Saturday, October 24, 2009

Guitar Pickup Guide

There are TONS of factors that will effect your sound before it reaches your speaker which may or may not be desirable. In this guide, I'm going to attempt to explain the major influences in your guitar's sound, and how to choose a pickup that will work with your guitar and rig to make a sound you want.

That being said, there are THREE major influences of your sound, those are:

-The Pickup (duh)
-Your Guitar
-Your Amp and Effects

[image] Of course, there are many minor things that have an effect on your sound, such as strings, picks, the way your play (picking strength etc), and other electronics (pots, piezo, gain boost, etc). But we will stick with the main ones. After we understand these influences, we will analyze how they all act on the signal, and how to make a decision based on these influences.

Source : Megatron @ The Guitar Matrix -

PART 1 - The Pickup

Basically, a pickup is a magnet with lots of copper wire tightly wrapped around it. When the string is hit and vibrates in front of magnet, it disturbs the magnetic field of the magnet, which causes an alternating voltage in the copper wire. That voltage is sent out as a signal to your amp. Each pickup has certain properties that make up it's sound, some of those being:


Tone- Basically how much high, mid, and low the pickup sends out in it's signal. The pickup will sense a certain amount of each in every note you play, and pump them out at certain levels. Pickups that have lots of highs and less bess are considered "bright". If placed in the right guitar, it can create screaming sound on high notes and pinch harmonics, a glassy sound in the neck, and snappy twang without distortion. Pickups that are mid-heavy or bassy will usually have more punch, grind and growl. Mid-heavy pickups can also have more cut and presence than others, and higher notes sound "fatter". Bassy pickups can sound huge and punch hard with excellent response to palm mutes and low notes. Pickups that have scooped mids (more treble and bass and less mids) can have powerful low notes and excellent clean highs for soloing, but may not cut through the rest of the band on solos. They can also have great sustain and excellent harmonics.

Output- This describes the strength of the signal leaving the guitar, and is measured in millivolts (mV). DiMarzio classifies output in three categories; Vintage (<270mV), Medium (270 to 324mv), and High (325mV+). Vintage/low output pickups are usually extremely clear even under high gain, and will often have open, singing highs. Medium power pickups will still have cleaner single notes, but may have added power for strong rhythm and a beefier bass response. High output pickups can drive amps (especially tube amps) into overdrive/distortion and can be super sensitive to harmonics (including pinch harmonics). However, the clarity of signal notes can suffer, especially with super fast solos and high gain as notes can blend into each other.

One common misconception about pickups is that magnet have a direct effect on your tone. THIS IS NOT TRUE!!! The only role a magnet plays in the pickup is to create the magnetic field. All magnets create the same type of field. If there aren't different varieties of magnetic fields, how can different magnets effect tone? The strength of the magnetic field determines the pickups OUTPUT, and different magnets can have different strengths. Tone is determined by the diameter and amount of copper wire, which creates the amount of inductance on the pickup. As a general rule, the higher the inductance and impedance, the less highs are put out.

Construction- Over the years, the fundamental design of pickups have been modified significantly, and there are many different types of pickups to choose from today.

Single Coil- The first pickup ever created (in the mid-20's!) A single coil pickup consists of just one magnet wrapped with copper wire and is easily identified on Fender Stratocasters and very old Gibsons as the P-90 pickup (or the 1935 bar pickup). Vintage style, Fender-type single coils are usually very clear and tend to lean towards the brighter side of the tone spectrum. P-90's can have a darker, mid-range sound. Unfortunately, single coils can also pick up 50 and 60 Hz fields given off by AC electromagnetic fields of other equipment and electronics. This causes an extremely annoying, fly-like buzz or hum that can get particularly nasty at high volumes. But modern day innovations have done well to overcome this.


Humbucker- As an initial attempt to combat the horrid 60-cycle hum of single coils, the humbucker was created (buck the hum! get it?!). It basically consists of two single coils placed next side by side with opposing coils and polarity and wired in series. When the electromagnetic interference enters the coils, it induces current in opposite directions since the coils have opposing polarity and coils. When the two coils' signal is combined, the noise cancels itself out while the actual signal is doubled. In reality, there will also be a small amount of hum since no two coils are exactly the same. Since there are double the coils in this pickup, the amount of impudence and output can be doubled as well, creating high-ouput, bass and mid-heavy pickups. However, not all humbuckers are the same, and many have different tones and outputs.

Rail Humbucker- Created to fit in a single coil route, the rail humbucker has copper wound around two thin blades, creating a a mini humbucker.

Coil-tap Humbucker- For flexibility in sound, many humbuckers have a coiling tapping actually that serves to recreate the sound of a single coil. The option doesn't actually cut off one coil, but reduces the output as to simulate it. This feature is usually controlled by either a push/pull pot or a small switch

Active Pickups- In order to further modify the tone of the signal, electronic circuitry (a preamp, filters, and/or an EQ) was created and built into a pickup. All of this circuity requires a power source (9 volt battery), and higher costs. The benefits of active pickups are large output for driving amps and long cable leads, a greatly defined tone, and a huge reduction in buzz and noise thanks to the preamp. Unfortunately, all of the sound-shaping effects can leave the sound a little "sterile".

Standard and F-Spacing: Aftermarket humbuckers are sold in two sizes, Standard and F-Spaced (or Trembucker by Seymour Duncan). Fenders have a wider string spacing than Gibsons, so when luthiers started putting Gibson built humbuckers in Strat-style guitars, they noticed that the wider spaced strings were not lining up with narrowly placed pole pieces of the pickups. As a result, the pole pieces would have difficulty sensing some strings, which could create an imbalance of output among the strings. As a result, pickup manufacturers started making humbuckers for Fender and Floyd Rose spacing (both are the same), and called them "F-Spaced" pickups. The Gibson spacing became "Standard" spacing. For 43 mm nut widths and wider, an F-spaced humbucker is also recommended in the neck. Most guitars with Floyd-type trems have a 43 mm nut width.


In the image above, you can see how the spacing on a Fender style bridge (same spacing as a Floyd Rose) does not line up directly with the Standard spaced humbucker. It is a good idea to get F-spaced pickups for your F-spaced guitar, but not having them won't completely ruin you sound. Many guitarists who first put Gibson humbuckers in their custom Super-Strats, like Eddie Van Halen, got great results. Only in extreme cases, such as your E strings resting completely outside of the pole pieces, will your string balance suffer noticeably. Pickups that have blade/bar type magnets (such as Rail humbuckers and many high output humbucker models) do not have poles which need to be aligned, therefore string spacing is a non-issue.

PART 2- The Guitar

As with pickups, there are many features of your guitar that can impact your sound:

-Wood type(s)

Wood type- Not all wood is the same, and neither are the sounds produced by them. And since guitars are made of different wood, not all guitars will sound the same. Listed below are the most common types of tone woods used for body's, necks, and fretboards and their tonal characteristics.



Alder- A light, soft wood with harder rings spread throughout it. Alder is a very balanced wood with equal amounts of lows, mids, and highs.

Basswood- A very soft wood consisting of closed grains. Lows do not resonate that well and highs are softened, but there is increased presence and cut. Basswood has a smaller tonal range (mostly mids and highs, some bass), which gives the perception that it is warmer.

Mahogany- A very stiff, hard, and heavy wood. It is consistent unlike Alder, and lacks some mids, but can handle a huge amount of lows and adds depths to high notes.

Ash- Hard Ash is heavy and dense and produces bright tone and long sustain. Swamp Ash, on the other hand, is similar to Alder with harder rings between softer sections, and has more lows and mids. However, quality among swamp ash can be inconsistent.


Maple- A very hard stable wood with a more uniform, consistent graining allowing the vibrations to transfer to the body wood well.

Mahogany- Absorbs more vibrations and is more responsive, but compresses attack and highs

Neck Stripes (adds a very small effect):

Wenge Stripe- Dampens some of the highs and adds mids and low-mids

Bubinga Stripe- Adds a thick mid-range and lows and sustain.


Rosewood- Has excellent sustain and softens highs a little, has a strong fundamental

Maple- Very bright and encourages overtones while filtering a bit of bass and changes in pick attack.

Ebony- Very dense like maple, but is extremely snappy and percussive with good sustain.

Construction- How the neck meets the body, the shape, and the thickness of the guitar can all have an effect on the sound of the guitar.

Neck-Through Bodies: A neck-thru body Is created from three pieces: the neck plank and two wings made of tone wood. A neck plank consists of the neck and the center of the body all made of one piece or same the same pieces. The pickup, bridge, and back cavity are all routed into this wood. Two body wings are glued onto the plank to form the rest of the body. Since the material of the neck (usually maple) actually extends into the body and bridge area, it will have a larger impact on tone than normal, and sustain is increased as the vibrations can travel through the guitar as a whole. Maple will brighten the sound, so some manufacturers usually use basswood or mahogany wings to dampen it out.

Set-In Neck: Instead of going all the way through the body, a set-in neck slides partially into the body and is glued in place. The neck still has a smooth, small heel like a neck-thru, but is less expensive to produce and the neck material has less of an impact on tone. There is a small loss of sustain.

Bolt-On Neck: Bolt-on construction is, by far, the most common construction method. It is the least costly, and if the neck is damaged, or the owner desires, the neck can easily be switched out and replaced without having to remove finish and glue. This type of construction has less sustain than both set-in and neck-thru

Thickness and Shape: The more wood there is in a guitar, the more effect that wood has on the tone. For example, a big, thick mahogany Les Paul will have more lows than a thin mahogany Ibanez S, but both have more lows than a Hard Ash Telecaster, which is extremely bright and twangy. A large Alder Jackson Kelly will have more lows than that Telecaster, but still not as much as the S. There are claims that certain body shapes and headstocks will increase sustain. Dean Zalinsky of Dean Guitars says that he designed the V headstock to improve sustain in the neck and body, but there is no tangible proof to back up his claim.

Bridge: Since the strings go directly through or over the bridge of a guitar, it will have a pretty substantial impact on factors such as sustain and tone. Floyd rose type tremolos maintain contact to the body through the posts. Many claim that these two metal objects can cause a tinny sound and loss of tone, and since there is less contact with actual wood, sustain is lost as well. With string-thru bridges, the string actually passes through the body of the guitar, helping it to reverberate throughout and increase sustain.

PART 3- The Amp and Effects

This section deals with problems that arise when you guitar, pickup, and rig interact as a whole. Since there are a huge amount of possible combinations of amps, heads, and effects, and their subsequent variables, I will cover only general problems that many people face. I will not cover basic amp principles (gain and volume, distortion through clipping, compression, etc..), so if you don't have a comfortable understanding of this, this next part may be a little confusing.

Loss of clarity in single notes: One common complaint after switching pickups is a loss of clarity in single notes, fast runs, and fast solos. The most common cause is the presence of both a high output pickup and a distorted high gain amp. The signal is already very large leaving the pickup, and it is boosted even more by the pre amp. By the time it reaches the speaker, it is so distorted that one would not even need to sound two different notes to create distortion. Most artists using high gain and exhibiting clear solos use either:

-A low or medium output pickup and a distorted amp. Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Joe Satriani, and Dave Weiner have a similar setup.

-A high output pickup and high gain amp, but with a pedal that will compress the signal prior to reaching the amp. Steve Vai uses his high output Evolution pickups, but his Boss DS-1 will compress the signal. Mark Morton used to use a Seymour Duncan Invader and Mesa Boogie amps, but compresses his signal with a dbx 166xl Compressor. Lately, he has switched to a weaker SD '59.

Muddiness: Muddiness is a loss of clarity and note definition, commonly found in chords, the lower notes, and single notes played fast. The cause of muddiness is when the lows, mids, and highs of a guitar's signal start to merge together (or overlap in recording and EQing), and the result is one big, undefined sound. Since frequencies can merge at any pitch, it is not just restricted to lows, but is more common there, and is especially prevalent at high distortion. One of the most common causes of muddiness is a massive bass output in both the wood of the guitar and the pickup. When this huge signal reaches the amp, it will sound muddy unless EQ'd properly.

For example, John Doe has a large, deep sounding, mahogany Les Paul, and wires a high output, uber-bassy Seymour Duncan Invader into it in an attempt to sound like Mark Morton from Lamb of God. Unfortunately for John, Mark Morton no longer uses an Invader, but a heavily scooped, medium output '59. The result is a huge, bass heavy signal leaving the guitar and overpowering the EQ and preamp, resulting in mud. John can fix this by removing the pickup and wiring a more balanced pickup, or cutting the huge bass with an EQ before it reaches the amp.

Weak or dead sound: There are many causes of a weak sound, including improper wiring, dying batteries in active electronics, and other large drops in output. However, when using very long cable leads, you may need a little extra boost in output to run the signal through that cable, since there is some inherent resistance in it that can't be avoided.

Volume drop when switching: When choosing a pickup, you must consider the output of the other pickup. If there is a large difference, then you will have a large volume drop/spike when switching between pickups. This could be a problem if you don't want to constantly change the volume every time you switch pickups, such as a live situation. Generally speaking, the strings will produce a slightly louder signal in the neck than in the bridge, so a neck pickup will have slightly less output than a bridge. A rule of thumb I use is to have a bridge pickup that is about 25% louder than the neck, or a neck that has 25% less output than the bridge. Lowering or raising the height of the pickup can have a minor effect on its output. Raise it to increase the output, lower to decrease. However, lowering a pickup too far can result in a loss in string dynamics. Raising it to high can cause string pull in high power pickups, hampering your sustain.

PART 4- Influences on the Signal

Well first, we need take a look at an extremely simplified signal chain, and each of their effects on the signal.


The strings of a guitar is where the signal originates. This is where the signal is created. The woods of the guitar will allow certain frequencies to reverberate throughout it and the strings, while others will die. The pickups will sense these residual vibrations in the strings, and send out a signal that is colored by that pickup. Unless there are active electronics in the guitar, both the pickups and wood of the guitar cannot create or add to the signal, therefore they can only take away from it. For this reason, the guitar itself acts like, for lack of a better word, a filter.

Example 1:
A Mahogany Les Paul with 10-46 strings and a PAF Pro pickup (B 5, M 5, T 6)

The Strings create a signal like this: B 9, M 9, T 8

The Les Paul reverberates a signal like this: B 9, M 6, T 7

The PAF Pro senses the strings, and sends out this: B 5, M 5, T 6

Example 2:
An Alder Stratocaster with 9-42 strings and a Cruiser Single Coil, Bridge (B 5.5, M 4.5, T 8)

Strings create: B 8, M 9, T 9

Strat reverberates: B 7, M 7, T 8

Pickup sends out: B 5.5, M 4.5, T 8

Example 3:
A Maple Telecaster with 9-42 strings and a Tone Zone T (B 8, M 8.5, T 5)

Strings create: B 8, M 9, T 9

Tele reverberates: B 4, M 5, T 9

Pickup sends out: B 4, M 5, T 5

Where's the amp?! When an amp and effects are thrown into this equation, they can drastically change signal with their EQ's. Not only can amps and effects cut out parts like the wood and pickups, they can also boost them since they are powered. Let's take the last example and add an amp to it.

Example 3 with amp
A Maple Telecaster with 9-42 strings and a Tone Zone T, into amp

Strings create: B 8, M 9, T 9

Tele reverberates: B 4, M 5, T 9

Pickup sends out: B 4, M 5, T 5

Amp then boosts and cuts to B 6, M 3, T 8

So how do we choose a pickup?
Well, let's try to use this "equation", and see what we get...

Remember John Doe?
A Mahogany Les Paul with 10-46 strings and an Invader pickup (B 7, M 8, T 4)

Strings create: B 9, M 9, T 8

Les Paul reverberates: B 9, M 6, T 7

The Invader sends out: B 9, M 6, T 4

We established that the pickup was creating too much of a bass signal, so if we were to cut the bass with another pickup without losing much output, we would choose a Super 3 (B 6.5, M 8, T 5)

Strings create: B 9, M 9, T 8

Les Paul reverberates: B 9, M 6, T 7

The Super 3 sends out: B 6.5, M 6, T 5

Notice that the X2N cut the bass without losing the mids and without allowing too many highs. The Super 3 is also high output (425mV), so we didn't lose a lot of power.

It's all about research and knowing the equipment. There are no guides or charts out there that will tell you what certain guitars or strings will reverberate at, or what signal they will produce. You will have to look at the qualities of wood, the build of your guitar, and surmise that for yourself. There are no accepted values, except what the pickup manufacturers give us, making this whole process a guessing process, but let's at least make educated guesses instead of just taking shots in the dark. It's much easier to boost and cut frequencies with your amps EQ rather than changing out pickups all of the time, but if your guitar is already sending an undesirable signal, then you will HAVE to do major EQing, instead of just fine tuning or slight adjusting at your leisure.

As I said earlier, there are TONS of factors involved in your sound. The biggest factor will always be your amp and effects, then your guitar and then the pickup. It's always best to try to get a good sound by messing with your EQ before deciding to change pickups. A 7 band EQ will do wonders for just about any guitar and pickup. But if you want to change pickups, at least make sure you make a good decision.

Tips From Megatron

My favorite pickup is the PAF Pro, for many reasons:

-Works in the bridge and neck

-Works in just about any guitar

-Is very balanced, doesn't mud up or sound too brittle

-Not extremely hot

My personal preference has always been to choose a medium output pickup and boost it until I reach a level of output I am happy with. It's much easier IMO than trying to clean up a super hot pickup with compression, and you won't lose your playing dynamics.

One thing I like to do when choosing a pickup is to install a PAF Pro in it, and take note of what I like and what I want. Since I am very familiar with this pickup, it's a good reference for me to work from. I'll test it out, and if it doesn't have the bass response I want, I know I'll need a pickup with more bass. If it sounds to tinny and harsh, I'll need a warmer pickup. I've devoted a PAF Pro solely to this purpose, and it's been in many guitars I own.

Source : Megatron @ The Guitar Matrix -

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