Learn all about the different types of pickups available, how they differ from one another, and which type of pickups will be most suitable for you
The pickups that you use in your guitar play a fundamental role in your tone. In fact I would argue that the type of guitar pickups that you use – as well as the design and build of those pickups – contribute more to your tone than many of the other elements of your rig with which you might be concerned.
This is because your guitar pickups are at the very beginning of your signal chain. They take the vibrations from your guitar strings, and turn that into an electrical signal that can be amplified. Without them, you can only play your guitar acoustically. Your amp and guitar pedals are also useless. As such, your pickups play a vital role in simply allowing your guitar to be heard.
Beyond that, they have a huge impact on your tone. The type of guitar pickups you use, along with their design and the materials from which they are built, all affect how they function. This in turn has an impact on the signal that they transmit to your amp. And this affects your tone.
So if you are looking to improve or alter your guitar tone, and you have previously focused on your guitar strings, amp, pedals and a whole host of other factors – but you haven’t yet turned your attention to your pickups – I would recommend looking at this element of your set-up too.
As is generally true of guitar gear, it is difficult to navigate through the world of guitar pickups. There is an overwhelming amount of choice out there, which can make it difficult to know where to even begin. And the added complication is that changing your pickups is not as easy as adding a new guitar pedal to your rig or changing your strings. In fact, depending on the guitar you are using, you might be limited in the type of guitar pickups you can use.
So before you start looking at different brands and individual pickup sets, I would advise working out which type of guitar pickups will work best for you. And this is not just from a tonal perspective, but from a practical perspective too. In this article I will cover:
- The basics of guitar pickups; how they are constructed, how they function and some of the key terms that you will encounter when you are researching pickups
- Some of the most common types of guitar pickups and their tonal characteristics
- Additional factors you need to consider when deciding which type of guitar pickups will work best for your set-up
Regardless then of whether you want to buy a new guitar and are looking to achieve a certain tone, or you are interested in altering or upgrading your current guitar, the information laid out here will help you to decide the type of guitar pickups that will work best for your set-up.
Understanding how guitar pickups work
Before we look at the various types of guitar pickups available, I think it is useful to have a basic understanding of what guitar pickups are, and how they function. Don’t worry, I won’t be going deep into technical detail here. But understanding the fundamentals will help you to appreciate why different types of guitar pickups sound and respond in different ways. And this will allow you to decide quite quickly where you should be focusing your attention.
Guitar pickups – regardless of their type – all perform the same basic function. They are constructed from a series of magnets, which are wrapped thousands of times in insulated copper wire. This generates a magnetic field around your guitar strings.
When you play your strings, they vibrate. This creates voltage around your pickups, which is converted into an electrical signal that can be amplified. And this is why guitar pickups are so named. They ‘pick up’ the vibrations from your strings and turn that into an electrical signal.
And yet whilst all guitar pickups perform this function – the sound they produce is very different – depending on the way they are designed and the materials used to build them. You can fundamentally alter the sound of a guitar pickup by altering any of the following:
- The material used to make the magnets in the pickup
- How many times the copper insulating wire is wound around the magnets in the pickup
- The number and layout of the magnets used in the pickup
These factors affect both the tone and response of different types of guitar pickups. And this is why it is so important that you choose the right type of guitar pickup before you start looking at specific brands.
Without further ado then, let’s get into it. Here are the different types of guitar pickups you need to know about, and the impact they have on your tone:
Single coil pickups
Single coil pickups were the first type of pickups to be used in electric guitars.
Typically, single coil pickups are constructed using six individual magnets – one for each string of your guitar. These magnets are then wrapped in insulated copper wire and the whole pickup is enclosed in a plastic casing.
Single coil pickups are most commonly associated with Fender style guitars, like the Fender Stratocaster and Fender Telecaster. As a result, they have been used by some of the most notable blues and blues rock guitarists of all time.
Generally speaking, single coil pickups are associated with ‘clean’ guitar tones. They produce quite a bright and articulate tone, which means that the notes you play ring out and resonate properly. You can hear this when you listen to early Stratocaster players like Buddy Holly and Hank Marvin. Just listen to songs like ‘That’ll Be The Day‘ by Buddy Holly or ‘Apache‘ by The Shadows.
Both Holly and Marvin play with a clean and fairly unprocessed guitar sound. And this helps to illustrate the clear, jangly and ‘bell-like’ tone that single coil pickups create.
Having said that, single coil pickups are versatile and work well in a range of different styles. Within a blues and blues rock context for example, a whole range of different guitarists used and continue to use single coil pickups. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix, Rory Gallagher, Eric Clapton (from the 1970s onwards) and Eric Johnson all played and continue to play using single coil pickups.
The tones of these players are very different. And this highlights not only the versatility of single coil pickups, but also the role that the other parts of your signal chain – like your amp and pedals – have on your overall tone.
The main drawback of single coil pickups – depending on the type of tone you are trying to create – is that they are not very powerful. This means that they don’t handle very high levels of volume or distortion particularly well. It is for this reason that you will rarely see heavy metal guitarists using single coil pickups.
It is also for this reason that single coil pickups produce a humming noise when you play them at high volumes. This humming noise produces a mixed reaction amongst guitarists. Some simply accept it as the price of using single coil pickups. Others view it with a certain fondness or nostalgia, knowing that their guitar heroes battled against the same buzzing noise. Many players however, find it distracting and annoying. And this has resulted in a number of companies producing ‘noiseless’ single coil pickups. These aim to reproduce the single coil sound without the hum and buzzing at higher volumes.
Long before the creation of noiseless single coil pickups however, sound engineers and guitar manufacturers were looking for ways to counteract the loud humming noise that single coil pickups produced at higher volumes.
During the 1950s there was a large surge in the popularity of rock n’ roll, electric blues and other forms of guitar driven music. And this led to bands playing in larger venues and at higher volumes. As the volume at which guitarists were playing increased, so did the hum from their single coil pickups.
The major breakthrough in counteracting this hum came in 1955. Seth Lover – an amp designer working at Gibson – discovered a way to connect two single coil pickups together. He did this by wiring two coils together, each with opposite magnetic polarities. This cancelled or ‘bucked’ the hum that single coil pickups produced. And so the ‘humbucker’ pickup was born.
Shortly after producing these pickups, Lover applied for a patent. It took 4 years for the patent to be accepted. And so during this time Gibson attached a ‘Patent Applied For’ sticker on the underside of all of their pickups. These P.A.F pickups are some of the most celebrated pickups ever created. Original PAF pickups have become popular collectors items. And a number of different pickup manufacturers have since produced ‘PAF’ style pickups modelled on these original pickups.
As you might expect, effectively taking a pickup and doubling its size has a profound impact on both its tone, and how it functions in response to your amp and pedals.
Generally speaking, humbucker pickups are associated with heavier and more overdriven guitar tones. Compared with single coil pickups, humbuckers have a ‘warmer’ and ‘fatter’ tone. They aren’t quite as articulate as single coil pickups, and they don’t produce the same bright and twangy tone.
This makes them popular with guitarists who want a heavier and more overdriven tone. However the same tonal characteristics also make them popular with players who want a clean tone, but want it to be smooth and warm sounding, rather than bright and twangy. For this reason, jazz guitarists often play using humbucker pickups.
In a blues and blues rock context, a whole range of guitarists have used and continue to use humbucker pickups. This includes players like B.B. King, Gary Moore, Billy Gibbons and Peter Green – amongst countless others.
After single coil and humbucker pickups, P90 pickups (also referred to as P-90 pickups) are arguably the third most common type of guitar pickups you are likely to encounter.
In technical terms, P90s are single coil pickups. Yet despite this, their build and design is quite different to that of Fender style single coil pickups. In fact the design and placement of the magnets in P90 pickups is closer to that of a humbucker, rather than a single coil pickup.
As such, the tonal characteristics of P90 pickups sits somewhere between single coil and humbucker pickups. They have a thicker and beefier tone than single coils, and they don’t sound quite so bright or ‘twangy’. However they are not quite as warm or smooth as humbucker pickups. They are also not quite as powerful as humbuckers.
Gibson actually invented P90 pickups in the early 1950s, prior to Seth Lover creating his PAF humbuckers a number of years later. For this reason, most early Gibson Les Pauls are fitted with P90 pickups. They have also been used on Les Paul Juniors since those guitars were first introduced as a cheap, entry-level alternative to Les Pauls in 1954.
Although they are not as popular as either single coil or humbucker pickups, a number of notable blues and blues rock guitarists have favoured P90s over the years. Carlos Santana, Gary Clark Jr, Robby Krieger and Leslie West are arguably the most notable. Outside of a blues and blues rock context, a wide range of guitarists have used P90s for their balanced tones. This includes guitarists as versatile as George Harrison, John Lennon, Tony Iommi (in the early days of Black Sabbath) and David Gilmour (when he plays his Goldtop Les Paul).
Comparing different types of guitar pickups
To help you make an informed decision on the type of guitar pickups that will best suit your playing, I think it is important to condense all of the information above into key points. These are as follows:
|Single Coil Pickups||Bright, articulate, ‘twangy’||Amazing for clean tones. Dynamic and articulate||Hum at louder volumes.|
Not good at handling a lot of distortion.
Can sound sharp and thin
|Humbucker Pickups||Warm, smooth, ‘thick’||Brilliant for overdriven and heavier guitar tones.|
|Not as articulate as single coil pickups. Lack the crisp and clean sound you can achieve with single coils|
|P90 Pickups||Balanced. Warmer and smoother than Fender style single coil pickups, but more articulate than normal humbuckers||Versatile. Can be seen as a ‘best of both worlds’ option||Can be seen as a poor compromise between single coil and humbucker tones|
The information in the table above gives you the key characteristics, as well as the ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ of each type of pickup. This will help to get you in the right ballpark, and to navigate the different types of guitar pickups in a fairly broad way. And this is a helpful first step.
However, looking at the information in this way can also be somewhat misleading. This is because it fails to capture the areas of crossover between different types of guitar pickups.
For example, whilst single coil pickups are not best suited for very high levels of distortion, you can still use them in a heavy rock context. Likewise, although humbuckers have a warm and smooth sound, you can still use them to create sharper and more articulate tones.
The differences between types of guitar pickups becomes even less clear when you consider them within the context of a full rig. Your guitar pickups alone do not define your tone. The build and design of your guitar, your amp, pedals and playing style – amongst other factors – all have an impact on your tone. And whilst your pickups have a significant impact on your tone, so too do these other areas of your set-up.
For example, B.B. King and Freddie King both played very similar guitars equipped with humbucker pickups. And yet they each crafted quite different tones. Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix both played using single coil pickups. And yet because of the stark differences in the rest of their set-up, their guitar tones are on the opposite ends of the tonal spectrum.
Beyond pickup design
To further complicate matters, and as is true of almost everything in the world of guitar gear – there are a vast number of variations on the different types of guitar pickups listed above. To list all of them here is beyond the scope of this article. I also think that it would be somewhat overwhelming, and therefore fairly unhelpful.
It is however, important to understand that these differences exist. It is also important to understand how they affect the tonal characteristics of different types of guitar pickups and blur the lines between them.
In other words, by changing various elements of how a pickup is constructed, you can change the tone that they produce. As such, you can find single coil pickups that sound and react like humbucker pickups. Likewise, you can find humbucker pickups that sound and react more like single coil pickups.
So even though the vast majority of guitar pickups are based on one of the three designs listed above, the sound of different pickup sets can vary significantly.
As you might expect, there is a huge variety of ways that manufacturers alter their pickups. And again – when it comes to choosing the right type of guitar pickups for your set-up – a lot of this information is superfluous. Having said that, there are some important points that are worth understanding.
These will help you to navigate some of the terminology that you will encounter when looking at pickups. And this will help you to further narrow down your search and find the right type of single coil, P90 or humbucker pickup that will work best for your set-up.
Here are some of the main elements of guitar pickups which are altered to produce guitar pickups of the same type which sound quite different from one another:
A blend of aluminium, nickel and cobalt is used to construct the magnets in most guitar pickups. And this is the case, regardless of whether they are single coil, humbucker or P90 pickups. This blend of metals is nicknamed Alnico. There are 4 common types of Alnico. And each blend of Alnico has its own unique tonal characteristics. These are as follows:
Alnico III are the weakest of the magnets used. This is because they don’t actually contain any cobalt. As such, they create a weaker magnetic field which has less of a ‘pull’ on your guitar strings. This gives them a lower output and a more ‘vintage’ sound. This vintage association is also related to the fact that Alnico III magnets were those used in the guitar pickups of early Fender Stratocasters.
Alnico II magnets were initially used in PAF humbucker pickups. They have a slightly stronger output than Alnico III magnets, but are still relatively weak. As such, they work very well if you are interested in creating a range of vintage blues and blues rock tones. Their tone is often described as ‘sweet’ and works well, both when playing clean, and also with an overdriven tone.
Compared with the first two types of Alnico magnets, Alnico V magnets have a more aggressive and sharper tone. They are often described as being ‘hotter’ than other types of guitar pickups. Pickups constructed using Alnico V magnets have a higher output than those made with Alnico II and III magnets. As such, they work well if you are looking for more power and you prefer to play with a more overdriven tone.
This final type of Alnico magnet is much less common. They are the strongest of all of the Alnico magnets, and as a result produce a more aggressive and overdriven tone. In fact, they have a similar output to ceramic magnets (see below). Yet a lot of guitarists favour them over ceramic magnets, because they still provide the warmth that is associated with Alnico.
Lastly, and as noted above, you can also get pickup magnets made from ceramic. These have a higher output and a more pronounced ‘top end’ than those made from Alnico. As such, ceramic magnets tend to be used predominantly by guitarists playing very heavy rock and metal genres.
Magent size & design
The next factor to consider is the design and shape of the magnet used in the pickup. As you might expect, the shape and size of the magnets used in single coil and humbucker pickups is different. In Fender single coil pickups for example, there are six individual magnetic poles. And this contributes towards the bright and snappy sound of these pickups.
Conversely, Gibson style humbucker pickups are constructed using steel bars which extend up from a single magnetic bar. Again, this helps to give Gibson humbucker pickups their warmer and darker sound.
This element of pickup design and construction can be altered and tweaked in innumerable different ways. However there are a couple of common variations on these designs, both of which fundamentally alter the tonal characteristic of these types of guitar pickups.
Blade / Hot rail pickups
When it comes to single coil pickups, one of the most common variations on the classic Fender design are Blade or Hot Rail style pickups. These are single coil pickups, except they are not constructed using individual magnets. Instead they are constructed using a single magnetic bar that extends across all 6 strings. This dramatically increases their output and makes them sonically closer to humbucker pickups. It also improves tonal consistency across all 6 strings, especially when string bending. This type of guitar pickup is popular with guitarists looking for heavy and more overdriven tones.
Closely associated with Gretsch guitars – Filter’Tron pickups offer a variation on the Gibson humbucker design. They have a much larger magnet than most humbucker pickups. This actually gives them a brighter and sharper tone than most humbuckers, and makes them sonically closer to single coil pickups. This type of guitar pickup is very popular with guitarists playing country and rockabilly styles of music.
As noted above, guitar pickups are constructed by wrapping a magnet or series of magnets in insulated copper wire. And in the same way that the size, type and configuration of the magent(s) in the pickup can be altered, so too can the way the magnet is wound.
This part of the process has a profound impact on the tone and characteristics of the pickup. It is also one of the key elements of pickup design that varies between manufacturers. And this partly accounts for the tonal differences of similar pickups from different companies. If for example you play a vintage set of single coil pickups from Fender, they will sound different when compared with a similar set of vintage pickups from another manufacturer.
This particular element of pickup design is highly technical. However thankfully you don’t need to fully grasp all of the details to understand which type of guitar pickups will work best for your set-up.
In short, there are two main factors that I feel are important to take into account when you are considering which type of guitar pickups are right for you. These are as follows:
‘Overwound’ vs. ‘Underwound’ guitar pickups
When it comes to winding, pickups are often described in quite broad terms as being either ‘overwound’ or ‘underwound’. These terms simply refer to the number of times that the copper wire has been wound around the magnets in the pickup. As the name suggests, the magnets in underwound pickups are wrapped in fewer winds of coil than their overwound counterparts. This is actually quite significant, as it affects both the output and the tone of the pickup.
Broadly speaking, underwound pickups are weaker, with a brighter tone. Conversely, overwound pickups are more powerful, with a darker and less treble intensive sound. Vintage guitar pickups are underwound, whilst modern guitar pickups are overwound.
These terms don’t quite give the full picture, as there are other factors beyond the number of windings that affect your tone. How tightly the coil is wound around the magnet, and the space between the winds of coil also have an impact, for example. Having said that, overwound and underwound are the terms that you are most likely to encounter when looking at different types of guitar pickups.
Machine vs. hand wound guitar pickups
You might also encounter the term ‘hand wound’ as a benefit offered by manufacturers when you are looking at new pickups. This is because – as you might have guessed – guitar pickups can either be machine wound or hand wound, which is sometimes referred to as ‘scatterwinding’.
Machine wound pickups have a very uniform and even winding pattern. Machine winding helps to keep the cost of guitar pickups down. It also ensures consistency across batches of pickups. So if you buy a few different sets of machine wound Gibson guitar pickups, they should all sound the same. For these reasons, machine wound pickups are far more common. Almost all guitars are built using machine wound pickups. This is true even of high end and expensive American made guitars.
Yet whilst machine winding has benefits from a manufacturing point of view, it is widely accepted that hand wound guitar pickups produce better tones, with greater harmonic content. It gives manufacturers more control over the spacing between the winds of coil around the magnet in the pickup. This in turn affects the capacitance of the coil. And this alters the way the pickup responds and the tones it produces.
To my knowledge, only Custom Shop and bespoke made guitars come with hand wound pickups. The good news though, is that you don’t need to buy a Custom shop or bespoke guitar if you want the tonal benefits they offer. There are a whole range of boutique pickup manufacturers that produce hand wound pickups. And whilst they are more expensive than those that are machine wound, they are not as pricey as you might expect. In fact, most boutique manufacturers offer hand wound pickup sets for around the same price as a single boutique guitar pedal.
Experimenting with different types of guitar pickups
In addition to the various types of guitar pickups and designs available, you also have the option to mix and match the type of guitar pickups you use on your guitar. And this too has a significant impact on your tone.
There are a number of ways you can alter your pickup configuration. The first of these is slightly more radical, and involves changing the type of pickups on your guitar. As you can imagine, there are innumerable different possibilities here. However some of the following changes are quite common and can potentially work very well. You can:
- Replace the bridge pickup on a Fender Stratocaster with a humbucker. A lot of rock guitarists take this approach. This gives them the single coil sound, with the extra bite and power of a humbucker pickup
- Switch the single coil pickup in the neck position on a Fender Telecaster to a humbucker. Albert Collins adopted this set-up to brilliant effect
- Replace one or both of your humbucker pickups with P90s
If you are looking to buy a new guitar and you want a specific pickup configuration, then it is fairly easy to find guitars that have one of the pickup configurations listed above, ‘straight out of the box’. Alternatively, you can of course change the pickups in your existing guitar.
All of these changes will make a significant difference to your tone. They will also potentially provide you with a greater range of tonal options. And in this way you can pick and choose some of the best characteristics that different types of guitar pickups have to offer.
The key point to appreciate here, as noted above – is that your guitar pickups are not the only factor affecting your tone. They do have a significant impact. Yet having said that, if you are planning to gouge the single coil pickups out of your Telecaster to replace them with humbuckers because you want to recreate the sound of a Gibson Les Paul, I would recommend thinking twice.
The wood that the guitars are made from, their shape and construction all affect their tone. And so if you focus only on your pickups, you are likely to be disappointed. In fact worse than that, you could potentially ruin a brilliant guitar in your efforts to turn it into something it is not.
Experimenting with the same type of guitar pickup
If you want to take a more conservative approach, whilst still experimenting with and improving your tone, you can stick to one type of pickup, but change the characteristics of those pickups.
This is an approach that Eric Johnson has used to great effect. On his Stratocaster, Johnson has low output vintage pickups from the late 1950s in the neck and middle position. Then in the bridge position he uses a DiMarzio HS-2.
However he doesn’t hook up the bottom coil of the HS-2 pickup. As such, it remains a single coil pickup, rather than a vertical humbucker, as designed. In this way, all of the pickups in Johnson’s guitar are single coils, but the pickup in his bridge position is higher output.
You can take the same approach by placing pickups with different tonal characteristics in different positions on your guitar. One common approach amongst Stratocaster players for example, is to use a pickup with an Alnico III magnet in the neck, and an Alnico II magnet in the bridge. In this configuration, the neck pickup produces a warm and soft tone. Conversely, the bridge pickup has a little extra bite and is better suited for overdriven tones.
This works well, because guitarists will often switch to their bridge pickup during a solo to cut through the mix and add a little more definition to their notes. And choosing a stronger pickup helps to intensify this effect.
If you are looking to create a more stark contrast between your different pickups however, then you can do this by simply replacing any of your pickups with one that has a higher output. And you can do this with any guitar. In this way, you can extract the most out of your instrument and tailor it to suit your playing style.
Active vs. Passive pickups
In addition to all of the different types of guitar pickups listed above, and the numerous ways that you can configure your pickups, it is worth mentioning that there is a whole further group of guitar pickups, known as ‘active pickups’.
Truthfully I have added these in as somewhat of an afterthought. This is for a number of reasons, which I have covered in more detail below. First though, I think it’s worth covering what active pickups are, and how they differ from passive pickups.
In simple terms, a passive pickup is one that does not have an external power source. Passive pickups take the vibrations from your guitar, and convert those into an electrical signal, which is made audible by your amplifier. There is no external power source that alters the signal in any way.
Active pickups function in much the same way. The key difference however, is that the signal from active pickups is boosted by an external power source. This usually comes from a 9V battery which is built into the body of the guitar. This additional power source boosts the signal, which increases the output of the pickups.
The vast majority of guitar pickups are passive. In fact they are so much more common than active pickups, that they are simply referred to as pickups. You do not need to specify that they are passive. As such you generally will not see pickups advertised as being passive. You will however see pickups advertised as being active.
The benefits of active pickup
There are a number of benefits to active pickups. The most significant of these is that the boosted signal gives you greater tonal clarity. And this makes active pickups a great choice if you want to play with either a very distorted tone, or a very clean tone.
If you are playing with a lot of distortion, the extra tonal clarity will give form to your notes. And this will stop your sound from becoming ‘muddy’. It will enable you to play with a lot of distortion, without all of the notes you play merging into one another. It is for this reason that guitarists who are playing very heavy rock and metal typically favour active pickups. Guitarists like Zakk Wylde, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica, and Kerry King of Slayer are just some of the many players who use active pickups.
Having said that, active pickups can work for other genres of music too. If you also play using a very clean tone, then the additional clarity provided by active pickups will help your notes to punch through. It will also improve your sustain, which can be a challenge when you are playing with a totally clean tone.
I suspect it is for these reason that David Gilmour used active pickups in his later career. In the early 1980s, Gilmour purchased a red Fender Stratocaster which was fitted with active pickups. He went on to use this guitar extensively. This was both whilst touring, and also during the recording of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason and The Division Bell.
Why are active pickups not more popular?
Given that David Gilmour used active pickups, and that he is widely recognised as having one of the best Strat tones of all time, you might be wondering why they are not more common outside of the heavy rock and metal genres. In short, I think there are a number of reasons for this, which are as follows:
Passive pickups have a much richer history compared to active pickups. The vast majority of famous guitarists have used passive pickups. As such, they are associated with a huge range of iconic guitar tones. This is especially true within a blues and blues rock context. Personally I don’t know of any blues or blues rock guitarist who uses active pickups. And whilst David Gilmour used active pickups, this was not until later in his career. During the recording of The Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, The Wall and Animals – Gilmour played a Stratocaster with passive pickups.
Secondly, and significantly – there is a tonal difference between active and passive pickups. Active pickups lack the natural and organic response you get from passive pickups. They have a slightly artificial sound that is very crisp and lacks the warmth of passive pickups. I would also argue that they are less responsive to any changes you make to your playing style and to the volume controls on your guitar. This is significant within a blues and blues rock context. Blues lead guitar is all about subtle and nuance. As such, you want to have as much control over this element of your sound as possible.
Lastly, it is almost impossible to install both active and passive pickups in the same guitar. And this is quite limiting – especially when you consider the almost endless tonal combinations you can create when you place different types of passive pickups in different positions on your guitar.
Refining your search
At this stage, you might understandably be feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Not only are there different types of guitar pickups to consider, there are differences between pickups of the same type, and a huge range of options for combining different pickups on your guitar.
My advice here – before you go out and buy a whole range of different pickup sets and start experimenting – is to work out roughly what you are looking for, and then refine your search from there. This will help you to get into the right ballpark. You can then zone in on the exact set of guitar pickups that will work best for you.
I would recommend going through a process of elimination to help focus your search. Specifically, I would advise asking yourself a series of questions to whittle down the huge range of choice and make your life a little easier.
As it happens, I am in the process of looking for a set of new pickups for my Fender Stratocaster. I haven’t yet bought a new set, but I have really refined my search by going through this process. I bought my Strat new in 2016. It is an American Fender Elite Stratocaster with Fender 4th generation noiseless pickups (which came stock with the guitar). Here are the key questions I asked myself to help give my search focus:
What type of tone do I want to create?
A warm and thick, ‘classic’ vintage blues tone that is not too saturated or overdriven.
Am I fundamentally happy with the tone of my guitar?
Yes. I love the Strat sound, but I am looking to get more from my pickups. The bridge pickup is too sharp and biting, and the neck pickup a bit too soft and ‘wooly’ for me at the minute.
Who are my favourite guitarists? What type of guitar pickups do they use?
Stevie Ray Vaughan, B.B. King, Peter Green, Rory Gallagher, Eric Clapton, Albert King, Gary Moore, Derek Trucks, David Gilmour, Mark Knopfler, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Cray, Billy Gibbons, Slash, Jeff Beck, Philip Sayce, Eric Johnson.
Almost all of these players used or continue to use vintage guitar pickups. There is a pretty even split between those who play single coil pickups, and those who use humbucker pickups.
What sort of output do I want from my guitar pickups?
I rarely play with heavy levels of overdrive and distortion, and much prefer a slightly broken up and softly overdriven tone.
Would I consider other types of guitar pickups, or more radical changes to my guitar, like adding a humbucker to the bridge?
No. I don’t want to make any radical changes to my Stratocaster. And although I love the sound of humbuckers, I will achieve that sound by eventually buying a guitar with humbuckers. I don’t want to add humbucker pickups to my Strat.
How important are guitar pickups in the context of my rig?
Very important. I don’t use a wide range of pedals, and so I want the sound of my guitar to shine through. I want to be able to manipulate my dynamics and have as much of my tone come from my guitar as possible.
How much am I willing to spend on new pickups?
I would prefer to pay more for a set of guitar pickups, and be really happy with them, than to compromise and not achieve the tone for which I am looking.
As you can hopefully see, asking this series of questions has not only helped me to narrow my search; it has also stopped me from getting distracted by all of the different options out there. And when I assess myself as objectively as possible, there is a real risk of this happening. I have a range of favourite guitarists, and many of these guitarists use different types of guitar pickups. And even those that do use the same kind of pickups have very different tones.
The risk here is in trying to chase all of these different tones, and in trying to do so, not really capturing any of them. And this is where asking all of the questions above (or similar ones, specific to you) can help keep you on the right track.
For example, Rory Gallagher and Eric Johnson are two of my favourite Stratocaster players. And yet whilst I love their tones, I personally prefer to play with a cleaner, and less overdriven tone. Likewise, even though many of my favourite players use humbuckers, I don’t want to make any radical changes to my Strat. So I will wait to buy a guitar that is already equipped with humbuckers, instead of trying to fundamentally change my Strat.
Understanding these points is empowering. It immediately gives you focus, making it easier and more enjoyable to decide what will work for you. In my own situation for example, my answers have focused my attention on single coil pickups. More than that, they have focused me on low output, vintage style single coil pickups, most likely from a relatively high-end boutique pickup manufacturer. For now I can forget all of the other types of guitar pickups, and focus on this much narrower area.
Of course, deciding on the final set of pickups won’t be an easy process. It will however be infinitely easier than trying to navigate all of the different types of guitar pickup out there.
So you are feeling confused or overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice available, I would strongly recommend going through this process. It will focus your mind and ensure you choose the right pickups for your rig.
My final piece of advice is to start simple. Focus on the key elements listed here, before you start drilling down into some of the more nuanced elements of pickup design.
The information outlined in this article is by no means exhaustive. And in fact each of the areas that I have covered here could be explored in much greater detail. I have resisted the urge to provide more detail – partly to prevent this article from becoming a small treatise – but largely because it isn’t that relevant to the majority of guitarists. And whilst extra detail is interesting from an academic point of view, it can make buying a new set of pickups more challenging.
This is because whilst more information is empowering up to a point, it can also be detrimental. It can cause you to feel overwhelmed, and can lead you down a never-ending rabbit hole. This is particularly the case with guitar pickups, where discussions are often more technical.
If you feel at risk of diving down into that rabbit hole, then take a step back. Just stay focused on the essential key points. This will help to keep you on track, and make the process of buying the right guitar pickups easier and more enjoyable.
To further help you in that search, in future articles I will look more closely at specific types of guitar pickups. I’ll list some of the best single coil, humbucker and P90 pickups to help you dial in a range of killer blues tones. So if you are set on a particular type of guitar pickups, but want more information on the best options out there, keep an eye out for those articles.
And in the meantime, if you have any questions at all I can help with, just pop them in the comments below or send them over to email@example.com. I’d love to help!
Feature Image – Unsplash
David Gilmour – Wikimedia Commons (The license for the image is here)
Eric Johnson – Michael Bush / Alamy Stock Photo
Albert Collins – Alamy Stock Photos
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Buddy Guy used active pickups from the late-80s until at least the early 2000s.
Thank you very much for taking the time to comment Reggie, I really appreciate it. Do you have any resources about Guy’s pickups that you might be able to share with me? My understanding is that Guy has always used passive pickups, and that since the 1980s he has mostly played his own Signature Strat, which at various points has had pickups that included Gold Lace Sensors, Fender Noiseless Pickups and Fender Texas Specials. But if you have any information to the contrary, please do send it across, as I would be very interested to read it! 😁