For those people who don't know what a pickup is, it's those plastic/metal things (with or without things protruding from them) that pick up the vibrations of your strings.
How A Pickup Works
A pickup literally picks up the vibrations of your strings. It then turns the vibrations into electrical waves, which are passed on to your cord/wireless system. Once the electrical waves get to your amp they are then turned into sound.
Types Of Pickups
Single Coil (passive)
A single coil pickup is what you'll usually find on a Stratocaster or Stratocaster copy. As suggested by its name, it has one coil wrapped around the pole pieces and magnet. Single coil pickups are versatile; they are capable of producing lots of vintage tones ranging from Clapton to Cobain.
A Humbucking pickup is best described as two single coil pickups with different polarities put together. A humbucking pickup produces more output than a single coil, and normally has a more edgy tone in comparison. Humbuckers having two coils may have a 4 conductor wiring, where in you can split the coils; splitting the coils allows you to turn off one coil, turning your humbucker into a single coil.
An active pickup is basically a pickup which uses a battery. It may be a single coil (e.g. Sustainiac Stealth/Stealth Plus) or a humbucker (e.g. EMG 81). An active pickup has lesser coils compared to a passive one. This is because it uses a battery to widen the pickup's magnetic/electrical field. Most people connote an active pickup to be brighter than a passive pickup. Unlike a passive humbucker, active ones need different parts (besides a double-pole double-throw/DPDT switch) to do a coil-split/tap or a phase switching. Using active electronics can also enable you to use on-board equalization/internal pre-amp.
Active/passive pickups are a cross between active and passive pickups. This means that you can switch between passive to active simply by flicking a switch or pressing a button.
Parts Of A Pickup
Magnets are what produce the pickup's magnetic/electrical field, with or without the aid of active electronics. Magnets can be made of different kinds of materials (alnicos, ceramics, carbon, etc)... Each kind has different grades (e.g. alnico, alnico II, ceramic 8) [which may be used to partially determine the sound of the pickup (rephrase this part of the sentence)].
The coil aids the magnet in making the electrical field and also helps produce different kinds of sounds. Like magnets, the wire used to make the coils can be made of different materials, the most common of which is copper. The sound a pickup produces mainly depends on the thickness of the wire used, and the number of coils wounded.
Note: using a thick wire requires lesser coils than a thin wire to produce a certain sound.
These can usually be seen on exposed pickups (e.g. DiMarzio Super distortion, Seymour Duncan JB model). These are used to direct a pickup's magnetic field, identify the magnet used on a certain pickup, and to increase a pickup's sensitivity (done by raising the pole pieces). I was told by a guitar tech that pickups using alnico magnets usually have pole pieces that look like screws on them.
Bobbins are used to cover and keep the coils in shape (literally). This may also help insulate the pickup.
This is the part you solder to the potentiometers and/or switches, and/or output. The quality of the wire used in this can affect the sound quality of your pickup.
Modifying A Pickup
You can modify a pickup by doing any or all of the following:
Warning: Ask for the help of someone with experience in pickup mods!
01. Changing the magnet
02. Rewinding the coils (decreasing or increasing the number of coils)
03. Replacing the coils
04. Raising the pole pieces
05. Rewinding the coils (just rewinding them)
06. Replacing the bobbins
07. Replacing the pole pieces
08. Adding a magnet
09. Changing the polarity of the pickups
10. Lowering the pole pieces
11. Aligning the pole pieces (I suggest you align them based on your fret board)
12. Replacing the wire
I strongly suggest after modding your pickups to dip them in paraffin wax. This will help seal the pickups and reduce microphonic noise. Edward Van Halen uses the kind that people use on surfboards (e.g. Roxy board wax). He melts it in a can and dips the pickups.
Warning: if you're gonna be doing this to a DiMarzio be extra careful. They melt really, really quickly!
Kinds Of Magnets
These are the most commonly used magnets. I've put some of the factory descriptions and names of pickups that use them to help you decide.
01. Ceramic - you can easily get lots of bass, great for distortion pickups. DiMarzio Super Distortion, Seymour Duncan Duncan Distortion, DiMarzio Evolution.
02. Alnico - you can easily get an open midrange sound. Good for a semi-vintage sound, ideal for single coil pickups. Yamaha Pacifica single coils.
03. Alnico II - you can easily get lots of buttery mids and smooth bass - Great for emulating vintage pickups. Seymour Duncan Custom Custom, Gibson vintage 57' PAF.
04. Alnico V - you can easily get a glassy and twangy sound. Ideal for neck position humbuckers and single coil pickups- great for emulating vintage Stratocasters. Fender vintage Strat pickups, Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates II, DiMarzio PAF.
05. Ceramic 8 - you can easily get a clean distorted tone. Ideal for both single coil and humbucking. Fender Hot noiseless pickups.
06. Alnico III - you can easily get a punchy single coil tone or a chunky humbucking tone. Fender original vintage Tele pickups, Bill Lawrence 500SL.
Crazy Stuff And Ideas
A Tribucker is a humbucker with three coils. All coils can be split. Based on theory, the Tribucker will produce a clean, thin sound - ideal for the neck position. It's supposed to look like three single coil pickups put together.
A Quadbucker is a humbucker with four coils. Two cols can be split to create a traditional humbucking sound. In theory, the Quadbucker will produce a loud distorted sound with lots of midrange - ideal for the bridge position. It's supposed to look like two single coil-sized Humbuckers (e.g. DiMarzio Tone Zone S) put together.
In the winter 1986 Positively Van Halen Guitar Player issue, Eddie tells us about how he made the pickup for one of his striped guitars. You will need the following:
01. Paraffin wax (Surfboard wax)
03. Soldering lead
04. Soldering iron
05. Gibson PAF pickup
06. DiMarzio pickup (I think it's a PAF either that or a Super distortion)
08. Long nose, pliers, cutter, scissor
09. Copper wire (size= ???, how much= ???)
10. Copper tape
Eddie first took out the magnet of the Gibson PAF. He then rewound. The DiMarzio pickup (I honestly think that he added coils), and stuck the Gibson PAF magnet onto the DiMarzio. After that he dipped it into a coffee can with hot melted paraffin wax (a.k.a surfboard wax) to seal it (I'm not sure on how long though), and reduce microphonic noise, after the wax dries wrap the pickup in copper tape. Follow standard 1pu-1vol wiring if you want to make a replica.
For an exact replica buy a basswood body and 3pc maple neck with maple frets from Charvel, vintage fender tremolo, fender springs, bicycle paint, tape, paint brush, Grover mini-tuners, 500k potentiometer, and a Fender Jazz Bass knob. For the strings: Fender Standard 250's, boiled for 20 minutes, then sun dried. Email me if you want to know about the paint job.
For more info please go to the following sites:
roxy.com (for info on the wax)