Even though it is an overly small instrument, a guitar pickup plays an incredibly important role in making certain that you get to experience the beautiful and intricate sounds produced by your guitar by sending them to an amplifier. So, how does it work?
As beautiful and as simple as a guitar may look and sound, it would actually surprise you to learn just how complicated and technical it is, and the kind of activity that causes it to sound so good.
With multiple parts that work in different capacities and that have different sizes, a guitar is essentially a combination of multiple parts that each have a defined role.
One such part is the Pickup, which is a small device that essentially picks up the sound made by a guitar, converts it into electromagnetic impulses and finally transports it to an amplifier that causes it to sound loud and clear.
While that explanation sounds pretty vague, it is important to understand that a lot goes into this activity, and small as it is, the pickup is more or less the heart of a guitar since without it, you would almost have no audibility to speak of.
So, let’s take a better look at guitar pickups.
Guitar Pickups – What are they about?
A guitar Pickup is essentially made up of magnets, thin conductive wire, a bobbin and a top and bottom flatwork. Usually, the conductive wire is made of copper, and it is often times very fine.
You will notice that the fine wire is wound a couple thousand times around the magnets, creating an electromagnetic field that is charged with transporting the sound waves to the amplifier for clarity and amplification.
For a guitar pickup to be effective, the vibration of the string actually has to happen pretty close to it.
This way, the pickup receives the sound, converts it into electric energy and transports it to the amplifier where it is reconverted into sound.
The sound output is dependent on the vibration of strings, with a higher frequency producing sharper sound on the amplifier.
The vibration produces waves that have high and low points, with the low points being referred to as the node, and the highest being known as the anti-node.
More often than not, the magnetic material on a guitar pickup is made using ferrite or alnico.
You may find a few ceramic ones, but they are pretty rare. The latter are known to be more brittle, but they are also pretty decent.
Usually, guitars come with 6 strings, and so most guitar pickups come with up to 6 pole pieces.
The sound that a pickup produces is largely affected by such characteristics as alignment, spacing and the power of each individual pole piece.
That said, it is important to note that there are actually different types of guitar pickups, and they are documented and explained below.
Types of Electric Guitar Pickups
Single coil pickups
These are the most common type of guitar pickups, and they are known for their excellent amplification and clarity.
Guitars that have this type of pickup will produce more treble, and the sound will more often be vibrant and quite bright. Their sensitivity to subtle changes in the sound of a guitar is quite impressive, and they can carry this sound above just about all other instruments with ease.
The sound they produce is quite distinctive, and you are going to find them in such genres as country, surf music, alternative rock and even funk.
There are single coil pickups that have a slightly wider profile, and this is so that they can fit into guitars that have considerably larger bodies than the usual. These are a lot more mellow, and you will find them in jazz guitars.
These are comprised of two single coil pickups that are actually wound in reverse polarity. What this does is cancel out the effect of the 60Hz hum that is often produced by the average single coil pickup. They are also commonly referred to as double coil pickups.
When it comes to performance, you will find that these pickups are pretty much at home with almost all genres, and they are more versatile than single coil pickups since they are able to produce more earthy tones and back bass sounds up quite well.
Also, as a result of their overall engineering, they tend to be a lot more powerful, and they can actually cause an amplifier to go into overdrive. This is why you are more likely to find humbuckers being used in heavy metal, hard rock, jazz and even blues rock.
Fortunately, many guitars in the current market come with both single coil and humbucker pickups, meaning that you can actually change the sound of your guitar without particularly having to change guitars altogether.
Active vs. Passive Pickups – How do they work?
Most traditional electric guitars actually come with passive pickups, and these had been the norm up until recently. A passive pickup has the ability to work without needing an external source of power.
However, you will have to plug the guitar to an amplifier that is connected to a power outlet for the pickup to function as it should, and for the guitar to be as loud as you desire.
The benefit of having passive pickups is that almost all genres of music sound great on them, and this is why they are the most popular type of pickup.
More recently, active pickups have been introduced into the pickups market, and as you would expect, these are dependent on an external source of electricity to function. More often than not, you will find that you need a 9 volts battery to help them reach their most ideal output.
When it comes to overall performance, this type of pickup is most ideal for such genres as fusion, funk, and most of all, heavy metal.
So, is there a specific pick-up that you should go for?
Having established the way guitar pickups work, and the effect each type of pickup has, it is easy to make your choice based on the effect you desire. If you are looking for more treble and sound vibrance, you may want to go for a single coil pickup.
However, if you desire more bass and earthiness, a double coil or humbucker pickup makes a better device for you.
Types of Pickups and How they Work
Type of Pickup
How it works
Single coil pickup
Produces more vibrant sound that is heavy on treble. Best for country, surf music, alternative rock and funk.
Reduces the effect of the 60Hz hum, adds more depth and bass to sound. Ideal for heavy metal, hard rock, jazz and blues rock
Do not need to be connected to power source to work. They work well for almost all genres of music
Require to be connected to a power source such as a battery. Ideal for fusion, funk and heavy metal
As small as a guitar pickup is, it is the one device that allows for an electric guitar to shine. Its engineering capitalizes on enhancing the sound produced by an electric guitar, making it audible over an expansive space and over other instruments. It is able to achieve this through the combination of magnetic material and copper wire which combine to form an electromagnetic field that is ideal for transporting sound waves into the amp for better clarity.
Do acoustic guitars need pickups?
Not particularly, but you can use one in case you need it to be heard over large spaces.
Can I play my acoustic guitar over a microphone instead?
Yes, you can. The effect will be as good.