How Pickups and Strings Affect Guitar Tone

In yesterday’s article, we took a look a few of the important features and parts of an electric guitar that contribute to its tone. By now, we all should know that the signature sound of an instrument is not created from one piece on its own but rather a combinations of several aspects – each with a signature sound of its own – that ultimately add up to create a specific sound. We discussed things such as guitar bodies along with some of their general tonal behaviors as well as some of their drawbacks – such as a full-hollow body guitar’s propensity of being affected by high gain feedback. We also talked about how even the type of wood used in its construction plays its own important role in an instruments signature sound. Make sure to check it out if you haven’t done so already, which you can do right here!

Today, we’re going to keep things moving by talking about a few other important features of the electric guitar that plays a role on tone – the pickups and the strings. We all know that these two things are very important, but let’s check out some of the specifics on how exactly they make a difference. Let’s get started.


The Pickups

I’m sure most everyone out there already knows that the pickups on a guitar play huge role in tone. One needs only to compare the sound of a single-coil equipped Fender Telecaster with that of a humbucker sporting Gibson Les Paul to known that they make a huge difference, even if they both have the same body type. The general consensus between these two types of pickups will tell you that single coil pickups tend to have a brighter, thinner sound with a lot of emphasis on the high mids while humbuckers yield a thicker, warmer sound with more punch towards the lower frequencies. Another important difference between the two is how they handle hum noise. Hum is caused by electrical interferences that can come from anything with a transformer in it. This includes anything from light dimmers, radios, computer monitors and even other musical equipment as well. This is pretty much why the humbucker was invented – to get rid, or ‘buck,’ this specific kind of noise. That’s not to say that single coils are hum creating machines; they’re simply susceptible and not made to combat it like humbuckers are.

As far as construction goes, humbuckers are essentially two single coil pickups placed next to each other in reverse-winding. When two single coils are placed in this manner, the range in frequency that usually carries that familiar “hum” noise is canceled out as it travels through each pickup in opposite directions. The result is a tone that is free from hum but sounds more compressed (thick) because of the canceled frequencies. This is where that signature humbucker sound comes from. Also be aware that just like with acoustic feedback, noise can come in many forms, not just outside interferences, such as faulty wiring or pickups.

One humbucker is essentailly a pair of single-coils

But it’s not just humbuckers versus single-coils that we’re talking about when it comes to pickups. But speaking of humbuckers, let’s say you have yourself a nice Fender Stratocaster along with its three single coil pickups but you also want the benefits and sound offered by humbuckers. A common upgrade made to guitars in this situation – other than performing drastic surgery in order to fit humbuckers (which are generally twice the size as single coils because they are essentially made up of two pickups) into single coil slots – is performing reverse winding. Remember – a humbucking pickup is essentially two pickups placed next to each other wound opposite from each other. If they were not wound this way you would end up with twice the hum, twice the single coil sound and none of the benefits. With that said, if you were to take a Fender Stratocaster and had the middle pickup wound opposite from both the neck and bridge pickup, selecting either the neck and middle pickup position on the switch blade or the middle and bridge pickup position, you will get that same humbucking sound and noise cancellation. The biggest benefit of this mod is that you can always switch back to any single pickup position in order to go back to that single-coil sound. This mod can essentially be done with any guitar that has at least two pickups as long as they can both be selected and they are wound opposite from each other.

Another popular modification with a good effect on tone is called over-winding which gives you overwound pickups. A pickup is essentially made up of magnets wrapped with copper coil wiring. The output of a pickup is directly related to the number of windings. When a pickup is wound with more wire than normal pickup, we call those overwound or “hot” pickups. The reason they are known as “hot” is because the over-winding essentially boosts its impedance which then boosts the pickup’s signal strength. But like anything else, there is a trade-off. With hot pickups, you get a boost in signal strength, some added punch to the mids but at the cost of your high end frequencies. This means less brights but more mid-range attack. This might not sounds so great for high twang country or rockabilly but perfect for loud aggressive rock such as punk and metal. 


Guitar Strings

There is a surprisingly deep world when it comes to guitar strings. Sure, buying a brand new pair of awesome strings isn’t going to really do anything for you if your pickups are all out of whack, but on the other side of that same coin, a dead pair of strings can definitely mask the high fidelity tone of an awesome pair of PU’s which is why it’s important to keep those strings relatively fresh if you want your ax sounding its best. Now that we got that out of the way, we can check out some options as far as strings are concerned along with some of their most important features – as well as their drawbacks.

Round Wound – These are essentially your basic type of strings. They get their name from the round winding of the coil around the core. They are the easiest to manufacturer which means they are the most economical to manufacture. As far as tone goes, roundwound strings are known for their bright sound and high mid harmonics but overtime, they become dull, giving your tone a flat type of sound without any of that signature sparkle. Besides the shorter lifespan as compared to most strings, they also suffer more from slide noise (the sound you hear when you slide your fingers across the strings). This may sound like a bad thing at first but in a studio setting, this slide noise can be easily masked due to the fact that the frequency range for this noise is well known and much more noticeable as opposed to the slide noise from other type of strings which although might be much less noticeable, it resides on frequency ranges that are either tougher to spot or integral to the guitar’s tone. And finally, round wounds also tend to wear down your fretboard and fret wires due to the pronounced ridged in their wiring.

Flatwound – This is the next most common type of guitar strings out there. Very similar to the roundwound string as far as general construction is concerned but with one huge and very important difference: the winding on these strings have a rounded square cross-section that makes for a flat, shallower profile – hence the name – as opposed to those “bumps” on the roundwound. The main benefit of this type of string construction is the smoother feel which adds to the user’s comfort and playability. They also don’t cause nearly the same amount of fretboard and fret wire damage as roundwounds for that same reason, making them a popular choice among fretless bass players in particular. A general description of these kinds of strings as far as sound goes is that when new, they tend to sound like a worn-in roundwounds and then get mellower from there with a bit more low end. This is why flatwounds tend to be much more popular with jazz bassists and not so much in rock, R&B and funk which tend to prefer the bright punch of the roundwounds.

Halfwound – Also known as ground wound or pressure wound, these strings are essentially a cross between the flats and the rounds. The name comes from the fact that that these strings are basically roundwounds that have been smoothed out through either pressure or grinding, hence the names. Anyways, if you don’t like the shallow, mellow sound of the flatwounds but don’t feel like giving up its extra comfort, less finger noise and longer lifespan, then halfwounds are probably the right type of strings for you. These pretty much give you the best of both worlds with more mid-level tones of the rounds and the comfort and smoothness of the flats. 



Alright, well, that's all the time we have today but to get a deeper look at how guitar strings and guitar string gauge affects tone, check out the links below:


Electric Guitar String Variations and their Effect on Tone

The Importance of String Gauges

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