- How do guitar pickups work?
- Why do certain pickups sound the way they do?
- Single coil vs P90 vs Humbucker. How to choose the correct pickup for the desired tone.
Types Of Guitar Pickups
There are 3 main types of guitar pickups available: single-coil, p90, and humbuckers. However, others exist including Jazzmaster Pickups, Gretsch Filtertron Pickups, Fender Jaguar Pickups and more. In this article, we’ll go over the pros and cons of each.
How Do Guitar Pickups Work?
Electric guitar pickups work by using copper wire to wrap around a magnet to create a magnetic field which magnetizes the strings above the pole pieces. The magnetic field of the moving strings then induces a current in the pickup which can then be amplified.
Every component of this design affects the musical tone of the pickup; the type of magnet to the type of wire and amount of windings, will all have a huge effect on the type of sound desired.
Magnets will usually either be alnico or a man-made ceramic material and pickups with higher strength magnets have a higher output. The thousands of copper windings can be uniform in number or roughly hand-wound leading to variations in the resistance of the coil and therefore differences in sound from pickup to pickup.
Single coil pickups are defined by their clear, incisive sound when played through a clean amplifier. They have excellent clarity and musicality. When overdriven, chords become punchy and chunky with a treble-heavy presence.
Lead sounds are bright and can be heard in a full band performance. Many genres of music are heavily influenced by the sound of single coils. Country, Indie, Rock and Roll and even Jazz for example all have their sound design origins from this technology.
Negatives of Single Coil Pickups
Unfortunately, single-coils are susceptible to 50Hz/60hz cycle hum.
This is the “buzz” that you can hear at higher gain/volumes. This interference led to the development of the humbucker by Seth Lover. A solution that could “buck’ the hum as they said at the time.
Noiseless single-coil pickups have been developed but do not sound exactly the same as their noisier counterparts. The noiseless variants tend to be a bit more compressed and a little less lively, so there will always be a use for the sound of the noisier originals.
Songs Using Single Coil Pickups
- Dave Gilmour – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HGXu1lNmL-A
- Jeff Beck – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drAv2FoYji8
- Simon Neil – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdifHR-hKRw
- Prince – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SFNW5F8K9Y
What Single Coil Pickups Should You Buy?
P-90s are single-coil pickups with bar magnets set under the coils. They have a higher output than a traditional single-coil and this alters the sonic characteristics by quite a bit.
The altered design gives more punch to the sound at the expense of fidelity.
They are brighter than humbuckers but not as bright as single coils.
P-90s are fantastic for punk, punk rock, and rock.
Although this trade-off is only slight and helps give this type of pickup their character. P-90s excel when played under a medium amount of gain. This gives an almost “3-D” style depth to their gain voicing, which can sound very musical. P-90s come in three different casings either soap bar, dog-ear or humbucker sized depending on how they are mounted to the guitar.
Negatives Of P-90 Pickups
As mentioned above, while they are punchier in tone, they lack the fidelity that humbuckers can provide.
P-90s are also susceptible to 50/60hz mains hum but there are hum-canceling versions available. Click here for a full list of hum-cancelling P90s available on Amazon.
Songs Using P-90 Pickups
- Billie Joe Armstrong – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qigkzhMeEzI
- Alan Sparhawk – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWo6Ok3gHTw
- Bob Marley – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2pDMGHQxRA
What P90 Pickups Should You Buy?
Humbuckers are a pair of single-coil pickups that are wound in opposite directions allowing the coils to use phase cancellation to remove any 50/60hz cycle hum from the output.
This is obviously a fantastic solution to the problem that affects single coils but does alter the characteristics of the sound.
The higher frequencies are attenuated and humbuckers are not as articulate or clear as single coils, but this slight blurring of the high-end frequencies gives emphasis to upper mid frequencies that the human ear can consider to be warmer.
What Genres Are Humbuckers Good For?
Humbuckers under gain are thick yet clear and when placed in the bridge position can give a great sound for rock, heavy rock and metal riffing.
Neck positioned humbuckers give a great, warm jazzy sounding clean.
Most guitars can be retrofitted with humbuckers in either their normal two coil format or a single rail such as the Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickup. Balancing a single-coil in the neck position and a humbucker in the bridge can result in an extremely versatile instrument.
Negatives Of Humbucker Pickups
- Kurt Cobain – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIFUHzCUHrg
- Jonny Greenwood – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3_RU30tEIE
- Mick Ronson – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvkfg-6GsBo
- St. Vincent – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmnhY9Smj3M
What Humbucker Pickups Should You Buy?
Other Types Of Guitar Pickups To Consider
Jazzmaster pickups are technically not P-90s but simply Jazzmaster style pickups. They are very close in sound to P-90s with less punch, but more depth of sound when used under gain.
Jazzmasters were designed to be Fender’s equivalent of the Gibson ES type semi hollow-body guitars and the pickups mostly do the hard work in getting close to that ‘thumpy’ hollow-body sound.
They are wound flatter and wider than P-90s and also the windings are round the pole pieces which is again different from a P-90.
Songs Using Jazzmaster Pickups
- Nels Cline – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzn0KOLrarw
- Kevin Shields – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FyYMzEplnfU
- Troy Van Leeuwen – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1U8v8zriHo
- Thurston Moore – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnrRaWBzw50
Gretsch Filtertron Pickups
Filtertron pickups are synonymous with the Gretsch guitar sound. An excellent choice for Rockabilly or Electronic rock. Filtertron pickups are two single-coil pickups placed in closer proximity than in a traditional humbucker and have larger magnets and a retro aesthetic.
They are brighter and thinner than regular humbuckers but still warmer and thicker than a traditional single coil.
Songs Using Gretsch Filtertron Pickups
- Martin Gore – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2GEOcEcRtY
- Brian Setzer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eosj3MUD2WE
Fender Jaguar Pickups
Jaguar pickups are single coils with an additional metal claw structure on the outside of the pickup that can help reduce hum by improving RF shielding. The Jaguar pickups are also mounted into the body of the Jaguar itself.
Jaguar pickups are extremely bright and combined with the electronics, scale length and construction of the guitar can produce tones that are ideal for Surf, Indie and Rock.
Since the pickups are extremely clear and treble-heavy they can be a great choice for experimental and noise bands, as they can cut through a mix.
Songs Using Fender Jaguar Pickups
- Johnny Marr – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPoUB9qBdg4
- John Frusciante – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwlogyj7nFE
- PJ Harvey – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ReW0jJkag8
Pickups into Amplifiers
Your choice of amplifier probably has the biggest effect on your sound. A great amp is often preferable to a great guitar when it comes to trying to get the best quality sound for your budget.
Obviously the construction of your guitar, pickup height, string choice and playing style are all massive factors too, but there are some famous guitar/amplifier combos that work better with the right pickup combination.
Gibson Les Pauls into Marshall Plexi style amps work because of the humbuckers. Fender Jaguars into Fender Blues Junior or Tweed style combos are perfect for that reverb-heavy surf sound. Reverend Jetstream guitars sound absolutely fantastic into Supro amplifiers.
Pickups into Computers
Because of recent developments in amp modeling software, a lot of guitarists and producers are going directly into their computers via interfaces with dedicated Hi-Z inputs and using amp modeling software or saturation plugins.
This is starting to possibly mean that the choice of initial pickup is of less significance than it used to be. Line 6 has developed the Variax which models different types of popular guitars and their pickups, and this technology will only improve over time.
P.S. You should check out our article on our 6 best audio interfaces for people on a budget.
Famous pickup brands include:
- Seymour Duncan
Last update on 2020-09-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API