What Is A Guitar Pickup?
If you’re reading this blog then chances are you play a guitar, and an electric guitar at that. Electric guitars use pickups as part of the recipe to create an amplified electric guitar tone, but what exactly is a pickup, and how does it help us “pick up” the sound of a guitar?
A pickup (or a transducer as it’s technically known as) is an electrical component that senses the guitar string’s vibrations and then converts them into an electrical current. Think of it as the equivalent of a microphone for an electric guitar.
The two main components of a pickup are a coil of insulated copper wire and a magnet (or sometimes a series of magnets). The magnet and coil form a steady magnetic field around the guitar strings. Hit a string and the magnetic field changes, and the coil of wire picks up an induced current and voltage. A signal is created which is then sent to an amplifier, creating the electric guitar’s tone.
Pickups come in a variety of designs and flavors. The common types of electric guitar pickups are single coils, P90s and humbuckers.
Single coil and P90 pickups are similar in that they only use one coil of wire. The differences are that single coils typically have magnetic pole-pieces for each string, whereas P90s use a bar magnet under a set of pole-pieces. Single coils like this are narrow and provide a focused sound with lots of clarity. P90s are wider than single coils, giving them a fatter sound and more sizzle. Each sound great, but there’s a bit of a problem with the design of a single coil pickup, and that is background hum. This can be quite subtle in some playing situations (for instance with a nice clean guitar tone) and rather intense in others (like with heaps of distortion or under buzz-inducing flourescent lights).
Humbuckers use two coils of wire with a bar magnet sitting between the pole-pieces for each coil. The two coils are wired up in a way that significantly reduces the hum and interference through phase cancellation. You can read more about how humbuckers work in What is a Humbucker. Humbuckers provide more output and a fatter sound than single coils and P90s.
So now that we’re familiar with basic guitar pickup designs let’s look at a few of each type that may appeal to you.
If you’re looking for some sweet single coil sounds the following pickups may interest you:
SSL-1: Vintage-correct true single coil for warm instruments to give them that vintage quack. Recommended for country, pop, surf, rockabilly, blues, ska and classic rock.
SSL-5: High output true single-coil for warm instruments. Perfect for Texas blues rock, classic rock and heavy rock.
Quarter Pound SSL-4: High output true single-coil with plenty of punch. Recommended for blues, classic rock, garage, heavy rock, classic metal and nu-metal.
If sizzling P90s are more your thing check out these bad boys:
Vintage Soapbar SP90-1: Faithful recreation of the 1946 Gibson® single-coil. Recommended for country, jazz, swing, blues, rockabilly, classic rock and heavy rock.
Custom Soapbar SP90-3: High output P-90. Excellent for modern country, heavy blues, classic rock, hard rock, punk, garage and metal.
Humbuckers range from sweet sounding vintage models to fire-breathing monsters:
Seth Lover Model™ SH-55: Ultra-authentic, Alnico 2, P.A.F.-type humbucker. Airy, sweet and articulate. Great for country, jazz, blues and classic rock.
Duncan Custom™ SH-5 and TB-5: “P.A.F. on steroids” crunchy tone with powerful midrange attack. Used for classic rock, heavy rock, funk, punk, R&B, metal and drop-tunings.
Duncan Distortion™ SH-6 and TB-6: High output humbucker built for aggressive playing styles with plenty of clarity. Recommended for old school metal, nu-metal, gothic, garage, punk, thrash and other heavy rock styles. Great for drop tunings.
Invader SH-8: Ultra high output humbucker built for aggressive playing styles that is hot, loud and heavy. Recommended for punk, garage, thrash, metal and other heavy rock styles.
(What’s the difference between an ‘SH’ pickup and a ‘TB’ one? This article will help).
There are many variations on these types of pickups. Check out the full range of Seymour Duncan pickups for guitar, bass guitar and acoustic guitars for more details. And check out the Seymour Duncan Custom Shop, were you can order special designs, or even custom design your own perfect pickup.