Learn About Pickups: Getting Started


Pickups are the heart of your guitar. The right electric guitar pickups can bring a dead-sounding instrument to life. They can turn a good guitar into a great one. They might not transform a guitar that plays poorly into a magical instrument, but they will almost certainly deliver a huge sonic upgrade. If you’re after more output, more sustain, blooming harmonics, a more vintage sound, crystal clear cleans or raw crunch – changing your pickups will have a large impact to getting the sound you’re after.

Most importantly, they let you customize your instrument, creating a sound that’s perfectly and uniquely “you.”

Pickups, in short, are one of the key ingredients of your tone. There are many other factors, of course: the materials and workmanship of your instrument, your strings, your amp, your cables, and your playing style. But finding the right pickup is one of the fastest, most cost-effective, and exciting ways to upgrade the sound of your guitar or bass. And since pickups lie “upstream” from the rest of your gear, the right choice can actually make your pedals and amps sound better too.

Unlike changing the bridge, tuners, or neck profile, pickup changes are easily done and easily reversed. It’s a way of achieving a dramatic tonal improvement that you can do on your kitchen table, with very few tools, in a single sitting.  If you feel doing it yourself is still too daunting, most guitar stores will do the work for you for a small fee. Want more sustain? Stronger harmonics? A warmer or brighter tone? More distortion? Less? The right pickup will give you exactly what you want.


Technically speaking, pickups are a type of transducer, a generic word for any device that converts one type of energy to another. Electric guitar and bass pickups translate a string’s vibration (what you play) into an electrical signal that you can pump through an amp or mixer. In order to hear the final result, you need another type of transducer: a speaker, which converts the electrical signal back into audible energy: the vibrations of the speaker’s cone.


The perfect pickup for you is the one that helps your guitar or bass sound exactly the way you want. Does your guitar sound massive in your bedroom, but puny onstage? Does your bass have enough presence to cut through heavy guitars? Do sustained notes dry up just when you wish they’d blossom into feedback? These are just a few examples of problems the right pickup can solve.

If you haven’t experimented with different pickups, you might not realize how dramatically the right pickup can improve the sound of an instrument. Even if you like the way your current pickups sound, it might be worthwhile to audition guitars or basses similar to yours, but outfitted with different pickups. If you find yourself experiencing “tone envy,” perhaps you should consider replacement pickups. This is especially true if you love the look and feel of your instrument, but wish it sounded better – or just different.

But a great instrument and great pickups don’t automatically make great music together. You need the right pickup for your instrument and style. 


Almost all electric guitar and bass pickups rely on magnetism. The active ingredients are one or more magnets and a wire coil. The magnets create a magnetic “flux field” around the pickups. When you strike a string, the field moves in response to the vibration, and the pickup translates these changes into small but meaningful electric signals. Before you can hear these signals as music, you must amplify them and pump them through speakers.

Was this article helpful?
15 out of 15 found this helpful
Have more questions? Submit a request