An age-old guitarists’ question. There are three popular types of pickups, but which combination would suit you best? We’ll explore what sets each apart and why this should be the biggest factor when buying a new guitar.
Pickups are the most important factor in determining what type of sound is produced from an electric guitar. We’ve seen and heard a fair amount of experimentation over the years, with pickups created using unique materials and methods.
Obviously, there is no one best pickup, as everyone has their own preference. But some are more suited to particular types of music. Even then, what’s stopping you from mixing these up and inventing a new sound? So, here are the three most popular pickup types and their defining features to get you started.
The first guitar Leo Fender made was equipped with single-coil pickups. These set the standard for what a guitar should sound like and even look like.
Over 60 years on, single-coils remain largely the same in design. They’re made using a magnetic pole wrapped in wire, which ‘picks up’ frequencies and sends them into an amp.
Single-coils have a distinct twangy tone. They sound crisp and bright, with less emphasis on bassy low frequencies. Because they only consist of the one pole piece, they have a lower output compared to humbuckers.
This means they’re quieter, in general, but detect more interference and are more responsive to noise. Modern designs eliminate a lot of unwanted sounds and therefore perform to just as high a standard as other pickups.
Famous players like Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler and John Mayer developed their distinct tones with the use of single-coils. Most single-coil guitars are attributed to rock, indie, folk and blues music. But you can still get excellent hard rock and metal tones out of them with a bit of tweaking.
Since the very beginning, single-coil pickups have been associated with Fender, while humbuckers are synonymous with Gibson. Of course, there’s lots of crossover as many guitars utilise a combination of both. But the larger bodies of Les Pauls are perfect for housing humbuckers, which are twice as thick as single-coils due to their two magnetic bobbins.
A humbucker’s pole pieces are wired out of phase with one another in order to detect less noise and sound cleaner. They offer more focus on midrange frequencies and are characterised by a thick, warm tone.
Guitarists such as Slash, Angus Young, Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett use humbuckers. It’s very easy to get a punchy tone with little hassle. A lot of blues, jazz, rock and metal players favour humbuckers because they handle distortion with less interference than single-coils.
P90s are a different beast to humbuckers, despite looking fairly similar. They have the same rectangular design but only include the one pole piece, similar to single-coils.
They started out life in Gibson guitars pre-humbucker arrival in 1955. Usually characterised by their gritty, dirty nature, P90s make for something of a bridge between single-coils and humbuckers. A best of both worlds thanks to a wider, yet shorter bobbin than your average single-coil pickup.
P90s came into their own during the punk movement. The raw sound suited the anger reflected in punk music and found their way into prominent guitars of the time, like the Les Paul Junior.
Although less prominent than humbuckers and single-coil pickups, they are still popular today and even make it onto some modern guitars despite their vintage affiliations.
Put very simply, single-coils are best for bright, clear and crisp tones. They add a bit of life and bite to cleans and sound light and agile using gain. You really can use these for any type of music, bar something extreme like sludgy heavy metal.
Humbuckers are the opposite. They sound warm on both clean and overdriven settings and provide a wide range of frequencies when you have a pair in the neck and bridge positions. These arguably handle gain and distortion the best of the three. Not ideal for jangly cleans, but work well with a bit of crunch.
P90s are a bridge between the two; the grit of single coils with the midrange of humbuckers. They side slightly towards single-coils because they essentially are just one coil. But P90s do a great job of bedding in with a rhythm section of a band as well as singing lead tones.
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