Few modifications can alter a guitar’s primary tone as much as switching those all-important pickups. Responsible for turning string vibrations into a decipherable electrical signal, there are seemingly hundreds, even thousands of variations out there of the electric guitar pickup. And even as you cipher through all of the different makes and models, there are still plenty of other modifications and design variations that each have their own signature tone characteristics – and we’re not just talking about humbuckers versus single coils here!
With the exception of those fancy new optical pickups or the acoustic-centric variety, all electric guitar and bass pickups pretty much work the same way – a thin copper coil wrapped around magnets that create a magnetic field which produces an electrical signal that can be sent and made into sound by an amplifier – but what many newer players don’t realize that everything from the direction of the coil winding to the magnets used in their construction can alter its tone. And while plenty of players out there are happy with their stock set and choose to customize that tone trough effects, preamps and the like, more knowledgeable guitarist’s are exploiting plenty of these altered or slightly modified non-standard pickups in order to meticulously carve out their own custom tone. Ever heard of a “hot” pickup? Coil tapping? Humbucker? Okay, you probably all got that last one but in case you might have missed either of the first two, how about we check out some of these less common pickup mods?
Humbucker and Single Coil
Alright, so most of you out there probably know the basics already between the differences in a standard single coil like those found on Strats or Teles versus the Les Paul favorite humbucker. But just in case you don’t, a humbucker is actually two single coil pickups placed right next to each other in alternating (reversed) currents which causes the “hum” part of a guitar’s signal to be cancelled out thanks to the properties of electrical common-mode rejection. As mentioned above, Les Pauls are probably the most famous humbucker guitar combinations out there but that doesn’t mean plenty of other guitars and basses aren’t in on the action. And just in case you’re wondering if you can add some of that humbucking badness to your own axe – it depends. Since humbuckers are essentially two single coils next to each other, they won’t fit into slots designated for a single coil pickup. On Telecasters, Stratocasters or other guitars where the pickups are housed by a removable pickguard, you will need to buy a guard that can accommodate the bigger sized humbuckers, otherwise you might need to perform a bit of surgery to fit those guys in there.
Coil Tapping and Split Coil
First of all, a split coil isn’t a pickup at all but rather what can happen to a humbucker when one of the two single coils that compose it breaks link with the guitar’s wiring – pretty much turning your humbucker back into a single coil with a dead twin next to it. The only reason I bring this up is because the term coil splitting is all too often confused with the pickup mod ‘coil tapping,’ a design that is said to have been first pioneered by Schecter.
Although coil tapping is one of the rarer modifications out there, it is essentially a modification that can be done to a single coil pickup at the manufacturing stage. When the coil of the pickup is being wound, an output is ‘tapped’ into the coil halfway wound and then an additional output is tapped in at the very top, giving the pickup two selectable outputs instead of the normal one. Why does this matter? Well, placing an output half way through the winding of a pickup and then another at the very top (which is the normal position of the output) let’s you choose between a ‘half’ signal or the normal full signal, respectively.
You will need a selector switch installed to the guitar’s wiring to choose between both outputs but what this mod gives you are two very unique signal outputs with different tone and volume characteristics – all in one single coil pickup! Selecting the top output will give your guitar a full, punchy, mid-range heavy sound while selecting the half wound output will yield a much brighter, vintage tone with a clear and detailed high end. Very few guitars ship with coil tapped pickups stock but a few companies such as Seymour Duncan offer this mod on some of their pickups. In the case of Duncan, tapped pickups are usually denoted with a ‘T’ at the end of the model name, such as with the SSL-7 "Quarter Pound" pickups whose tapped variation is marked as SSL-7T.
Reverse Wound Pickups
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, but when combined, that’s where all the magic happens. 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 – which I will explain in a less cramped sentence – 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, got it? Good!
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 mod to equip their instrument with a good degree of hum cancelling without having to sacrifice their axe’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. Alright, 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 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.
When someone uses the term “hot” for a pickup, they are essentially talking about the signal output being stronger than a ‘standard’ one. Some might call a certain pickup “hotter” than the other, so they are pretty much comparing the output strength of a pickup to another. Without getting too deep into the logistics of guitar pickup inductance, your average single coil pickup has less signal output than that of a humbucker, or even that of a single coil bass pickup because in essence it doesn’t really need as much as output as the other two if your goal is simply to play. But let’s say you don’t simply just want to play, but rather want to play with something that requires more power – or more specifically – a style of music that takes advantage of more power.
Hot pickups send out more output signal which in turn gives it a set of advantages and disadvantages to that of your less hot pickups. Some prefer hot pickups because they control distortion better but it turn will sound harsher when played clean, this is why metal guitar players who rarely play clean prefer a hotter pickup set up. If you were to play a Telecaster and a Les Paul with the same amp and distortion effect, you should hear a thicker bite with the Les Paul as its humbucker pickups are hotter than the Telecaster’s single coils. A higher output signal is also helpful in maintaining signal integrity when playing through a long cable and/or several pedals connected to each other. Critics of hot pickups tend to dislike their compressed sound, claiming they lack the amount of clarity of the standard pickup. This is due to the increased resistance of the output signal which pretty much chokes off the high end tones. Also, too much output signal can cause EQ problems with amplifiers that can’t properly handle the extra power.
And while you can certainly go and buy yourself a pair of these ‘hot’ pickups from a manufacturer, you can actually heat up those stock pickups of yours as well – with a little mod of course, known as the overwound pickup. This mod essentially falls into the category of a hot pickup in that the features of its build give it more signal output than that of your standard single coil; ergo, hotter. Overwound pickups are wrapped with more coil than that of a standard pickup which in turn strengthens the impendence of the magnet, increasing the voltage which then increases the output signal, making them hotter than a normal pickup. The advantages and disadvantages of this are what you would expect from a hotter pickup; stronger mid range attack but less clarity of the highs. When a pickup is overwound, the “position” of the resonant peak of the signal is significantly lowered, creating less treble, while the peak at the midrange is increased, meaning a stronger mid. And just in case you don’t know what a resonant peak is, it is the frequency of the signal with the highest output level. The output frequencies of almost all magnetic pickups are never level, but have peaks and valleys in frequency, giving each pickup its own character, in other words, some have better highs, better mids, better lows, etc, and hotter pickups just happen to have their peak much lower than your standard pickup.
And Plenty More Where That Came From
Alright, by now you should have a few killer ideas on what mods you might want to give your current or future axe, but in case you’re feeling like diving just a bit deeper into the very electrifying world of the pickup (bad pun VERY MUCH intended), check out some of our intro series to the guitar pickup such as:
Alright, so assuming you read these two links already and now know plenty about staggered versus flat pole, active versus passive, piezoelectric and the like as well as the history of how pickups were invented and got where they’re at today, why not check out some of our selection of insanely priced guitar pickups?