The electric guitar pickups bible


Electric guitar pickup design is one of those dark technical areas on which no one in the industry wants to see any lights shed, this is what makes accurate information on this subject be so rare in the internet. The guitar pickups companies are even spreading misleading hype and legends about their models instead of disclosing any useful information about the design and making of their products that could help the amateur builders and DIYers community advance in their practice.

This page is not meant to be a comprehensive book of anything guitar pickups related, but instead it a continuously expanding listing of the few THINGS WE KNOW ARE RIGHT about guitar pickups making and design.

The first things that we know is true, is that guitar pickups ARE NOT rocket science!! a guitar pickup is a very simple device that will capture the sound of your instrument and restitue a coloured version of it at its output. Only a FEW parameters will determine the overall tone of the pickup, these include the geometry, wire gauge, number of windings, type and size of magnets, ...etc.

One thing to know is the guitar pickup is not meant to reproduce the vibrations of your strings as they are, the pickup changes the sound it picks, the colour of the pickup is a description of how untrue the pickup is to the natural (accoustic) sound of the guitar.
We say that a pickup SOUNDS GOOD when it colours/changes the natural sound of the guitar in a musical and ear pleasing way. The changes are mostly of frequencial nature (EQ), although some compression may occure with circular polarised magnets for instance.

Using an EQ pedal before any other effect is a way to change the tonal qualities of your pickup, but this is no substitute for using a "good" guitar pickup for many reasons (beyond the scope of this article).

What follows is a straight forward descriptions of the design factors that I know affect the tone of a guitar pickup:

1 - The overall geometry:
Width: a wide pickup is thicker, darker, and fatter sounding but less precise, a narrower pickup is more brilliant, precise sounding and has more sparkle.
Height: a tall pickup has a more compressed and fuller type of sound but less "signal to output resistance" ration (quieter, vintage type of thing), a flat pickup has less "spiritual" sound but a better signal/resistance ratio (= louder, high output, modern)

2 - Number of windings:
More windings means: more output volume, a louder pickup, more possible overdrive, modern sound, potentially muddier sound, more DC resistance, more noise, good for achieving heavy rock and metal tones.
Less windings means: less output volume, a quieter pickup, less overdrive, vintage sound, clearer sound, less DC resistance, less noise, good for blues, rock'n'roll, jazz, and similar types of music requiring a cleaner sound.

3 - The wire gauge:
Thicker wire means: more signal, less DC resistance, less windings per physical volume, good for active pickups requiring fewer windings but similar geometry as passive ones (space filling property). Thinner wire: exactly the opposite, allows wiring more windings into the same bobbine size, is generally used for very high output humbuckers (for heavy/death/thrash metal) at the expense of more DC resistance.

4 - The type of the magnet:
Two magnet types are the most used, alnico (Aluminium, nickel, cobalt) and ceramic magnets, I don't currently have accurate information about how these two materials would sound any different, if you have any infos please e-mail to kindyroot [at\ gmail (dot] com.

5 - The size and shape of the magnet:
6 poles: Whether six magnets are used or six conductors glued to a rectangular big magnet the tone remains the same, the most appreciable characteristic is a natural compression, louder string strokes are attenuated, this creates a natural compression that facilitates distorting the sound afterwards. Some pickups will have height adjustable poles (by screwing them in or out), this will allow to adjust the volume balance between the different strings.
Rectangular magnet: this type is neutral to the sound, nothing to mention.
Bigger magnet: More output volume at the expense of a dampening effect due to a constant pull-down action applied to the strings while they vibrate, which leads to less sustain.
Smaller magnet: Less output volume, allows the strings to vibrate more freely, gives more sustain.

6 - Active Vs. Passive pickup:
Active pickups: tend to have more output, a cleaner sound, better noise to signal ratio, and more high frequencies (these pickups are usually used to obtain heavy distorted types of sounds without too much noise). These pickups have less windings with a heavier wire gauge (flat response), and embedd a preamplifier (more volume) and a preset EQ (to emulate a "good hot passive pickup"). Passive pickups: less volume, noisier sound (does not mean NOISY), less high frequencies due to many other factors (those are the most used type of pickup).

7 - Single coil Vs. Humbucker:
Single coil: Brilliant and precise sound, more noise. (good for the blues, rock'n'roll, jazz, ...etc) Humbucker: Darker and fat sound, less noise. (good for hard rock, metal, ...etc).

I am actively seekeing to improve this document, if you have any contribution feel free to drop me a mail at: kindyroot |at| gmail [dot] com






By Islam Abou El Ata