Part 1: The Basics


Why change pickups?
What are pickups?
What is the perfect pickup?
How do pickups work?

Why bother changing pickups?

Pickups are the heart of your guitar. The right pickups can bring a dead-sounding guitar to life. They can turn a good instrument into a great one. They might not transform a guitar that plays poorly into a magical instrument, but they will almost certainly deliver a huge sonic upgrade.

Most important, they let you customize your instrument, creating a sound that's perfectly and uniquely "you."

Pickups, in short, are one of the key ingredients of your tone. There are many other factors, of course: the materials and workmanship of your instrument, your strings, your amp, your cables, and your playing style. But finding the right pickup is one of the fastest, most cost-effective, and exciting ways to upgrade the sound of your guitar or bass. And since pickups lie "upstream" from the rest of your gear, the right choice can actually make your pedals and amps sound better too.

Want more sustain? Stronger harmonics? A warmer or brighter tone? More distortion? Less? The right pickup will give you exactly what you want.

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What are pickups?

Technically speaking, pickups are a type of transducer, a generic word for any device that converts one type of energy to another. Electric guitar and bass pickups translate a string's vibration (what you play) into an electrical signal that you can pump through an amp or mixer. In order to hear the final result, you need another type of transducer: a speaker, which converts the electrical signal back into audible energy: the vibrations of the speaker's cone.

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What is the perfect pickup?

The one that helps your guitar or bass sound exactly the way you want. Does your guitar sound massive in your bedroom, but puny onstage? Does your bass have enough presence to cut through heavy guitars? Do sustained notes dry up just when you wish they'd blossom into feedback? These are just a few examples of problems the right pickup can solve.

If you haven't experimented with different pickups, you might not realize how dramatically the right pickup can improve the sound of an instrument. Even if you like the way your current pickups sound, it might be worthwhile to audition guitars or basses similar to yours, but outfitted with different pickups. If you find yourself experiencing "tone envy," perhaps you should consider replacement pickups. This is especially true if you love the look and feel of your instrument, but wish it sounded better-or just different.

But a great instrument and great pickups don't automatically make great music together. You need the right pickup for your instrument and style. Read on to learn about the variables that define a pickup's sound and how to determine your perfect pickups. And we're here to help you through the process.

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How do pickups work?

Almost all electric guitar and bass pickups rely on magnetism. The active ingredients are one or more magnets and a wire coil. The magnets create a magnetic "flux field" around the pickups. When you strike a string, the field moves in response to the vibration, and the pickup translates these changes into small but meaningful electric signals. Before you can hear these signals as music, you must amplify them and pump them through speakers.

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