For some musical instruments, the body and build have a major impact on the final sound, but not so much for electric guitars. Acoustic instruments require a sound body, heavy strings, and more effort to produce their music, but adding electricity can simplify all of that. Electric guitars use pickups to help define their final tone, and the most common are known as single coils, humbuckers, and P-90s.
Normally when we pluck a string-like object, it makes sound vibrations; you may have seen this if you have ever placed a rubber band around a bowl. For acoustic guitars, these vibrations are amplified by the body and then sent out into the world. While this is easy, it makes it hard to project loudly or change the signal much without feedback issues.
The electric guitar uses a transducer to change the string vibrations into a different form of energy that can be manipulated in a variety of ways. These transducers are called pickups, and there are various methods of changing the signal. Piezo pickups use little crystals to alternate voltage, and magnetic pickups convert the vibrations into electromagnetic energy; the latter is what we will be diving into today.
Piezoelectric pickups are often used on acoustic instruments, and magnetic pickups are more suitable for solid-body electrics. The pickup is built by wrapping a lot of copper around magnets and facing them toward the strings. As you pick your nickel or steel strings, the vibrations are then changed in the pickup and moved into the patch cable before going to a pedal effects unit or an amp.
The way the magnetic pickups are wrapped, configured, and placed will have a major effect on the final sound. Many experiments have shown that the body, build, wood, and shape have little to do with the final electric guitar tone; the secret is the pickup and, of course, the playing method!
As the name would suggest, this is when we just have a few magnets wrapped by one copper coil. The famous Fender Stratocaster is a great example that has three classic single coils. The reason for the three is to select which pickups to use; the neck, middle, or the one near the bridge. If you notice, the one near the bridge is slanted; this is because we have string vibration problems that close. To get a proper treble and bass tone, we need one section slightly further away.
Single coils are great for a crisp and clear sound, so you will often see blues, rock, and jazz musicians using these guitars. The only problem is their single polarity causes a hum, which can be an annoyance. That is another reason for the build and spacing in the pickups, to lower magnetic interference.
P-90s are also a single coil guitar pickup, but they are usually classified in a different manner because they produce a unique sound. The amount of space used between the magnetic material and the copper within the pickup also influences the final tone. P-90s use a wider space, and so their sound quality ends up being a little louder and deeper.
The P-90 was originally made by Gibson in the 1940s and then waned in popularity until the advent of punk brought them back into the mix. And these days, thanks to a love of nostalgia, many players want that vintage vibe and tone. Some P-90s are screwed into place (dogear) while others can be adjusted to change the height from the strings (soapbar). Some players like this adjustability, while others prefer the tone when it is fixed in place.
Like other single coils, the P-90 has a problem with a hum due to polarity, and inventors and guitarists discovered they could “buck” that hum by adding a second coil. The P-90 already had a wide body, so it was eventually found that adding another coil would fix the unwanted sound.
By adding two magnetic copper coils, we can place them opposite of each other, which will cancel that hum out. It also has the added benefit of doubling the sound and cutting out some of the treble tone. If a musician was looking for a heavier tone, the humbucker would be a better pick than a guitar with single coils. The Gibson Les Paul was one of the classic guitars to use the two humbuckers.
These days many guitars geared towards heavy metal use this dual humbucker setup as it allows for less interference from the heavier strings and tunings. However, you will also find examples of humbuckers in pop, rock, and blues. While guitarists have preferences, at the end of the day, there are no set-in-stone rules for musical genres and pickups.
There are other kinds of pickups out there, like the “lipstick” named after the fact that it looks exactly like that. The lipstick pickup is a single coil plated in chrome, so it has a more treble sound, perfect for surf and rockabilly. There are also different models of double-coiled, and like the humbucker, you can guarantee they will have less hum and a deeper sound. When looking at a new guitar, always check the pickup’s size and build to get an idea of what you are dealing with.
What Is The Best Pickup For Your Needs?
If you are simply working through some online guitar lessons, it’ll be more important for you to simply play any style of pickup. That way, you can start learning what one pickup is, then branch out to other pickups to compare. There are many variations of how these pickups can be made, placed, and combos used. In fact, there are guitars that mix both single and double coils!
S-S Fender Telecaster
S-S-S Fender Stratocaster
H-S-S Peavey Raptor
H-H Gibson Les Paul
H-S-H Ibanez RG
Along with different variations, we also have passive vs. active pickups, the latter meaning that external power has been added. By adding more power to our pickup, it will, of course, change its depth, frequency, and tone. There are simply so many factors that go into the pickup build and placement that it is hard to say what is the right pickup for any player.
While some people follow the rules of humbuckers for metal and single coils for clean blues, we can alter all these tones after they leave the guitar. Effects pedals and amplifiers can alter EQ and drastically change the tone. That’s the beauty of the electric guitar; since we are dealing with a signal, we can change it in any way we see fit!
It is important to know the difference between single coils, P-90s, and humbuckers, but they shouldn’t be the ultimate factor in the style of guitar you buy. If you are a beginner, stick to the one that sounds the best to you; if you are more advanced, then maybe take some time to get just the right pickup configuration. The key is learning which positions are best for your playing style and final tone goals.