Every guitar player wants to find the sound that is uniquely theirs. They’ll chase down vintage guitars, amps and pedals in hopes of finding the missing link to their tone. Sometimes, it’s the smallest part that can make a difference. Guitar pickups have a huge effect on how your sound comes through your equipment. Pickups create a magnetic field that register the disruption of the strings’ vibrations. This is translated to an electric signal which is then passed through the signal chain until it is heard as amplified sound. Musicians may find the job of installing new pickups daunting, or it’s simply an overlooked component in the chain. Simply put, your guitar pickups are the soul of your sound.
Essentially, there are two types of pickups: single and double-coil. The original single-coil pickup can be noisy, transmitting a notable buzz of the electric field along with the sound of the strings. Double-coil pickups, or humbuckers, were created in 1955. Their name is derived from the ability of the two coils to cancel out the buzzing sound, bucking the hum so to speak. Though humbuckers have made their way on to many different guitar bodies, they debuted on Gibson guitars and are an essential part of the Gibson Les Paul’s iconic look.
Pickups have a lot to do with the sound that is attributed to specific brands. As the humbucker is to Gibson, the single-coil is to Fender. Fender equipment is known for its screaming high end and the trebly, almost tinny sounding, jangle of its chords. It’s the tone that will make any musician say, “sounds like a Fender.”
Whether the single coil or the humbucker have the edge is up to the player. Though the single-coil is guaranteed to transmit buzz at higher gain levels, its ability to transmit high end is unmatched. If you’re playing high on the neck, those notes are going to cut through the bass and drums like a hot knife through butter. On the other hand, the humbucker can handle high gain without adding any extra noise. The humbucker has a rich mellow sound—the tonal color of caramel or whiskey.
There are hybrid pickups that tout the advantages of both the single and double-coil. Seymour Duncan’s Custom Stack Plus claims the chime of the single coil without any of the buzz. The overwound design makes it possible to fit this pickup into a guitar that only has space for a single coil. Lindy Fralin’s Split Blade pickup makes similar claims. The Split Blade is a rail pickup. The philosophy behind the rail pickup is that a string will never leave the magnetic field. On an average pickup a string can fall between two magnetic poles causing a drop off of volume or tone.
The final difference between pickups is whether they are passive or active. Most pickups are passive. What sets active pickups apart is that they house a power pre-amp to boost the original guitar signal before hitting a pedal chain or amp. The advantage here is having more signal to shape with effects. When it comes to sound, it is better to be able to subtract signal than to add. Boosting output with a pedal can cause the signal to sound compressed. Active pickups have the advantage of boosting the original sound, rather than being a further step down the signal chain.
Ultimately, nothing will affect your tone more than the way you choose to hear it and shape it. All the types of pickups mentioned above can be used to get close to the sound you want. Some pickups are better at getting certain sounds, but gear is only as good in the hands that hold it. If you’re looking to craft your tone, there’s no cheaper or simpler place to start.