Everything you need to know about selecting the right pickup for your guitar

When you’re headbanging to a blistering riff by Slayer’s Kerry King or holding your breath as you listen to B.B. King’s soaring lead, you’re hearing more than just great musicians, guitars and amps. Key to any six-stringer’s unique tone is the pickup—the unassuming metal device that sits underneath guitar strings and translates their vibrations into sweet melodies or raging sonic fury. Few pieces of gear have a greater impact on a guitar’s tone—and for such a seemingly simple mechanism, there are nearly infinite varieties to choose from.

To better understand the world of guitar pickups we turned to experts Devin Bronson and Ben Lewry. Bronson is a rock guitarist who has played with artists like Avril Lavigne, Pink and Kelly Osbourne. Lewry is the founder of Visionary Instruments, a company that has worked on guitars for Steve Stevens (Billy Idol), Patrick Matera (Katy Perry) and Steve Wilson (Porcupine Tree); he is also the inventor of the Video Guitar, an instrument that plays video on the guitar’s body. Bronson and Lewry spoke to us about how to pick up just the right pickup.

What exactly is a pickup?

BRONSON: Very simply speaking, it serves as the microphone for your strings. It gets the sound of the guitar, and the strings you’re hitting, and sends it to your amplifier.

LEWRY: Each one is a magnet wound with thousands of turns of wire. It’s basically a device that generates electricity. It converts the mechanical energy of a vibrating guitar string into electrical energy that can be sent to an amp.

What makes each one different?

LEWRY: The biggest features are the number of winds and type of wire, as well as the strength of the magnets. Stronger magnets and more winds produce higher levels of outputs—but everything about the build changes the sound. Other parameters are the height and width of the pickup; if the coils are hand-wound or machine-wound; and the quality of the materials.

How are humbuckers and single-coil pickups different?

BRONSON: Single coils give you a thinner, funkier, classic sound and were used in vintage Fender Stratocasters. Humbuckers give more of a thick, rich, warm tone. They’re what Gibson uses in Les Paul and SG guitars.

LEWRY: A humbucker is basically two single coils put together, but with opposite polarity. Since a pickup is a magnet wrapped in wire, it can act like an antenna and react to all sorts of electrical signals and radio waves—the most common one that you hear is the 60-cycle hum generated by the AC current that powers most of our gear. Humbuckers flip the pickup signal back on itself and cancel out all that stuff, which is why they’re called humbucking—they buck the hum.

What are your favorites?

BRONSON: One of my favorite sounds is on a 1955 Les Paul Junior guitar with a Bumble Bee Capacitor P-90 pickup. It starts to break up as if it was a humbucker, but you still get that great vintage single-coil sound. A more modern humbucker I love is the DiMarzio D Activator. It’s a hot pickup—meaning it sends out a high amount of signal that will saturate and break up into distortion sooner. It’s also pretty trebly, but I put it into Les Paul Custom guitars—which are darker instruments sound-wise, so the pickup balances it out. We wanted a heavy rock sound when I was performing Avril Lavigne’s song “Losing Grip” live, so I used the DiMarzio Tone Zone for that. It almost had a nasal quality and some natural compression—it was just perfect for that song.

LEWRY: When I was designing the Video Guitar, I needed a pickup that could run alongside an LCD monitor without picking up any noise or interference from the screen, which was tricky. The Lace Alumitone has been great for that, and it’s a radically different technology. It has one large wind of wire around it instead of thousands, so it doesn’t pick up outside interference as easily and it responds to a wider range of frequencies. Another cool, innovative pickup is the Seymour Duncan Little ’59 Jr. It’s a neck pickup for single-coil guitars, but it’s actually a humbucker. You can use it to get more of a rich, jazzy sound. A lot of people love variations on the original Gibson PAF humbucker, which pretty much set the standard. Lots of boutique manufacturers make variations on the classic design. Steve Stevens uses Bare Knuckle pickups, and they have their own hotrod PAF design.

Why would you use hot pickups?

BRONSON: The hotter the pickups, traditionally, the heavier the rock. When you’re getting into that style—like Zakk Wylde with Ozzy Osbourne, for example—they’re usually using very high-powered pickups with hot outputs. Metal players sometimes use active pickups like the EMG 81, which runs off of a 9-volt battery. I find those sounds too brittle for my own playing, but for a certain style of music they work.

How else do passive and active pickups differ?

LEWRY: Passive pickups have a beautiful, natural warmth to them that’s well suited for a lot of musical styles, but some guitarists want more output. If you have really hot-wound passive pickups with big, chunky magnets, the magnets themselves can slow down the strings’ vibrations. It can make a difference when you’re playing. Active pickups tend to have pretty crispy highs and good fidelity with a clear, pronounced bass, which is why they’re really good for metal. When you want that “chug-chug” sound, getting those defined lows is something that active pickups also do well. Metallica and Megadeth both play with active pickups.

Can you rock with passive pickups?

BRONSON: A lot of time you’re finding a balance between what your guitar is doing and what your amp is doing. You can have a pickup with a very low output going into a powerful Marshall stack—that captures more of the feel of the guitar itself, the subtleties of the wood, than just blasting distortion. If you listen to AC/DC’s tones on Back in Black, they’re using lower vintage outputs on their guitars and just cranking the amps up. The distortion is natural, so you’re really getting the sound of the guitar.

How do you find the right one?

LEWRY: Buying the pickup that your favorite guitar player has is one way to start, but ultimately finding your own sound is key. So don’t be afraid to try something new. Also, don’t obsess over the small stuff. What basic category are you looking for? Single-coil? Vintage? Modern high-gain? Do you want to try some crazy new technology? Once you figure out what planet you’re going for, then it’s much easier to break things down and refine your choices. Also, if you’re replacing a pickup in your guitar, rather than buying a completely new instrument, it’s important to know what you’re trying to fix. Is the sound too thin? Do you need more output? Is your rig too susceptible to outside noise and interference?

BRONSON: A lot of companies have sound samples on their websites, and sometimes graphs to show how a pickup responds. Do your research and don’t be afraid of using a cheap one, whatever works for you. What’s important is that when you close your eyes and listen, it just works.

–Michael Gallant

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