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Buying a guitar: Electric Guitar Pickups

Prepared by Alan Humm

1 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 bandwagon.1

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
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 cancelation mode.

2 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.
single coil 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.

3 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 pickup
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.

4 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.

5 When you go shopping the salesperson will gladly fill you in on the features you absolutely have to have.
lots of knobs on guitar
Lots of options on the Gibson Firebird X.
basic controls
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.

 

© 2013 Alan Humm