Over the course of the time I’ve spent teaching guitar, I’ve found that very little about the anatomy of the electric guitar seems quite as mystifying to most newcomers as those little rectangles under the strings. A good chunk will know that they’re called pickups, but that’s about where most newcomers’ knowledge begins to dry up. While it’s true that understanding pickups isn’t as immediately necessary to begin playing a guitar as some other parts of the instrument, such as the tuners or volume knob, it’s still unfortunate that they are often overlooked and not quite understood by beginners. A guitar’s pickups are one of the major factors in determining its sound, and understanding what makes them tick can be a major towards realizing the electric guitar tone you’ve always imagined.
Simply put, a pickup is a device that senses the vibrations of your strings and projects them into the classic electric guitar tone we all know and love. Although proper terminology prohibits pickups from being labeled as microphones (they’re technically a kind of device called a transducer), it’s not crazy to think of them as little, rectangular guitar microphones. Sound goes into them, and then comes out your amplifier a whole lot louder.
Bridge, Neck, And Middle Pickups
Most electric guitars have either two or three pickups, although it’s not uncommon to find a guitar with only one and there are some offbeat models released over the years that have as many as four. Having multiple pickups doesn’t make your guitar that many times louder, but rather it gives you a range of tonal options to choose from.
You may have noticed that if you pick the guitar strings nearer to the bridge of the guitar (the bridge being the part of the guitar where the strings feed into, near the instrument’s bottom), you’ll produce a sharper, treble-heavy guitar tone. Or, on the inverse, if you pick nearer to the neck of the guitar, or even on the neck itself, the opposite will be true, with your guitar producing a deep, bass-heavy tone. The same principle applies to the placement of pickups.
The pickup placed nearest to the bridge, known as the bridge pickup, will create a bright treble-heavy tone, just as the neck pickup creates a darker bass-heavy tone. A pickup placed between the two, known as the middle pickup, will create a tone that’s a balance between the two extremes. Your guitar’s pickup selector will allow you to switch between any of these different pickup options available on your guitar, as well as combinations of those pickups.
Humbuckers vs. Single-Coils vs. P90s
The position of a pickup is an important factor determining how it will sound, but the type pickup used on each spot creates an ever more dramatic difference. While there are far too many specific brands and models of pickups to list here with any degree of comprehensiveness, most of the pickups currently on the market can be reduced to one of three main categories: humbuckers, single-coils, and P90s.
Commonly used on Gibson brand guitars, humbucker pickups are known for their rich, mid-range heavy tone and thick sound. They’re a popular choice among hard rock and metal as well as jazz guitarists, but can be found among electric players of just about any style. The circuitry of single-coil pickups are essentially just half of that of a humbucker, a thinner, chime-like sound because of it. Single-coil pickups typically come equipped on all Fender guitars, and their thinner sound makes them blend wonderfully with most effect pedals. P90 pickups walk the line between humbuckers and single coils, packing a lot of the punch of a humbucker but still retaining the bite of a single-coil.