Guitar Pickup Basics: What Is A Guitar Pickup?

In this Guitar Pickups 101 Series, we want to help you understand your equipment better, and hopefully that will lead to you using it better. If understanding your gear can help you find that perfect tone, then we think it is worthwhile! This is the first installment in the series, there will be more in-depth articles coming soon.

In your never-ending quest to squeeze the perfect tones out of your guitar, you have most likely learned a bit about pickups and how they contribute to your sound. It is important to understand the signal path of the sound that your electric guitar produces, if you want to be able to experiment with your tone.

The foundation of an electric guitar are its pickups. A pickup is an electromagnetic transducer. What that means to us non-scientists, is that the pick-ups that sit in the body of your guitar, produce a magnetic field that shoots upward toward the strings. As the strings vibrate, the magnets pickup these vibrations. The vibrations disrupt the magnetic field and create voltage that is sent through the coils that are wound around the magnets in the pickup. This voltage is then sent through your instrument cable into your amplifier and is heard by your ears as that sweet, sweet tone you know so well.

guitar strings vibration Source:

Why Change Your Pickups?

Pickups are the beginning of all tone in your guitar. They are the pieces of your setup that actually pick up (get the name now?) the vibration of your strings. They are the first step in the signal path, and therefore are a major limiting factor in the tone coming from your guitar. For example, have you ever been jamming out with volume set to 11 (of course) with your favorite guitar, and then all of a sudden your friend plugs in his axe and it sounds LOUDER? How can this be? The volume was already cranked! Well it is because his pickups are more powerful. Therefore, he doesn’t need as much amplification to match your sound.

Pickups have the same effect on the tone of your guitar. You may think you need a more powerful amp or a new distortion pedal, but it could be that you need higher output pickups.

Experimenting with different types of pickups allows you to customize your tone and get that sound that fits you perfectly. Maybe you want to be able to have versatile tones because you play varying styles of music, or maybe you just want to sound exactly like Slash and nothing else will do. Carefully selecting your pickups can help you accomplish your tone-centric goals.

Certainly, there are other factors that contribute to your tone. The type of construction and the weight of your guitar, as well as the quality of the craftsmanship and materials are all factors. Your strings, amp and cables all factor in, and even your playing style.

Playing your guitar with different types of pickups in it can be an enlightening experience. It will help you better understand what you have, what you are looking for, and how to get there.

We want to hear from you! Is there anything confusing in this article that you want clarified? What pickup changes have you made to your guitar and what effect did you see? What are your favorite pickups for the types of music you play? Leave a comment below!

Check back tomorrow for the next installment of the Pickups 101 Series.

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