Without pickups, many of our instruments would not function at all. They are crucial, and there’s a lot to discuss when it comes to talking about guitar pickups and how they work. In this guide, I will help break everything down for you, and here’s a quick preview of what we’ll be going over:
- How Guitar Pickups Work
- Single Coil vs. Humbuckers
- Active vs. Passive
- Acoustic Guitar Pickups
- When to Replace/Upgrade
- My Personal Recommendations
These will cover the basics of guitar pickups thoroughly, and maybe will help you decide which kinds will be the best for your needs. With that said, let’s dive into it!
Table of Contents
How Guitar Pickups Work
Guitar pickups are usually made in one or two different ways – they are magnetic, or they are piezo (short for piezoelectric).
Magnetic pickups are the most common, and without them, electric guitars and basses would not work correctly. You’d still be able to play notes on your electric guitar, acoustically, but you wouldn’t be able to amplify them and make your sound audible.
These pickups are created by using coils of copper wire around a magnetic pole that is made out of alnico or ferrite. Typically, there are as many poles as there are strings on the guitar. If you have a regular six-string guitar, there will be six poles on the single-coil pickup and twelve on a humbucker. Take a look for yourself:
The guitar pickups create a magnetic field, and when a string is hit, the vibrations from it communicate with this field and produces an electric current which can now be heard through an amplifier.
Piezo pickups have their own intricacies which will be discussed in the segment about acoustic guitar pickups, but they do also involve picking up vibrations; albeit in a different manner.
Additionally, you can have a few different guitar pickup configuration types on your instrument, and depending on the position of the pickup you’re on, you can alter your sound. Here are a few options you may have seen:
- 3 single-coils (bridge, middle, neck)
- 2 single-coil (neck, middle) and 1 humbucker (bridge)
- Dual Humbucker (bridge, neck)
- Dual Humbucker (bridge, neck) and 1 single-coil (middle)
- Single Humbucker (bridge)
It actually makes a difference where these pickups are placed on the guitar, and there is a difference in tonality based on this and the vibrations they register. There are a couple of ways to compare guitar pickups bridge vs neck.
One way is that a neck pickup may sound smoother and more bassy, whereas a bridge pickup can sometimes sound thinner and more treble-y.
Some pickups may also be specially designed and manufactured for a particular position, and it may be specified on its packaging. Pickups that are intended for the bridge position tend to be hotter and have higher output than a neck pickup.
Sometimes they can even be sold as a set. A classic example of this is the EMG 81 and 85 set. The EMG 81 is one of the most famous bridge pickups of all time and has been paired with the 85 for years. Zakk Wylde, of Ozzy Osbourne fame, pioneered this pickup duo.
However, the EMG 81 and 60 combo is also loved by many, and some may even use dual 81s, like Kirk Hammet from Metallica. Because certain combos have become popular, many manufacturers, such as Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio are known to package some of their most popular pickups in sets.
This is the gist of how electric guitar pickups are made and work; they are a magnetic apparatus that allows your electric guitar to produce sound through an amp. While we briefly talked about single-coil and humbucker pickups, the following segment will go into them in more detail.
Single-Coil vs. Humbuckers
When looking for electric guitar pickups for sale, you will be presented with two different options – single-coil pickups or humbuckers. It’s easy to figure out which ones to get; just take a look at the configuration on the guitar. However, do you know what the differences between them are?
In the previous section, we mentioned that single-coil pickups have 6 coils, and the humbuckers double that with 12. It doesn’t necessarily mean that humbuckers are better than single-coils though. It just creates a different kind of sound. Many guitar pickups for Stratocaster models will use all single-coil models, or maybe have 2 single-coils and a humbucker in the bridge.
Single-coil pickups are typically thinner sounding than their humbucking counterpart. The brightness and twangy sound that they are known for makes them a favorite amongst country guitarists as well as surf ones.
To contrast, the humbucker often as a thicker and beefier sound than a single-coil pickup, and as their name suggests, does not detect humming signals. These also have more output than single-coils, which makes them extremely popular and ideal for the bridge position.
All of these traits make humbuckers a favorite amongst rock and metal guitarists, and sometimes jazz and blues players.
Unfortunately, depending on how your guitar is constructed, you may be stuck with a specific type of pickup configuration unless you make modifications. For example, if you have a guitar that only supports 3 single-coil pickups, you’ll probably have to either change the pickguard or do some work to the wood to make space for a humbucker.
Guitar Pickups Active vs. Passive
Another choice you will be presented with when looking at guitar pickups will be between active and passive ones. So, what’s the difference between these? Not a whole lot really, only a couple of small things that can potentially make big changes.
Active pickups get their name because of their use of an active preamp. Like a regular preamp, you’d see anywhere else, these ones do the same thing – they boost your signal.
The preamp on an active pickup is powered up by a 9V battery. The 9V battery connection is one of the easiest ways to tell if you are dealing with actives. If you find active guitar pickups without battery, they won’t power until you put one in.
EMGs are well-known for producing active pickups, and their 81 is by far their most popular model. They do make passives, but their actives, like the 81, blow them out of the water in my opinion.
Passive pickups, on the other hand, do not use a 9V battery. These are the most common types of electric guitar pickups. While I do like the sound of active pickups, I have to say that I prefer passives overall, with my favorite being the Seymour Duncan JB. Not having a battery gives me one less thing to mess with and the pickups still do everything I need.
Between these two, which guitar pickups are the best?
People can be pretty divisive on these two types of pickups. I’ve met many players who cannot stand how active pickups sound and are incredibly loyal to passives. The same goes the other way around.
I say try to weigh it out for yourself. What do your favorite players use? What do you think sounds the best? Ask yourself these questions because your opinion matters the most when developing your own sound. I can only give you recommendations of what pickups sound great to me and many others.
You can find active and passive guitar pickups from all of the top manufacturers such as Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, and EMG.
Acoustic Guitar Pickups
So, what are acoustic guitar pickups exactly? Well, to start, they typically use either piezo pickups, microphones, or magnetic ones, like the electric guitar. Since we’ve talked a lot about how magnetic pickups work, let’s discuss piezos for a bit first.
The way that piezos work is that electricity can be created through crystals such as quartz (and several others). Piezo pickups use these crystals in their construction, and they are often placed underneath the bridge; however, some types can be set anywhere on the guitar.
The pickups will sense the vibrations and can produce an amplified sound. Since the waves and pressure can vary, this means that dynamics can as well. Piezoelectric pickups can come with a preamp to boost the signal, but also have a compressor on them so that you can have a smooth, even sound that doesn’t fluctuate wildly.
In a sense, piezos function a lot like microphones already. However, there are literal microphone pickups that can be mounted on the inside of the guitar. These types of acoustic guitar pickups are prone to detecting feedback, but you will get a sound that is more organic since it will be picking up “extra” sounds like slaps and the squeaky sound from sliding along strings.
Magnetic guitar pickups for acoustics work a lot like their electric counterparts. There isn’t a lot to say about them other than that they are usually placed near the soundhole of the guitar. Despite this location, it will not pick up the sound from the body as a microphone will.
When To Upgrade or Replace Your Pickups
Let’s be real here – stock pickups, at times, can sound awful. This is especially true for low-end guitars which don’t often have great electronics.
Having lousy stock pickups is probably the number one reason you should perform a guitar pickups replacement. While you won’t be having a professional sound with a bad guitar, you can have an immediate improvement in your tone by swapping out a pickup or two.
On the other hand, what if you have a mid-range or expensive guitar with decent pickups, but they just don’t suit your preferences? Just get some new ones!
I once had a Jackson Soloist model that had come with a couple of active EMGs in them, since I prefer passive pickups, I purchased a couple of different Seymour Duncan ones. If I recall right, I had a ‘59 in the bridge and a Jazz in the neck. Here is that guitar:
Lastly, the most obvious reason to replace your pickups is if they get damaged. Can guitar pickups go bad? I’m sure it rarely occurs, especially if you treat your guitar well, but accidents do happen. Demagnetization/degaussing and excess heat or moisture are some possible ways your pickups can be destroyed. Also, make sure that your pickups have adequate and good wiring!
My Personal Recommendations
We’ve talked about quite a few different guitar pickup brands and models throughout this article. While I can’t tell you what’s “the absolute best guitar pickup for heavy metal” or anything like that, since that is subjective and there are so many great options out there, I can talk about some of the pickups that I’ve really liked over the years.
The first guitar pickup that I’d really like to talk about is the Seymour Duncan Dimebucker. I’m 99% sure this is the very first pickup that I’ve ever swapped to. Here is a picture of it on one of my old Ibanezes.
This pickup is great in the bridge position, is extremely hot and aggressive, which makes it very good for metal. Pinch harmonics sound very sweet and responsive on this one, so if you like to do squeelies, this is your pickup.
You may be wondering what the other two pickups are in that guitar. That is a Dimarzio PAF Pro in the neck and a Dimarzio FS-1. From my experience, it is completely fine to mix-and-match guitar pickup brands, especially if they are all passive. So in this case, I have two Dimarzios and a Duncan in that guitar.
The PAF Pro is definitely a contender for the best electric guitar neck pickup, in my opinion. It is so smooth and buttery which makes sweeps and fast passages sound wonderful. The cleans from this pickup sound crystal clear too.
Check out this video of a comparison between the PAF Pro and the Evolution, which is also by Dimarzio:
Finally, if you want a reliable pair of humbuckers, I’d have to go with the Seymour Duncan JB and Jazz pickups. Because they work so well together, it is pretty easy to find them purchasable as a set. These are the pickups that I use in my main guitar, and so far they’re my all-time favorites.
The Dimebucker is a great pickup that I can endorse, but these are a bit milder and suit my preferences a bit better these days. These pickups are still fantastic for metal, but because they are tamer, they can be suitable for other genres of music too. I highly recommend these for anyone looking to get their first pickup swaps.
With so many different flavors of pickups, where do you even begin? Hopefully, by following this guide, you learned a thing or two about them and how to choose guitar pickups.
Do you need humbuckers or single-coils? That’s dictated by how your guitar/pickguard is made. However, if you want active or passive pickups, that is entirely up to you. If you play acoustic, you have a variety of choices too.
You’ve probably noticed that I’m quite partial to Seymour Duncan passive pickups. I won’t deny it, I love this guitar pickups brand, but some of my other favorites have been from Dimarzio. EMG has also been good for me in the past, but I have yet to try their passives. I’ve also never tried Seymour Duncan’s active pickups, the Blackouts.
There’s something out there for everyone, and you can find plenty of guitar pickups for sale. If you have a similar taste like me, you’ll probably love my recommendations though. If you’re sick of your old stock pickups, and they’re not doing a great job, it’s time to make a swap!