Guitar Wiring 101 – Pickups

Welcome to the 3rd part of my ‘Guitar Wiring 101’ series of blogs. If you’ve missed the previous blogs, check them out here: Rowbinet’s Guitar Wiring 101 Series

Let’s kick off with an interesting question: Who invented the guitar pickup? It’s certainly an important question, but more so would be: ‘Who invented the humbucking/humbucker pickup?’.

There’s some general debate, but Seth Lover is widely understood to have been one of the first to come up with the idea but was crucially the first to have it installed in a guitar that would later become one of the most iconic guitars ever. There’s lots more info about that here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pickup_(music_technology).

What Is A Pickup and HOW Does It Work

Essentially a pickup is a magnet with a coil of wire around it, and that coil of wire leaves the pickup and is connected to your guitars jack socket and in turn via a guitar lead to your amplifier. The basic principle is that as the metal string vibrates close to the top of the pickup, the vibrating metal string affects the magnetic field of the magnet within the pickup and this in turn creates a very small amount of alternating electricity in the coil of wire around that magnet. Effectively you have a very low powered electro-magnet creating the beginnings of your sound wave.

There is of course a lot more technical detail involved, but that’s outside the scope of todays blog. See here for more info: http://www.guitar-repairs.co.uk/how_guitar_pickups_work.htm.

For this guide I’ve left out active pickups, as I think they work by using black magic… Check out http://www.emgpickups.com/

Why Do We Have Different Types of Pickups?

In a word: sound. Single coil pickups sound different to a humbucker for example, and also the position of the pickup on your guitar can affect the sound, as can the method of mounting the pickups to the guitar body, the guitar body wood, string gauge, and scale length of the guitar. Also what’s very important is that there are many different ways of changing the tone of how 2 similar looking pickups sound. Some people generally think of ceramic magnets in humbuckers to sound more sterile than alnico 5 magnets. There’s a lot more to it than that though, and companies such as Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio and Bare Knuckle do a very good job of making a variety of different sounding pickups by using different magnets, different types, length and thickness of wire, not to mention many other small adjustments we could only begin to imagine.

Here are some rule of thumb statements about the above affecting your tone… Take them as a rough guide, and not a definitive fact, as there’s many many smaller details that affect the tone too:

Humbuckers usually sound fatter than single coils, but single coils can do pristine cleans better.

Pickups in the neck position tend to output more bass and less treble, which is the reverse of pickups in the bridge position.

Pickups mounted to the guitar body can pickup more guitar body resonance and good vibrations than pickups mounted to a scratchplate.

Mahogony as a guitar body wood is very warm sounding, and Maple is very bright sounding. This is likely why a lot of Les Pauls have a Mahogony body and maple cap, to give a balanced tone. See here for more info on tone woods: http://www.warmoth.com/guitar/bodies/options/bodywoodoptions.aspx

Lead players sometimes prefer lighter strings, for more treble to cut through the mix and easier string bending. i.e. Steve Vai uses Ernie Ball Super Slinky 9-42 gauge strings. Yet some players who like a fatter tone, will use much thicker strings. i.e. Zakk Wylde uses 10-60 and 11-70 strings, which is part of the reason for his very intense, deep and crushing tone. SRV alternated between 12-58 and 13-58 gauges, but at one times used to use 18 – 74 gauge, which is very thick indeed.

Scale length of the guitar (the distance between the nut and bridge) affects the string tension. Fender Strats are usually 25.5″ and Gibson Les Pauls are usually 24.75″, and if you string both of those with the same gauge strings, and tune them both to the same tuning, the Les Pauls shorter scale length will mean the strings don’t need as much tension which gives a looser feel. This can then affect how the string vibrates and thus the tone. More info can be read here: http://www.12fret.com/content/2011/07/11/scale-lengths/

Which Pickups Should I Buy?

It’s one of those things that you can’t easily decide upon, or guarantee. The only way is to hear an artist playing a specific guitar with the pickups in it that you want, then to replicate their sound you should buy everything the same as they have, it it may work for you… But of course that’s over the top. All I was aiming to illustrate was that buying pickups is like buying a guitar or an amp, only harder. You can’t easily try out lots of pickups at a store like you can with a guitar or an amp. For this reason there’s always a leap of faith when buying an unknown pickup to fit into your guitar.

Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio and Bare Knuckle all have tone guides and sound samples to help you pick the right pickups as well as advice on what type of guitars they sound best in. That said, in my experience these are a good guide, but trying out the pickups is the best way. It can get expensive, but selling nearly new pickups on eBay means you don’t loose much money, and you’ve been able to test them out first 🙂 The alternative is to stick to the safe pickups, like the Seymour Duncan JB, or the Dimarzio PAF Pro for great all round humbuckers, and the Seymour Duncan – Duncan Distortion, or Dimarzio Super Distortion for more high output pups… But for anything else, it can get a little bit trial and error… But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it 🙂

Resources:

Here’s a great wiring resource for when you have your new pickups: http://www.seymourduncan.com/support/wiring-diagrams/schematics.php?schematic=color_codes

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