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