Dive into our introduction to guitar pickups, where we take you through a brief overview of the classics, interesting alternatives, and unusual experiments.
We can’t all afford the nicest guitars on the market. But sometimes we want top-shelf sound without the exorbitant price tag. And while you can do this with your pedalboard to an extent, small changes to the guitar itself can have a huge impact on your tone.
Your guitar pickups are the core of your sound, and experimenting with different types is a worthwhile way to achieve you what you desire, and to move away from the staleness of factory standards.
Humbuckers and single coils can come in different flavours, and there are some interesting unconventional guitar pickups out there. Here we will cover the basics, foreign experiments, and some interesting alternatives to get your mind buzzing on what you can solder into your rig.
The single-coil pickup was created by George Beauchamp in the 1920s. Magnetic pickups house a coil of wire wrapped thousands of times around a bobbin or coil-former. As their name suggests, single-coil pickups have one of these structures, and double-coils have two of them.
They are hugely popular today, having been a central component to the sound of some of the most popular guitars of all time, including the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster. Yet single coils are inherently afflicted by the hum and buzz associated with magnetic pickups, which may be off-putting for some. Rock, pop, country, blues, and punk tend to favour these pickups and the ‘chime’ or brightness that they exude.
A type of single-coil pickup, it is named such for the foil that sits on top – created to offer a cheap and attractive to make pickup alternative for Japanese student guitars in the mid 60s. They can also be found on a vintage Harmonys (such as the Jupiter or Bobkat) and Silvertones (such as the Stratotone).
On the inside, adjustable pole pieces run through a steel bar to widen the magnetic field. Despite their cheap or trashy reputation, they have a cult following for some tone tastemakers. Custom Goldfoil pickups by artists like Curtis Novak and Jason Lollar are receiving a lot of praise, and can go for hundreds of dollars. These are described as having a clear top end with rich harmonic overtones. One artist’s trash is another artist’s treasure.
Another type of single-coil, these pickups get their name, quite literally, from their construction – in the 1950s Danelectro used actual army surplus lipstick tubes to house the electronics for their pickups. Instead of a bobbin, the coil is wrapped around an alnico VI bar magnet, wrapped in copper wire, and stuffed into the metal case.
Many vintage Danelectros and Silvertones sported these sleek pickups, as well as modern guitars such as the Squier Vintage Modified Surf Stratocaster, which features three Duncan Designed lipstick pickups. As the latter suggests, these pickups were favoured in American surf music in the late 50s, as well as rockabilly. And you don’t have to look far to spot a lipstick-armed guitar in the hands of many modern players (Beck’s Silvertone 1449 anyone?)
Where single-coils tend to be clear and bright, humbuckers are thick and heavy. Invented by Seth Lover from Gibson, these pickups have two coils in the same casing, with magnetic poles in opposite directions to ‘buck’ out the electrical hum.
While this is an obvious plus for anyone who spurns the nosiness of a single coil, they do compress more than the single coil, and don’t have the certain brightness or ‘twang’ required for genres like country and surf. However, the warmth and high output of humbuckers gel perfectly with jazz and metal, two genres which sit almost exclusively under the scope of the “humbucker” sound. But, of course, ultimately it’s up to your preference.
Whether you’re a “single coil” or “humbucker” guitarist ultimately depends on what your guitar model can fit. But, then again, there’s always the option to go down the DIY route and mod your guitar at home by carving out or taping up the pickguard (Sonic Youth were known to do this extensively with their guitars, ripping out electronics and replacing them with whatever they could get their hands on).
In the 1960s, beyond the Iron Curtain, electric guitars in the Soviet Union developed with little influence from the ‘capitalist’, or Western, guitar types we know today. Rather than concentrating on clean body-lines, resonants woods, and tone from the actual guitar, the creators of these guitars went to town on the circuitry.
Because of this, the pickups and circuitry in many of these guitars was ridiculously complicated. While there are some crazy experimental versions with multiple necks and pickups into the teens, the Stella is easily the most crazy commercial Soviet guitar when it comes to pickups.
With more than 10 knobs and switches to work with, these guitars were insanely versatile (though not noted for sounding that great), with options to select between different combinations of the four pickups, to set each one to “pick up” either the lower or upper three strings, and even pan on the fly. Who cares what they sound like? What other guitars can do that?
Japanese guitars from the 1960s exude some of the most unique designs to ever have emerged on the guitar market, often blurring the fine line between beauty and monstrosity. And innovative pickup configurations were a huge focus in these designs.
Memorable examples include the Teisco Del Ray Spectrum 5, which features six staggered pickups, three for the treble strings and three for the bass strings, with five different pickup switches; the Greco 975 Shrike 12-String employs four pickups in two opposite ‘arrow’ formations – you can use all four simultaneously, or only the ‘top’ from the bridge pickup, or only the ‘bottom’ of the neck pickup, or vice versa.
The 1968 Sekova Grecian also has a noteworthy pickup configuration, with a pickup for each string, the bass frequencies coming from the neck and the treble from the bridge. Apparently the wiring in these are beauties was so fragile that you’d be lucky to find one today that works, but man they look impressive.
Changing out your pickups, or buying a guitar with something a little different is a great way to beef up a cheap guitar, explore new tonal palettes, or to enter completely new sonic territory. What you choose is completely up to your preference, and the above is just the tip of the iceberg.
Head to your local store and play through what they have to offer, read up on what your favourite artists use, experiment, and find what suits you. Then keep looking, because the quest for perfect tone is endless, right?