So, you've got yourself a guitar. You love the action, the shape, and the colour. The only thing you don't like is the sound. It just doesn't deliver that distortion you want. Well, here's some simple advice on narrowing down which pickup you might like. Keep in mind; I can't decide which pickup you want for you. Always go to your local music store for advice on pickups, and always play guitars that have that particular type of pickup in them. If you don't know how to change pickups by yourself, then have a store tech do it for you.
Electric guitar pickups are made with one or more magnets, and wire. Every minor change to magnets or wire changes the sound greatly. Most pickups come in two styles: single coil and humbuckers. Single coils give off a "vintage" sound that can be heard from Stratocasters and Telecasters. Most single coil pickups give off a fair amount of hum, and are not well suited for modern rock, punk or metal. Humbuckers are, basically, a double single-coil pickup. This design, with wax potting, cancels out most of the hum or buzzing. The name comes from what they do, "bucking" 60 cycle hum, hence the name "humbucker".
Single Coil Pickups
A traditional 60's style single coil pickup has three main parts: a fiber top and bottom (a bobbin) six individual alnico magnets, and a coil of #42 wire. Several thousand tight winds of this wire are wrapped around the six magnets. This is held in place by a dip in hot wax. In a Fender Stratocaster, the electrical field given off by the magnets is focused right under the string. Essentially, the string moves in and out of a highly focused magnetic field, giving a Stratocaster its classic "quack" tone. If you put more turns into the wire, the pickup gains more midrange boost, but begins to loose its treble. This is the role of the Texas Special pickup.
Some single coil pickups have hum-canceling capabilities. Eric Clapton's signature Stratocaster has these vintage noiseless pickups, and Seymour Duncan makes noise-canceling pickups.
A typical Gibson humbucker has many common characteristics. It has two plastic top and bottoms (bobbins), two coils of #42 wire, an alnico bar magnet, a bottom plate, six adjustable screws and six metal slugs. The six slugs go on one coil, while the adjustable screws go on the other coil. The coiling of the wire cancels out feedback and hum. They are mounted side by side on the bottom plate, and below the wire is an alnico bar magnet. Because the two coils share wire, the string vibration is picked up over a wider area, giving off a fatter tone, which is less focused than a single coil pickup. Because a Gibson pickup uses its magnetic more efficiently than a single coil pickup, a Gibson humbucker will produce twice as much electrical signal than a single coil pickup.
Hot Rod Designs
A modern pickup designer has a lot of materials to choose from - alnico or ceramic magnets, the number of turns to give the wire, as well as which design they should use, single coil or humbucker design.
A "hot rod" pickup designer can change the materials and wire turns dramatically. One of the first hot rod pickup designs was the DiMarzio Super Distortion humbucker. The design behind the design is quite simple: DiMarzio put twice as many windings of the wire into the pickup than normal. The Alnico magnet was replaced with a much larger Ceramic magnet. Cosmetically, the pickup was offered with a cream coloured bobbin, which was the style to have on Les Paul guitars at the time.
The pickup was in instant success, as Les Paul toting rock stars placed the high-output into their guitars to create a new sound. Later on in the 1970's, the pickup began to lose its appeal, as guitarists soon discovered the pickup lacked a clean sound, and its intense magnetic force inhibited sustain.
One Hot Rod pickup design that maintains popularity is the Seymour Duncan Jeff Beck (JB). While it, too, had twice as many windings than a typical humbucker, Seymour Duncan used a Gibson Alnico 5 bar magnet to generate its magnetic field, allowing a natural sustain. If you're looking for a good lead tone, anywhere from pop, rock, metal and fusion, this pickup is definitely a secure bet.
A Hot Rod pickup is a fine balance between high output, mud, and natural sustain. However, there is a new, high-tech solution to this problem.
The most popular active pickup design is currently an EMG pickup. Some models include EMG 60 for bluesy, clean tones, an EMG 81 for rock, and an EMG 85 for heavy metal.
The EMG design takes a low output magnet and a low output coil, and attaches it to a battery powered booster circuit. This allows the sustain and clarity of a low output pickup to be heard loud and clear, with the ability to overdrive, as well as noise canceling applications. The EMG pickup design has essentially revolutionized bass guitar playing, allowing clear high end and articulation which were unavailable to bass players before.
"Patent Applied For" Designs
The most popular "P.A.F" design is a Gibson Classic '57. It represents another trend in Hot Rod pickup designs. It's a faithful reproduction of much sought-after original P.A.F. pickups made by Gibson between 1957 and 1961. The design is well known, and has remained relatively unchanged since the 50's. The construction is still the same as it was back in '57.
However, guitarists were complaining that the sound was not the same as those original P.A.F pickups that sold for ridiculous amounts of money. After going back to the drawing board, Gibson engineers realized why the pickups didn't sound the same: imperfections.
When the original pickups were being made, the amount of winds in the wire was relatively uncertain, so the sound varied even between two "identical" pickups. The engineers began to do incomplete wax pottings and mistakes in coil winds to achieve the original vintage sound that many people looked for. These pickup designs react amazingly well with different amplifier settings, and the best tone comes from a good tube amplifier. The Classic '57 Plus has slightly more winds, more suitable for bridge position use.
In conclusion, if you are using a low or middle quality guitar, and are unimpressed by the sound, virtually any high quality pickup you buy will sound much better than your own. You get what you pay for. Don't be afraid to spend a good amount of money on a pickup, but don't be so foolish as to put a high end pickup in a guitar you plan to sell in order to buy a higher quality one.
If you already have a high quality guitar, and want a pickup change, you should spend a very long amount of time searching for which pickup will be best for you. Owning high quality instruments is a sign of commitment to playing guitar and to your sound. Don't skimp out, because high quality guitars already have high quality pickups in them.
Don't buy a guitar and think you need new pickups. Only throw new pickups in a guitar if you plan to keep it for a long time, and you notice that your sound could be a whole lot better than it is in the first place.
Consult with staff at your music store about pickups, what to choose, and how they play. Make sure you try out a guitar with those pickups in it on your amplifier. If you own a small solidstate amp and want to upgrade to a set of Gibson P.A.F's, don't play them on a high end tube amplifier, because the sound simply won't be the same.
Thanks for reading my article, and I hope what you've learned helps you down the road!
- Backup Guitar