- Why do guitar pickups have different sounds?
- What affects the tone of your pickup?
- What pickup choice should I make?
Pickup Position Is Important
There are so many contributing factors to the sound of your electric guitar and the question of which factor is the most important is always a source of constant debate.
Is it the strings? The pickups? The tonewoods?
Does a vintage Fender Stratocaster sound better than a 2020 American Professional?
The word “better” is of course subjective, but an interesting question to investigate is the effect of your pickup position on the sound of your instrument.
The Main Factors That Affect Your Sound
The main factor for the difference in sound between the bridge and neck positions is the movement of the strings above the pickups in those positions.
This is something you can easily observe by playing closer to the bridge and hearing the treble content increase and the volume decrease. You can feel the strings stiffen and become less mobile the closer to the bridge that you play.
As the string moves away from the anchor point in the bridge and increases in elasticity, there is an increase in volume and bass, because the string has potential for greater movement.
For this reason, each pickup needs to be manufactured for its correct position. Using a bridge pickup in the neck position can result in a much louder output than desired.
Fans of single pickup guitars sometimes argue that they can sound better than guitars with two or more pickups and share various opinions on why this might be the case.
One theory is that having one less magnet affecting the strings allows the strings to vibrate more freely. Another is that the lack of the cavity/wiring space for the second pickup allows the body to resonate better.
Both of these ideas are very hard to test, but interesting to consider. The tone of an instrument can also be affected by the presence of, and the type of volume/tone controls (not just by turning the volume down, obviously!).
Famous single pickup guitars include the Fender Broadcaster and the Gibson Les Paul Junior.
Manufacturing Differences Between Pickups
A guitar pickup consists of a series of magnets wrapped by fine copper wire. The strings moving in this magnetic field generates a small signal that is then sent via the guitar controls and cable to the amplifier.
Each pickup is calibrated relative to their position of placement in the guitar. The bridge pickup is wound “hotter” (increased windings) to compensate for the lack of movement of strings near the bridge, in an attempt to even out perceived volume differences.
Bridge pickups have higher resistance and therefore more output than their neck version counterparts.
The neck pickup’s lower resistance and output tend to compensate for its dullness. making it a little brighter. This helps to balance the output of your pickups and make it easier to create the exact guitar tone that you are after.
Your Guitar Can Change Your Pickup Sound
The tonewoods of your guitar will also affect the sound of your pickups.
The construction of the neck and fingerboard will add and alter the harmonics of your guitar. Rosewood slab fingerboards have warmer overtones than maple fingerboards.
The body wood will obviously also make a key difference. Mahogany being warm and ash having higher treble content for example. Pickups will be designed and calibrated to match the tonal design of the instrument.
If the calibration of each pickup was identical, as was the case in the very first Stratocasters, then there would be a clear difference in volume as you moved from one pickup to the next.
With the bridge pickup being especially quiet. The highest note in a guitar is the high E on the thinnest string at the 24th fret (if you have one!) is 1318Hz.
Pickups are made to be most sensitive about 4 to 8 times higher than this, this is primarily to capture the strong harmonic content which is fundamental to the guitar sound we all know and love.
There is also a tonal difference between ceramic and alnico magnets, with some people saying that ceramic pickups have a ‘hotter” sound.
Using a high output ceramic pickup in the bridge and an alnico in the neck can give you a guitar that can have a great distorted tone from the bridge and a clear clean tone in the neck, but an instrument that can have issues with volume differences.
Which Pickup To Use
When To Use Bridge Pickup
Why would you use the bridge pickup? If you want that extra bite and twang, then a Telecaster bridge pickup is key.
Playing on the bridge pickup on any electric guitar will give you a brighter, snappier sound than the neck position, which is typically characterized by higher bass content and warmth.
If you want crunchy clarity for your high gain riffs then the scooped active tone of an EMG 81 is your answer.
Many rock and metal players would play their riffs at the bridge for the added clarity and then use the EQ on the amplifier side.
When To Use Neck Pickup
If you want a classic jazz tone then a using the neck pickup on a Gibson ES style hollow body is a great start for a classic warm and musical sound.
The neck pickup on a Fender Stratocaster is one of the most essential guitar sounds you could own.
Many players use the neck pickup for playing solos as the tone can be less shrill than the bridge pickup when playing past the 12th fret.
Changing pickups during your playing can add extra dynamics and musicality to your performance.
Using both pickups together can have functional uses as well as musical ones. Both pickups together on a Jazzmaster cancels out the hum you would get using either the single coil neck or bridge position individually.
Using both pickups on a Telecaster gives you a well balanced and full frequency guitar sound. There are many wiring and combination options when it comes to using two pickups or more.
Pickups can be wired in series or in parallel, in phase or out of phase and even in multiple combinations of neck, middle and bridge depending on the guitar model.
Humbuckers are wired in series which gives them a much higher output than single coils.
Whatever electric guitar that you own, your selection of pickup is key to expressing the particular musical statement that you want to make.