For many years of a guitarists start, the pickups will go unnoticed and rightfully so. Pickups to a new guitarist are just another component to the guitar when they bought it. But do pickups matter?
Pickups are an important piece to a guitar setup as they are the electrical connection between the vibration of the strings and the output from the amp. Each type of pickup has a large effect on the tone and overall sound of the guitar. Pickups are the voice of the guitar.
Continue reading to learn more about why pickups matter, how they work, and how to choose the best set for your guitar and style.
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How Do Pickups Work and How Do They Affect Sound?
Pickups transform the energy from the vibrating strings into an electrical signal that runs through the guitar cable, through the pedals, and into your amp. The pickups create the signal which the amp turns into outputted sound.
In its simplest definition, pickups are copper wire wrapped around magnets. There are two different types of magnets that manufacturers use. There is alnico which is an alloy of aluminum, cobalt, and nickel combined. The next one is ceramic which is a little more brittle and harder. We usually see ceramic pickups in P90’s with steel adjustable poles. With alnico magnets, each magnet is individual and separate from one another. The copper is wrapped around the magnets with 43-gauge wiring.
So how does these magnets with copper wiring wrapped around them affect the sound? With pickups, there are a series of energy conversions happening so fast that it seems instantaneous to our brains. Mechanical energy of the string vibrations, after strumming, gets converted to an electrical signal, sent along a cable, and then processed and amplified by your amp or speakers in the form of mechanical energy as sound waves.
Everything in the pickup from the type of magnet to even the thickness of the copper wiring affects the tone. In the 50’s and 60’s, Strat single coil pickups were wired with 42-gauge copper wiring instead of the current 43 gauge. Because of this, the wiring needed to wrap around more times, thus changing the tone from what standard Strat pickups give off. This is why many vintage guitar seekers love ’59 Fender Standard Pickups.
Do Pickups Matter?
Pickups are the baseline for what your amp must work with making them a vital piece to your guitar setup. Pickups matter because they give the guitar its character tone. Everything from the type of pickup, placement, and strength affects the tonality of the guitar.
Stevie Ray Vaughan was known for using ’50s pickups because he liked the low-output, producing a chime-like tone. ’50’s American Fender Strat pickups had 42-gauge copper wiring, causing them to have a lower output.
Find out What Pickups SRV Used on His Number One
David Caldwell, a seasoned blues guitarist mentions how the pickups “translate” the changes in their magnetic field caused by the oscillating strings into electrical voltage waveforms composed of many elements — fundamentals, harmonics, etc. They perform one of the most important jobs in an electric guitar so the quality of pickup you use is very important.
Pickups tonal differences can tend to be slightly subtle to the listener but as the player, they can catch the ear. Especially as a blues guitar player, chasing tone is the name of the game. Pickups matter since they can change the tone so much and allow guitarists to get closer to the tone of their idols.
Why Are Pickups Important?
On an electric guitar, they make up almost all the sound. Guitarists often talk about different types of woods, strings, and all manners of the guitar which dim in comparison to how important the pickups are.
Pickups are one of the most important components of an electric guitar. If you were to buy an American Fender Stratocaster worth $3k+ and replace the standard pickups with cheap Ibanez single-coil pickups, the sound would radically change. The tone would not be what you would expect from an American Strat, and it would sound similar to a Squier bottom tier guitar. Playability would still be the same but tone, not so much.
On the flip side of the coin. If you were to buy an inexpensive Squier Stratocaster and replace the pickups with top of the line, ’59 Fender Standard Pickups, or Texas Specials then the sound would transform greatly. It would be like playing a brand-new guitar. That is how important pickups are and how much of a difference in sound and tone they can make.
How to Choose Guitar Pickups
The best way to choose which guitar pickup you want is to look at the guitarist and music that you greatly admire and copy their setup. There is likely one or two guitarists that truly got you into playing guitar and made you think to yourself “I want to play like them”. Best thing to do is find out what pickups they use, if they are affordable, where you can get them, and input them into your guitar. Everyone is trying to mix or chase the sound of their idols and a guitarist, especially a beginner or intermediate guitarist, will get the most satisfaction the closer they are to the tone of their idols.
Do Guitar Cables Matter? Find Out Now
Choosing which pickups are best for you is like choosing a family that you want to be a part of and then deciding what member of the family you want to be. The family being single coil or humbucker and the family member being the various models of each. Let’s dive into the differences between the two families.
Single Coil vs. Humbucker Pickups: Which is Better for You?
When determining if you should play with humbucker or single coil pickups, the intended tone and sound you desire is top priority. Single coil pickups are known for being brighter and crispier. Humbucker pickups are known for being warmer and thicker.
Metal heads often prefer humbuckers because of the thick sound, while blues guitarists often lean toward single coils. With that being said, B.B. King was a big humbucker fan, so this blues distinction is not cut and dry. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what sound you prefer. I personally mostly play my Fender Strat and PRS Silver Sky, both equipped with single coil pickups.
Neither type of pickup is better than the other. Despite what many guitar forums may tell you. It all comes down to individual guitarist preference.
John Mayer describes how each type of pickup defines a certain style. He mentions how:
“You could say that there are different demeanors of people between humbucker players and single-coil players. Because they are from different bands, different music, different attitudes, and different guitars, they’re almost like different behaviors.”John Mayer, Interview with Paul Reed Smith
Many guitarists decide to play guitars that their idols play without thinking of the pickups they are inheriting and the style they may indirectly morph into.
Paul Reed Smith mentions how it can be extremely difficult with a single-coil bass pickup to sound extraordinary if there are too many people in the band. You need to have less people in the band. He mentions how the band needs to leave the guitarist a lot of room. A great example of this being Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix. Their bands left them a ton of room allowing their single-coil bass pickup to flourish.
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