Alongside your amp and effects, your guitar pickups are one of the only ways to change the sound that is produced by your guitar. In this article, you will learn the different ways that pickups can shape your guitar tone, and if you were considering a change, perhaps this can prompt you to look into swapping your pickups out for ones that are more up your alley.
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How Guitar Pickups Affect Your Sound
The pickups in your guitar play a massive role in producing sound, and they can impact a handful of things that can define a guitar tone, such as:
- Equalization (EQ)
- Output Levels
- Brightness vs. Warmth
Not all guitar pickups are created equally, and what you have installed in your guitar does matter if you’re trying to achieve a particular tone. This is why there are so many options out there!
As you continue to read, you will learn more about these primary factors that guitar pickups can change, and this can help you make a more informed decision on what pickups you might install in your guitar in the future.
All guitar pickups are designed differently, and the EQ profile assigned to them will vary from one another. In my opinion, this is one of the most exciting and interesting parts about them.
For example, you can find pickups that emphasize the low-end and mids and others that boost the treble. Also, some might be “scooped” (low mids, but higher bass and treble), and some are super balanced as well.
Additionally, the EQ on guitar pickups can also help determine whether they should be placed in the guitar. Many pickups out there are meant for the bridge position and others that are best suited for the neck.
Many guitar pickup brands list on their websites the EQ of their pickups with an easy-to-read chart and the optimal position of them to help people find the perfect pickups for their needs.
Sometimes they also package popular pickups that work really well together to also make it easy for customers to immediately find a combination that complements each other.
The Seymour Duncan Jazz & JB set is a perfect example of this – it’s a pickup pairing that has passed the test of time.
Many people ask, “why can’t I just use an external EQ, like a pedal or graphic equalizer, instead of replacing pickups?”
You can use an EQ to compensate to an extent and improve your sound, but it’s simply not the same since the pickup is manipulating other factors, such as volume and dynamics.
Importantly, the guitar pickup is the source of your guitar tone, whereas your EQ device will be towards the end of the chain.
If your tone is bad, an EQ is only a bandaid for the problem if that’s all you use. Instead, I advise finding the right pickups to be your source, then fine-tune it with some external EQ.
Like EQ, guitar pickups are designed to have a specific output, and some pickups will be “hotter” than others. This output is determined by how many windings the coils are in it.
When a pickup is considered hot, it has a high output, which indicates the pickup’s ability to push the signal to your amp harder and help it achieve overdrive quicker than one with medium or low output.
This is possible because higher output pickups are louder, and this is important because it can impact how much gain you use on your amp.
However, some people are known to use low-output pickups and crank the amp’s gain up instead to get their tones, especially if they’re looking to get a more vintage overdriven sound.
Additionally, the windings that produce a particular output can also influence the EQ curve of the pickup. For example, lower output pickups tend to have a more even and balanced EQ spectrum, whereas high output pickups have a reputation for being dark.
Darkness, in terms of tone, simply refers to having more of a more focused midrange and low-end, whereas a bright tone has more high-end or treble.
It’s also worth noting that pickup height, or the distance between guitar pickups and the strings, can modify the tone of a pickup, as well as the output, because of the changes in the strength of the magnetic field.
Simply put, a guitar pickup that’s further away from the strings will have less output than one that is closer, and this changes how they sound. In fact, if you go too high to too low, it can sound unpleasant.
Therefore, having the correct pickup height will make a difference, and luckily, it’s something that can be adjusted pretty easily so you can find their sweet spot.
The type of guitar pickup you choose can also affect the dynamics that are produced, and this is something that can greatly change your guitar tone.
For those unfamiliar with what dynamics are, it’s referring to the variation in volume that happens based on how much power or articulation you use when you play a note. So, for instance, if you hit your string harder, it will be louder than if you were to apply a softer touch.
Depending on which kind you get, pickups can be very dynamic or responsive to your touch, or they can be more compressed and reduce the dynamic range to make your tone sound more even.
Many high output pickups have some compression to them, to begin with, but the real difference in the dynamic range usually matters most when comparing passive vs. active pickups.
In general, passive pickups are more responsive than active pickups like the popular EMG 81 because actives use a lot more compression in them due to the signal being boosted by the preamp.
A lot of people don’t like active pickups because it compresses the dynamic range, but there are definitely just as many people who want a more compressed and even sounding guitar tone. So it’s really a matter of preference, but what type of pickup you choose makes a difference in this regard.
Just like how your pickups can alter the EQ, output, and what kind of dynamic range your guitar signal has, they can also determine how noisy your tone is, particularly if you’re using humbuckers vs. single-coil pickups.
Have you ever thought about why they gave humbucking pickups their name? These pickups were designed to reduce the amount of “hum” produced by using two coils rather than one.
Most single-coil pickups have a reputation for being noisy, and this especially becomes more apparent when using distortion, and thus, the humbucker was invented to help rectify this.
However, there are still a ton of people who prefer the sound of an actual single-coil pickup, especially those who love vintage Stratocaster tones.
I say “actual” single-coils because nowadays, there are single-coil-sized humbuckers that utilize methods like stacking the coils to help people get the benefits of humbuckers into the compact single-coil pickup slot on a lot of guitars. So essentially, they look like single-coil pickups, but they aren’t.
For example, suppose someone has a Stratocaster that only has a single-coil pickup configuration (SSS). In that case, they can replace them with noiseless single-coils or with stacked humbuckers to reduce the noise. With the latter, they will get a thicker tone though, which will be discussed more in-depth in the next section.
Brightness vs. Warmth
While single-coil pickups are known for producing hum, they can also create a crisp and snappy sound, which is what many people refer to as brightness.
As mentioned before, this type of tone can be pleasant and desirable for many guitarists, and aside from coil-splitting, getting this specific single-coil sound can be challenging without having them in your guitar.
In case you don’t know, coil-splitting is a feature found on many guitars with humbuckers to essentially turn them into a single-coil pickup, usually by pulling on your tone knob. This gives you more control and flexibility over your tone if you’re fortunate enough to be able to coil-split.
That being said, in contrast to the brightness of single-coil pickups, humbuckers are characterized by their fuller and heavier tone, or warmth, which is due to having that extra coil.
This tonal quality, alongside the noise-canceling capabilities of the humbucking pickup, are the main reasons why it quickly became a popular choice for guitarists in different genres of music, but especially rock and heavy metal.
The types of magnets used in the pickups can also contribute to these types of tonal differences – you can find single-coil pickups that are warmer than others, and the same goes for humbuckers.
Brightness and warmth can also change based on where the pickup is positioned; pickups in the bridge will be brighter and have more articulation or bite than one in the neck. Those will be rounder, mellower, and warmer.
This variation has to do with how the pickups are “picking up” the string vibrations right above them; you can see how the string has more movement over the neck position compared to the bridge. At first, this might seem so subtle, but the difference in sound is night and day.
Is It Worth Changing Your Pickups?
Due to the different factors within pickups that can change your tone, replacing and upgrading your guitar pickups will naturally alter your sound and significantly improve it.
For example, if you’re using a guitar that uses cheap stock pickups, swapping them out should make a noticeable difference right away.
This is especially true if it has poorly-made single-coil pickups that produce too much noise for your liking. Alternatively, you could have a humbucker that doesn’t sound as impactful as it could be.
These are both perfect candidates for a pickup swap.
However, even the most advanced players with great gear will benefit from changing their pickups if they have a certain tone in mind.
Sure, their amps, EQ, compressors, and other effects will play a large part in crafting it, but having the right kind of pickup for their guitar can help take their tone to the next level and make it easier to achieve what they want for their recordings, live performances, etc.
For instance, maybe they want a very responsive passive pickup that has the perfect amount of bottom and high-end to complement their guitar’s tonewoods and the amp they’re running it through.
Signature guitar pickups are pretty much created for this reason. Manufacturers will work with artists to develop pickups explicitly suited to their tastes and the guitars they use.
At the end of the day, if you know that you’re not truly satisfied with your guitar tone right now, upgrading your pickups can be a simple solution and, therefore, worth it, especially if you don’t have the budget for a new amp right now.
Not only that, it’s fun to experiment with new things and customize your guitar.
Just don’t forget that other factors go into your sound, including your own playing, so keep practicing, and your tone will improve with your skill.
Pickups give people another avenue to control what sound they can produce from their guitars, and hopefully, by reading this article, you’ve learned a thing or two about the parts of your tone that change based on what guitar pickups that you’re using.
There are a wide variety of pickups out there, and a lot of them do certain things better than others, so it’s up to the individual to research and explore what sounds best to them.
However, if you have bad pickups in a cheap guitar, just about anything can sound much better than those if you replace them, but I suppose that’s just a testament to how much guitar pickups matter and can make a difference, even in a low-quality instrument.
Nonetheless, even if you have a decent guitar, new pickups could be exactly what you need to find the tone you want. Just listen around and try to discover some pickups that inspire you and go from there.