For those of you who are joining us from yesterday’s article, we will be continuing our in depth look at the factors that determine the tone of a pickup. For those of you who have yet to check out part one of our two parter, you can do so here. We all know that pickups are very important in a guitar’s overall tone. They’re pretty much responsible for turning the strumming of strings into decipherable electrical signals – I’d say that’s pretty important! While certain other factors such as the wood and body shape of a guitar also play an important role in tone shaping – and aside from effects pedals, preamps and amps – a pickup is probably the single most prevalent factor in attaining a specific sound. In yesterday’s article, we spent a lot of time talking about pickup magnets and how they affect tone such as a stronger magnet will yield a brighter sound or how tempering an alnico magnet can increase overall balance – very interesting stuff so definitely check out yesterday’s article if you haven’t done so.
Alright, we hit on magnets already so now it’s time to move on to the next important piece of a pickup – the coils and wiring! Awhile back we ran an article discussing several different pickup modifications and how they can each affect tone. We will still be discussing some of those mods but focusing a bit deeper on how exactly they change tone instead of simply mentioning their end result. Alright, so we all should know by now that a copper wire coiled around a magnet creates a magnetic field. And when something that can alter this field vibrates near it – such as electric guitar strings – the vibration within the magnetic field causes magnetic flux movements. These magnetic flux movements then induce a current in the coil of the wire with a frequency identical to the frequency of the vibration. I’m being very general but that in a nutshell is how pickups work, but how does any of that affect tone?
Wire Thickness and Coil Size
Well, let’s first start with the thickness of the wire used; 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 is 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. Anyways, 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 when 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.
Well, 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 affect 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 and 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, but when combined, that’s where all 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 – 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.