and then I stopped messing with them except for the volume and
toggle switch. Oh yeah, I do have a master volume, thank you very much.