The Science Behind Your Pickups

I have been fortunate enough over the years to teach musicians from all walks of life, including skilled professionals such as engineers, architects, and photographers.  So many of these individuals are adept at using technologically advanced software programs and hardware for their jobs, and I find it interesting how occasionally the inner workings of the electric guitar can deceive their otherwise analytical minds and seem so mysterious to some of the most innovate and creative classes of people.  
    The truth is, the technology behind the most coveted models of electric guitars was perfected in the 1950's, and has not advanced wildly in its complexity.  This is especially true when compared to the exponential rates of growth associated with other common household items such as telephones, TV sets or even refrigerators.  
   That said, I thought it might be a good idea to pull back the curtain on one of the main components of any electric guitar; the pickup.  I hope that by explaining a little bit about the history and the electronics behind this fundamental component, I can expose just how simple the electronics inside your instrument really are, and perhaps inspire you to delve more actively into the practice of modifying your instrument.

Who Invented the First Pickup?

    Seems like an easy question, however there is some ambiguity to the response.  In preparing to write this blog post, most of the research I did seems to credit the invention of the pickup to an individual named George Beauchamp.  Beauchamp was working for what is now the widely known guitar manufacturer Rickenbacker at the time (early 1930's), and used a "U" shaped magnet in his design.  If you're interested in reading more about the history of Beauchamp's invention, check out this article here.

    Around the same time, Les Paul (yes, that Les Paul) was playing outside barbecue houses and roadhouses and trying to figure out how to amplify his guitar so that he could be heard.  If you're interested in hearing more on his contribution to the history of the pickup, I'll let him use his own words, just check out this video right here:

    Additionally, Gibson Guitars produced the Charlie Christian pickup in the 1930's, although in my research I could not find any source that was asserting that this was the first iteration of the electric guitar pickup.  

    Regardless of the history behind its invention, the modern electric guitar pickup can be categorized into only a few major groups, and I'd like to go into detail on those here. 

Single Coil Pickups

    Single coil pickups can be found on some prevalent Fender style instruments, such as Stratocasters and Telecasters.  Single coil pickups use an incredibly simple design to convert the vibration of the strings into an electrical signal.  Six magnetic poles (one for each string) are wrapped thousands of times with copper wire.  When companies producing single coil pickups were young and still small, this was done by hand, producing a wide margin of error for the actual number of total winds from pickup to pickup.  This variation in the amount of winds created a very inconsistent frequency response as well as output level between single coil pickups and today, most pickups are machine wound to ensure a higher degree of consistency.  When these magnetic poles are wound with copper wire, a cartioid (heart shaped) magnetic field is created.  The vibration of the metallic guitar strings creates a disturbance in this magnetic field, which is translated into an electrical current that runs through the copper wiring, and to the output of the guitar.  A more aggressive string vibration (caused by more aggressive playing) results in a stronger disturbance of the magnetic field, and therefore a stronger electrical current resulting in a louder sound through the amplifier, and a lighter vibration creates a weaker electrical current and a softer sound through the amplifier. 

Guitar Pickup Diagram

    Today, there is an endless quantity of single coil pickups on the market.  They vary in tone, frequency response, and output level to suit whatever your needs might be.  Are you worried that the bridge pickup in your Stratocaster is too thin?  Perhaps an overwound set of Texas Special pickups is what you need. 

Looking to upgrade the pickups in your Squier or MIM fender Telecaster?  These higher quality Fender Custom Shop Tele pickups might be what you're looking for

    While for decades, guitarists the world over have venerated the tone and functionality of single coil pickups, this design is not without its flaws.  One major issue with single coil pickups is what is referred to colloquially as "hum".  Hum can often be a consequence of where your amp is plugged in.  If you have ever played a gig at an outdoor festival, you may have noticed that your single coil pickups were particularly noisy.  Or you may have noticed the same thing if you've played a gig in a venue that is close to a street car line.  Boost pedals and overdrive pedals can exacerbate the level of undesired humming sounds, making it at times unmanageable.  This hum is a result of outside electrical interference interacting with the magnetic field of your pickups.  While some guitarists accept it as an inevitable part of their tone, others despise it. 


    In 1955, Seth Lover, who was then working for Gibson Guitars, applied for a patent on his design for a "humbucking" guitar pickup.  The name "humbucking" referred to the way in which these pickups would "buck" the consistent hum that was associated with the single coil pickup design.  In order to achieve this, Seth Lovers design included a few key tweaks to the single coil design.  Each humbucking pickup actually consists of two single coil pickups arranged directly beside each other.  While the direction of the copper coil in each pickup is the same, the outside ends of each coil connect in such a way that the coils are "out of phase", a feature that cancels out the hum of a traditional single coil pickup.  Additionally, Seth Lovers design called for the poles in each coil to be of opposite polarity to the other coil, resulting in a higher output level overall.  For those of you who are looking for a more detailed explanation behind this, check out this article by renowned pickup manufacturer Lindy Fralin right here.
    Seth Lovers original design, while the patent was applied for but had not yet been approved, are today some of the most valuable pickups that exist.  Now these pickups are called PAF pickups for "patent applied for", which was stamped on the bottom of each pickup that went out.  These pickups, like single coil pickups of that time, were wound by hand and can vary widely in the actual number of winds and therefore some sound much different than others.  Regardless, countless modern pickups on the market are sold as "PAF style" pickups, many even bearing Seth Lover's name.

These 57 classics are widely used, and boast the original specs of a Seth Lover designed pickup.  

This set of pickups here is called the Seth Lover set by Seymour Duncan.  This is another extremely popular model for those seeking to emulate the sound of Seth Lovers original PAF designed pickups.  

P 90's

    P 90 pickups are a type of single coil pickup, however they merit their own explanation here.  While the design is based off of the same principle as the single coil pickup that exists in for example, a Stratocaster, there are subtle differences such as the distance of the copper winds from the magnetic poles, as well as the size of the bobbin (housing for the pickup winds) that contribute to a significant difference in tone.  P 90's sound a little fatter than  fender style single coil pickups, and have more output as well.  P 90's were used on Gibson Les Paul models until they were replaced by humbuckers in 1957.  

Lindy Fralin makes some very highly regarded P 90 pickups that would be a great improvement on any guitar.  If you're using a guitar with humbuckers but would like to try out some single coil pickups, P 90's sound great on many models of guitars that are often built with humbuckers.  

Noiseless Single Coil 

    For those who prefer the sound of single coil pickups but can't stand the hum, for decades pickup manufacturers have been looking for a way to have your cake and eat it too.  

Since the late 90's, Fender has released several lines of noiseless single coil pickups.  Originally, these pickups were made noiseless by stacking a second coil underneath the first coil in such a way that it is out of sight, but works much like a humbucker does to cancel the hum.  It has taken Fender many years to produce a noiseless single coil that retains the authentic sound of a single coil, and to be perfectly honest, I'm not completely sure of the science behind how they do it.  These sets are the Gen4 model, which was released in 2016.  I believe that there is still a stacked second coil, however I admit that I may be wrong.  

The Ultra Noiseless single coil by Fender was released in 2019 and is their most recent noiseless single coil pickup design.  These pickups come standard on the Ultra Stratocaster and the Ultra Telecaster, and are said to retain the tone of a single coil devoutly.  If I were a betting man, I'd say that there is likely a dummy coil (like a stacked humbucker) but I am genuinely not sure on this one.

Active Pickups

    Many modern guitar manufacturers who are pushing the limits of guitar design such as Steinberger Guitars, Strandberg Guitars and others have been including active guitar pickups on many of their instruments for years.  Active pickups are very desirable in certain genres including heavy metal, as well as modern jazz and progressive rock.  Active pickups are powered by a battery (often 9 volts) that sits in a cavity usually at the back of the guitar body.  Active pickups provide a great deal of control over the tone because active circuits often include more advanced EQ options such as bass, mid and treble.  Many of the aforementioned guitar manufacturers will include these types of EQ parameter controls on the face of their guitar bodies, making them ideal for active pickups. 

This set here is Kerry King's signature model.  Kerry is the guitarist for the heavy metal band Slayer, and this set of pickups includes a switch for a gain boost.  These types of advanced controls are only available because the circuit is active.

The Fishman Fluence Modern pickup is an example of an active pickup that is intended to be placed into a guitar originally designed for traditional humbucking pickups.  If you're interested in some modern genres of music and looking for a way to match those tones, this might be the right call for you!

Thank you for checking out my blog on guitar pickups.  I always appreciate being a small part of your journey with the guitar and its something I will never take for granted.  If you've got any comments or concerns, please feel free to reach out to me.  I'll always get back as quickly as possible.

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