How to Choose the Right Pickup for Your Electric Guitar

A Seymour Duncan pickup, one of the most popular picks for an electric guitar.
A Seymour Duncan pickup, one of the most popular picks for an electric guitar.

Electric guitars are used for many different kinds of music, each with a particular style that requires that guitar to sound a certain way. For example, a certain band playing metal music would use a guitar that has a heavy crunch to it. Each genre is just slightly different, and the biggest way to make a difference in the sound of your electric guitar (besides a different amp) is to buy a new set of pickups for your guitar. There are many different kinds of pickups and manufacturers, and it is important to know what each one offers before you make a purchase.

What is a Pickup?

If you already know what a pickup is, then you should probably skip ahead, however if you do not know what a pickup is or are a little sketchy on the subject, then you should read this.

A pickup is simply a device that "picks up" magnetic fluctuations from the guitar strings and turns it into an electric signal that is then sent to the amp. While the principle is really quite simple, there are hundreds of little nuances that make a difference in the tone that the pickup produces. Because of this, there is a large variety of pickups that you can choose from, each a little different from the other tonally.

A set of EMG's. These are extremely popular with metal bands due to their unique sound. The top two are humbuckers, the bottom is a single coil.
A set of EMG's. These are extremely popular with metal bands due to their unique sound. The top two are humbuckers, the bottom is a single coil.
Single coil pickups in a Fender Stratocaster
Single coil pickups in a Fender Stratocaster

What to Look for in a Pickup

There are many things to understand about pickups in general so that you can make an informed purchase. First of all, there are two main types, single coil and humbuckers (double coils). Single coil pickups are simply a copper wrapped coil with magnets in the center of the coil that pick up the magnetic fluctuations from the strings. You see these a lot in Fender guitars, and in a few Gibsons as well (the famous P90 pickup is a single coil pickup). They can sound really bright and clear (in the case of Fenders) to fat and dark (in the case of P90's). These pickups do have a disadvantage though. They are sensitive to electric interference from fluorescent lamps and TV's, and will make an annoying hum depending on the strength of the interference.

Humbuckers, also known as double coil pickups, were the solution to the hum that was created with the single coil pickups. These pickups have two coils that run parallel to each other and cancel out any hum created by interference. These are the most popular pickups today in all guitars except for Fenders, who have stayed true to the single coil pickup. This pickup sounds warmer in comparison to the brighter sound of the single coil, and just as fat as the P90. There are also many different variations of this pickup.

In the mid 1970s, a company that would later be called EMG created a set of humbuckers that were connected to a 9V battery. This created a new set of humbuckers that were called active pickups, due to the fact that they required extra energy that a normal passive pickup didn't require. The sound it created became extremely popular with bands (like Metallica) that needed the extra gain that the pickup delivered. Active pickups have a sound that can only be described as a bunch of glass being crushed by a train.

Other small differences include the strength of the magnets inside the coils. The stronger the magnet, the brighter the sound will be. It is the opposite when the magnets are weaker.


Pickup Placement

More often that not, there are multiple pickups in a guitar, and you have to put the right pickups in the right place, or your guitar will sound strange. There are three places a pickup can go on a guitar, the neck position (next to the neck obviously), the bridge position (next to the tremolo or bridge), and the middle position (in the middle of the other two pickups). Pickup manufactures make pickups for certain positions in the guitar, so if you are going to replace your pickups, buy ones that are made for the space that you are replacing.

3 single coil DiMarzio Air Norton S pickups
3 single coil DiMarzio Air Norton S pickups

Pickup Manufacturers

There are many different kinds of pickups, but there are only a few companies that actually make them. Besides Fender and Gibson, who make pickups for their own guitars, the big three are Seymour Duncan, EMG, and DiMarzio. Each one has different ranges of pickups and different tonal properties. Here is a quick rundown on each of them:

Seymour Duncan:

Probably the biggest of the three, Seymour Duncan creates pickups for every single possible guitar setup and sound that you could want. They have single coil pickups, humbuckers, active pickups, and pickups for 7 and 8 string guitars as well. This company has what most people call "a natural tone" that sounds better the louder you play it.

Used by artists such as Slash (Guns n' Roses, Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Keri Kelli (Alica Cooper), Steve Harris & Janick Gers (Iron Maiden), Paul Stanley & Bruce Kulick (Kiss), Tom Hamilton (Aerosmith), Scott Ian (Anthrax), David Gilmour (Pick Floyd), Michael Wilton (Queensyrche), Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen), and Yngwie Malmsteen.

DiMarzio:

DiMarzio is known for its often revolutionary pickup designs and offer many kinds of pickups for all styles of music. Some notable players include (past and present) Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen), Joe Satriani, David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Frank Zappa, Pete Townshend (The Who), Yngwie Malmsteen, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Adrian Smith & Dave Murray (Iron Maiden), Ace Frehley (Kiss), and Steve Vai.

EMG:

EMG is one of the biggest makers of active pickups in the world. Their simplistic look and super heavy crunch is distinctive and used by many famous bands. Users of the pickup include Kirk Hammet & James Hetfield & Robert Trujillo (Metallica), Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society & Ozzy Osbourne), Glenn Tipton & K.K. Downing (Judas Priest), Kerry King (Slayer), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), and Chad Kroeger (Nickelback).

Other Things to Remember

There are many things that affect your sound besides the pickups. Your amp, the wood that your guitar is made from, the tremolo, and even the fingerboard all make a difference in how it sounds. You may have to experiment with many different combinations to find the sound that you like.

Good Luck and Happy Hunting!

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