Hi and welcome to the pickup FAQ, this normally lives in the GB&C forum but I decided it was time to unleash it on the rest of UG and is in fact more up to date than that version! Feel free to give me suggestions new websites tidied up versions of this, heckle me (not too much please) whatever just make it useful! There may however be minor cock ups in here due to the immense size of the damn thing if you let me know an I'll endeavour to sort it out.
This is not the be all and end all of pickups on this site just a guide to inform your choice and what you do is up to you.
01. Interesting And Informative Websites
02. Manufacturers Of Pickups
03. Manufacturers Of Acoustic Pickups
04. Pickup Wiring Diagrams And Mods
05. Different Kinds Of Pickup:
a. The Difference Between Single Coils and Humbuckers
b. Passive Pickup Systems
c. Active Pickup Systems
d. Low-Impedance Pickups with Separate Pre-Amps
e. High-Impedance Pickups with Separate Pre-Amps
f. Onboard E.Q. Circuits
06. Changing Pickups For Beginners
Editorial Note: Due to the excessive length of the original article, we decided to post it in several parts. In the next portions of Pickup FAQ the following topics will be considered:
07. Guitar Pickup Adjustments: How To Adjust Pickup Height And Adjust Pole Pieces On Your Guitar Pickups
08. Why Should I Change/Not Change My Pickups?
09. Pickup Reviews
10. Credits And Thanks01. Interesting And Informative Websites
users.chariot.net.au02. Manufacturers Of Pickups
Most of you will head strait to one or two companies when considering a new Pup why not take a look outside the box with these and create a unique tone?
fender.com05. Different Types Of PickupA. The Difference Between Single Coils And Humbuckers.
General Knowledge And The Basics
Pickups are essentially magnets. Your strings are made of magnetic metals; usually electric guitar strings have a steel core wrapped in nickel, or are just plain steel. Your pickup creates a magnetic field that when the strings move, disturb. This disturbance is transferred to an electrical signal by your pickup, affected by all your guitar's electronics and eventually reaches your amp and is turned into vibrations which you hear as your guitar.
Pickups get their magnetism from either a magnet attached to their base, or from magnetic pole pieces. Pole pieces are the metal cylinders that come out of the pickup under each string. The pole pieces are wrapped in magnetic wire (usually copper), which increases the strength of the magnetic field. One set of pole pieces wrapped in copper wire is called a coil of a pickup.
More Advanced Stuff
There are 3 main types of magnets used in passive pickups; Alnico II (2), Alnico V (5), and Ceramic.
Alnico II is the lowest output and the smoothest/warmest/bassiest of the 3 main magnet types. Alnico V is higher output than Alnico II and has more trebly/midrange bite than Alnico II. Ceramic is the highest output of all and the most trebly/biting. In general, Either Alnico II or Alnico V can sound good distorted or clean, but ceramic pickups generally produce a tone that isn't as pleasing clean, but somewhat preferred for heavy distortion.
Depending on the type of wire used to wind the pickup, it's thickness, how it was prepared and how old it is, the wire can affect the pickup's overall sound greatly. Companies generally do not list information about what wire type they use in order to keep their pickup formula somewhat guarded. In general, the more wire that is used will give you a greater output and a bassier tone.
As you may have noticed, if you pick closer to the bridge of your guitar, the sound you get will be quieter and more trebly than it would be if you picked closer to the neck. When pickups were first made, they didn't account for this and your bridge pickup would sound very quiet and trebly, while your neck pickup would sound very loud and bassy. Eventually, people began to realize that if you over-wound the bridge pickup, so that it became hotter and more bassy, and under-wound the neck pickup, so that it became quieter and more trebly, that you could create a greater balance between the pickups. In general, bridge pickups will still sound more trebly than neck pickups, but not in all cases.
So, now that you have some general knowledge, we can move on to the pickup divisions.
There are 2 main different pickup constructions, single coil and humbucker (2 coils). Single coils and humbuckers come in all different sizes and shapes.
Here are some various single coil pickups: 01, 02, 03, 04.
Here are some various humbuckers: 01, 02, 03.
Hopefully you know, visually, the difference between humbuckers and single coils now.
Here is a pic of a generic single coil.
The first pickups created were single coils. Along with picking up signals from your strings, which they were supposed to, they also picked up stray radio frequencies (RF), which you would hear through your amp as an annoying buzzing sound. The orientation of this RF signal is related to which way the wire is wound around your pickup. Meaning that if you wind the pickup clockwise, the RF signal will travel in a different way then it would if you wound the pickup counter-clockwise. If you have 2 signals being used at once, where the RF signal is different in each, they will cancel each other out, or at least lessen their collective sound greatly.
This is why humbuckers were created.
5A (cont). Humbuckers
Here are a pic of a basic humbucker with the cover.
Humbuckers are essentially 2 single coil pickups that share a large magnet at their base. Each coil of a humbucker is wrapped differently, so that the RF signals they create cancel each other out.
The only purpose in creating humbuckers was to "buck" the hum that single coils created.
However humbuckers did not, and do not, sound just like single coils without hum. Since a much larger magnet was used, and there were 2 coils of wire, the humbucker created a much louder signal.
There are many other differences between humbuckers and single coils. Some will say that humbuckers are only good for distortion and single coils only good for clean. This is only personal taste, and many people (There are too many people who use Gibson style guitars for clean to begin to list them) use guitars with humbuckers for playing clean. Also, guitarists such as Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple), Ywingie Malsteen, Kirk Hammet (Metallica), both of Iron Maiden's guitarists and many others have used single coils for metal.
I could begin to describe the tonal differences of humbuckers and single coils to you, but it would be best if you went out and played a lot of guitars and found them out for yourself. I could say single coils have more "quack" or "twang", but what you think of as quack may be different than what I think of, so it'd be best you come to your own conclusions.
These links have clips of many different pickups, use them to help you make decisions about pickups.
artists.iuma.comB. Passive Pickup Systems
All basses and guitars generate an output signal by means of a pickup that translates some of the vibration energy of the strings in to voltage that gets sent to an amp. Passive instruments send this raw signal to the amp, and passive volume and tone controls can only attenuate the signal and treble response, that is, make it quieter. In order for passive magnetic pickups to generate enough voltage to drive an amplifier, they must be wound with a large number of turns of wire. This causes high inductance in the coil, and a high impedance output signal. This has the effect of rolling off the extreme high and low frequency response and making the signal more susceptible to loss and degradation in the cable on the way to the amp. While this sounds bad, it's one of the reasons passive pickups can sound punchier, because the ear perceives more midrange when the high treble and low bass are rolled off. The powerful magnets and larger wire coils in passive pickups can also produce strange electromagnetic interactions with the strings and adjacent pickup coils, causing irregular response curves and dynamic effects usually not seen in active pickups. Both of these factors contribute to the unique voice and continued popularity of passive pickups.
C. Active Pickup Systems
Typical examples are EMG pickups and the Duncan/Basslines Active Pickups. These generally use low-impedance pickups with a smaller number of wire turns. This causes less loss in the high and low end, and generally allows a much broader, full-range, hi-fi sound. Unfortunately, it also means the voltage produced by the pickup is very low, not nearly enough to drive an amp through a long cable. So these pickups have miniature amplifiers, called preamps, built into the pickup housing itself. Thus the signal only has to travel a fraction of an inch before it gets amplified and buffered into a low-impedance output. These systems often, but not always, provide a higher output signal than passive systems, so you don't need to turn up the gain as much on your amp, which can add noise.
To confuse matters, active systems can use passive volume and tone controls just like passive pickups. These controls are almost always have different values for potentiometers and capacitors, and you usually must use the parts supplied by the pickup manufacturer. In addition, because the connection from the pickup coils to the preamp is made inside the pickup housing, options like series/parallel switching and coil tapping are rare and generally not available unless the manufacturer has specifically designed the pickup for it.
D. Low-Impedance Pickups with Separate Pre-Amps
This kind of system is essentially an active pickup with the preamp taken out of the pickup housing and mounted separately in the instrument's control cavity. This approach is typical of some Bartolini and Lace Sensor designs. You gain the ability to do things like coil-splitting and phase switching, because the pickup wires are accessible before they go into the preamp. However, adding a passive bypass switch is usually not a good idea, because the passive output of the pickup is so low. The preamps that go with these systems have a lot of gain to boost the output of the pickup's signal to a useful level, and usually also offer some kind of active tone shaping E.Q.
E. High-Impedance Pickups with Separate Pre-Amps
This is essentially a passive instrument with high-output passive pickups that has an onboard preamp. All preamps will buffer the pickup's output to a low-impedance signal and many add some gain to help drive your amp with less noise. This helps maintain signal integrity and retains much of the high and low end that would get lost in the cable run, resulting in a kind of ideal passive sound. With this system you retain all the switching options you have with a passive instrument, and you can easily bypass the active circuit with a switch for a more vintage sound, or as a fail-safe in case your battery runs out.
F. Onboard E.Q. Circuits
Most of these preamps also give you onboard active tone controls, where you can boost as well as cut frequencies, just like the E.Q. in your amp. There's no sonic benefit to using these onboard controls rather than the ones on your amp, and they're usually not as clean or quiet. The main advantage is being able to control your sound from the instrument, especially when going direct into a recording console or P.A. system.
06. Changing Pickups For Beginners
Now you've chosen you pickup your probably wondering how the hell to install the bloody thing! Well whatever you do don't take it to a shop because the will rip you off do it your self here's the idiot's guide on how to do it.
All your electrical components inside your guitar are connected by a metal called solder. Solder is a mix of lead and tin, and melts at a relatively low temperature. It is melted over a wire and electrical terminal, hardens in only a few seconds, and then you have a nearly permanent electrical link between the wire and whatever you've soldered it to. Solder is commonly melted with a soldering iron, here's a picture of one.
They work by heating up a lot, you putting the tip to some solder, the solder melting over the wire and electrical terminal.
If you want to change pickups, you'll need to get yourself a soldering iron of your own, you can pick one up at radioshack for like $8. I'd recommend a 35 or 40 watt soldering iron. One would tend to think that the lower value iron you get, the safer you are from messing up your guitar, but it's actually the opposite. If you get a low value soldering iron, it will take a longer time to heat up solder to the melting point. During the time it will take to heat up the solder, the heat will travel through the whole component, and could warp the plastic and silicone parts inside. If you have a hotter iron, you'll hold it there for less time, heating up whatever you're working on for less time.
Picture it like this, if you put something in the oven or microwave at a high power for like 3 seconds, the outside will probably get hot, but the inside will still be cool. If you put it in there at a medium power for a bit longer, the whole thing will get heated up.
You'll also need to buy solder for installing new pickups. The industry standard is 60/40 rosin core solder, this is the same stuff that's used basically by everyone in the world, and is fine.
I also advise getting desoldering braid. It's a metal braid that sucks up liquid solder. So if you have a lot of solder somewhere, you just heat it up and touch the desoldering braid to it, the braid sucks it up like a paper towel does water, and your joint is clean.
Now, you know what you need to buy, this is how you actually change your pickups.
Take off all of your strings
Unscrew the pickup you're removing.
Locate the wires from that pickup and carefully desolder them carefully. Be sure when desoldering or soldering anything that you let the component you're working on cool down before you work on it again, or you can overheat it.
Totally remove the pickup
Screw the new pickup into the pick guard.
Follow whatever sort of diagram you're using.
Test that everything works by plugging the guitar in, selecting the pickup you changed and tap on the pickup's coils with something magnetic, and listening to if you get a sound from your amp. If you hear any sort of noise, then you did it right, restring and play.