Ultimate Guitar Guide: Pickups

A beginner's guide to pickups: what are they, and what models are available? This guide give you a basic view on single coil pickups, humbuckers, hot rod pickups, active and p.a.f. pickups.

Ultimate Guitar
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.

Humbucking 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.

Active Pickups

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... 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

53 comments sorted by best / new / date

    I have finally come up with the ultimate combination for pickups. I play everything from Metallica to John Mayer to Led Zep, so I had to have pickups that were versatile enough to go from metal to blues to straight up rock. I have a Strat-type guitar with a HSS(1 humbucker, 2 single-coils) setup; in my bridge I have a Seymour Duncan Dimebucker that will give me more sustain and squeal harmonics than I could ever want(FYI-this pickup is not very good for a clean tone); for my single-coils I went with the Seymour Duncan Cool Rails, these pickups are without a doubt one of the best clean tone pickups you will ever get your hands on. They are basically humbuckers that are made to fit into a single-coil slot on a pickguard. If you have an SSS pickup combo I would suggest you put a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails in the bridge position, and the Cool Rails in the middle and neck. If you have 2 humbuckers I would go with either the Dimebucker or the Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB pickup in the bridge, and the Seymour Duncan SH-2 Jazz pickup in the neck.
    I want ultimate BEEF distortion (couldnt think of adjective and clarifying: heaviest distorted nice sound ever)how about two emg-81 or is that too limited (will be used as rhythm)
    whats the difference between neck and bridge which matters more to the sound quality
    ey skidmark try the 500T you can get a HUGE distorted sound (i really like it i dropped on in my lp studio) and it will still sound really good clean. If you just want more gain Duncan has a pickup booster footpedal out now.
    i want a humbucker that has tons of sustain (ALOT), and it should have a ton of distortion power for the bridge, and the middle pickup should have nice clean sound. also, the neck pickup should have a nice distorted sound and a nice clean sound for soloing. p-90s arent that good cause i have them on my les paul studio plus for neck pickup.HELP ME. ( I WANT TONS-OF-SUSTAIN!!!!)
    Thanks, I was just thinking about throwing in some 57 humbuckers on my SG but realized I have no idea about what I'd be doing... Thanks.
    everytime i read this guys articles, they make sense until he starts getting technical. Then the article is in japansese to me.
    im playing an epi les paul, with dimargio super dist humbuckers (3). the only thing i dislike about them is the amount of low end i get, when combined with the les paul body. any ideas on good alternate pickups?
    which of the emg pickups will give me the most gain and a heavy metal sound?? which pickups are better out of the emg 81's and 85's and the EMG HZ H4 pickups by the way... great article
    this is going to sound dumb but what is the difference between active and passive pickups and which are more common
    freat artixle dude. I have a telecaster because i used to play blues and country but now im turning to more stuff like metallica and megadeth. i looked up some pickups and i came across the emg 81 and 60. my only question is is would the emg 81 and emg 60 fit into an american standard telecaster?
    Thanks dude game me a very descriptive, basic explanation of pickups I appreciate the knowledge.
    Pickups Crank
    if someone's searching for the best pickups, maybe here they are: www.crankshitpickups.bigcartel.com It's a really small pickup company in germany. These pickups are handwound and handcrafted in best quality. They sound very good. There are also very cool metal pus in the shop! check it out!
    OpeN WidE wrote: I still dont get it. I want a nice pickup to play both Metal all the way to Blues (Like, metallica to Hendrix.) Like if there is anything like this, a wide range pickup. Any idea of something i could get. good article though, well written.
    i hear only good things about EMG HZ H4s
    Hello guys, I recently bought an ibanez rg1570 team J craft. it's an amazing guitar, it really has an awesome action in play. However, i knew before i make the purchase that i 'll need to change the stock pickups. Its not that theya re bad, i managed to generate very warm nice tones with them, but i want to put something with more quality, something unique. I like the versatility of the guitar and i don't want to "break" that skill of it. I play almost everything except hardcore metal. I like to play blues and classic rock hard rock and a little of bob marley stuff. I LOVE the tone of Gary Moore i also like the tone of metallica acdc bb-king and mark knopfler. I exclude dimarzio evolution pickups pack bacause i think that they are metal picks. So, i finally came up this the following pickups set and i want you opinion suggestion if they will fit nicely to the ibanez basswood material. I want a really worm tone that in any minute it can change the most powerfull one. Neck--> Gibson 57' classic plus (untopped) "the link in thomanns site is /gibson_p57_classic_plus_bl.htm" Middle --> Dimarzio air norton virtual blues "/dimarzio_dp402_virtual_vintage_blues_wh.htm" Bridge--> Dimarzio Paf 36th anniversary "/dimarzio_dp223bc_paf_36th_anniversary.htm" what do you think? I play on a Vox valvetronix VT100. thank you guys! P.S. i like the emgs pickups but they don't fit to ibanez body...and i dont want to make permanent changes!
    Regarding EMG - the 81 is the one adopted by metal players more than all other models. It has a fuller mid, and a very saturated sound when driven. The 85 (my favorite EMG) also has the rich high gain, but isn't so shrill on the top end - also has a surprizingly organic quality when it's on a clean chanel. Though the 58 was discontinued, I still think it sounded better than the 60. I was using the 81 85 combo when Zack was eating from a high-chair ) My recent favorite is the Lace Alumitone - pretty much the first fundimentally difference in pickup engineering since the first one by Mr. Rickenbacker in 1939. Check 'em out guys - and adjust your EQ before dismissing them. They really transmit the tone of the wood in the guitar - and have outstanding sustain. Also, yes - the passive HZ series from EMG is great - as well as the new KH signature set. I use 80s and 90s hughes & Kettner, VOX, ENGL and some MESA boogie stuff. Always go for the amp or preamp - not the modler or copy of an amp, and you'll truly hear your guitar. I own and operate Fretsong Guitars, played for 32 years, and built them for 20+ years. So I hear a lot of pickup and wood combos. If you're looking at custom wound units, just watch out for outputs reaching 25K or better - this tends to kill the highs and lows, and the definition fades. Much like this article states - try to plug them into your amp (or specific system) to confirm you'll get the sonic qualities you're looking for. BTW, it's easy to fix the rout on the Ibanez body for EMGs to fit, and it doesn't alter the value of the guitar when it is done properly. Anyhow, just had to say something about the way the EMGs where stated here. They really don't make a blues pickup - for that I would look at the Gibby 57, or one of several PAF style offerings... Cheers!
    Backup Guitar
    Gee, thanks for the encouragement. Anyways, the next one is on woods, so hopefully your eyeballs will stay firmly in place. :cheers:
    i have a fender strat american special, and i want to play punk. should i keep the pickups or change them, and to what
    OpeN WidE
    I still dont get it. I want a nice pickup to play both Metal all the way to Blues (Like, metallica to Hendrix.) Like if there is anything like this, a wide range pickup. Any idea of something i could get. good article though, well written.
    Just Save your money and guy a gibson, it will be worth it for more than just the pickups
    bridge: EMG 81 neck: EMG 60 yeah yeah i know, but if it would work...that emg 81 would do all your rock, with the emg 60 to do your blues stuff.
    also, OpeN WidE, you could consider the Vintage Gibson Les Pauls with the '57 Alnico V humbuckers. Surprisingly, a '72 Fender Telecaster Custom gets really good sounds for both musics. Good article, by the way
    Geldof the Grey
    score once again for Backup. shame that the Ultimate Buyers Guide has taken a backseat at the moment. Still, your columns should last another month of updates yet, so there's plenty of time to write up Part 4.
    Good Work, learned a little something about the parts of a pickup that I did not know before.
    the 81, 85 and 60 are all metal pickups. the 81 is the highest gain one and it is the definitive bridge pickup. the 85 is the neck pickup that zakk wylde uses and the 60 is the neck pickup james hetfield uses. they are all metal pickups.
    great article! i personally use Duncan Seymour JB in the bridge to get a really warm sound that can still sound incredible with distortion and Duncan Seymour Jazz in the neck for a nice clean tone. Together the sound is simply amazing.
    yeah I am speechless too, VERY informative, you seem like quite a smart person. Thanks for the information, Great articule
    I've had an Ibamez ICX(iceman X)for a year, and i think its a great guitar but i've been think about setting it up with pair of Gibson pickups with the classic 1950's-60's sound. If anyone thinks its agood/bad idea or have any other sugestions for me please say so.
    I play primarily acoustics and have been looking into getting an electric so this helped me alot as I had no idea what a 'humbucker' was. Yes I know im stupid....
    I like this article. I just hate that the EMG 81 and the EMG 60 active humbuckers dont got goldcaps as a option. You can only choose between 3 colors. White, Black and Ivory Cap. I got a Black Les Paul with Golden mechanics. Golden tuning machines and golden pickups and the bridge is in gold to! What tha hell should I do????
    what's a good pickup for punk/rock. cus i think EMG's are too metallish. i wnana know as i wanna change my pickups on my ibanez rg350
    woo hoo all information and no bias...(altho i guess u cant really be biased with pickups unless u work for one of the damn companies or sumthin...) anyway yea nice work if only sum1 could maybe follow up with technical advice on how to custom rig ur own axe
    Backup Guitar
    ^ The UG columns team has been tampering with that idea for a while... it just may come up in future.
    i have active pick-ups but i want new pick ups like the seymor duncan invaders can i make the duncans passive??