High vs Medium Output Pickups: Is More Better?

Posted on by Dave Eichenberger

Picking which pickup to pick. Which will you choose?

There are many decisions involved when choosing the right pickup. Vintage or Modern? Hum cancelling or not? What kind of EQ do I want? But one of the most misunderstood is choosing between a vintage output or high output pickup (or somewhere in between). Most people think that high output pickups are only for heavy music and that lower output pickups are for everything else. Once we understand what a higher output pickup does for the sound (and our playing), we might be better equipped to make a choice.

To understand this, we might look at the differences between how different guitarists get their sound. Some use a tight, modern, distorted amp with tons of preamp gain. Some use more vintage-y clean amps and get their sound from pedals. What kind of guitarist are you? And why not always use a high-output pickup? More output is good, right?

Invasion of multicolor Invaders

Well, as with picking out any gear, it depends on the style of music. Heavy music depends on a strong signal hitting the amp, getting distorted further by the preamp tubes (or the modeled preamp tubes), and then getting pushed into the power amp. High output pickups, like the Invader, are by design meant to provide consistent output- albeit a very high one. This is perfect for heavier music which uses speed, definition, tightness in the low end, and volume for the solos as its trademark.

We know that more winds that a pickup has, the higher the output. However, the more winds it has, the more mids and lows you gain, and the more highs you lose. To keep the frequencies balanced, you might have to go active.

Active pickups like Seymour Duncan Blackouts do this with an internal preamp designed to boost and EQ the signal. As a general rule, guitarists who love humbuckers (especially bridge humbuckers), have no use for a tone control (or even volume knob!) and downtune to D or lower have pickups especially made for them. These pickups will provide all the gain they need to make their amps sound the best, and to rock with the best metal tones available.  Pickups such as the Hot Rails allow Strat or other single-coil guitars to punish their amps without having to route out space for a full size humbucker. No longer do you have to have a pointy axe to play the heaviest metal.

The other side of the coin is the vintage or medium output pickups. Why would someone choose a lower pickup when you can have ‘more,’ right? One word: dynamics. There are lots of players who mine the sonic desert with just the guitar’s volume or tone knob. Lower output pickups don’t affect the string’s vibrations the way high output pickups with their strong magnets do. So, in a sense, if the string can vibrate more freely, you can increase sustain. Lower output pickups can allow you to play complex chords with some overdrive and still hear the individual voices.

Also, since high-output pickups have only recently gained popularity, it is a fair bet that every classic rock recording was done with vintage or medium-output pickups. Players who use overdrive (instead of distortion), either through driving a low-wattage amp hard or from a pedal, generally love the tone and sustain from vintage or medium output pickups. Plus, when using passive pickups, you have more choices of EQ curves since you don’t run into the attenuation of treble that you get with high-output passives. More choices, in other words.

We might be able to boil this all down to this: for heavy styles, use higher output pickups. For anything lower gain than that, explore the vintage and medium output pickups. But you know what? Art is created when people break the rules. And rock is all about breaking the rules.

Written on July 24, 2012, by Dave Eichenberger

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