Welcome to the world of Electric Guitar! In this article and series, we’ll be going through the basics – and eventually the advanced concepts – of Electric Guitar. From body style, wood material, pickups, pedals, amps, and more, we’ll give you all the info you need to know to take your guitar knowledge to the next level – starting with this video and article. To start, lets talk about pickups – arguably the most important part of the guitar itself (at least at first).
What Are Pickups?
In short, pickups are what give the guitar its sound. Unlike acoustic guitar bodies with a hollow cavity inside to give the sound waves purchase, a solid-body electric guitar gets its sound differently, and while a semi-hollow Electric Guitar body style can have some resonance by itself, it also needs the pickups to really be the guitar it has the potential to be.
Pickups are the little rectangles of metal or painted plastic that sit in the body of the guitar, under the strings. Inside the pickups are magnets, and wrapped around the magnets are thousands of turns of extremely thin copper wire. How many turns of wire, how thick, how wide, etc all effects the sound of the pickup, and, by extension, the guitar. Basically, the vibration of the strings when they’re picked or strummed is converted to energy that is picked up by the magnets and turned into an analog audio signal! There are a ton of different types and styles of pickups, so we’ll just cover the main 3 here: Single Coil, P90, and Humbucker.
Single coil pickups are extremely common, especially on lower and mid range guitars, but expensive and signature guitar models often come with their own precisely manufactured single coil pickups as well. Single coil pickups are extremely sensitive to other types of magnetic energy around you, like house lights, microwaves, etc. It creates a “buzzing” or “humming” that you’ll hear even when not strumming the guitar, if its plugged in and turned on. If thats the style you’re going for, it can be very desirable depending on your personal style! Single coil pickups are often described as “bright.” Position on the guitar body will also affect sound, but we’ll cover that later on in this article.
P-90s are a type of single coil pickup, but frequent enough that they deserve their own quick paragraph. P-90s are differentiated by their thick, flat body style, often with screws coming up from the pickup, instead of smooth magnets. Due to how it’s made, the P-90 is a lot warmer and deeper, lacking the edge and brightness of a regular single coil pickup.
A humbucker (or dual coil) pickup is a type of pickup that uses two single coil pickups, put together, to cancel out (or “buck”) the hum created from magnetic interference in the pickup. They are described as having a “fat” or “round” sound, lacking the edge, clarity, and hum of a single coil.
Before we talk about active pickups, let talk about passive pickups. If your guitar doesn’t have a spot for a battery, you have passive pickups. They get their job done through use of the magnets and copper wire inside the pickup. They were the first style of pickup and are by far the most common. By using the magnet and wire combo, it creates a magnetic field that induces an electrical signal, and thus, tone is born. The electrical signal created by passive pickups is quite weak – but plenty enough for most purposes.
So, what is an active pickup? In short, an active pickup is a pickup with a pre-amp inside it. They generally use significantly less wire winding inside. This less winding, in turn, makes the signal weaker. Due to the weaker signal, you use external power (usually a 9-volt battery) to boost the signal with the pre-amp, creating a low-impedance signal (fancy electrical talk) that is a lot “hotter” than even the best passive pickup of the same design. Active pickups also generally come with tone controls, letting the player change their sound without using a pedal or amp head setting. They are more expensive than passive pickups for obvious reasons, but will almost always outcompete their non-powered brethren.
If you look at an electric guitar, there is almost certainly multiple pickups on your body, usually two or three. From top to bottom they can be placed in one of three positions:
- Neck Position
- Middle Position
- Bridge Position
If you only have two positions, they are referred to in only neck or bridge position, omitting the middle position. We’ll go more in depth about pickup positions in the video next week, but we wanted to introduce the concept here so its fresh in your mind.
There are a billion (maybe a bit of an exaggeration) ways that pickups affect your tone and sound, and we want to get to all of it! Thanks for reading this intro, stay tuned for more! As always, let us know if you have any questions at all, we’re happy to answer them!