WHAT ARE THE BASIC TYPES OF ELECTRIC GUITAR AND BASS PICKUPS?
There have been thousands of pickup models since magnetic pickup technology first appeared in the 1920s and ’30s. The sheer number of possibilities can be daunting. But a good starting point is to group pickups by “family.”
Here are some common ways of classifying pickups:
All these terms apply to both electric guitar and bass pickups. There’s some overlap between these terms, and some pickups that fall between categories. But once you grasp these basic distinctions, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the language of pickups.
WHAT ABOUT ACOUSTIC PICKUPS?
Acoustic pickups range from simple soundhole pickups to more elaborate systems that combine multiple technologies. Magnetic acoustic pickups, such as our Woody soundhot pickup, work much like electric guitar pickups and is incredibly easy to install. Meanwhile, “piezoelectric” (or just “piezo”) pickups, like our Wavelength, use crystals or a strip of film to sense vibrations, as opposed to changes in a magnetic field. These are often mounted beneath the saddle in the guitar’s bridge. Magnetic pickups tend to sound warm and full, while piezos are more bright and percussive. Many players use hybrid systems such as our MagMic, which combines a magnetic pickup with a built-in microphone.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SINGLE- AND DOUBLE-COIL PICKUPS?
All magnetic pickups house a coil of wire wrapped thousands of times around a bobbin or coil-former. Single-coil pickups have one of these structures, and double-coils have two of them.
WHAT’S A HUMBUCKER?
All pickups were single-coil until 1955. Single-coil pickups sound great, but they can be noisy, transmitting electrical hum and buzz along with the sound of the strings. Then Seth Lover, an engineer at Gibson, realized that combining two single-coil structures into one pickup, wiring them out of phase and with their magnetic poles oriented in opposite directions, cancelled-or “bucked”-electrical hum. And so the “humbucker” was born.
When these revolutionary pickups first appeared on Gibson guitars, they bore a sticker reading “Patent Applied For,” and thus became known as “P.A.F.” pickups. There have been countless variations on the design over the last half-century, yet many players still seek out the original P.A.F. sound. Meanwhile, “humbucker” has become the generic term for any pickup that pairs two coils to reduce unwanted noise. Almost all double-coil pickups are humbuckers, though they are sometimes wired to provide the option of humbucking and non-humbucking operation.
WHAT MAKES A PLAYER CHOOSE SINGLE-COILS OR DOUBLE-COILS?
Given the great sound and quiet performance of humbuckers, why would anyone choose single-coils? Because single coils also sound great – and they sound different. Single coils tend to be brighter and crisper, with greater note definition between strings, while humbuckers are often louder, darker, and heavier.
Most (but not all) Fender® guitars use single-coil pickups. Most (but not all) Gibson® guitars have humbuckers. And there are endless hybrids: guitars with both single-coils and humbuckers, humbuckers that sound like single-coils, and single coils that sound closer to humbuckers.
Sometimes, choosing between single- and double-coils pickups is simply a matter of whether the guitar’s body was routed for narrower single-coils or double-width humbuckers. But even here, there’s lots of wiggle room. For example, if your guitar has a single-coil-sized rout, you might use “rail”-style pickups that perform like humbuckers (like the Hot Rails), or “stack”-style pickups coils that sound like single-coils, minus the hum (like our Custom Stack Plus). If your instrument has a humbucker-sized rout, you could choose a single-coil pickup designed for the larger format, or a humbucker that allows you to split the coils for the option of a single-coil sound. We make pickups of all these types.
Some guitarists are closely associated with one pickup type: For example, the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan were created almost exclusively with single-coil pickups, whereas Slash, Joe Perry, Carlos Santana and Billy Gibbons are usually associated with humbuckers.
Other guitarists have relied on both types: Eric Clapton used humbuckers in his early years with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and Cream, but migrated over to single-coils around the time he recorded “Layla.” Jimmy Page has usually played a humbucker-equipped Les Paul® onstage, but often used a single-coil Telecaster® or Danelectro® in the studio. And Seymour W. Duncan made his first major impact on the pickup scene by installing custom humbuckers in Jeff Beck’s Telecaster.
It’s fair to say single-coils tend to be clear and bright and humbuckers tend to be thick and heavy, and players often choose one or the other for precisely these reasons. But these are general tendencies, not hard rules. Depending on their guitars, amps, pedals, and playing techniques, players can get thick, heavy sounds from single-coils and bright, crisp sounds from humbuckers. And many great players have applied both types of pickups to all styles of music.