Pickups are the most important factor in a guitar’s sound (together with the amp), but how does these pieces with round grey dot actually work?
In this article we’ll see how they produce sound and which parts constitute the actual pickup
WHAT IS A PICKUP?
An electric guitar pickup is a transducer (a complex name that simply indicates a device that converts a form of energy into another form, in this case it converts the mechanical vibrations of a string into an electrical signal).
The electric signal then:
– exit the pickups
– goes through the cables and the pedal chain
– arrives into the amp, where it is re-converted in sound.
The most common type of pickup is a magnetic pickup that uses 6 magnets (the round metallic stuff that you see below each string) and a coil of wire wounded around those magnets. a coil of wire that is electrified with an alternating current in order to generate a proportional voltage.
HOW DOES A PICKUP WORK
A permanent magnet positioned in the guitar’s bridge moves within the magnetic field to create variations in the flux–which alters the induction, and creates a current that corresponds to the intensity of string vibrations.
In short, when you play you pick and play the strings, making them vibrate and causing an alteration in the magnetic field with this vibration – this alteration is the signal that is sent from the pickups all the way into the pedals and the amp.
HOW IT’S MADE: ACTIVE AND PASSIVE BEHAVIOUR
A pickup can be either passive, active, or a combination of both.
Passive pickups are non-powered and require the signal to produce a sound to be powered by an external source such as an amplifier or the instruments own power source.
Active pickups are powered and convert the signal into vibrations internally before transferring them to the output and then, finally, into the amp.
WHAT COIL TO CHOOSE?
The type of pickup you choose will depend on what sound you are trying to achieve.
In order to give your guitar the right sound, you need a pickup that is good for your style of music: the main types of pickups are the piezo-electric, the single coil and the humbucker.
Piezo pickups are a type of guitar pickup that is used in acoustic guitars because they provide a natural sound that is free of any unwanted feedback or noise interference.
These pickups are made up of piezoelectric crystals and typically include a preamp for more control over the volume, tone, and other settings.
Then there is the single coil, that provides a brighter sound with more treble than the other types: single coils are best for country, pop, and rock styles.
A humbucker pickup is a double coil that creates a thicker and more resonant sound than single coils do: the best use for them is in the heavy metal and hard rock genres of music.
HOW IT’S MADE: DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SINGLE COIL AND HUMBUCKER
The single coil is susceptible to outside noise, and when “forced” to work with high gain and distortions can generate noises and background hum, making a unpleasing background noise as you try to play with a high-gain sound.
The “humbucker” , made using two single coils, does what the name says: it kills the “Hum” and the noise when you play with distortion.
The two sets of magnets act as a noise reducer because the coils have opposite polarity and therefore they both cancel each other’s noise (hum cancellation).
Beyond that, he humbucker can be used in either the bridge or the neck position, but it works best in the bridge.
HOW IT’S MADE: THE AMOUND OF WIRE WINDING
Another factor that plays a role in the design and the final sound is how the coil is winded around the magnet: different windings can have great impacts on the overall sound.
Every variation of the thickness of the coil and the layers of a wire can make a different sound from every other combination, giving a lot of space for experimentation and bold designs, but in general exagerating with the coil can give a muffled sound and generate more hum (but obviously that’s a problem only if you craft the pickuo by yourself, because the “pre-made” ones on the market are perfectly balanced for this particular aspect).
HOW IT’S MADE: THE MATERIAL OF THE MAGNET
The main materials for a pickup are ceramic and Alnico.
Alnico magnets are composed by Aluminun (Al), Nickel (Ni) and Cobalt (Co): they have a very high resistance to demagnetisation (and therefore they last for a very long time without changes in the sound outputs and sound production) and are the most common type of magnet in the pickups.
There are several types of Alnico, labeled with a specific number. and in average the higher the number is and the higher output it can provide, with more bass and a more “big and powerful” sound.
The main types are:
– Alnico 2: with a mellow and soft sound, often used with jazz and music where the tone has to be clear and crisp: they have a soft clear low-end and a bright treble in the EQ;
– Alnico 5: medium-high output and great versatility, and for this reason it’s the most used in the market;
– Alnico 6 and 8: They have the highest magnetic field (the 8 is higher than the 6) and can give the strongest output, making them the best for high-gain and distortion-packed music genres such as hard rock, metal and prog.
They have a massive low end, a sharp and powerful midrange and strong treble.
Ceramic is usually cheaper as a material, and for this reason is often found in cheap guitar’s pickups: that doesn’t mean, though, that they are bad, because there are many levels of this material’s quality that can reach high-end quality too.
They have a higher output and generally a stronger sound, making them a perfect match for a very distorted sound and a punchy wall of metal/rock soundwaves.
In general, they have a stronger midrange but less treble, so they are a better fit for music where you don’t need a clean-and-bright sound (where you need strong treble and a clean output)
WHAT ARE THE BEST BRANDS OF ELECTRIC GUITAR’S PICKUP?
There are a lot of electric guitar pickups brands out there. But which ones are the best?
Here are some of the best brands of electric guitar pickups:
1. Seymour Duncan
4. Seymour Duncan
5. Lace Pickups
CONCLUSION: HOW TO CHOOSE A PICKUP
Guitarists have a lot of options when it comes to pickups for their guitars.
There are a variety of factors to consider when making the decision, such as tone, sound, and volume. Some guitarists prefer pickups with high-output (loud) while others want a more nuanced sound or feel. Some guitarists may want something that is versatile enough to be used in different genres of music, such as to rock, blues, and country-sounding guitar riffs.
As with most of the things guitar-related, the definitive answer for what you have to choose for material, type, winding and coil or brand is, simply put: the thing that suits your guitar playing and your own tastes, without having to care about general rules or standards (you don’t have to use rock-designed pickups for playing rock pr whatever genre you want to play, but you can experiment with uncommon stuff and still find hidden sound gems!)