A Guide to Electric Guitar Pickups

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A Guide to Electric Guitar Pickups

As I run a Custom Guitar Shop (Morton Guitars) I have been working with guitars for many years and know a thing or two about electric guitars. 

Are you confused by the wide choice of pickups available for your electric guitar? Then read this article which gives an insight into many of the popular types of pickups available today.

Single Coil  These are commonly found on Fender Stratocaster or Fender Telecaster type guitars.  They commonly come with either white, cream or black plastic covers and are a single coil of wire wound around six pole pieces or magnets.  These produce a focused sharp, treble (sometimes gritty) tone that many players favour. The sharp treble tone can cut through the sound of a band to make the guitarist heard.  Players include Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton.  Stratocasters usually have three single coils with a 5 way switch this allows you to select each of the three individual pickups and also 1 and 2 together or 2 and 3 together.  One downside to single coils is that they hum under stage lights or near electrical equipment - or in a recoding studio!  This is normal and is called the 60 Cycle Hum caused by the very nature of electricity. When selecting two pickups together the hum is cancelled if the middle pickups is reverse wired/reverse polarity (RW/RP).  So most Stratocasters have a Reverse Wired / Reversed Polarity (RW/RP) single coil in the middle position.  Some have staggered magnets which is to compensate for the sharper radius of vintage fretboards and different string thicknesses. Telecasters have one pickups RW/RP so the hum is cancelled in the middle position of its 3-Way Switch. Vintage Single Coil pickups have fewer coil winds and are lighter in tone (eg Hank Marvin The Shadows) whilst overwound pickups produce a higher output and sound darker and grittier.  Famous versions are the Fender Texas Specials as used by Stevie Ray Vaughan

Humbuckers: Humbuckers were invented in 1957 by Gibson designer Seth Lover.  The idea was to put two single coils side by side with one reverse wired to cancel out the 60 cycle hum. Thus 'bucking' the hum.  It worked - and Gibson applied for a patent for their new invention so started shipping early Humbuckers with the letters PAF (Patent Applied For) on them. These PAF Humbuckers were very popular and were fitted to popular Gibson guitars of the day: Les Paul and 335 being the popular models of the day.  Originally they came with Nickel, Chrome or Gold covers (Covered Humbuckers) but some players removed the covers to reveal the coils which are commonly black, cream or one of each (known as Zebras). Today's humbuckers come in PAF, Hot PAF (Overwound) or extra overwound with magnets such as Alnico (Aluminium/Nickel/Cobalt) or Ceramic magnets. The more winds the darker the tone so heavy metal players like to use powerful pickups with ceramic magnets.  Many famous rock players favour medium output (Hot PAF) with Alnico magnets.  Favoured by many studio recording artists for the lack of hum, these pickups produce a darker, often creamier less brittle tone. Many players favour humbuckers. Famous users are Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), BB King, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Moore.  Note: If you see humbuckers marked as F- Spacing - these are for a Stratocastertype guitars as they are wider than for a standard Gibson type guitar

P-90 Pickups:  These are sometimes called Soapbar pickups as they look like the shape of bars of soap!  P-90 pickups were Gibson's first commercial pickup (P-90 is simply Part number 90 from Gibson's  stock listings) These are similar in concept to the Fender Stratocaster single coil design but with a flatter profile and the magnets as 2 magnetic bars instead of 6 magnets up through the pickup.  The tone is somewhere between the sharpness of the single coil and the dark tone of the humbuckers.  They suffer from the 60 cycle hum issues except in the middle position. it should be said that many player like the 60 cycle hum as it feels like the guitar has come alive in their hands so it is a personal preference. Some P-90 pickup covers are called Dog Ears as they have flaps for fixing to hollow bodied guitars.  I have to say that P-90s are my favourite pickups as they can do any style of music and are especialy good at blues and rock styles. You can get stacked versions with one on top of the other with reverse wiring to cancel the hum - making them humbuckers. These are called P-100 pickups

Varieties of pickups: You can also get humbuckers that fit into single coil guitars.  These are useful and mean you don't have to change your pickguard.  Some types are Hot Rails, Coo, Rails and another is type is called Little 59 (look up a pickup maker called Seymour Duncan).  You can also get P-90 pickups in a humbucker shape which give you the chance to get P-90 tone in a guitar designed for humbuckers.  Note: Humbuckers come in 2 wire or 4 wire varieties. If you choose a 4 wire then you can fit a switch so you can select one coil (so it sounds like a single coil) or both coils together (classic humbucker). This is also called Coil Tapping. A popular choice is a Humbucker shaped P-90 (Such as a Seymour Duncan Phat Cat) in the neck position (great for blues) and a Hot PAF Humbucker in the bridge position that has been coil tapped.  In effect this gives you a P-90, a Single coil and a Humbucker in one guitar!

Wax Dipping (or Potting):  Pickups are often wax dipped (a professional task usually done at the factory) to bind the coils to stop them howling when close to an amp. Solid bodied guitars also help prevent the howling - which is known as Microphonics.  If your guitar howls like a banshee even when you are not playing it then maybe your pickups need wax dipped.

Changing your pickups Many guitar makers fit bog standard low cost pickups to their guitars and cheaper entry level guitars will have even cheaper very basic pickups made from inexpensive components. Fitting a new set of pickups to even a low cost guitar can utterly transform an otherwise uninspiring guitar into a fabulous sounding guitar that is a real joy to play. Fender and Gibson make a range of after market pickups however there are many pickups manufacturers that produce replacement pickups.

Active or Passive pickups: Some guitars have an active boost feature in their design to boost mid tones.  These use a PP3 battery secreted somewhere on the guitar. Note that more power from your pickups is not necessarily related to the tone you wish.  When playing in a band the cleaner the tone the better your guitar will cut through the mix.

Popular pickup manufacturers:  Bare Knuckle Pickups, Seymour Duncan,  Dimarzio, Kent Armstrong, Rio Grande and many many others. Note: Hand wound (scatter winding) gives better tone so hand made pickups are usually preferable to machine wounds - hence they tend to cost more....but are worth it!

Pickups on eBay There are always plenty of pickups for sale on eBay  and I have bought dozens over the years of all makes and types to fit myself. You can too if you can follow a wiring diagrams and are useful with a soldering iron. One tip is to draw a plan if the wiring in your guitar before you start so you can always wire it back up again if you change your mind.

Finally, did you find this guide useful?   If so, please vote "Yes" below.  Thank you kindly.


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