A Comprehensive Guide to Electric Guitar Pickups

In this blog post, I'll attempt to construct A Comprehensive Guide to Electric Guitar Pickups. Single Coil, Humbucker, P-90, Active, Passive, Lipstick, the options and related vocabulary are exhausting! There has been an explosion of new pickup winders, from cheap to boutique, and it seems like an endless parade of someone new making “the best darn tele pickup ever!” Seriously, the forums are plagued with this kind of talk, and I’ve personally grown deaf to all the hearsay and conjecture! 

"Have you heard of Joe-Bob Cox's Pickups down in Tex-Arkana? He makes the best Fender pickups!"

So, in this edition of Matt's Blog, we will thoroughly cover the most common, and touch upon some less common types of pickups, that are currently available. But 1st, let's dive in to a little history!

Prior to 1950 there were a couple of pickups on the market but they were for the hollow bodies and arch top guitars that were currently available. Lloyd Loar’s early Viola pickup from the 1920s lead to George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker’s pickup in the Frying Pan Guitar (as seen below),  As time marched on towards the mid to late 1940s, we saw the emergence of two pickups that have gone on to become mainstays of recorded music to this day!

Check out the Frying Pan Guitar

The P90 Pickup from Gibson

Gibson introduced the P-90 in 1946. P-90 Pickups were originally designed as single coil pickups. The terms Soapbar or Dog Ear are tied to the P-90, depending on which covers they have on them. However, the internal components remain largely the same. Though, noise free versions of P90s are widely available which are technically NOT single coils but still sound like them minus the hum. Confused yet? Oh, just you wait!

A Dog Ear Cover on the left next to a Soapbar Cover on the right.
A Dog Ear vs a Soap Bar

The P-90 has the reputation of being a single coil on steroids and, by and large, I agree with that. The P-90, as made by Gibson, is warmer and fatter than a Fender Single Coil, thanks to a flat Alnico Magnet Bar, wider coil, and wider magnetic aperture of the pickup. A P-90 is brighter than most Gibson Humbuckers and typically has more dynamic capabilities and touch sensitivity, as well.

Since the P-90 is a single-coil pickup, it picks ups 60 cycle hum just like a Fender Single-Coil Pickup. In high gain, or even lower gain but low volume settings, the noise from P-90s can be unpleasant and distracting. As I mentioned previously, manufacturers make noise-free P-90 Pickups that squash the 60 cycle hum and still retain the P-90 tone. Purists will argue going noiseless DOES change the tone, and I completely agree! While there’s no noise, that lack of noise seems to take away a bit or air or presence or brilliance. However, in a live setting, no one will be able to tell once they are blasted with 100 db’s and in the studio you’ll love not having to awkwardly position yourself to lower the noise floor of the 60 cycle hum.

I used a Fralin P92 for years in my main Tele and it was awesome! Just needed a traditional Tele Tone in that guitar so we parted ways.

The Lindy Frailin P94 is a great noisefree option!

We now know that if you RWRP or “Reverse Wound Reverse Polarity” one of the pickups in a 2 pickup set, you’ll get noise-canceling operation in the middle position. Winders like Seymour Duncan, Lollar, Fralin, Fender and others of the ilk are all hip to this and offer it as stock on many pickups.

Some legendary guitar models that often come with P-90 Pickups are the Gibson Les Paul Special and Junior, The Gibson SG Junior, The 1956 Les Paul Gold Top, The Gibson ES-295. The Epiphone Casino, and many more.

A Les Paul Special, 56 Gold Top, and an SG Junior.

Gibson Guitars with P90 Pickups

A P90 in the bridge positions offers increased body over a true single coil but still has the biting and barking quality you’ll get from any pickup parked that close to the bridge. This added body (bass and mid range) is great for jazz, blues, or any scenario where you don’t need to cut thru with something as sharp as a Tele or Strat bridge pickup.

The Neck position P-90 really is the Yang to the bridge’s Ying. It’s bass dominant, dark, thick, syrupy. Almost like you cut the tone on a strat 30 to 50%. Great for jazz, comping chords, or adding a very thick tonal element to a mix. It also works really well for a solo when gain is applied with a bit of top boost to add clarity to the top-end.

Combining a pair of P-90s balances out each pickups tonal characteristics well. And in the good ones, this combo tone is tough to beat. It’s more “acoustic” sounding with wider frequency response thanks to the pickups snagging sound from multiple places under the strings. I have had great country-fingerpicking results in this position, especially though a low-wattage tweed amp. Go figure!

The P90 has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the last decade, or so. It's the perfect 3rd addition to any players arsenal or collection. Gibson still uses them in their 54 and 56 Les Paul Reissues along with all Junior and Special Models. PRS has made several Soapbar McCarty models and Fender uses them in Custom Shop Guitars and in the Jim Adkins Telecaster.

The Single Coil Pickup: Strats and Teles

In the late 1940s Leo Fender was hard at work developing his electric guitar and by 1950, the single bridge pickup only guitar called the “Esquire” was introduced. These guitars, like a Les Paul Junior, are a blast to play due to the reduced magnetic pull from only having one pickup. About a year later, a second pickup was introduced in what would be called “Neck Position”. In the Tele, this pickup was covered up with a shiny chrome “lipstick” looking cover. These pickups basically still look the same today with minor differences. 

The Joe Strummer Esquire and its single bridge pickup.

The Fender Custom Shop Joe Strummer Esquire featured just one phenomenal bridge pickup

Single Coil Pickups tend to have a very narrow magnetic aperture field which is part of the reason they have the ability to cut through a mix like no other pickup. The sound captured by these pickups is limited to a very concise area which gives each pickup a very frequency-focused tone. A traditional Tele Bridge pickup is very bright, has some serious bite, and incredible dynamic response. This pickup is responsible for that Chicken pickin’, pluck and cluck thang that Tele’s do best. The neck pickup is darker, warmer, richer, even muted when compared to the bridge pickup. It is great for warm, rich tones, or stepping back in the mix. In running both pickups we find that increased frequency response that gives us a more acoustic-like sound. Richer, tighter bass, with scooped mids, and perfectly boosted highs. Fingerpicked or strummed, this setting is hard to beat if beautiful clean tones are your bag.

This Telecaster in Shell Pink has a set of Tele Single Coil Pickups.

A Fender Telecaster in Shell Pink with the classic Tele pickup configuration

 

The Stratocaster was introduced in 1954 and saw the addition of a middle pickup over its Tele Brethren. This middle pickup went smack dab in between the bridge and neck pickups and basically cuts the difference tone-wise between the neck and the bridge pickups. What’s really cool about the 3 pickup design is the out-of-phase tones we get from positions 2 and 4. These are the quacky, expressive positions that are so loved by Players and listeners alike. Why doesn’t a Tele do that in the middle position? Seriously, anyone know??? Also, it took Fender until 1976 to make the 5-way switch a factory option. Seesh!

The original George Harrison Rocky Strat had its pickup covers painted by Mr. Harrison himself!

The Fender Custom Shop George Harrison Rocky Strat because, why not?!

Single Coil pickups create 60 cycle hum just like the P-90 does. If you RWRP (Reverse Wound Reverse Polarity) the neck pickup on a Tele, you get (almost) noise free operation in the middle position, just like you do with P-90s. If you RWRP a middle pickup on a Strat, then you’ll get noise free operation on positions 2 and 4 which is supremely cool! Then there are also Stacked Single Coil Pickups and Noise-Free “Single Coil” pickups. Getting confused yet?

So, what does Stacked Single Coil mean?

Great question! A Stacked Single Coil Pickup is not a Single Coil pickup at all. It’s a Humbucker. So this term Stacked Single Coil is flat-out confusing. It’s a humbucker that fits in a single coil size route. They stack one coil on top of another to obtain the noise free operation. Since the string aperture on Stacked Pickups is still that of a single-coil rather than a humbucker, the tones are a bit more focused and single-coil like but still offer noise free operation. 

What about Noiseless Single Coil Pickups?

Well, here we have another confusing scenario with a now familiar answer. Noiseless Pickups, a term often associated with Fender specifically, are Stacked Single Coil Pickups, or rather humbuckers. There is a ‘dummy’ coil under the functioning coil that kills the noise. These pickups are often taller than a single coil without a dummy coil. Installing these pickups in an old guitar often requires the pickup routes to be deepened in order to accommodate the taller pickup.

So, to tie this part of the conversation up, technically speaking, there is no such thing a Noise Free Single Coil since these pickups are actually humbuckers. Remember that looks can be deceiving!

The Humbucker Pickup: Thanks, Seth Lover!

Seth Lover invented the PAF Humbucker in 1954. Gibson and Lover filled joint patent for the design in June of 1955 and, by 1957, the humbucker was the new pickup of choice for Les Paul models. These early PAF pickups have become legendary and are worth a small fortune on the Vintage Market. Literally, every manufacturer winding pickups these days has a take on the PAF. They have become the Holy Grail of humbucker pickups. Like a Dumble is to amps, a PAF is to humbuckers.

The 1957 Les Paul Custom and Standard Models were the 1st to get PAF's!

The 1957 Les Paul Custom and Standard Models were the 1st to get humbuckers

Basically, a humbucker is 2 single coil pickups combined. One coil is wound in reverse with Reverse Polarity and then the 2 coils are connected in series but out-of-phase. The inverted magnet corrects the signal, putting it back in phase, and boom bam! Read that few more times and it probably still won’t make sense but whatever! It’s tone are thick, rich, heavy, dark, compressed… all sorts of adjectives!

Since 1957, Humbuckers have become an indispensable voice for the guitar. They are a fantastic compliment to single coil pickups which are lower in output, are fundamentally brighter, and more focused sounding. Humbuckers are typically thicker sounding with tighter, heavier bass, tapered back high-end response, and some built-in compression. Many humbuckers provide enough output to start browning out an amp at a level that will be totally clean with a Single Coil.

EXAMPLE! I put a Dimarzio Super Distortion T (which is a stacked single-coil) in the Partscaster below and it is proof positive of the aforementioned bass and compression cut when coil tapped. Through my 5 watt Sonic Pipe Tweedtone in humbucker mode, the compression becomes audible and the tendency is to bring on the overdrive earlier. Switched to single-coil mode, the bass drops out considerably which adds a more open quality to its palette. The compression disappears and the dynamics come back.

The Dimarzio Super Distortion T: Anabolic Steroids for your Telecaster!

Aftermarket Pickup Manufacturers offer humbuckers in a variety of outputs that range from very low to exceptionally high. TV Jones Humbuckers are lower output than, well most humbuckers. That’s partly why they sound so fantastic played clean or with a light amount of over drive. Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio, Lollar, Fralin, Throwback, all of them make humbuckers that range from low to high in terms of output. Whether you are playing a cranked up Tweed Amp or a Triple Rec, you will probably have a preference towards an output level or even magnet material. Alnico and Ceramic Magnets are the two most common types of magnets used.

Metal-heads love a high output ceramic pickup because of its in your face, unabashed tone. Due to their higher output, these pickups lack subtlety and nuance. If you like to roll your volume and tone off, stick with Alnico Pickups, leave the ceramics to the “can I have my volume and tone knobs removed?” crowd. Alnico Magnets offer a more vintage starting point. Pickups made with these magnets tend to carry less output, don’t hit the amp with as much compression and sing rather than seer or crush.

Other types of pickups for Electric Guitar…

Active Pickups: will be powered by a battery and have the reputation being super high output and a great choice for ultra-high gain. EMG makes the most popular sets, thanks to them being used in the guitars of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammet from Metallica for decades.

Gold Foil: The history is muddy but Teisco and DeArmond are the two names stuck to the Gold Foil. These days, some are single coil, some are humbuckers. Harmony Guitars is attempting to bring back the Gold Foils with their own version. Lollar makes a killer version as well.

Lip Stick Pickups: Typically associated with Danelectro Guitars and Surf Music. These pickups have a bar magnet in them so they pick up the strings rather evenly. This is a simple design compared to others but nothing else sounds quite like them.

Jazzmaster Pickups: Look more like a P90 than a traditional Fender Single Coil, called a “Pancake” wind by some. Typically, a Jazzmaster Pickup has an inherent ‘sweetness’, tone-wise, loaded with bell-like chime on the top-end, and a warm richness on the low-end. The mids are typically fairly scooped for a tone many of us find very musical.

Other terms associated with Pickups:

RWPR: As mentioned before, this stands for Reverse Wound, Reverse Polarity and allows for single coil pickups to operate with considerably reduced 60 cycle hum when the RWPR pickup is combined with a non-RWRP pickup.

Copper Wire: 42 or 43 gauge Copper Wire is wrapped around the bobbin. Typically, each coil gets about 6000 to 8500 turns of this thin and fragile wire. The amount of winds absolutely influences a pickups tonal characteristics.

Bobbins: holds the wire on a pickups coil in a constant shape and helps protects the coil. Usually made from either plastic or compressed paper. Has minimal, if any, effect on tone since they are non-conductive.

Wax Potting: Wax Potting is when a pickup is sealed with Wax so that it doesn’t squeal or act like a microphone.

Microphonic: a pickup is said to be microphonic when it picks up sound as a microphone does. This often happens to Unpotted Pickups or pickups whose wax potting has melted/lost it’s integrity.

AlNiCo Magnets: are made from aluminum, nickel, cobalt, copper, iron, and titanium. Rated from 2 to 8. The organizing of the numbers is sort of odd. #2 are the 2nd weakest magnet, while #3 are the weakest. The #4 is stronger than the 2 and 3 but weaker than 5. The #5 is probably the most commonly used, and gives us a traditional Fender tone.

Ceramic Magnets: The magnets are actually ceramic which are stronger and produce higher output pickups. These are usually slabs of magnets attached to the bottom of a pickup rather than being attached along the sides of the pole piece. If high-gain is your thing, then ceramic pickups are also likely to be your thing.

Output: This refers to how much signal a pickup produces. Determined by magnet material, magnet strength, wire material, and the number of winds on the coil.

DC Resistance: a measurement of how hard the current has to get to get through the wire coils. More windings means more resistance but not necessarily more output since the overall output is determined by SEVERAL factors and not just one. Resistance is more of a diagnostic measurement use to determine if your pickup is functioning correctly.

Push Back Cloth Covered Wire: Wire with a cloth cover that you literally push back to expose the wire. Typical on vintage pickups or recreations of vintage pickups.

Conductor Wires: A single Coil has 2 Conductor Wires (ground and hot), a Humbucker usually has 4 (2 grounds, 2 hots, one for each coil). 4 conductor allows for a wealth of options like series or parallel wiring or coil tapping, out-of-phase.

Wrap it already, will ya?! 

Well, that about covers it, save for 2 last things to consider... Something that took me years to learn and appreciate is that a guitar with only one pickup (Les Paul Junior, Esquire, etc...) has less magnetic pull on the strings. Makes sense since the number of magnets pulling at the strings is reduced, right? This allows for maximum resonance and sustain since there are less magnets slowing the strings vibration. The result, guitars that are very fun and inspiring to play as they seem to be more expressive and responsive with the inherent ability to sustain for longer.

Choosing aftermarket pickups can get really expensive really fast so make sure to check out as many sound clips and videos from as many different sources before you commit to ANYTHING. After 30 + years of playing and 20+ years working in shops, I thought I had my favorite pickups all sorted out but, I am constantly surprised by new manufacturers, new designs, and the continued evolution of technology. 

I hope you found this long-winded, verbose, key-word blitzkrieg of a blog post informative! Please don't hesitate to reach out with any thoughts, comments, criticism, conversation starters, whatever you got! Thanks for stopping by, My Friend!

This installment of Matt's Blog was penned by Mathew Jenkins whose favorite pickups are the Fender Custom Shop Nocaster Pickups for clean tones, TV Jones T-Armond Pickups for country and rockabilly, The DiMarzio X2N and Super Distortion for metal, The Gibson 57 Classic for singing leads, and Seymour Duncan P90s.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published