Guitar Pickups

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       Guitar pickups are what make electric guitars, “electric” They “pickup” or transmit the sound generated by strings by converting it to an electrical signal. There are two different ways to do accomplish this . The first is by electromagnetic induction. These are the pickups that you see on electric guitars such as Fender’s Stratocaster or Gibson’s Les Paul, etc. The other type of guitar pickup is the piezoelectric pickup and it is most commonly found on acoustic electric guitars, although some guitars have both electromagnetic pickups and piezoelectric pickups such as some Parker Fly models.

       Electromagnetic pickups come in two varieties—single coil and humbuckers. The single coil version consists of an electromagnet that is wrapped many times (1000’s) with fine copper wire. Many times short metal rods will protrude from the top of the pickup directly under each string. The general shape is as in illustration 1 below but can also be rectangular as in the Gibson single coils. You can see the copper wire winding in this illustration as well. The distinguishing characteristics of the single coil pickup are 1) their tone can be quite bright and 2) they’re noisy. As an electromagnetic transducer, they will pickup noise from any other electrical source in the room. Computer monitors are especially fond of creating noise in single coil pickups.











                      Illustration 1                                           Illustration 2                                 Illustration 3



       Humbuckers are merely 2 single coil pickups side by side wound in the opposite direction. By winding them in the opposite direction, the effect of picking up other electric sources is cancelled out and thus the name “humbucker”.

It does, however, result in a different sound. Humbuckers are more powerful than single coils since they are picking up from 2 magnets and have a less biting sound. Illustration 2 and 3 are both humbuckers. There is no difference in functionality, only appearance.


       There has been a general rule of thumb that single coil guitars sound best when played through Fender-type amplifiers while humbuckers sound better through Marshall-type amps. We’re going to put that to the test.


       Fender Stratocaster, bridge pickup only through Fender Twin Reverb


       Fender Stratocaster, bridge pickup only through Marshall JMP-100


       Gibson Les Paul Classic, bridge pickup only through Marshall JMP-100


       Gibson Les Paul Classic, bridge pickup only through Fender Twin Reverb


       Piezoelectric pickups are found mostly on acoustic-electrics and function on the basis of pressure. When a piezoelectric crystal has pressure applied to it, it generates current. That current is converted into sound by means of amplification. The drawbacks of this type of pickup is that the tone generated is not a full, rich tone, it has a splatty feel to it. For this reason, many acoustic-electric manufacturers are adding small microphones to the interior of the guitar in order to round out the sound.

       Roland’s VG-99 guitar proccessor relies on hexaphonic (one for each string) pickups which come in either single coil or humbucking. By splitting the signal into 6 individual signals, the VG-99 can process each string individually, which allows for alternative tuning on the fly or assigning a different sound to each string. It can even convert the signal from each string into MIDI which would allow a guitarist to play the piano, for instance.