We all know that pickups are very important to a guitar’s overall tone. While certain other factors such as the wood and body shape of a guitar most certainly play an integral role in tone shaping, the pickups are probably the single most prevalent factor in determining an overall sound – aside from effects and amps, of course. From the thickness of the wire to the type of magnet used, all play a role in the resulting tone of a pickup. Because so many components affect a pickups sound, it’s important to know exactly what causes what changes so you know what to look for when aiming for a certain tone. With that said, let’s take a closer look at some of the more important aspects that determine the sound of a pickup.
Wire Thickness and Coil Size
The thinner the wire in the coils of a pickup the fewer high frequency signals that can pass through it. In case you missed it, this means a flatter EQ curve. The actual term for thickness is diameter (but you can also call it its gauge). Doesn’t matter what you call it but the principle remains the same.
A thinner, finer wire will produce a larger signal with less treble content than a thicker wire for the same given length but if you were to wind these two wires to the same impedance (output), the thinner wire will produce a smaller signal with a lot more treble. Sounds like conflicting ideas but the reason for this is coiled, thinner wires have much more resistance than the thicker ones and it is this very nature that manufactures take advantage of to create pickups that have more output and more treble content.
That’s all well and good, but what does this mean as far as tone is concerned? Well, we have to talk about resonant peak which is essentially the frequency at which a pickup responds most strongly and as you can imagine, this has a drastic effect on tone. Finer wires have a less pronounced resonant peak along with that lower EQ curve we mentioned. Having a high resonant peak will give you a brighter tone while a low resonant peak will give you a darker one.
As far as the size of the coil goes, having one which is taller and narrower will sound much clearer, more focused and slightly brighter than that of another coil which is shorter and wider (if they have the same output). The reason for this is because the shorter, wider coil actually picks up much more of a string’s vibration which causes it to capture the entire sound, complete with plenty of mids and bass along with plenty of harmonic richness as opposed to the brighter, higher frequencies caught by the thinner, taller coil which has less harmonic richness but more treble
Reverse Coil Winding
Exactly how it sounds, a reverse wound pickup is one that has been wound in reverse, but what difference does this even make? Well, not a single difference if you are just comparing one pickup with another. It’s when two pickups are combined that the magic happens. It's not really a change in tone, per se, but it can greatly improve its quality so it's definitely something guitarists should know about.
This is essentially the same principle that is applied to humbuckers; get two single coil pickups wound in opposing directions and install them in a certain way and not only do you get a nice midrange tone boost, but more importantly, the effect of cancelling the hum!
What many don’t realize about humbuckers is that their two pickups don’t actually have to be placed next to each other in order for the humbucking effect to take place. As long as the signals from a normal wound and a reverse wound pickup eventually combine, such as when selecting both the neck and bridge pickup during play, the humbucking effect can be achieved – assuming that the bridge and neck pickups are wound in reverse of each other.
Although those of you out there with guitars equipped with humbucking pickups might not get much out of this information, players who gravitate more towards single coil variety such as the Telecaster or Stratocaster can use this technique to equip their instrument with a good degree of hum cancelling without having to sacrifice their ax’s signature tone.
For comparative purposes, pickups with reverse winding and polarity of another pickup are known as RWRP, or Reverse-Wound Reverse-Polarity, although since both essentially sound the same when used on their own there is no universal designation of a standard RWRP pickup and is only used as a term of comparison.
So for those Telecaster players who just don’t want to sacrifice the signature twang of their guitar but would like to get rid of the hum, make one of its two pickups RWRP. When both are selected with the knobs, the hum cancelling effect will be applied. If you have a Stratocaster, place the RWRP pickup in the middle position so that when combined with either the bridge or neck pickup, humbucking will be achieved.
Although the thickness and direction of the coil play a huge part in a pickup's tone, there's still much more to cover. Make sure to come back later this week for Part 2 where we will be discussing pickup magnets along with coil over-winding!