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Guitar Pickups-The Basics

The Tone-Shaping Element of Your Guitar

Many elements of an electric guitar determine its sound. Your choice of the wood used; the gauge, wind, and type of strings used; the method of playing; and other factors all can and will affect how your guitar sounds. But your guitar’s pickups are what actually create the basic tone of your instrument. In this article, we will cover the basics of guitar pickups.

What, Exactly, Is a Pickup?

An electric guitar pickup is the element under your guitar’s strings. (For guitars such as basic acoustics, pickups that can be attached to the guitar are available.) The vast majority of pickups use magnets to produce sound. They are magnets set into a bobbin and wrapped in copper wire. When your guitar’s steel strings are plucked, they vibrate over the magnets. This creates a signal that gets transferred to your amplifier via your guitar cord.

The two major elements that affect tone in a pickup are the number of times the wire is wound around the magnet and the tightness of the wrapping. More wraps means higher output, which in turn means it has a heavier tone. Fewer wraps result in a lighter tone. A coil which is taller and narrower will be clearer, more focused, and slightly brighter than another coil, provided they have the same output.

Types of Pickup: Single Coil and Humbucking

Many electric guitars feature a single-coil pickup. This is still a very popular configuration.  Single-coils have a bright, “twangy” sound popular among blues and country musicians.
The main issue guitarists have with single-coil pickups is that they tend to hum or buzz, particularly around other sources of vibration. This includes other guitars or amplifiers, even light bulbs!

In order to “buck” this hum, humbucking pickups were developed. They create two separate signals that cancel each other out. As they are less affected by outside noise and use a larger magnet, they have a “thicker” sound and are suitable for higher-output genres of music, such as hard rock and heavy metal.

Most electric guitars offer multiple pickups placed at different parts of the guitar body. For example, one may be closer to the neck, one closer to the bridge. There may even be a third or fourth pickup. The location of each pickup will affect the sound. In addition, the guitar may feature a combination of single-coils and humbuckers.  In most cases where there is a configuration of pickups, you will be able to switch between one pickup or another, or be able to phase them together using switches and knobs to adjust the level of each. This will help you create the right tone for your needs.
Although most guitarists use the stock pickups included on their guitar, more advanced guitarists have been known to replace the existing pickups with aftermarket models to help personalize their tone. Companies like EMG and Seymour Duncan offer such pickups.

What You Need

Which brand and type of pickup or configuration of pickups you should use depends on your personal tastes, chosen genre(s), and style of playing. Try several guitars and note the tone the pickups make and then make your choice.

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