Guitar pickups: a full guide (and how to choose the right one)

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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If you’re a musician, then you know that the type of guitar pickups you use can make or break your sound.

Guitar pickups- a full guide (and how to choose the right one)

There are different types of guitar pickups available on the market, and it can be hard to decide which ones are right for you.

Guitar pickups are an important part of any electric guitar. They play a crucial role in shaping the sound of your instrument, and choosing the right pickups can be a daunting task.

Single coil pickups and humbucking pickups are the two common types of electric guitar pickups. Humbucking pickups are made of two coils that cancel out the hum, while single-coil pickups are made of a single coil.

In this article, I’ll discuss everything you need to know about guitar pickups-their construction, types, and how to choose the right ones for your needs.

What is a guitar pickup?

Guitar pickups are electromagnetic devices that capture the vibrations of the strings and convert them into electrical signals.

These signals can then be amplified through an amplifier to produce the sound of an electric guitar.

Guitar pickups come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and they can be made from a variety of materials.

The most common type of guitar pickup is the single-coil pickup.

Think of the pickups as small engines which give your instrument its voice.

The right pickups will make your guitar sound great, and the wrong pickups can make it sound like a tin can.

Since pickups have evolved a lot in recent years, they are getting better and thus you can reach all kinds of tones.

Types of guitar pickups

Pickup design has come a long way since the early days of the electric guitar.

Nowadays, there are a wide variety of pickups available on the market, each with its own unique sound.

Electric guitars have either single-coil or double-coil pickups, also called humbuckers.

There’s a third category called P-90 pickups, which are single-coils with a metal cover but these aren’t quite as popular as the single coil and humbuckers.

They’re still single coils though so they fall under that category.

Vintage-style pickups are becoming more popular in recent years. These are designed to reproduce the sound of early electric guitars from the 1950s and 1960s.

Let’s take a closer look at each type of pickup:

Single-coil pickups

Single-coil pickups are the most common type of guitar pickup. They consist of a single coil of wire wrapped around a magnet.

They are often used in country, pop, and rock music. Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour both used single-coil pickup Strats.

Single-coil pickups are known for their bright, clear sound and treble response.

This type of pickup is extremely sensitive to any subtleties while playing. That’s why the player’s technique is so important with single-coils.

The single-coil is excellent when you don’t want distortion and prefer clear, bright sounds.

They’re also very susceptible to interference from other electronic devices, which can result in a “hum” sound.

This is probably the only real disadvantage of single-coil pickups but musicians have learned to work with this “hum”.

These are the original pickups used on electric guitars like the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster.

Best strings for electric guitar
Best strings for electric guitar

You’ll also see them on other Fender guitars, some Yamaha ones and even Rickenbachers.

What are the single-coil tones like?

They’re generally very bright but with a limited range. The sound is quite thin, which is perfect if you want to play some jazz on a Stratocaster.

However, they are not the best choice if you’re looking for a thick and heavy sound. For that, you’ll want to go with a humbucker.

Single coils are bright, offer lots of clear sounds, don’t distort, and have a unique chimey sound.

P-90 pickups

P-90 pickups are a type of single-coil pickup.

They consist of a single coil of wire wrapped around a magnet, but they are larger and have more turns of wire than traditional single-coil pickups.

P-90 pickups are known for their brighter, more aggressive sound. They are often used in classic rock and blues music.

When it comes to appearance, P-90 pickups are larger and have a more vintage look than single-coil pickups.

They have what is known as a “soapbar” appearance. These pickups are not only thicker but they’re also grittier.

P-90 pickups were originally introduced by Gibson for use on their guitars like the 1950s Gold Top Les Paul.

The Gibson Les Paul Junior and Special also used P-90s.

However, they are now used by a variety of manufacturers.

You’ll see them on Rickenbacker, Gretsch, and Epiphone guitars, to name a few.

Double-coil (Humbucker pickups)

Humbucker pickups are another type of guitar pickup. They consist of two single-coil pickups mounted side-by-side.

Humbucker pickups are known for their warm, full sound. They are often used in jazz, blues, and metal music. They’re also great for distortions.

Humbuckers sound great in almost every genre, just like their single-coil cousins do, but because they can create more powerful bass frequencies than single-coils, they stand out in jazz and hard rock.

The reason why humbucker pickups are different is that they’re designed to cancel out the 60 Hz “hum” sound that can be a problem with single-coil pickups.

That’s why they’re called humbuckers.

Since the single coils are wound in reverse polarity, the hum cancels out.

Humbucker pickups were originally introduced by Seth Lover of Gibson in the 1950s. They are now used by a variety of manufacturers.

You’ll see them on Les Pauls, Flying Vs, and Explorers, to name a few.

What are humbucker tones like?

They have a thick, full sound with lots of bass frequencies. They’re perfect for genres like hard rock and metal.

However, because of the full sound, they can sometimes lack the clarity of single-coil pickups.

If you’re looking for a classic rock sound, then the humbucking pickup is the way to go.

Single-coil vs humbucker pickups: overview

Now that you know the basics of each type of pickup, let’s compare them.

Humbuckers offer:

  • less noise
  • no hum and buzzing sound
  • more sustain
  • strong output
  • great for distortion
  • round, full tone

Single-coil pickups offer:

  • brighter tones
  • crisper sound
  • more definition between each of the strings
  • classic electric guitar sound
  • great for no distortion

As we mentioned before, single-coil pickups are known for their bright, clear sound while humbuckers are known for their warm, full sound.

However, there are some major differences between the two types of pickups.

For starters, single-coils are much more susceptible to interference than humbuckers. This is because there is only one coil of wire wrapped around the magnet.

This means that any outside noise will be picked up by the single-coil and will be amplified.

Humbuckers, on the other hand, are much less susceptible to interference because they have two coils of wire.

The two coils work together to cancel out any outside noise.

Another major difference is that single-coils are much more sensitive to the player’s technique.

This is because single-coils are able to pick up on the subtleties of the player’s style.

Humbuckers, on the other hand, are not as sensitive to the player’s technique.

This is because the two coils of wire mask some of the subtleties of the player’s style.

Humbuckers are more powerful than single-coils due to how they’re built. Also, their high output capabilities can assist in putting an amplifier into overdrive.

So, which type of pickup is better?

It really depends on your needs. If you’re looking for a bright, clear sound, then single-coil pickups are the way to go.

If you’re looking for a warm, full sound, then humbucker pickups are the way to go.

Of course, there are also a number of hybrids out there that combine the best of both worlds.

But, ultimately, it’s up to you to decide which type of pickup is right for you.

Pickup configurations

Many modern guitars come with a combination of single-coil and humbucker pickups.

This gives the player a wider range of sounds and tones to choose from. It also means you don’t have to switch between guitars when you want a different tone.

For example, a guitar with a single-coil neck pickup and a humbucker bridge pickup will have a brighter sound when the neck pickup is used and a fuller sound when the bridge pickup is used.

This combination is often used in rock and blues music.

Manufacturers like Seymour Duncan are renowned for expanding on concepts that Fender and Gibson first introduced, and the company frequently sells two or three pickups in a single pickup set.

A common pickup configuration for Squier guitars is single, single + humbucker.

This combo allows for a wide range of tones, from the classic Fender sound to a more modern, full sound.

It’s also great if you like distortion and want more power or oomph in your amp.

When buying an electric guitar, you want to see if it has just single-coil pickups, just humbuckers, or a combo of both – this can really affect the overall sound of the instrument.

Active vs passive guitar pickup circuitry

In addition to the construction and number of coils, pickups can also be distinguished by whether they are active or passive.

Active and passive pickups both have their own set of pros and cons.

Passive pickups are the most common type of pickup and they are what you’ll find on most electric guitars.

These are “traditional” pickups. Single coil and humbucking pickups can both be passive.

The reason why players like passive pickups is because they sound good.

Passive pickups are simple in design and they don’t require a battery to work. You still need to plug the passive pickup into your electronic amplifier to make it audible.

They are also less expensive than active pickups.

The downside of passive pickups is that they are not as loud as active pickups.

Active pickups are less common, but they are becoming more popular in recent years. They require circuitry to work and they need a battery to power the circuitry. A 9 volt

The advantage of active pickups is that they are much louder than passive pickups.

This is because the active circuitry amplifies the signal before it is sent to the amplifier.

Also, active pickups can give your guitar more tonal clarity and consistency regardless of volume.

Active pickups are often used in heavier styles of music like heavy metal where the high output is beneficial. But active pickups are also used for funk or fusion.

Bass players also like them because of the added sustain and sharp attack.

You might recognize the sound of an active pickup if you’re familiar with James Hetfield’s rhythm guitar tone on Metallica’s early albums.

You can get active pickups from EMG which is used by David Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

The bottom line is that most electric guitars have the traditional passive pickup.

How to choose the right guitar pickups

Now that you know the different types of guitar pickups available, how do you choose the right ones for your needs?

There are a few things you’ll need to consider, such as the type of music you play, the style of your guitar, and your budget.

The type of music you play

The type of music you play is an important factor to consider when choosing guitar pickups.

If you play genres such as country, pop, or rock, then single-coil pickups are a good option.

If you play genres such as jazz, blues, or metal, then humbucker pickups are a good option.

The style of your guitar

The style of your guitar is another important factor to consider when choosing guitar pickups.

If you have a Stratocaster-style guitar, then single-coil pickups are a good option. Fender and other Strats have single-coil pickups that are known for their bright, clear sound.

If you have a Les Paul-style guitar, then humbucker pickups are a good option.

Output level

There are some pickups that “usually” pair well with particular tones, despite the fact that no pickup model is specifically made for any one type of music.

And as you’ve probably already gathered from everything we’ve discussed thus far, the output level is the main component influencing tone and here’s why:

Heavy distorted sounds perform better with higher outputs.

Cleaner, more dynamic sounds are best produced at lower output levels.

And that is all that matters in the end. The pickup’s output level is what drives your amp’s preamp harder and ultimately determines the character of your tone.

Choose your features accordingly, focusing mostly on the sounds you use most frequently.

Build & material

The pickup is made with a black bobbin. These are generally made of ABS plastic.

The cover is usually made of metal, and the baseplate can either be made of metal or plastic.

The coils of enameled wire are wrapped around the six magnetic bar. Some guitars have metal rods instead of the usual magnets.

Pickups are made of alnico magnets which is an alloy of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt or ferrite.

You’re probably wondering what metal are guitar pickups made of?

The answer is that there are a variety of metals used in the construction of guitar pickups.

Nickel silver, for example, is a common material used in the construction of single-coil pickups.

Nickel silver is in fact a combination of copper, nickel, and zinc.

Steel, on the other hand, is a common material used in the construction of humbucker pickups.

Ceramic magnets are also commonly used in the construction of humbucker pickups.

Your budget

Your budget is another important factor to consider when choosing guitar pickups.

If you’re on a tight budget, then single-coil pickups are a good option.

If you’re willing to spend more, then humbucker pickups are a good option.

P-90 pickups are also a good option if you’re looking for a brighter, more aggressive sound.

But let’s not forget brands – some pickups and pickup brands are much pricier than others.

Best guitar pickup brands to look for

There are many different guitar pickup brands available on the market, and it can be hard to decide which ones are right for you.

Here are 6 of the best guitar pickup brands to look for:

Seymour Duncan

Seymour Duncan is one of the most popular guitar pickup brands. They offer a wide variety of pickups, from single-coil to humbucker.

Seymour Duncan pickups are known for their high quality and great sound.

You can play those screaming vibratos and distorted chords and the SD pickups will provide superior sound.

DiMarzio

DiMarzio is another popular guitar pickup brand. They offer a wide variety of pickups, from single-coil to humbucker.

DiMarzio pickups are known for their high quality and premium sound. Joe Satriani and Steve Vai are among the users.

These pickups are best for low and mid frequencies.

EMG

EMG is a well-known brand that offers high-quality pickups. These pickups deliver very clear tones.

As well, EMG is known for lots of punch and the fact that they need a battery to function.

The pickups don’t hum or buzz.

Fender

Fender is one of the most iconic guitar brands. They offer a wide variety of pickups, from single-coil to humbucker.

Fender pickups are known for their classic sound and are great for balanced mids and sharp highs.

Gibson

Gibson is another iconic guitar brand. They offer a wide variety of pickups, from single-coil to humbucker.

Gibson pickups shine with the higher notes and offer fat lows. But overall the sound is dynamic.

Lace

Lace is a guitar pickup brand that offers a wide variety of single-coil pickups. Lace pickups are known for their bright, clear sound.

Professional players like Lace pickups for their Strats because they produce less noise.

If you’re looking for a guitar pickup brand that offers high-quality pickups with great sound, then Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, or Lace is a good option for you.

How guitar pickups work

Most electric guitar pickups are magnetic, which means they employ electromagnetic induction to transform the mechanical vibrations of metal strings into electrical signals.

Electric guitars and electric basses have pickups or else they just wouldn’t work.

The pickups are located under the strings, either near the bridge or the neck of the instrument.

The principle is quite simple: when a metal string is plucked, it vibrates. This vibration creates a small magnetic field.

Thousands of twists of copper wire are used to wind magnets (usually constructed of alnico or ferrite) for electric guitar pickups.

On an electric guitar, these produce a magnetic field that is concentrated on individual pole pieces that are roughly centered underneath each string.

Most pickups have six pole components since most guitars have six strings.

The sound that the pickup will create depends on the position, balance, and strength of each of these separate pole parts.

The position of the magnets and coils also affects the tone.

The number of turns of wire on the coil also affects the output voltage or “hotness”. Therefore, the more turns, the greater the output.

This is why a “hot” pickup has more turns of wire than a “cool” pickup.

FAQs

Do acoustic guitars need pickups?

Pickups are generally installed on electric guitars and basses, but not on acoustic guitars.

Acoustic guitars don’t need pickups because they are already amplified by the soundboard.

However, there are some acoustic guitars that come with pickups installed.

These are usually called “acoustic-electric” guitars.

But acoustic guitars don’t need electromagnetic induction pickups like electrics.

Acoustic guitars can have piezo pickups installed, which use a different type of technology to amplify the sound. They’re located under the saddle. You’ll get a strong midrange from them.

Transducer pickups are another option and these are located under the bridge plate.

They’re good for getting a lot of low end out of your acoustic guitar and they will amplify the whole soundboard.

But most acoustic guitars do not have pickups.

How to tell what pickups are on your guitar?

You need to identify the type of pickups on your guitar: single-coils, P-90 or humbucking pickups.

The single-coil pickups are slender(slim) and compact.

Some of them look like a thin bar of metal or plastic, typically less than a couple of centimeters or half an inch thick, while others occasionally have visible magnet poles.

Typically, two screws will be used to secure single coil versions (one on either side of the pickup).

P90 pickups resemble single coils but are slightly broader. They typically measure 2.5 centimeters, or about an inch, thick.

Typically, two screws will be used to secure them (one either side of the pickup).

Finally, humbucker pickups are twice as broad or thick as single-coil pickups. Typically, 3 screws on either side of the pickup hold them in place.

How to tell between active and passive pickups?

The easiest way to tell is to look for a battery. If there’s a 9-volt battery attached to your guitar, then it has active pickups.

If not, then it has passive pickups.

Active pickups have a preamplifier built into the guitar that boosts the signal before it goes to the amplifier.

Another way is this:

Passive pickups have small magnetic poles showing and sometimes have a metal covering.

Actives, on the other hand, have no magnetic poles showing and their covering is often a dark-colored plastic.

How do you tell if a pickup is ceramic or alnico?

Alnico magnets are often placed along the sides of the pole pieces, whereas ceramic magnets are generally connected as a slab to the bottom of the pickup.

The easiest way to tell is by the magnet. If it’s a horseshoe shape, then it’s an alnico magnet. If it’s a bar shape, then it’s a ceramic magnet.

You can also tell by the color. Alnico magnets are silver or gray, and ceramic magnets are black.

Ceramic vs alnico pickups: what’s the difference?

The main difference between ceramic and alnico pickups is the tone.

Ceramic pickups tend to have a brighter, more cutting sound, while alnico pickups have a warmer sound which more mellow.

Ceramic pickups are also generally more powerful than alnico pickups. This means they can drive your amp harder and give you more distortion.

Alnico pickups, on the other hand, are more responsive to dynamics.

This means they’ll sound cleaner at lower volumes and start to break up sooner when you turn up the volume.

Also, we have to look at the materials these pickups are made from.

Alnico pickups are made from aluminum, nickel, and cobalt. Ceramic pickups are made from…you guessed it, ceramic.

How do you clean guitar pickups?

The first step is to remove the pickups from the guitar.

Next, use a toothbrush or other soft brush to remove any dirt or debris from the coils.

You can use a mild soap and water if needed, but be sure to rinse the pickups thoroughly so that no soap residue is left behind.

Finally, use a dry cloth to dry the pickups before re-installing them.

Also learn how to remove the knobs from your guitar for cleaning

Final thoughts

In this article, I’ve discussed everything you need to know about guitar pickups-their construction, types, and how to choose the right ones for your needs.

There are two main types of guitar pickups: single-coil and humbuckers.

Single-coil pickups are known for their bright, clear sound and are commonly found on Fender guitars.

Humbucking pickups are known for their warm, full sound and are commonly found on Gibson guitars.

So it all comes down to playing style and genre because each type of pickup will give you a different sound.

Guitar players tend to disagree on which pickup is the best so don’t worry about it too much!

Next, learn about guitar body and wood types (and what to look for when buying a guitar)

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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