You are currently viewing How Do Guitar Pickups Work? – Common-Sense Explanation With Images

Last Updated on January 12, 2024 by Justin Thomas

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Author: Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I love guitars and have played dozens and dozens of different guitars through different amps and pedals over the years, and also, building a website interested me, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website.

I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have also been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as SongsterrMusicnotesGuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar.

I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog (I guess that went the right way…).

Ever struck a chord on your favorite guitar and wondered how that sweet sound comes to life? (aka. How Do Guitar Pickups Work?)

It’s the magic of guitar pickups! They’re like the “ears” of your electric guitar. 

These nifty little devices “pick up” (get it?) the vibrations of your guitar strings and transform them into those electrifying sounds that make your heart sing. Don’t you just love ’em? 

So, let’s dive into the fascinating world of guitar pickups and figure out how they work. Strap in because this is going to be fun!

A Look Under The Hood: What Makes Up A Pickup?

First off, let’s start with a brief anatomy lesson. Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds! 

A guitar pickup is typically composed of:

  • Magnets: Usually made of materials like Alnico or ceramic.
  • A coil of wire: Envelopes the magnet(s).
  • Pole pieces: These extend from the magnet, one for each string.
  • A base and a cover: To hold everything together.

The Electromagnetic Symphony: How Do Pickups Work?

Image reveals how guitar pickups pick up the vibration of the strings
Basic concept of guitar pickups.

Now that we’ve cracked open the shell of a guitar pickup let’s see how this hunk of metal and wire creates our rockin’ sound. It’s all about the wonders of physics and, to be more specific, electromagnetism!

Here’s the science bit in a nutshell: When you strike a guitar string, it starts to vibrate. 

Now, remember our pal, the magnet? It creates a magnetic field that the string vibrations disrupt. This disruption generates an electrical signal in the coil of wire wrapped around the magnet. This signal travels down your guitar cable and into your amp, where it’s translated back into sound. 

Bam! Your electrifying guitar solo is born!

Let’s break it down with a handy bullet-point list:

  1. You strum a guitar string (like the rockstar you are!)
  2. The string vibrates, disrupting the magnetic field created by the pickup’s magnet.
  3. The disruption generates an electrical signal in the coil of wire.
  4. The signal travels to the amplifier via the guitar cable.
  5. The amplifier converts the signal back into sound.
  6. You hear the sweet, sweet sound of your guitar. Cue the applause!

Quick Overview of Single Coil vs. Humbucker Pickups

displays Stratocaster electric guitar bodyshape
Stratocaster with Single-Coils.

Here’s the scoop: guitar pickups mainly come in two designs – single coil and humbuckers. 

The game changed in 1955 when Seth Lover at Gibson ingeniously joined two single coils together. 

The noise? Canceled out. 

The useful signal? Intact. 

They called them humbuckers, and they’re the heart and soul of Gibson Les Paul. On the other hand, Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters rock with single coils.

displays Les Paul electric guitar bodyshape
Les Paul with humbuckers.

Performance Breakdown

Now, let’s break it down:

  • Humbuckers deliver more sustain, stronger output, and less noise (basically noiseless, hum-free).
  • Single coils offer a brighter, crisper tone.
  • Humbuckers give a warmer, darker sound.

But remember, you can get almost any sound from any pickup. It’s all about how you use ’em!

Humbucker vs Single Coil pickup, what’s the deal?

Deep Dive Into the Single Coil and the Humbucker (and the P90)

displays SG electric guitar bodyshape
SG with P90 pickup.

Let’s get acquainted with our three heroes:

  • Single Coil: Single coils use a single magnet and are loved for their brighter tone. They’re widely used in various genres, particularly country and surf music, although they might not fare so well with heavy distortion.
  • Humbucker: Humbuckers, designed to “buck” the infamous 60-cycle hum, are essentially two single coil pickups paired together. They’re warm, great for jazz, and outperform single coils in distortion-heavy genres.
  • P90: Meet the middle-ground between single coil and humbucker pickups. P90s have more depth than single coils but less than humbuckers, making them versatile and perfect for blues and rock. (Check our picks for the best guitars with P90s here)

Learn more about all 12 different electric guitar pickup types here.

Pickup TypeToneBest Suited For
Single CoilBrighter, CrisperCountry, Surf, Blues, Rock
HumbuckerWarmer, DarkerJazz, Rock, Blues, Country, Heavy Distortion Genres
P90Mid-RangeBlues, Rock, Punk, Older Metal

Acoustic Guitar Pickups: The Authentic Sound Chasers

Now, onto acoustic guitars. These babies have three main pickup types:

  • Transducer Pickups: These gems provide a lifelike representation of an acoustic tone but may be more feedback-sensitive.
  • Piezo Pickups: These are underneath the saddle, focusing on your strings’ sounds. They’re strong in mid-range and resistant to feedback, ideal for bigger venues.
  • Soundhole Pickups: These can produce an electric-quality tone and are generally feedback-resistant.

Another exciting tech we see is the combo of a pickup with an in-body microphone. While they’re more feedback-prone and pricey, they deliver an incredibly genuine acoustic tone.

Remember, friends, when it comes to acoustic pickups, keep an open mind and let your ears decide! The tech keeps getting better, and who knows what might sound perfect for you next?

Learn more about all 4 different acoustic guitar pickup types here.

Bass Guitar Pickups: The Low-end Magic

Onto bass guitars now! Bass pickups are similar to guitar pickups but are grouped differently:

  • J-Pickups (Jazz bass): Associated with Fender’s Jazz Bass, they’re warm and clear, making them popular among jazz and rock musicians.
  • Split-coil Pickups (Precision bass): Two halves of a single pickup with a punchy tone, perfect for rock and punk (signal they pick up is out of phase)
  • Dual-coil Pickups: Humbucking pickups with a warmer, vintage tone.
  • Soap Bar Pickups: Essentially wider J-bass pickups with protection against degradation and different wiring possibilities.

Unconventional Guitar Pickups Worth Your Attention

Are you ready to take a detour from the standard guitar pickups and explore some exciting alternatives? 

Well then, buckle up! 

We’re about to journey into the world of Hot Rails, Hybrid pickups, Custom pickups, and Sustainers. (Again, check our full electric guitar pickup types guide here)

1. Hot Rails

displays Hot Rail electric guitar pickup
Hot Rail pickup.

Ever craved for a humbucker’s warmth while playing a single coil guitar? 

Enter the Hot Rails! 

These single coil-sized humbucking pickups pack quite a punch. They’re a brilliant solution to enhance your tone while preserving the character of your single coil guitar. 

They offer a robust, fuller, and warmer tone, almost like a humbucker but in the body of a single coil. Hot Rails are crafted by several pickup manufacturers, each bringing a unique spin to their design. 

Check out more on Hot Rails here.

2. Hybrid Pickups

The world of pickups isn’t black and white, and Hybrid pickups serve as a testament to that. By incorporating multiple types of coils, poles, and materials, these specialist pickups promise a sonic palette unlike any other. 

An aesthetic bonus?

They look as unique as they sound! 

A classic example is the one seen on the Reverend Reeves Gabrels Signature model. It’s a sonic journey worth taking!

3. Custom Pickups

Imagine possessing a guitar tone that is exclusively yours, crafted to your unique specifications and preferences. 

That’s the magic of Custom pickups. 

These made-to-order offerings provide a distinct tone, capturing the essence of your musical identity. 

Renowned manufacturers offer these services, providing you with handwound pickups, curated materials, and most importantly, the freedom to create your dream sound. 

To learn more about the process of ordering custom pickups, click here.

4. Sustainers

displays guitar with a sustainiac pickup
Displays Sustainer neck pickup.

Finally, meet the Sustainers, the pickup type that bends the laws of physics and transforms your guitar into an infinite soundscape. 

They use a specific combination of powerful magnets and high output to achieve what seems impossible – infinite sustain. 

An iconic user of this technology is Ed O’Brien of Radiohead fame. 

His signature Strat incorporates a sustainer-type pickup that creates ethereal sonic experiences. Check out Ed O’Brien’s Signature Strat to listen to this magic in action.

Type of PickupUnique FeatureCheck it Out
Hot RailsHumbucker tone in a single coil sizeHot Rails
Hybrid PickupsUse of multiple coil typesReverend Reeves Gabrels Signature
Custom PickupsMade-to-order, unique to your soundOrdering Custom Pickups
SustainersInfinite sustain effectEd O’Brien’s Signature Strat

In the vast universe of guitar pickups, remember; there’s always something new to discover, a new sound to explore. Don’t limit yourself. Explore these unconventional alternatives and find your unique voice in the world of music. 

Active vs. Passive Pick-Up: What’s the Difference?

displays EMG Active pickups
Active EMG pickup of my ESP LTD MH-400.

Firstly, passive pickups are super common. So common, in fact, that unless we’re comparing them to active ones, we just call them ‘pickups.’ But what makes them tick? 

Well, they detect the string vibrations independently – no battery required! They give you an organic, smooth, natural sound, kinda ‘vintage.’ 

But beware of using super-long cables – you might have a darker, muffled sound.

Active pickups, on the other hand, are a bit like passive pickups on steroids! (Check our full list of awesome guitars with active pickups here)

They’re wound weaker but have a battery-powered internal amplifier that gives them a punchier output. This leads to sustain longer, a more consistent tone, and a signal strength that doesn’t falter with a longer cable. 

Awesome, right? So why the distinction? 

Well, active pickups are typically chosen for heavier styles of music (think rock and metal) – big names in these genres are often spotted with active pickups. 

However, passive pickups offer a less processed, more dynamic sound that can adapt to your playing style.

Here’s a quick comparison:

  • Passive Pickups:
    • Work passively to detect string vibrations.
    • Organic, smooth, natural, ‘vintage’ sound.
    • Perfect if you want a natural, responsive sound.
  • Active Pickups:
    • Use a battery to boost the signal.
    • Low noise; crisp; full; better sustain; more compression
    • Ideal for clean or distorted sounds and long cable usage.
How They WorkHow They SoundIdeal For
PassiveDetect vibrations passivelyOrganic, smooth, natural, ‘vintage’Natural, responsive sound
ActiveUse a battery to boost the signalLow noise; crisp; full; better sustain; more compressionClean or distorted sounds, long cable usage

Now, onto the nitty-gritty details. Passive and active pickups consist of a magnet wrapped in wire, and the number of times the wire is wrapped around affects the sound output. 

More wraps = more power, right? 

Well, kind of. 

In passive pickups, too many wraps actually result in less treble and clarity. To avoid this muddiness, active pickups use a battery-powered preamp for more output without sacrificing clarity. It’s like having your cake and eating it, too!

But here’s the kicker – you can’t mix active and passive pickups in the same guitar. 

Why, you ask? 

Well, their outputs are so different that switching between them would cause major volume changes and potentially blow your speakers. 

Talk about a rock star exit!

In summary, active and passive pickups each have their unique strengths and characteristics, and the choice between them really boils down to your personal preference and the sound you’re after.

Pickup Magnets: Which One Does What?

Ready to dive into the fascinating world of pickup magnets and their impact on your guitar’s sound? 

Every detail, from the magnet type and size, to the wire thickness and winding, can drastically shape your music’s tonality.

The magnet type is a great place to start and here’s a quick rundown:

  • Alnico III: Known as the “weakest” magnet, it lacks cobalt, thus has the lowest magnetic pull. This makes it popular for neck pickups as it minimally influences the strings. Its tone is ‘confident’, slightly ‘softer’ than Alnico II, often used to balance an Alnico II in the bridge.
  • Alnico II: Famous with the original PAF humbucker, this magnet gives a soft, clear, ‘sweet’ tone with softened treble frequencies. Clean tone sounds musical, and overdriven tone ‘sings’. For distorted tones, it provides excellent note separation for complex chords.
  • Alnico V: More ‘hot’ and ‘edgy’ compared to Alnico II and III, perfect for aggressive tones. It brings ‘unity’ to your chords, especially through heavy distortion, with a warmer midrange, great for lead guitar.
  • Alnico VIII: This rare gem combines the power of ceramic magnets with the warmth of Alnico V. It preserves the ‘woodiness’ of your tone while providing high output.
  • Ceramic: This ‘modern’ magnet offers a tighter low end, more ‘cut’, and higher output compared to Alnico magnets. Expect a powerful, bold midrange, particularly in the upper mids. Today’s ceramic pickups have overcome initial tonal limitations, now delivering full-bodied tones.

In a nutshell, the choice of magnet greatly shapes your guitar’s sound, from mellow Alnico II to powerful ceramic pickups. Enjoy exploring the variety!

In Conclusion: Rock Out with Your Pickups Out!

Well, there you have it, folks! Guitar pickups are not so mysterious after all. 

Just a touch of physics and a sprinkle of engineering genius create the unique, expressive voice of your electric guitar. 

Next time you pick up your axe, spare a thought for these unsung heroes under the strings. Keep strumming, rocking, and exploring the magical world of guitar pickups.

If you have any questions, just leave a comment down below. We are here for you.

Keep rocking!

I wish you all the best and keep rocking!

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Teemu Suomala

I first grabbed the guitar in 2009. I started this website in January 2020 because I couldn’t do window installation anymore due to my health problems. I also noticed that most guitar websites don’t do a really good job, so I decided to just go for it! I got lucky and managed to get awesome people to help me with my website. I also got lucky because I have you visiting my website right now. Thank you. I do all this for you guys. If you have any recommendations, tips, or feedback, just leave a comment, I would love to chat with you. I have been fortunate to produce content for several large guitar websites, such as Songsterr, Musicnotes, GuitarGuitar, and Ultimate Guitar. I spend my spare time exercising and hanging out with my wife and crazy dog(I guess that went the right way…). Expertise: guitar learning techniques, electric guitars, and guitar amplifiers. You can connect with me on LinkedIn or just email me.
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