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 single most important part of a guitar to determine what type of sound is produced. We’ve had a fair amount of experimentation over the years, with manufacturers testing unique materials and methods.
Obviously, there is no one best pickup – everyone has their own preference. Some pickups are, however, suited to particular types of music. Even then, there’s nothing to stop you from taking on your own creative journey. Without further ado, 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 design. They’re made using a magnetic pole wrapped in wire that ‘picks up’ frequencies and subsequently 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 than humbucker counterparts.
This means they’re lower in volume, but detect more interference and are acutely responsive to noise. Modern designs eliminate a lot of unwanted sounds and therefore perform to just as high a standard as other pickup types.
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 with a bit of tweaking.
While single-coil pickups have largely been associated with Fender over the years, humbuckers are synonymous with Gibson. There is, of course, plenty 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 wide 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 cancel hum and sound smoother. They offer more focus on midrange frequencies and are characterised by a thick, warm tone.
Guitarists such as Slash, Angus Young and Kirk Hammett are well known for using humbuckers. It’s very easy to get a punchy, aggressive tone with little hassle. A lot of blues, jazz, rock and metal players favour humbuckers because they handle gain and 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 house the one pole piece – essentially P90s are single-coil pickups.
They started out life equipped in Gibson guitars pre-humbucker arrival in 1955. Characterised by their gritty, dirty nature, P90s make for something of a tonal bridge between single-coils and humbuckers. They’re like 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 perfectly suited the intense music and found their way into prominent guitars of the time such as the Les Paul Junior. Although less prominently used than humbuckers and single-coil pickups, they are just as popular as ever and even make it into some modern spec’d 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 sludge 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 handle gain and distortion the best of the three. Not ideal for jangly cleans, but work well with a bit more crunch.
P90s are a bridge between the two; the grit of single coils with the midrange of humbuckers. P90s do a great job of bedding in with a rhythm section of a band, as well as leading the charge on hot solo tones.
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