What Creates Your Guitar’s Tone
Guitar pickups are a part of every electric guitar or bass out there. You may realize their importance in creating your guitar’s tone. But how, exactly, do they work? This article reviews the construction of pickups, and how different ones can create different sounds.
How It Works
The vast majority of guitar pickups are magnetic. They are little more than magnets set into a bobbin and wrapped in copper wire. When your guitar’s steel strings are plucked, they vibrate over the magnets. This creates a signal that gets transferred to your amplifier via your guitar cord.
Without getting too technical, the number of times the copper wire is wound around the magnet will affect the tone. More wraps means higher output, which in turn means it has a heavier tone. In addition, the tightness of the wrapping can affect the tone. A coil which is taller and narrower will be clearer, more focused and slightly brighter than another coil, provided they have the same output.
Single Coil Pickups vs. Humbuckers
The Fender Telecaster was the first successful mass-produced guitar, and it featured a single-coil pickup. This is still a very popular configuration. Single-coils have a bright, “twangy” sound popular among Blues and Country musicians.
The main issue guitarists have with single-coil pickups is that they tend to hum or buzz, particularly around other sources of vibration. This includes other guitars or amplifiers, even light bulbs!
In order to “buck” this hum, humbucking pickups were developed. They create two separate signals that cancel each other out. As they are less affected by outside noise and use a larger magnet, they have a “thicker” sound and are suitable for higher-output genres of music, such as hard rock and heavy metal. The most popular guitar using a humbucker is the Gibson Les Paul. If you play a piece on a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster and then a Les Paul, you will hear the difference. One is not inherently better than the other; it is simply a matter of your own style and taste, as well as the needs of the band you play in.
Many guitars offer multiple pickups placed at different parts of the guitar body. For example, one may be closer to the neck, one closer to the bridge. There may even be a third or fourth pickup. Because of each one’s location, each pickup will produce a different sound. In addition, the guitar may feature a combination of single-coils and humbuckers. In most cases where there is more than one pickup, you will be able to switch between one and the other, or be able to phase them together using switches and knobs to adjust the level of each. This will help you create the right tone for your needs. Whether you need multiple pickups on your guitar is going to once again depend on your needs and style.
The best way for you to decide what works best for you is to try different models. You may be surprised at the many different tones pickups can make.