Last months blog looked at the basic history of electric guitar pickups, and each time we focus on a specific manufacturer, we look a little into the science they use for their own products. However, as one person pointed out to the guys here at Solo Guitars, it’s nice to know the history, and the why’s and where-fore’s of some companies, but we haven’t really looked at how pickups work, and why we should have so much interest in changing them. Like most subjects in guitar world, there is enough info on pickups and electronics to write several books, and it’s been done. For now though, lets just look at some really basic info……..
Every guitar pickup out there can also be called a transducer….a device that takes one form of energy and transforms it into another. Most of them rely on magnetism to create a ‘flux field’ around the pickup that also surrounds each string. When you strike a string it vibrates and the ‘flux field’ moves in response to that vibration. The pickup takes that change in the flux field and converts it into an electric signal which gets sent through the electronics in your guitar, through a cable and into your amp where it is again changed into an electronic signal that can be reproduced by a speaker….whew, all in one sentence.
So, depending on the size of the magnets, what they are made of, and how big the coil is that surrounds the magnets, you can alter how the flux field responds to string vibration and therefore, you can also alter the ‘sound’ of a pickup. There is one more aspect that we have to look at. Each set of six magnets (poles if you like) have a polarity…one end being positive and one being negative. This is true for any single coil pickup. Single coils are open to interference and other noise creating issues like certain lights or just bad power, and therefore can become microfonic or just plain noisy. If you put two single coil pickups together (remember last month’s blog and Seth Lover?) and reverse the polarity, you create what became known as the humbucker….the two opposing coils defeat hum and noise (get it? hum….bucker?) and also increase the output of the pickup. Certain guitars like Stratocasters have three pickups with the middle pickup being reverse wound. When you set the guitar into position 2 or 4, you combine two pickups with opposing polarities and therefore create a form of humbucker…..hence why players who frequent venues with lousy power prefer either humbucker style guitars or something like a Strat where you can defeat the noise!
That is the very basic science regarding pickups. So when you go from a very small coil; like in a Tele neck pickup, to a very large coil; like in a P90, there is a huge tonal difference. Even when it comes to standard single coils that you might find in a Strat….depending on magnet material, wire, coil etc…you can achieve different sounds.
That in a nutshell, is also the reason that you could or should change pickups in your guitar…to achieve better or at least different sounds before you even add the electronics of the guitar and amp.
Your guitar tone is the sum of all parts…pickups, electronics, guitar materials, workmanship, strings, cables, amplifier, speakers and most of all you! Regardless of whether you have a hand-me-down guitar, one you purchased or a DIY you built yourself, pickups are one of the easiest ways to alter your sound. Most companies offer a pretty decent description of what their pickups are supposed to sound like, so that makes it pretty easy for you the consumer to come to us at Solo Guitars and not only purchase your DIY kit, but also possibly purchase the custom parts and pickups to make your build uniquely yours!