Do Electric Guitar Pickups Really Make A Difference?


Guitar pickups are among the most important parts of the guitar. Without pickups, no one would be able to hear what you play. The pickup will register disturbance in the magnetic field and create a small current that will further get amplified until we can hear it from the speaker.

But do electric guitar pickups really make a difference? Pickups are responsible for the sound of the guitar, and by picking the right type and combination, you can significantly change how your guitar sounds. However, you should also consider an amplifier as well. Expensive pickups will not sound as great on a cheap amp, while cheap pickups will sound quite good on a pro amp.

Depending on the types of pickups your guitar has, and the combination of those pickups, you’ll be able to create a variety of tones. For example, SSS combination with three single-coil pickups is popular in blues music, while HH with two humbuckers is used in heavier genres like metal.

Guitar Pickup Types

There are two main differences and categories when it comes to types of pickups single-coils and humbuckers, and both can be either active or passive. The first important thing is the number of coils that pickups have. Single-coil pickups will have a single winding around the permanent magnet, and in it, the electromotive force will generate a small current. The second type is humbucker which is, basically, two single-coils put together.

So the first category is based on the number of coils that pickup has. If the magnet has a single winding around it, that type of pickup is called single-coils. The main problem with single-coil pickups is that they create a hum or noise when they are used individually. To avoid this problem, guitars with two coils that are wound in the opposite direction are made. They have a similar effect as if you took two single-coil pickups and place them side by side. 

Since there are two coils in humbuckers, the output of these pickups will be higher. Single-coils are mostly used for blues and rock, while humbuckers are for genres like heavy metal. Naturally, it is not impossible to see someone playing blues with humbuckers and another way around. 

Both types of pickup as explained here are passive. This means that they require no additional power source. The current that is generated in the coils is high enough to travel through the cable to the amplifier that will enhance the signal until it can be reproduced and heard through the speakers. 

However, there is another guitar pickup type where the player will need an additional power source. These pickups are also known as active. The player will usually need a 9V battery to power the electronic board. The pickup will besides everything mentioned use a circuit board to enhance the characteristics of the pickup. Both single-coils and humbuckers come in active and passive versions. 

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Guitar Pickups Configurations And Their Effect On The Tone

Based on the types of the pickup in the guitar, the player can have different tones at their disposal. 

Pickup Type

Pickups TypeTone 
Single CoilBright, Crisp
HumbuckerThicker, Warm

Configurations

Pickups ConfigurationsTone Possible
S – S – SClassic Strat tone with bluesy sound with a brighter tone
H – HHeavier sound with a warm tone, usually for heavy metal and hard rock
H – S – SThe punchy, thicker, warmer tone in the bridge position
S – SUsually associated with Tele for a country with a brighter tone
H – S – HHeavier, thicker, warmer sound in both  neck and bridge position
H – H – HHigher output in each position with a heavy tone that will sound quite warm

Check the following video to hear all the different configurations

Guitar 101: Different Pickup Configurations

S-S-S Configuration

credit: David Monniaux

SSS is where the guitar will have three single-coil pickups. The perfect example of the SSS configuration is a Fender Stratocaster. Strat guitar also has a switch that allows players to change the pickups that are used. Modern Fenders have a five-way switch, where there are five different positions. The first one is for the neck pickup, the second one is for the neck and middle. Similarly, the third one is for the middle, and the fourth one is for the middle and bridge. Finally, the fifth position will activate only the bridge pickup. This way, the player will have five different tones that they can use along with potentiometers to further shape the tone. The potentiometers can regulate, or more accurately, remove a part of the frequency. These knobs will remove higher frequencies or restore them, depending on the way you turn the knob. This way, the player can roll off the treble, and they can make their guitar sound brighter or warmer. 

HH Configuration

The HH combination is as popular as SSS. This combination is used on almost every Gibson model, and many companies after kept the design. Naturally, you can find a Strat with this configuration as well. Double hum combo is used for every genre that requires higher output like hard rock, heavy metal, and even blues. 

H-S-S Configuration

In this configuration, we will have a humbucker in the bridge position, while the other two pickups are single-coils. Usually, players will use the bridge pickup for playing rhythm, and by placing a humbucker in that position, the player can have a pickup with higher output for rhythm. This configuration found its place in genres like heavy metal and hard rock. The player can play riffs on the humbucker while keeping that well-known single-coil sound for solo. 

S-S Configuration

credit: CasinoKat

A perfect example of this combination is a Fender Telecaster. Since there are only two pickups that are both single-coils, the player will have a three-way switch that they can use to change between these pickups. As you can imagine, there are fewer options for creating sound.

HSH Configuration

credit: Freetoast

Here the neck and bridge are humbuckers. The perfect example of HSH guitar is Steve Vai’s Ibanez. Many years ago, Steve Vai worked with Ibanez to create a perfect guitar for his needs, and the result is a guitar that became among the most popular instruments in the world. 

Of course, you can find guitars with all three humbuckers. While they are not as common and not as popular, there are still a few examples out there. Ace Frehley from Kiss used to play Les Paul with three humbuckers. There aren’t many guitars with this configuration, and it never became as popular as other types. 

Cheap vs Expensive Guitar Pickups

So, what’s the main difference between cheap and expensive guitar pickups? Both do the same job, and while ones can cost tens of dollars others can go up to several hundred. Of course, everyone would love to know if there is a significant difference that can justify the price of each.

The difference between these two is incredible. Since pickups are the very thing that creates the tone of the guitar, investing in good ones will let you have a perfect and clear tone. On the other hand, cheap pickups are lower quality and the tone will never be nearly as good. Naturally, this can be even more noticeable if you compare cheap ones with active pickups. Expensive pickup will offer a clearer and more defined tone. 

Cheap Pickups

There are several factors when it comes to cheap pickups. Firstly, the company that created them won’t be a well-known brand. Now I do not say this because of the brand name, but because of the style. If you get a Fender pickup, you can be sure that your guitar will sound like Fender. While no name pickups will often sound bland and without that special something. The company that created them will use cheaper materials, weaker magnets, copper winding won’t be as pure, and everything will be a tiny bit worse. 

As a result, the sound will never be as the one you imagined or heard. And the only way to achieve that is with expensive equipment. Naturally, not everyone can afford an expensive amplifier, and if your goal is to create something unique and experiment, cheap pickups can actually do the work. Since each pickup will offer something unique, there is a chance that you’ll find the one that works for you. The best part is that you won’t have to spend a fortune, and you can experiment until you find something that you like. 

Expensive Pickups

That brand name I mentioned works almost as a certificate. If you get EMG pickups, your guitar will have a higher output, you’ll be able to play anything from Pink Floyd to Iron Maiden. Naturally, the price is a bit higher. Expensive pickups can be several hundred for a set. The guitar equipped with high-end pickup will sound like a high-end guitar. However, if you spend a fortune on the guitar and buy the cheapest amplifier, you might not notice the difference. 

Amplifiers play a major role in the sound of the guitar. The only downside of these pickups is the price. And if you combine it with the price of an amp, you should prepare yourself to spend maybe over a thousand for equipment. 

Of course, the main question is what you want as a player. If you dream of having a perfect sound, then you should prepare yourself for a high price for the quality. There is no doubt that expensive pickups are better, but the sound of cheap ones can be pleasant too. 

Can I Put Any Pickups On My Guitar?

Changing pickups is quite easy. Especially if you are not planning on changing the configuration of the pickups. However, there are several things that you should consider. If you own a Stratocaster with SSS combination, you can put any single-coil pickup in it. You can buy a set of Fender pickups and install them in the guitar without any problems. However, if you want to change the configuration, there might be extra work.

For example, the HSS combination is still doable. But if you want a real humbucker in the bridge position, there is no other way but to expand the hole in the wood. Original humbucker won’t fit in the single-coil hole, and you will need to widen it before the pickup can fit. However, there is a way around this as well. Some companies like DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan create humbuckers in a single-coil size. This way, you’ll be able to get a humbucker sound without a need to drill anything. 

Similarly, if you have humbuckers but want to switch to single-coils, you will need to cover the extra space. Unfortunately, you won’t find single-coils that are as big as humbuckers, and you will have to practice your woodworking skills if you want everything to look neat. 

The other problem you might encounter is if you want to switch to active pickups. Whether you are switching to active singles or hums, you will need to find a place to store a 9V battery. While some guitars can offer extra space under the pickguard or under the potentiometers, it is not always an option. Furthermore, you will need your battery to be easily accessible if you don’t want to remove the entire pickguard every time your battery dies. 

Guitars that have stock pickups that are active, usually have an additional compartment for the battery that is easily accessible. 

Summary

Besides the amplifier, investing in pickups is always a great idea. This way, you can upgrade the sound of your guitar and create something unique and beautiful without buying a new instrument. If you are satisfied with the wood, design, and the look of your guitar, upgrading pickups is something you can always try. 

So the answer is yes. Pickups can make all the difference in the world. They are the reason why you can hear the guitar at all.

If you found this article useful you may want to save this pin below to your Guitar board

Jacob

I have been playing guitar since 2004. As long as I can remember I always had a huge passion for rock music and I extremely enjoy playing it. Helping people on their rock journey is what drives me to keep on playing. Read More About Me

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