Pickups: A Primer On Tone

Pickups: A Primer On Tone For Electric Guitars

The electric guitar pickup. This simple contraption is the single biggest contributor to the overall tone of your instrument (assuming the setup is good). There is just so much information out there and so many contradictions that it can be hard to make sense of it all. Today we are going to try to simplify and educate a bit on the history and nomenclature associated with this simple device comprising of a magnet and coil of copper wire……

Ok…so what is a pickup?

An electric guitar pickup in most cases is simply a magnet (usually a bar or a slug) wrapped with copper wire. The first mention of the modern day electromagnetic pickup is generally agreed to be invented by George Beauchamp who was backed by Adolf Rickenbacker (yes, that Rickenbacker). There are arguments that others were earlier, but most agree that the first production was tied to this team. The way it works is pretty cool. If you want to get into it in more depth, look up Michael Faraday. His work on the electric principle of induction is the key. To keep it simple, the way it works is that a steel string vibrating in the vicinity of the pickup produces an electromagnetic signal in the copper wire creating current. This in turn travels down a cable to an amplifier. The amplifier brings the signal to a level that is audible to us. With that in mind, this is not a complex piece of equipment but there are so many variations that it can be confounding!

Current common types of pickups

The Original Fender Style Single Coil:

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I call this the “Fender Style” because you will commonly find this pickup on a Fender guitar more often than not. We will stick to the general idea rather than get into all the types Fender produced over the years. Basically, Teles and Strats. Originally released in the 1948 to 1950 depending on who you talk to, these pickups have magnetic pole pieces with copper wrapped around them and have a “chimey, bright” tone. Think about Hendrix, SRV, and most classic country. These pickups have a 60 cycle hum issue that causes a hum that changes as you move around and with proximity to the amplifier. Later examples have used different techniques to lessen of eliminate the hum. Examples are Suhr’s SSC and Fender’s Noiseless pickups.

The Gibson Style P90:

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The P90 pickup is also a single coil and is subject to the same 60 cycle hum issue. Gibson introduced this pickup style in 1946. The P90 differs from Fender’s design in that it has a pair of bar magnets with pole pieces in between. The tone is warmer and less bright than a fender with bigger midrange. P90s are a staple in classic rock and blues. The tone is dreamy with a slide guitar. You’ve heard this tone from the early Santana albums, the first 6 Black Sabbath albums, and most of Bob Marley’s work to name a few. Also it was a key ingredient to the solo on Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2). There are also many examples of noiseless or reduced 60 cycle P90s.

The Humbucker:

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The humbucking pickup was released by Gibson in 1957 (created by Seth Lover). This became the staple for Gibson’s signature sound from then on and indeed most of the higher end Gibson are attempts to capture the sound of these early examples (known as PAF - Patent Applied For). The humbucker is essentially 2 single coils wired together with 2 magnets that are opposite in polarity to one another. The result is increased output and cancelled out hum. Thus a Hum-Bucker. These pickups have been the choice of hard rockers and jazz players alike due to the increased output and somewhat darker tone. You will recognize the tone from AC/DC to Metallica to Slash from Guns and Roses.

Factors in tone:

Magnet type:

The magnet material used has a big influence on the tone of a pickup. Below is a list of common magnets and thier overall impact in tone.

ALNICO (Aluminum, Nickel, Cobalt Alloy)

  • Alnico II - The vintage magnet. These magnets have a wark, lower output vibe and are perfect if you want a vintage style tone.

  • Alnico III - Like Alnico II but a little “bigger sounding”

  • Alnico IV - Increased output and punch give this magnet a hotter feel.

  • Alnico V - Very popular as a punchy, powerful magnet type. These magnets are a very popular choice for someone who wants to rock but still have a vintage like tone.

  • Alnico VIII - Not as commonly seen, these follow the trend and have even more output and power. You have ventured out of vintage tone at this point.

CERAMIC

  • Ceramic magnets have stronger magnetism than AlNiCo and give a modern, aggressive tone that is perfect for heavier music where the added bite and punch can help push through a more distorted amplifier tone. Ceramic is considered to be “harsh” to players who don’t play heavier styles of guitar. This is not always the case though, and there are plenty of examples in the world of pickups that show this.

RARE EARTH (Samarium Cobalt, Neodynium)

  • Rare Earth Magnets have the strongest magnetism in the game. These pickups tend to be high fidelity and have a wide frequency response. That being said, they are not for everyone. Fender’s Samarium Cobalt noiseless pickups, Tom Anderson’s pickups, and Joe Barden are some that come to mind in this family.

Wire and wire and wire….

The gauge of copper wire used, the insulation used, and the amount of winds around the magnet all have impact on the tonal characteristics of a pickup. In general, the smaller the diameter of the wire, the more winds you can get. This produces a stronger output or “hotter” pickup. The insulation also plays a role in this. Many believe that a thicker insulator will maintain the clarity and top end response of a pickup. So, in theory, a heavily insulated thick gauge wire would produce a loud, bright pickup. There is a ton of information out there is you want to read further. In general, the best reproduction pickups will attempt to recreate the “golden age” pickups by using magnets, wire gauge and insulation, and proper amounts of winds to get a accurate representation.




The End Result (for now)…

When in search of the perfect pickup, keep in mind that marketing is a big factor in the information available. Over time, I have realized that finding a perfect pickup can take time and patience. Using the general guidance above, you should be able to shorten the list of possible candidates and, with a bit of research, find one that will work for you. Keep in mind that a lot of the “holy grail” pickups were wound not by a machine, but a human being. That means that there is no real PAF sound other than a particular magnet and wire type. The winds were never identical. Over time, builders have developed many techniques to capture the tones they think were the most desireable. Every manufacturer is on the quest for the best. This means you are really getting the interpretation of the builder of what that is.




Hopefully this at least gives you a starting point! Happy hunting!




We carry a selection of Lollar, Suhr, Duncan, and PRS pickups for sale at Righteous Guitars. Feel free to reach out with any questions and we will do our best to help you find the perfect match!

Ben Calhoun