What makes guitar pickups sound different from one another? What are the factors that affect the sound quality of a pickup? We all know that the market is flooded with guitar pickups of various size, shape and tonal characteristics. Getting to know these pickups in existence and comparing their attributes is an adventure that will yield some vital knowledge about the guitar.
Since the inception of the electric guitar, the instrument has gone leaps and bounds in its evolution as a cultural icon in the past 100 years. The electric guitar and its adherents are responsible for the invention of rock and roll, soul, fusion, punk, metal and other countless subgenres that have relied on one of the greatest innovations in music history.
Aside from the much-revered amplifiers and stompboxes, we cannot deny the importance of guitar pickups in our quest to find our perfect sound. These diminutive devices may seem like simple tiny objects, but they can energize an entire stadium when paired with skill, talent and a proper sound system.
Not all pickups are equal and some are undeniably better-sounding while offering more flexibility. However, there are also pickups that are designed particularly for certain genres and playing styles. This is why there are guitar pickups that still bring nostalgic tones from the 60s Motown era, while there are those that are preferred by djent and progressive metal bands of today.
What determines the sound of a pickup
What exactly makes guitar pickups sound different? Here are some factors that determine the sound characteristics of a pickup.
Magnets: Alnico vs Ceramic
Ceramic pickups are more brash and they are best suited for heavier music with loads of overdrive or distortion. Ceramic pickups are much cheaper to produce and they usually end up in beginner-level guitars that come with starter kits. However, legendary players like Eric Clapton have relied a lot on guitars fitted with ceramic pickups to record and perform songs.
On the other hand, alnico magnet pickups sound a lot warmer and smoother, making it a favorite among jazz musicians, as well as artists who prefer a sweeter tone. Alnico are also more responsive even though the output is lower than ceramic pickups.
If you are torn between alnico and ceramic magnets, it is recommended that you choose a pickup depending on what style of music you usually play, as well as the specific guitar tone that you are aiming for.
Active vs Passive
A vast majority of the most beloved classic songs in the history of recorded music were done with guitars that are equipped with passive pickups. This is why even though active pickups are louder and more powerful, passive guitars will never go out of style.
For metal guitarists however, a guitar with active pickups is an ultimate requisite to deliver those loud, gnarly tones that headbangers love.
Single-coil vs Dual-coil
The number of coils can make guitar pickups sound different from one another. Single coil pickups consist of one coil of wire wrapped around a magnet and are usually found in Stratocasters. On the other hand, dual-coil pickups or “humbuckers,” are made up of two coils of wire wrapped around magnets and are typically installed on Les Pauls.
Generally, single-coil pickups produce a brighter, slinkier tone, while humbuckers sound thicker and warmer.
Windings (number of turns)
Winding the wires over a magnet is one of the most crucial stages of pickup-creation. In fact, experts believe that this is the phase wherein the design of the pickup is starting to materialize as a piece of art. After all, this is where the tonal characteristics of guitar pickups are first defined and molded to the liking of a designer or engineer.
The number of times a wire is wrapped around a magnet, largely impacts the overall tone of a pickup. The single coil pickups on a Stratocaster usually has 8,000 turns, while humbuckers go up to 10,000. The more turns, the beefier and the more midrange, although too much will produce a less refined sound. On the contrary, underwound pickups sound a little bit too jangly or glassy.
Location, positioning and height
Placing a pickup near the neck, the middle or near the bridge can also make the guitar pickup sound different. The same goes with the way pickups are angled, although this is normally needed for single coils to enhance the frequencies of the high and the low strings.
Another factor that can affect the performance of a guitar is the string height. If your guitar’s pickups are too low, the output will be weaker.
The role of a pickup cover in modifying sound is still a debatable matter for some guitar players, since it is difficult to make out the changes whenever they are removed or put on. Many experts believe however, that pickup covers can reduce the sharpness of the tone, while providing additional noise cancellation.
What are some of the best pickups today?
Since the technology was introduced, the guitar pickup market has grown exponentially through the decades and the catalog today is more extensive than ever. Let us compare and see what makes some of this year’s best guitar pickups sound different from one another.
Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates SH-PG1B
Named “Pearly Gates” after the Billy Gibbons-owned Gibson ‘59 Burst Les Paul, this pickup is Seymour Duncan’s faithful recreation of the pickups that were used by the legendary ZZ Top guitarist. The rich sound and amazing sustain of the Pearly Gates pickup is lauded by some of the most discerning blues musicians out there.
DiMarzio Super Distortion S
The Super Distortion S is following in the footsteps of its big bro, the Super Distortion, which was once the pickup of choice for guitar players such as Paul Stanley and Paul Gilbert. A well-rounded, high output pickup just like its predecessor, the Super Distortion S is designed to fit into the angled orientation of a Fender Stratocaster’s bridge.
EMG James Hetfield Het Set
James Hetfield of Metallica has established himself as one of the most consummate frontmen in metal and has been using EMG pickups on his signature ESP guitars for a very long time. The latest JH “Het” is a versatile active pickup that reflects the evolution of Hetfield, his music and the axes that he wielded to conquer the world of metal.
Mojo Pickups Mojo’Tron
This handmade boutique pickup is inspired by the Filter’Tron, a vintage Gretsch humbucker design. The Mojo’Tron may not be the best option for metalheads because of its bright and twangy sound, but If you are into country and rockabilly and wish to channel your inner Chet Atkins, the Mojo’Tron is definitely what your guitar needs.
Lindy Fralin Vintage Hot
Praised by some for being the best all-around single-coil pickups today, Lindy Fralin, remains the favorite for a lot of upgrade-hungry Stratocaster users. The Vintage Hot’s tone sparkles brilliantly while maintaining balance, warmth and clarity. Without a doubt, being hand wound is one of the main factors that make Lindy Fralin guitar pickups sound different from the rest.