Without the pickup, your guitar may not be audible enough. And when you’re not using the right kind of pickup, your guitar may have issues sounding like it was intended to. A guitar pickup is at the core of a guitar’s functionality and performance, along with the wood construction of the instrument, your amp, and your strings. Therefore, overlooking the pickup is not wise.
Pickups are available in different sizes and shapes. Most importantly, different pickups serve different purposes. For instance, the pickup used for playing guitar music cannot be used for metal and hard rock genres, and vice versa. The variety not just pertains to the music genre but also the kind of guitar. For instance, electric guitars and acoustic guitars have pickup classifications of their own. And they have their sub-categories as well.
For the sake of brevity and some basic understanding, we’ll be focusing on pickups for electric guitars only. But before that, let’s briefly understand what a guitar pickup truly is.
What is a Guitar Pickup?
A pickup, technically called a transducer, is essentially a magnet wrapped in wire. The wrapping helps transform your strings’ vibration into a microelectronic signal. In layman terms, it helps amplify your guitar’s tone. The insulated copper wire coil and magnet work in tandem to create the necessary effect. They create a magnetic field surrounding the strings. This magnetic field changes when you hit a string, causing the wire coil to grab an induced voltage and current. A signal is then created, which gets transferred to the amplifier, creating the tone of your electric guitar.
Electric Guitar Pickups (Humbuckers, Single-Coils, P90)
The following are the three major best electric guitar pickup types.
Single-coil pickups, as the name indicates, incorporate a single magnet. The regular Fender Stratocaster uses a single-coil pickup, for example. These pickups are widely used, which is why their tone cannot be defined categorically. Generally, they are considered to be clearer and sharper than P90s or humbuckers. They are thinner, brighter, and more focused compared to the other two.
The genres that typically complement a single-coil pickup are surf and country. Most funk guitarists play single-coil Stratocasters, in fact. For rhythm guitar components on funk, disco, soul, and R&B tracks, single-coils are ideal. You may use them for soloing as well. However, you must be able to control the guitar feedback loops, which are inevitable. Perhaps the only area single-coils falter a bit is in their ability to handle high distortion levels, which are usually synonymous with metal and hard rock genres. They can manage marginally distorted signals, but nothing higher than that.
Thanks to their great pairing with the Fender Stratocaster, they are often referred to as Strat or Fender style pickups. The Telecaster popularized its very own variant of single-coil pickups with some minor modifications added, like changes to the base plates. A widely known drawback to the pickup is its vulnerability to electrical interference, which results in a buzz or “hum” noise at higher volumes. This hum is referred to as the “60 cycle” hum.
A humbucker is basically a couple of single-coil pickups functioning as a team. Unlike a single-coil pickup, humbuckers “buck” hums – therefore, the name. The bucking is thanks to the two coils canceling out the extraneous noise of each other using reversed polarity. The by-product of this being the two coils producing a warm, big sound which has become synonymous with Gibson guitars’ fat, buttery sounds.
Compared to single-coils, a humbucker has a fairly warm tone, making it quite suitable for the jazz genre. It’s believed that the humbucker pickups came to be due to the need for more output and volume from pickups while also eliminating the loud hum single-coil pickups generated. Thanks to this increased output, humbucker pickups do significantly better than single-coil pickups when it comes to genres that require high distortion levels. Country and surf are the only two genres that humbuckers are not cut out for. Otherwise, they shine in pretty much all scenarios. A lot of all this has also got a fair bit to do with the build and physics of a humbucker.
A fairly recent addition to humbucker pickups is “coil-tapping”, which has only heightened the pickups’ popularity. The coil tapping ensures only one coil of the two engage when you pull a knob. This means you get a significantly cleaner and brighter single-coil sound. Also, this addition offers players using humbuckers a lot more tonal choices right at their fingertips.
The P90s are somewhere in between a single-coil and a humbucker. It’s basically a hybrid of the two, but more of a single-coil pickup variant. Since P90s are technically single-coils, their sensitivity is pretty much the same as a single-coil, 60/50 cycle. However, instead of magnets wrapped in a coil, like they do in single-coils, P90s come with magnets featured beneath the coil. And due to this arrangement, a P90’s single-coils look bigger than traditional single-coils. Its bobbins are wider and shorter. Another major difference is that P90 pickups incorporate bar magnets beneath their pole pieces. Regular single-coils employ rod magnets instead.
A P90’s output is higher compared to single-coil pickups, but they lack the output that humbuckers are known for. A P90 usually has slightly more depth compared to regular single coils, but again not as intense as humbuckers. P90s are ideal for rock and blues genres – not hard rock, however. Despite having its strongholds, a P90 is usually considered to be versatile.
P90s were seen on several Gibson guitars of yore, such as the Gibson Les Paul. Also, unlike humbuckers and single-coils, a P90 comes in different forms and shapes so that it could be compatible with different guitar builds. For instance, the soap bar shape was made to work with SG and Les Paul guitar body types alone.
Many people who are familiar with and accustomed to the aforementioned two pickups do not even realize that they have the P90 as another electric guitar pickup option. There are certain tones that only P90 pickups can do justice to. And until you reach that point during your practice, you would most likely not come across the need for a P90.