Art of the Pickup

Get the inside scoop on picking the perfect pickup

The key to a guitarist’s tone is the pickup—the unassuming device sitting underneath guitar strings that translates vibrations into sweet melodies and sonic fury. In fact, few pieces of gear have a greater impact on a guitar’s tone—and there are seemingly endless varieties to choose from.

Some players soar with the stock units that came with their guitars, while others experiment tirelessly searching for the perfect one. To better understand the pickup world, we turned to master guitarist John Jorgenson for his expertise. Jorgenson has recorded and toured with A-list artists including Bob Dylan, Elton John, Bob Seger, Roger McGuinn, Barbra Streisand and Bonnie Raitt—as well as his noted guitar trio the Hellecasters.

How important are pickups?
They’re vital to a guitarist’s tone. A player’s tone starts in the fingers and in the heart. The guitar and strings have to sound good, and next is the pickup. That’s what takes the sound to the amplifier. If the pickup doesn’t do a good job, there’s no way to get good tones.

What types should a player consider?
The general rule of thumb is that single-coil pickups are bright and clear, and humbucking pickups are thicker-sounding and better for overdrive. Of course, humbuckers can sound great for clean tones and some are bright as well—and some single-coils can be fat-sounding and good for distortion, too.

How to get the most out of a pickup?
Pickups are often not adjusted very well—especially the bridge pickup. I like to get that pickup close to the strings. Not so close that it hits them—but if you press down a string at the highest fret and then adjust the pickup so it’s within 1/16”-1/8” away from the string, you’ll get the most out of the pickup. Also, if you have a humbucker with adjustable pole pieces, you can lower the pickup for a brighter tone. Conversely, you can raise the pickup if you want a fuller sound.

What will changing the pickup not do?
In the late ’60s, I had an original pink paisley Fender Telecaster, and I wanted it to sound more like my Gibson in the neck position. So, I put a humbucking pickup there. It sounded a bit different—but it didn’t sound like a Gibson. Pickups will enhance the guitar’s character, but they won’t make it sound like a different guitar. If you like your guitar’s character and you want a brighter, fatter or smoother sound, then changing pickups can make a difference.

Which works best across different genres?
One that works well is a humbucking pickup that’s closer to an original ’50s PAF design. They’re very bright, and not as fat-sounding as modern humbuckers. A good-sounding bright, clean pickup works well with pedals and can still push an amp. If you start with a pickup that’s too thick and dark, there’s no way you can make it sound cleaner or brighter. You could also choose a fatter-sounding Telecaster pickup, or a P-90.

Thoughts on custom pickups?
You’ve got to think that guys who are into pickups so much that they often base their whole company around one specific type of pickup are going to put a lot of energy and thought into the pickups they build. If you want to get further into it and examine boutique pickups, go to the builders’ websites and see what their philosophy is, and get a vibe for the way they present their pickups. Tone is so personal and subjective. If you find a player whose tone you like, it can help point you toward the kind of pickups you might like.

How about your own signature guitars?
The pickups on my G&L ASAT from the ’90s are really hi-fi, with a really sparkly top end. But they’re also very full-sounding, too—a bit like an old Gibson P-90 but with more top end. I actually asked Seymour Duncan to replicate some Z-coil pickups that were on a prototype G&L that Leo Fender gave me. On my Fender Custom Shop signature Telecaster, I asked Fender to create some pickups that were made with very under-wound coils (fewer wire windings around the magnet) so that both pickups used together had about the same windings as one normal Tele pickup.

How did you tweak pickups for artists?
When I toured with Elton John, I had to make sure the pickups on all my guitars were potted and waxed so they wouldn’t squeal at high concert volumes. That included a Burns electric 12-string, a 1970 Les Paul and my signature Telecasters. In the Desert Rose Band, I carried quite a number of guitars and had to adjust the pickup heights on all my guitars so they all sounded good through the same amplifier setup. In the Hellecasters, I had to work really hard to get a Telecaster tone that would cut through two other Telecasters. The G&L ASAT worked really well in that context.

Any others?
Bonnie Raitt is a really sensitive musician. She gets an amazing tone out of her slide, and she’s just using a basic Strat. There’s a great example of the tone coming out of her fingers and her heart. You could put almost any decent guitar in Bonnie’s hands and it’s going to sound like her. When I recorded with Bonnie, I went for a neck-position humbucking sound on the ASAT. I was going for a full, clean sound to stand out from her bright tone quality. Bob Dylan likes to play a very aggressive clean sound. He likes to plug a Strat into a Twin Reverb amp and play with a very strong attack. I went for a smoother sound on my Rickenbacker six-string to complement that. Roger McGuinn had that beautiful signature 12-string Rickenbacker sound, so it was up to me to stay away from that sonic territory when I was creating tones for his record. I ended up using P-90s on a custom Epiphone Casino. The P-90 is just a great rock ’n’ roll pickup.

Best way to deal with single-coil hum?
It really helps to find the right angle in relation to your amp. Basically, you try to find the right place to stand. You just slowly go around in a circle and listen for the hum to get quieter. If you have a lot of gain/distortion, it helps to use your tuner pedal or a mute pedal when you’re not playing—and then turn it on right before you play again.

There’s a lot to learn.
That’s what’s great about playing electric guitar—you can really get in deep if you want. You can be a beginner and just plug in and rock out. But as you learn more, you can get more into the details—the pickups, the strings, the amps and speakers. It’s a never-ending quest. But that’s what makes it challenging and fun. I’ve been doing this for a long time—I got my first guitar in 1968—and I still love it. I’m still fascinated by pickups and pedals and different playing styles.

—Mark Hutchins

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