Pickup Lines

Probably the largest modification you can do to your electric, acoustic-electric, or bass guitar to change it's tone, aside from changing tonewoods.

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The wonderful world of pickups. Probably the largest modification you can do to your electric, acoustic-electric, or bass guitar to change it's tone, aside from changing tonewoods (that's a whole other article). Before I go any farther, let me begin by reminding you that this article is all subject to one's opinion, and you should personally choose whatever you feel is best for your playing and tone. Also, although I love the bass, I will only be covering guitars here. Nonetheless, everything said here is to be used as a guide. Okay, now to the good stuff. Well, sort of.

To fully understand pickups and use this knowledge to one's advantage, one must first understand the fundamentals and basics of a pickup. The base of any pickup is the magnet, usually composed of either alnico 2, alnico 5, or ceramic; alnico yields a much cleaner and functional tone whereas ceramic will give you the old, classic crunch and slightly buzzier sounds of older pickups. The magnet is then wrapped with copper wire, usually a few thousand times around. When a string vibrates, the magnetic flux is picked up and converted to a voltage by the pickup. This signal is then carried by cable (or radio wave if you're using a wireless system) to your amplifier, and that's a whole other science into which I will not delve. But, that's generally how a pickup works. Travel over to wikipedia if you want to learn more. Scroll down farther to the second part if you don't want to read how pickups work and some of the companies that I feel are noteworthy.

Part I: How Do Pickups Work? What Types Of Pickups Are There?

Then, there are so many different types of pickups. There's the standard single coil, humbuckers, and Piezos, just to name a few (incidentally, Piezos work on a different system, see below). The opportunities are endless.

Single coils give you that classic strat-style, bell-like tone (with the exception of the P-90), making them ideal for Fenders or similar-shaped guitars. They are also one of the most commonly seen pickups today. However, single coils, in addition to the tones produced by the string, also pick up a 60 Hz buzz (more commonly known as 60 cycle hum) that in most situations cause an annoyance to the player and listener. Modern pickups, though, have worked harder on eliminating the 60 cycle hum, especially in humbuckers (more on that later). Guitar companies like Fender, Lace Music Coproration, Seymour Duncan, and DiMarzio have produced noiseless lines, each successfully eliminating the 60 cycle hum and giving a truer tone to the guitar. Common derivatives include the P-90, the Lace Sensor, and lipstick pickup, each useful for it's own usage.

Humbuckers, though widely ranging in tones thanks to modern pickup technology, are usually attributed with the mellower, dark tones made famous by Gibsons. Humbuckers contain two magnets placed and wound at opposite polarities. Using destructive interference, the pickups cancel out 60 cycle hum. However, the tone of the pickups offer much higher output, and can offer more overdriven tones, as well as fatter cleans, than offered by single coils. There are also different spacings between poles to accommodate Gibsons and Fenders, but once again that's sadly another story. Though Gibson first mass-produced the pickup and was the first to implement them into their line, other companies like Rickenbacker, Gretsch, Seymour Duncan, and DiMarzio have also produced humbuckers successfully. There are also stacked humbuckers, which is essentially a humbucker shoved into a single coil; the mangets are much closer to one another, and allow many single-coil players to have humbucking tone. And, there are mini-humbuckers, which Gibson introduced in the first Firebirds. Overall, though, the traditional humbucker is used by everyone, from traditional players for the classic Gibson tone to modern metal players for heavily-overdriven tones.

Piezoelectric pickups (commonly referred to as piezos) work totally different altogether. The general concept is that the pickups, usually crystal structures in the saddles of the bridge of electric guitars, pick up the vibrations of the strings directly, transfer that sound to a preamp in the guitar's body, and transfer that to either a standard stereo jack or a 13-pin cable. Although they are less common, they produce an acoustic-like resonance, and are being used by more and more artists. Alex Lifeson of Rush recently stated in an interview that he just had a large portion of his guitars outfitted with Piezos to make with easier switching onstage. Steve Vai once threw Piezos into his guitar Pia, which he used on the Grammys with Nelly Furtado. He used the Piezo to double as another guitar at times, to sound like two guitars playing at once. Either way, more and more guitarists are making use of this technology. However, installing a Piezo usually requires at least some form of routing, in addition to new wiring and new pickup slots, if not a new bridge. This makes installing Piezos somewhat confusing, and professionals are recommended for the job. They are, though, an interesting part of any guitarist's arsenal.

Part II: Pickup Companies

Okay, time for the interesting stuff... almost. Pickup companies. To save the reader from boredom, I will not cover all of the companies, just a few I feel are worth covering. The most famous pickup producers nowadays are DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan. Although, there are also many companies that wind their own pickups, as well as lesser known but incredibly high-quality Bartolini and Lindy Fralin, neither of which I will go into to save time and because I have not had personal experiences with either company, though both are credited with elite tone and the perfect sonic experience. DiMarzio is, I think, the most famous least-known pickup company. DiMarzio is known for producing many high-quality pickups dependently. DiMarzio also creates signiature pickups for famous guitarists, such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, John Petrucci, Eric Johnson, and Yngwie Malmsteen, to name the larger artists. Although they are more well known for their humbuckers, DiMarzio does offer an incredibly wide range of humbuckers designed for almost any genre. The more popular pickups are, without a doubt, Steve Vai's signiature Evolution and Breed sets, Joe Satriani's Joe series pickups, and the PAF Pro. In my personal opinion, I have not heard a better sounding humbucker than the PAF Pro; it offers the greatest clean tone that sings, cries, and speaks exactly what you want it to, though I can't see the pickup doing metal; it simply doesn't do hot noise well. But, that's what the other pickups are for. Once again, it's all to one's personal taste. I feel that, overall, DiMarzio offers top of the line, class tone that can be driven hard, and are the highest quality and best sounding pickups out there. Then, there are Seymour Duncans. The company itself was founded by the great pickup winder himself, (who else?) Seymour Duncan. Seymour Duncans, henceforth referred to as Duncans, are known for their rock-ish or bluesier tones and classic sounds, as well as amazing cleans. They are very widely known and are included in many of Fender's higher-end instruments, as well as almost all of Fender's standard humbucker-equipped guitars. In my opinion, Duncans produce great tone, but are a little weak on output and overpriced. Just my opinion, though; everything depends on the player and their ear. My personal choice of pickups are neither, though someday I wouldn't mind using DiMarzios. My only electric (yeah, believe it, I only have one electric, a Mexican Fender Stratocaster; it's all I can afford) is equipped with, in my opinion, the best sounding pickups I've ever tried and/or used. I am a very large fan of the Fender Hot Noiseless pickups; they offer that classic Stratocaster tone while having higher output, handling distortion while being able to clean up well, and get rid of that dreaded 60 cycle hum. But then again, everyone has their own preference; I tend to play more blues and classic rock, so these pickups were well suited to me, especially being a (modern) Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton fan. I'm not saying you have to use them, just go for what you feel are the best pickups for your tone.

Part III: Pickups At Your Disposal

Okay, finally, time for the truly good part! (Well, sort of). The main concept of most of my articles so far are, how can you use all this information to your disposal and to aid your playing? Well, most players overlook pickups, but in reality they're one of the essential components to an electric guitar. They are, after all, what make it electric, aren't they? So it would make sense for you to concentrate on what pickups you are playing through and which options and choices you have available to you. In modern times, most pickup companies offer sound clips of their pickups in action, some through different-style guitars to give you an idea of the Gibson vs. Fender sounds. Although many of the sound files are not of the highest quality, they still offer excellent insight into the basic tonal properties of the pickup. If not, play the pickup itself to actually determine which one is right for you. Don't listen to someone else explicitly; it is, after all, your ear and your playing that will be going through the amp. This doesn't mean don't take others' advice, others can often be insightful; just don't follow their directions down to a t. Follow your instinct, and your ear.

What should you concentrate on when considering new pickups, or evaluating old/potential usage pickups? Once again, the most important thing to a pickup is the sonic personality it portrays; does it sound like you? Does it sound like something you'd want to play? How does it handle distortion? What are the bass/mid/high values, as well as output and resistance? What kind of guitar are you playing through? How much are you willing to spend? The answer to these questions, respectively, vary from person to person. In general, though, one can take a general template from which to base their observations off of. Distortion, in my opinion, can be either non-existant and producing a beautiful sounding clean pickup, crunchy and fuzzy like the classic '50s and early '60s tones, harder and clean like the alternative scene, or in-your-face full out metal. The guitar you're playing through factors in hugely; Stratocaster-style guitars have very bright, bell like tone, Telecasters have a twangy, bright country tone, and Gibsons have a mellow, bassier tone. Everything will depend on whether you want to capitalize on your guitar's distinct tonal nuances, neutralize them, or turn them the other way around. As far as price goes, generally the more you spend the higher quality the pickup (though, not always true; you can get great tone out of inexpensive pickups or horrible quality from expensive pickups). Generally, the higher-end big name pickups run about $50-$200 USD from what I've seen, plus there's installation (unless you do the soldering work yourself). It all depends on which pickup you finally decide on and what sound you're looking for.

Now, use this as a base as to what you're looking for, and pick up (no pun intended) on what you think would suit you. Try, sample, and listen to what your ears are telling you, they won't fail.

Yes, I purposefully left out EMGs because I personally don't have enough experience with active pickups to do them justice. But, for you EMG fans out there looking for more info, I can try.

EMG stands for "Electromagnetic Generator," referring to the onboard preamp installed in the guitar. Because EMGs require a preamp and a battery, usually extra routing is required to install these.

Generally, EMGs have much higher output and overdrive much more so than their passive counterparts, making the pickups favored by heavy metal artists. There are also others (like David Gilmour) who are famed for using EMGs.

EMGs come in both single-coil and humbucker slots. EMG also makes passive pickups, though they are famed for their active electronics.

Once again, I've only used EMGs once, so I can't do them justice. If you enjoy the sound of EMGs and like what you're using, stick to 'em.

by Nikhil Deshpande

45 comments sorted by best / new / date

    TimmyPage06
    I found it somewhat biased, and not quite as informative as it could have been on the subject.
    Canadian_Bacon
    yea EMGs DUNCANS AND DiMARZIOs are all the same price maybe 10 bucks give or take pending on model. And they all have their ups and downs EMGs obviously seperates themselves from the other two by having active pickupes (not that DUNCAN doesn't offer) but that's what EMGs are known for. And DiMARZIOS have their new D'Activators which sound freakishly amazing with high output without the compressed tone like EMGs. But they all have their own lineups and they all match pretty well giving great variety. And d00d duncans without any tone? My SH-4 the jazz neck model blows away any other clean tones i've played with on EMGs or DiMarzios on the Ibanez Prestige lineups. that is my favorite neck pickup. for bridge i do love em EMG 81's damn they rock. But i would like to try out D'Activators in person to see how it compares with EMGs cause on my next guitar imma slap some high output bad boys!
    callum2903
    veyr good artical, u forgot active pick ups, but tehre more for bass, or so im told
    kaptkegan
    Good article, I've been looking at new pickups lately and this helped a lot.
    Dvnc
    ShreddingBlood wrote: how do you know he owns only one guitar? anyway, great stuff man. this was a well written article.
    he knows because the guy said he only had one guitar. read the article
    seargentkitty
    Dvnc wrote: ShreddingBlood wrote: how do you know he owns only one guitar? anyway, great stuff man. this was a well written article. he knows because the guy said he only had one guitar. read the article
    The guy said he only had one electric guitar, and since the only kind of guitar is an electric i suggest you take your own advice and read the aritcle.
    receding lines
    Kalas wrote: well im frankly a little disapointed so i will leave a pick up line here so that the next person won't be dissapointed. dude: is there a mirror in your pocket chick: no why? Dude: cause i see myself in your pants.
    hey thanks man i was pretty dissapointed too.
    Mental Hop
    seargentkitty : Dvnc wrote: ShreddingBlood wrote: how do you know he owns only one guitar? anyway, great stuff man. this was a well written article. he knows because the guy said he only had one guitar. read the article The guy said he only had one electric guitar, and since the only kind of guitar is an electric i suggest you take your own advice and read the aritcle
    Well he says in the beginning he's only covering electric guitars. He also mentions he only owns one electric guitar. So how could someone who only owns one electric guitar write any article on electric guitar pickups? Personally I didn't like it because you only featured two pup companies. I realize you mentioned you won't cover the other companies, but why the hell write an article on electric guitar pickups when you only are writing about two of them? Sure you give a brief mention to Fender pups but still. I suggest learning more about the subject matter before writing an article because then people are more willing to critique your work.
    flipdirtman
    p2fyre wrote: Toms' anominous wrote: Um... Seymour Duncan's don't produce a great tone, It's pretty average in my opinion and way over-rated. On the other hand, great article! BKP's! FTW You've obviously never tried an SD 59' This article was pathetic.. how can a person who only owns one guitar tell us about pickups? Also, if you know so much about pickups... why have you only tried EMGs once? plus you're obviously very biased towards DiMarzio. In my opinion SD, DiMarzio and EMG are all around the same quality.
    so first off you say that its wrong to put a bad label on some pickups simply because thats his own opinion and then you try and say that some pickups are better even though thats merely youre opinion pretty hipocritical
    ArcherTheVMan
    wholovesthesun wrote: Good article, but you forgot all about active pickups.
    thats what he said at the end of the article if you actually read the thing...
    ArcherTheVMan
    i have to say though, the fender hot noiseless pickups arent as good as the vintage noiseless in my opinion (and that of many it seems). The vintage ones sound much more like 'proper' strat pickups than the hot ones... again though i guess its just my thoughts about the pickups.
    chimairapwns
    wow i loved this article. i've been playing guitar for years, but haven't really learned about pickups until i read it. i was wondering if you could help me out though, i just worked up enough money for a new guitar, and i think that since its a pretty high end guitar, that i should try to earn a bit more cash for some really good pickups. what do you suggest for a really overdriven heavier sound?
    yukonjack
    p2fyre wrote: This article was pathetic.. how can a person who only owns one guitar tell us about pickups?
    that's poor logic. I'm a motorcycle mechanic, and I own one motorcycle. You gonna tell me I shouldn't work on bikes?
    craZelz
    i should put more thought into pickups :S in a couple of months or years or whatever XD good article but i do agree with some other people that you could have added a bit more into it
    ATFN
    I have a SD jb, prefect fit for my guitar and what i play. I believe pick up's are very important, but is all relavite to what sound you want, guitar you have and what you play. You can't play pop music using a EMG 81, suppose you could but it will sound like crap. Thing you get the point. Just try then all out you find the one that right for you! Ps you guys whats a really good pick up line - Guy to girl: bet you 20 bucks your gonna turn me down
    GuitarJunkie
    it was a good article considering what it contained...but i feel that an article about pups could have been much longer and more in depth than this one...good job with what you have though.
    GuitarJunkie
    Well he says in the beginning he's only covering electric guitars. He also mentions he only owns one electric guitar. So how could someone who only owns one electric guitar write any article on electric guitar pickups? Personally I didn't like it because you only featured two pup companies. I realize you mentioned you won't cover the other companies, but why the hell write an article on electric guitar pickups when you only are writing about two of them? Sure you give a brief mention to Fender pups but still. I suggest learning more about the subject matter before writing an article because then people are more willing to critique your work.
    i ONLY own two guitars but i've played hundreds and I've probably played on at least 15 different pups...so thats how he knows so much..orrrrr OMG OMG OMG!!!! CHECK THIS OUT (the omg's are purposely suppose to look stupid by the way, it's a metaphorical shot at the author of this comment) Maybe he just researched pups online...It's funny how one can find out numerous facts about things while using this wonderful website called google...tool. Good article, could have been longer, but you covered what you did very well IMO.
    kyle62
    Not a bad article, though worryingly you got the differences between ceramic and alnico pickups the wrong way round- that's one of the biggest tone factors! Twas probably just a typo though, good work otherwise.
    Chad11491
    i actually agree with p2fyre, i've tried a wide range of seymour duncan AND dimarzio's...there's not much difference at all...i mean, tonewise, each pickup is, but not a major amount, and wtf, they're the same price as dimarzio's 99% of the time i still think it's a good article though, kinda biased, but who isn't
    ShreddingBlood
    how do you know he owns only one guitar? anyway, great stuff man. this was a well written article.
    webbtje
    I thought this was about chat-up lines. Goo darticle though, but +1 to wholovesthesun
    Desh627
    Toms' anominous wrote: Um... Seymour Duncan's don't produce a great tone, It's pretty average in my opinion and way over-rated. On the other hand, great article! BKP's! FTW
    and I quote myself in the article (second to last paragraph in part II):
    In my opinion, Duncans produce great tone, but are a little weak on output and overpriced.
    I'm speaking in the terms that others may enjoy the tone, but I personally feel that they are... well... weak and overpriced.
    Lydian_Mode
    Yeah, what you said was good, but you neglected active PUs and some other popular brands such as EMG.
    Desh627
    Yes, I purposefully left out EMGs because I personally don't have enough experience with active pickups to do them justice. But, for you EMG fans out there looking for more info, I can try. EMG stands for "Electromagnetic Generator," referring to the onboard preamp installed in the guitar. Because EMGs require a preamp and a battery, usually extra routing is required to install these. Generally, EMGs have much higher output and overdrive much more so than their passive counterparts, making the pickups favored by heavy metal artists. There are also others (like David Gilmour) who are famed for using EMGs. EMGs come in both single-coil and humbucker slots. EMG also makes passive pickups, though they are famed for their active electronics. Once again, I've only used EMGs once, so I can't do them justice. If you enjoy the sound of EMGs and like what you're using, stick to 'em.
    troyponce
    EMGs usually have an onboard pre-amp which gives them incredibly high output, and they will also vacuum seal their pickups with a solid cover cap to minimize any sorts of interference. Their passive pickups are also vacuum sealed. If you want crazy high output and plan on using heavy distortion or overdriving your amp, put an 81 in the bridge and either an 85 or 60 into the neck. The 60 tends to have a tad more of a twang clean, and a little crunchier distorted. The 85 is gives you a really fat a beefy low end tone. I prefer the 85. The EMG 707, which is (suprise) made for a 7 string guitar is modeled more after the 85 and set in an extended housing. EMGs ftw.
    troyponce
    Sorry, not all of their pickups are vacuum sealed, but are usually offered that way as well.
    Toms' anominous
    Um... Seymour Duncan's don't produce a great tone, It's pretty average in my opinion and way over-rated. On the other hand, great article! BKP's! FTW
    thrilla13w
    hey what kind of pickup should i use if i want to play some good metal? what kind and what brand?
    p2fyre
    Toms' anominous wrote: Um... Seymour Duncan's don't produce a great tone, It's pretty average in my opinion and way over-rated. On the other hand, great article! BKP's! FTW
    You've obviously never tried an SD 59' This article was pathetic.. how can a person who only owns one guitar tell us about pickups? Also, if you know so much about pickups... why have you only tried EMGs once? plus you're obviously very biased towards DiMarzio. In my opinion SD, DiMarzio and EMG are all around the same quality.
    Kalas
    well im frankly a little disapointed so i will leave a pick up line here so that the next person won't be dissapointed. dude: is there a mirror in your pocket chick: no why? Dude: cause i see myself in your pants.
    wyldeshredder
    thrilla13w : hey what kind of pickup should i use if i want to play some good metal? what kind and what brand?
    if you want a tight high gain pickup,an emg is a good choice
    TheSemiBunny
    would it be worth my time to install pickups on my own or would i be better off using a professional? and another pickup line for everyone "Is that a keg in your pants, cause I wanna tap that ass"
    ThunderKiss65
    wholovesthesun wrote: Good article, but you forgot all about active pickups.
    read the last part of the article. and a good article it is too, with an even better title
    my_epi_SG
    i def agree with you about the strat single-coils, i love the sound and variety you can get. i love emg's, however i didnt know about the stuff you had to do to install them tho. that sux cus i realy wanted some for my sg.