Introduction to Pickups Part II: The Rest of the Story

A few days ago, we brought you an introduction into the world of pickups. To recap, these little magnified pieces of coil and poles work by sensing the vibration in the strings and turning that into electrical signals that can be understood by the amp. We covered the two most popular kinds, the single-coil pickup, like the kind you’d find on a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster, and the humbucker, as you would get on a Gibson Les Paul Standard. Anyways, we’re not done yet, as there are still a few more things one should know, even if it is just for an intro, so read on and get to know these guys a little better as we continue our introduction to pickups! And in case you didn’t catch the first part, check out part one right here!


Variations in Magnetic Pickups


Active versus Passive

This is an important part of the world of pickups, especially if you’re deep into customizing your axe. In general, most pickups shipped on most models are passive. For one, they're less expensive, do not require extra power and most importantly, if you don’t need the benefits of an active pickup, you’re pretty much better off sticking with the passive. The biggest difference between the two in terms of build and mechanics is that active pickups have a built in preamplifier that boosts the voltage of the pickup thereby creating a much stronger signal before it even leaves the guitar. This requires a battery to power the preamp. Passive pickups on the other hand do not boost the strength of the signal and just leaves the guitar to the amp as is.

There are a few reasons for why one might want an active pickup instead of the standard passive. Of course it’s for more power, but what are the benefits? First and most important of all, more power in the signal from the guitar means a cleaner, clearer overall signal. Imagine your guitar is a digital camera and the pickups represent the quality of the picture. Let’s just say that a guitar with a passive pickup is about a 5Mb camera and the active is a 14Mb. Imagine the output signal of the pickup as the quality of your picture and an amp as a photo-printer. If you’re just looking for a small picture, let’s say wallet sized, the quality of both pickups doesn’t matter as much since the printer will more or less print the same picture, even if the 14mb camera has much better resolution. Let’s say you need a huge head shot. Obviously, once you get into bigger territory, or louder as it were with music, you’ll start to notice the huge difference between the 5mb pic and the 14mb. Hope I didn’t lose you. Anyways, the same principles apply for pickups. If you’re going to be playing with moderate volume levels on the amp, both pickups will do you good, but once you get into loud metal territory, active pickups are the way to go. The active pickups won’t make you’re guitar sound any louder, but the boosted signal will be read by the amp much clearer at high volume levels since it has a stronger signal to work with, giving you much better highs and lows as well as a cleaner tone when compared to a passive pickup at the same volume.

It’s actually quite easy to determine which one is right for you. Do you play metal or any other loud form of music that requires you to push your 200 watt amp all the way to 11? You need an active pickup, unless you like choppy, unclear tones. Do you rarely max out your amp and don’t like the thought of having to buy a battery for your pickups? Stick with the passive. If you don’t need the extra signal boost (which most genres don’t as long as you have the proper sized amp), then you won’t be taking full advantage of what active pickups offer and you’ll just be worrying about always having working batteries for no reason.


Staggered-Pole versus Flat-Pole

Top: Flat Pole; Bottom: Staggered Pole

This one is a little harder to gauge as the benefits of either isn’t as clear cut as it is with active versus passive. It’s more about preference, really. Basically, for those that don’t know the two terms, take a look at a normal single-coil pickup. Notice those metal round circles below each of the strings? Each little metal circle is the very tip of a pole. Notice how some of them stick out by varying amounts? If they do, you have a staggered set of pickups and if you don’t, naturally, you have the flat-pole variety.

The distance between a string and the pickup pole will determine the signal output for each, so with a flat-pole pickup you’re essentially getting an overall balanced presence for each string, which can be good or bad depending on your preference. Flats will have much more present low and high strings as compared to staggered, which usually have the G as the dominant string with the high and low E a bit buried compared to the others. Also, since flat poles give you much stronger lower string tones, the overall sound of your guitar will be a bit more bass heavy with treble lost, all which can be compensated for on an amp. If you play more open chords, the staggered will sound a bit better since the high E won’t pierce through as much. Like solos or power chords? The flat pole pickups are good for that since all strings are balanced but if you’re like most people and want to play a bit of everything, either is good, just mess with the amp and tone knobs.

*On a side note though, bass players should go for the flat poles as this will give you better low E presence without having to mess with your tone levels too much. 


Other Types of Pickups

Piezoelectric pickups

Common piezoelectric pickup placement

These are common for acoustic and acoustic electric guitars as well as on most electric bowed instruments such as a violin or a cello. These have the advantage of not generating any hum or buzz, but unlike humbuckers which work by cancelling out magnetic interference these pickups simply do not pick them up and are therefore unaffected.  A lot of the time guitarists will pair these up with regular magnetic pickups and switch between the two as needed. They do have a distinguishably different sound than that of a standard pickup, giving off a much more natural sound with less of the “electric” feel you’d get with the standard; Great for acoustic, not so much for hard rock.

The actual pickup can be placed on the outside of the instrument, usually below the bridge, with the input jack and wiring either placed on the outside of the body, held by putty usually, or on the inside of the guitar with the input jack placed how you would normally find it, with the wiring inside.

Optical Pickups

These bad boys are a bit new to the scene and have the advantage of being completely insensitive of magnetic or electric interference, something few other pickups can claim. Essentially, these work by having a light source, usually an LED light, and a device that can detect a change in the light, a phototransitor. When the string is plucked, the phototransitor can sense the amount of vibration by detecting how much the string is shifting the light source.


The Right Pickup is Always up to the Musician

Alright, so there you have it. While there is still A LOT more that we can cover, this should give you a pretty good idea of the basics when it comes to pickups. While there are rarely completely wrong choices when it comes to selecting pickups (like they don’t fit!), most choices will just depend on what you’re looking for in terms of sound and tone. So whether you’re in the market for a humbucker on that new Les Paul or thinking about getting an active set for your bass, there are plenty of choices out there. Looking for the perfect set that best fits your needs may seem like a daunting task, but it’s definitely worth the work. The perfect pickup can sometimes make all the difference.


And don't forget to check out PAL's huge selection of pickups right here!

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