Novice guitar players often wonder if they can sing into guitar pickups and use them as a substitute for microphones. While advanced guitarists are aware of the unsatisfactory outcome of trying to use guitar pickups like a vocal mic, they too are clueless about the sonic differences of each equipment.
Screaming into a guitar pickup may sound like a silly idea, but you have to admit we all went through that phase of curiosity and experimentation at least once in our lifetime as a guitar player. After all, our efforts to inquire on matters concerning the guitar comes from an innate desire to understand how these things work.
As kids we have marveled at the very first sight of an emcee projecting his voice loudly with the use of a microphone. That will soon be followed with our introduction to the electric guitar and as young innocent human beings, we would stare with fascination at how such a small instrument can produce that deafening sound.
Now that we are more mature musicians and encounter guitar pickups and microphones on a regular basis, we need to understand how they function a little bit more. A basic knowledge of these devices that we use for our creative endeavors can make our music-making experience so much better.
Similarities and differences between guitar pickups and microphones
Although the basic concepts of vibration that make guitar strings and vocal cords work remains the same, they are two totally different instruments for sound creation. Because they produce frequencies that are unique to one another, we need special devices intended to pick up their distinctive sound waves. For guitars to resonate through amplifiers, we need pickups, and to capture vocals and other sounds, the microphone is our best bet.
Pickups and mics both gather sound waves and convert them into electrical signals, and they are the first elements in the amplification chain. The way they work are also similar since they both use magnets and rely on affecting the magnetic field with sound vibrations.
Guitar pickups may be similar to microphones but with more simple components and lower output. You can use a microphone to amplify or record an electric guitar but the result won’t be audible enough and the same outcome is expected if you sing into a guitar pickup.
Simply put, pickups are designed to only identify string vibrations within its magnetic field, unlike microphones which can pick up just about any kind of sound in its vicinity.
What are ‘microphonic pickups?’
If you are using a microphonic pickup, it will start picking up some unwanted sounds from your surroundings, just like how a mic functions. This happens when some of the pickup’s parts, such as the coils, are loose. A pickup with unsteady metal components and presence of eddy currents will create unnecessary vibration within its magnetic field.
Not addressing this issue immediately will cause you trouble, especially when you activate your distortion pedals and a squealing feedback goes off uncontrollably. Check the pickup mounting screws and tighten them up so they won’t jiggle around. Some guitar technicians recommend ‘wax potting’ which involves putting wax pot to your pickups to restrain the movement of the coils.
Even though microphonic pickups are considered a defect and can affect your sound negatively, there are musicians who have tried sticking to this condition. You may try it as well and judge for yourself if you are after a dirty, vintage tone. You can also record a song by singing into a microphonic guitar pickup, just don’t overdo it as it may sound too gimmicky, not to mention the challenges that you may face when mixing a feedback-prone instrument.
Can you sing or scream into guitar pickups?
Guitar pickups can pick up very little sound even if you scream into it and this makes it a weak option for amplifying your voice. However, the practice of singing into a guitar pickup is not all that futile since there have been bands that successfully attempted it.
Artists like 90s grunge outfit the Stone Temple Pilots have experimented on their recordings by having vocalist Scott Weiland scream at guitar pickups. The effect was a dirty-sounding, almost telephone-like, vocal track to kick off their angst-filled 1992 album Core.
Some guitar players in the metal genre have also attested to how powerful these more modern, active pickups are. With your distortion pedal set to maximum, you can just bring up the guitar to your face and scream at your EMGs and your voice will be heard effortlessly through the sound system.
The guitar pickup is a severely limited substitute for the microphone when it comes to picking up various sounds. There are many cheap microphones out there that will do far better than your pickups, which should only be used for your beloved axes.
However, given the desire for artistic adventure, you definitely can sing into guitar pickups, as long as you have accepted that the sound quality won’t be up to par with a real vocal mic. And if you can get past the massive feedback, you can even slap on a wah-wah or a delay pedal to make your guitar pickup-recorded voice more intriguing.