“How do guitar pickups work?”
Do you know the answer to that?
Here’s the deal:
This isn’t news, but what you know about guitar pickups MAY be wrong.
So, by the end of this article:
You’ll learn the different types of guitar pickup and how they ACTUALLY work.
There will be a lot of “FUN” stuff.
1. Guitar Pickups Kick-Started Electric Guitars and the Rock Genre
Let’s do some problem solving first, shall we?
In a band (pre-rock-and-roll), there are a lot of loud instruments. So, what happens to the sound of a guitar?
No one can hear it anymore.
So, how do we solve that problem?
With a microphone, of course.
Though another problem with mics: They hear the sound of other instruments.
(This is before the computers are invented, so noise cancellation was nowhere to be found.)
So, what should be our solution?
Well, George Beauchamp and John Dopyera came up with an innovative solution.
With the birth of guitar pickups, the electric guitars began their era.
2. Guitar Pickups Explained [Simplified]
Here’s the simple explanation on how do guitar pickups work:
Think of it as a mic. Instead of a voice, it’s for the guitar and guitar only.
The pickup senses the movement of the guitar strings or vibration of the body (acoustic), turns it into signals.
Then it’s sent to an amplifier, which strengthens the signal given to it.
Lastly, the amplifier sends it to the speaker for us to hear the sound of music.
It’s not exactly like a microphone, just a similar concept.
Now, for the FUN part:
Let’s get technical!
How does guitar pickup work?
Wait, actually, I have to talk about the types of guitar pickups first. This way, I’ll be able to explain individually on how they work.
3. Types Of Guitar Pickups
There are a lot of kinds of pickups for guitar. To this day, someone out there is creating something new.
Hear’s the deal:
There are two different types of pickups for guitar, generally speaking.
You might be saying, “you’re contradicting yourself!”
Hear me out:
Based on how guitar pickups work, there are basically two types.
The first one uses a magnetic field; and
The other uses vibration.
The magnet pickup is more commonly used in the electric guitar world, including bass. While piezo is more prominent on acoustic guitars.
So, to be more exact:
“There are different kinds of guitar pickups based on these two concepts.”
In the science field, pickups are transducers or at least a type of transducers.
Transducers are devices that convert energy from one form to another.
In our case, the physical motion (string movement, aka vibration) is converted to electric signals.
Let’s do this chronologically, starting with electric guitars with their magnet pickups.
4. How Do Electric Guitar Pickups ACTUALLY Work?
Based on your knowledge, how do you think the pickups work?
The strings cut the magnetic field of a pickup, which is translated to signals?
The pickup senses the movement of the strings by the strings’ magnetic field?
These two options are based on the explanations I saw around the net.
Before answering the question, let’s explain it first and perhaps do some experiments.
Let’s dig deep into the explanations and physics behind the guitar pickup design theory.
Guitar Pickups Explained [In-depth]
So, how does the guitar pickup, “pick up” or sense the string motion or vibration?
I mean, it doesn’t use a camera as a motion sensor, right? Even that kind of technology won’t be practical.
Here’s the deal:
It has something to do with Faraday’s law.
By definition, Faraday’s law of induction states that the rate of change of flux causes the production of an electromotive force (EMF) or a voltage(-ish).
Watch this video, particularly from 00:28 to 00:51.
You can watch the whole video if you want to understand Faraday’s law better.
As you can see, when he inserted the magnet into the coil, the galvanometer reacted. The meter moved (or a voltage was produced) depending on how he influenced the magnet (rate of change of flux).
Here’s the kicker:
The pickup works the exact same way. The strings as the magnet, and the coil and ammeter as the pickup.
This representation of string vibration is made simple for easy visual understanding.
Because in the real world, the string will vibrate up and down, sideways, or diagonal. Sometimes it even vibrates in a circular motion.
In fact, that demonstration of Faraday’s law can already be referenced to answer our question.
But, the concept alone is no fun, right?
We need something like a real demonstration. So, let’s continue!
5. Magneto: The power of magnets
The main component of an electric guitar pickup is the magnet and coiled copper wires.
Seth E. Lover, the inventor of humbucking pickups, said, “even without the magnet, the pickup can still work.”
What do you think?
Here’s the kicker:
It’s because the materials of the strings are ferromagnetic (permanent magnet), IT CAN WORK.
So, even without the magnet in the pickup, the strings already have their own weak magnetic field.
But, there’s a catch…
If you remove the magnets from the pickup, the resulting sound might be too quiet but not zero.
Here’s a comparison of with and without magnet:
Video by Zexcoil
Are you surprised?
So was I!
To tell you the truth, the reason this worked is that the magnets from the guitar pickup still strengthens the magnetic field of the string.
So to answer the question earlier: How do guitar pickups work?
Both options were only half correct, mostly because of how it’s phrased.
The string doesn’t cut the magnetic field albeit, we can use the phrase “disrupting” or “disturbing” of the magnetic field. But the way it’s been explained in a few articles is misleading.
Plus, the pickup does sense the magnetic field of the string but that’s not all there is.
Here’s the kicker:
The string and the pickup magnet’s attract each other and their magnetic fields combine.
Look at this experiment for visualization:
If you’ve noticed, the iron filings are connected when there’s an attraction. That’s the same with the pickup and string relationship.
Also, the magnetic field of the string becomes stronger (or bigger).
So, when you pluck or strum the strings, the combined magnetic fields and/or the string’s BIGGER magnetic field also move. (This is how the no magnet demo worked.)
And by definition of Faraday’s law, this change in position or flux results in an EMF (in our case, the signal).
Are you still with me? It’s quite confusing, eh?
So, for a shorter answer:
The guitar pickup enhances and combines with the magnetic field of the string.
So when, the string moves, the magnetic field moves along with it (in a way, the combined magnetic field is disturbed).
This vibration (change of flux) induces the signal (EMF) for the pickup to “pick up”.
Anyway, we’re not done yet.
There’s more to talk about coiled wires.
6. Coiled Wires Have a Roaring Effect on the Overall Quality of the Pickup
Coiled wires affect the quality of sound altogether:
If the coils are wound multiple times, the volume will be louder.
If you wound it too much, the sound may be stifled.
Even if the difference is just ten windings, you might just notice the difference.
When you increase the gaps (as little as 0.1 millimeters), the treble also improves.
In fact, even the height and the surface area of the winding can significantly affect the sound.
7. Why Are There Many Pickups on an Electric Guitar?
In a nutshell:
We’ll also be talking about guitar string vibration.
For a more visual presentation, here’s how guitar strings vibrate:
Basically, the string vibrates on different frequencies and volumes based on the 1st harmonic (or fundamental wave).
Now, let’s say the pickup is on this line.
On the 3rd harmonic and 6th harmonic, the string doesn’t vibrate.
In other words, the pickup will not pick up any magnetic flux; hence no signal or sound produced for the specific harmonics.
That’s why there is more than one pickup in an electric guitar.
More pickups mean a broader range of tonal quality.
Let’s assume you’re using 2 pickups.
Essentially, the resulting sound will be a combination of two. If the first pickup doesn’t pick up any string vibration, the second may.
Furthermore, the distance between pickups affects the final sound quality.
8. The Position(s) of Your Guitar Pickup Contributes to the Overall Sound Quality
That’s also why pickups are strategically placed.
Please note that not all electric guitars use multiple pickups. With that said, it’s still common to have more than one pickup.
Let’s use a Fender Stratocaster as an example, also known as Strat.
Strat is one of the most popular electric guitar types out there. (And my favorite as well.)
Stratocaster usually has three pickups (by the neck, by the bridge, and in-between those two)
Neck pickup will be dark kinda’ sound and excellent for strumming.
The bridge pickup has the brightest quality and excellent treble.
Middle pickup gives it a literal in-between quality of neck and bridge pickup. It has more treble but less bass than the neck pickup.
It’s hard to explain by words so listen to this:
Multiple pickups will give you different tonal ranges, and undoubtedly one of those will fit your bill.
9. 3 Types of Electric Guitar Pickups
You may encounter something like HSS or SSS.
These are pickup arrangements. The letter S is single-coil, and H is a humbucker.
Let’s use HSS as an example:
HSS stands for humbucker at the bridge, single-coil for the middle, and another single-coil at the neck.
Before anything else:
All of the types of pickups for electric guitar are practically single-coil pickups with a little alteration.
So, I’d say their main difference is tonal quality.
Let’s talk about these different types of pickups for an electric guitar.
This pickup is the first one that came out back in the mid-1920s. A century later, it’s still popular!
Here’s the thing:
They are brighter in terms of sound compared to other pickup types.
At the same time, it sounds clean and clear even when there’s a little bit of noise.
Single-coil pickups are excellent for pop, funk, reggae, country, and with some effects, rock.
Unfortunately, high levels of distortion aren’t handled well by this type of pickup.
Single-coil pickups have noises, which the humbucker solves.
Humbucker pickups literally buck the hums, hence the name.
Basically, these are two single-coil pickups in the opposite direction, working together to remove the hum.
It has a thick overall tonal quality, especially the bass.
For genres with a lot of overdrive and distortions, this is the perfect fit.
P-90 is the less popular of the group, but it’s not the least per se.
Here’s the kicker:
This pickup is like a medium place (between single-coil pickup and humbucker).
It has a darker sound and has noise (in a good way).
For rockers, punk, or blues players, this type of pickup works well.
So, here’s my question:
For you, what do you think is the best?
10. How Do Acoustic Guitar Pickups ACTUALLY Work?
Let’s do another science:
The acoustic guitar pickups use the concept of piezoelectric effect.
Here’s the basic analogy of piezoelectric effect:
Think of a lemon; when you squeeze it, the juice comes out, right?
For piezoelectric, when you press or squeeze a piezoelectric material, electricity comes out.
It’s not the closest analogy, but don’t worry, I will still explain it.
Let’s start with the materials:
Some crystals are considered piezoelectric. Here are some examples:
- Quartz Crystal;
- Rochelle Salts;
- Tourmaline; and
- Even our bones
But what is piezoelectric, and how does it work?
Let’s look at this silicon dioxide or quartz’s molecular arrangement.
Please note that this is simplified so that it’s easier to understand.
Silicon is partially positive, while oxygen is partly negative.
They have equal dipoles on each bond, which initially cancels each other out. In other words, no electric charge direction.
If we apply pressure…
The atoms shift. Stretched cells end up with a net negative charge, while the other has net positive.
This creates an electrical field or a small potential difference, which allows the current to flow.
But if we stretch it out the opposite way…
The bottom end becomes a more negative charge, while the upper side becomes a positive charge.
Also, the current flows the other way.
For the acoustic guitar:
When we pluck a string, we basically vibrate the string and the parts connecting it, such as, (and especially) the saddle.
The piezoelectric crystal below senses that vibration.
With this simultaneous application of alternating pressure (vibration), we create an alternating electric field. Or in simpler terms, alternating current.
The alternating current produced by the crystal will serve as our signal. That signal can be sent to an amplifier and to a speaker for everyone to hear your music.
Two more examples using the piezoelectric effect are quartz watch and lighter.
11. 4 Types of Acoustic Guitar Pickups
There are many different types of acoustic guitar pickups. For now, we’re going to talk about 4 basic categories. Piezoelectric, transducer, magnet, and mic pickup.
Undersaddle Pickup (Piezoelectric)
This pickup is the most common in acoustic-electric guitars. It’s literally a pickup under the saddle.
Undersaddle pickup uses a thin piezo crystal element, as shown in the image above.
There are 6 piezo crystals, one for each string. With this, the pickup can directly sense the vibration from specific strings.
Then, the metal strips collect the electric charges from the crystals.
Here’s the thing:
Because the crystals detect the vibrations directly (from saddle), the pickup sounds clear and natural.
This pickup isn’t visible from the outside, which gives it an edge against some acoustic guitar pickups. (You’ll see what I mean later.)
You can control its volume and tone control, which will be excellent when you’re playing live!
One disadvantage of this is the installation. You can install it yourself, but you’ll be basically drilling into the guitar.
Hence, you should get a professional to do the installation. Unless, of course, you’re a luthier or experienced with this kinda’ stuff.
Bridgeplate Pickup (Transducer)
Basically, this type of pickup still works under the piezoelectric effect.
This category is the easiest to install. It can be attached on top or under the bridge since it utilizes an adhesive.
It has more acoustic sound and lush tones than other acoustic pickups.
Unfortunately, it is sensitive to body noises and has lousy feedback.
Soundhole Pickup (Magnet)
Soundhole pickups work just like electric guitar pickups.
Wait, correction: It literally is an electric guitar pickup.
Since it is based on string vibration, this is the most feedback resistant pickup for the acoustic guitar.
If you like to use effects, this works like magic too!
The sound, on the other hand, is closer to that of electric guitar than an acoustic. But hey, if that’s what you’re looking for, this will be perfect for your acoustic guitar!
Literally, a microphone inside the acoustic guitar. Funnily enough, microphones use the piezoelectric effect.
This will be great for percussion playing on the guitar.
Unfortunately, just like most microphones, it is very prone to feedback. It is also not strong enough to augment the sound of the strings.
Here’s the kicker:
There’s one type, nay, a combination that I really like. They call this mic blend system.
Mic Blend Pickup System
Mainly, you can install both an internal microphone and a piezoelectric pickup. You can use just one, or you can use both at the same time!
Here’s how it sounds compared to other pickups:
If you ask me, this mic blend pickup system is the closest to an acoustic guitar sound.
12. 5 Types of Bass Guitar Pickups
Bass Guitar pickups are quite similar to electric guitar pickups.
For instance, bass guitars use:
Single-coil pickups and humbucker pickups.
Here are some three other notable bass guitar pickups:
The jazz pickups are certainly more familiar with jazz bassists (as the name suggests). It has warm yet bright sound.
J-pickups are two single-coil pickups placed near the bridge and neck. This will give you more tonal range to fit the sound of your liking.
Sometimes, precision pickups are also called split-coil pickups.
This is basically two halves of a single pickup. The 2 halves are placed under the top 2 strings and under the bottom 2 strings.
They have aggressive timbre, so they are commonly used for funk and rock.
You may have encountered a, “soap bar pickup“.
This is just j-pickups sealed in a housing in the shape of a soap bar. This is to prevent the pickups from degrading.
You may also find piezoelectric pickups on bass guitars, albeit rare.
13. Passive vs. Active Pickups
Out of all the types and categories, pickups still has something up its sleeve.
Pickups can be classified as passive or active pickups.
They have differences in their construction and their overall tonal capabilities.
Passive Pickups have more coils than active.
That also means it has more noise and is prone to feedback.
Here’s the good thing:
They are sensitive to vibrations, so even the most subtle tone will be picked up.
With that said, these pickups are more expressive. If you like playing from soft to loud, then soft (or whatever the dynamic is), this will be perfect for you.
For the cherry on top:
It is also more affordable than active pickups.
Active Pickups have fewer coils, so initially, they have lower output.
That’s why they require a battery for the preamp. This will give the pickup a higher output and more sound power.
Active pickups also have a cleaner tone as opposed to passive.
If you like distortions, this is probably the pickup you’ll choose. It’s perfect for metal and hard rock.
For the (slightly) bad thing:
It is a little more expensive, and there’s little to no dynamics.
[BONUS] A new Prototype of Pickup: Optical Pickup
This pickup is not popular and is still an incomplete technology, yet it still works!
Basically, it uses light to sense the vibration of the strings. So, even if you use nylon strings on an electric guitar, it will sound like the original.
To be honest, I haven’t tried it yet.
If you tried this type, please let me know what you think about them in the comments below.
Final Words of Advice
Learning how guitar pickup works and learning the different types of pickups for guitar is just as important as deciding what guitar to buy.
I mean, pickups are literally the most essential part of an electric guitar!
For the different types, there is no such thing as best. It’s more like one is better than the other in a particular genre. Then again, there are numerous genres out there.
Each type or kind has different applications. They all have their advantages and disadvantages.
If you’re choosing a pickup, follow your heart. Choose the one that sounds perfect for you.