The essential components of a single coil pickup
Here at PAL, we like to give our customers the most accurate and helpful information in their quest for finding that perfect setup. Whether it’s through our series of reviews or tech articles, we believe that the more you know about your gear the more you will ultimately get out of it. In this article we will be breaking down the basics of the single coil pickup down to its individual pieces. Not only that, we will be showing you the different ways in which they can be constructed and explain how it can affect the resulting tone. Through my years as a player myself, I found that although most guitarist have a general understanding of how a pickup works along with the different variations, such as humbuckers, overwound, soapbar, etc., most don’t truly understand the basics that go into making them work. While some players out there are perfectly happy with their stock setup and basic knowledge of how a guitar works, it is never a bad idea to know you’re gear in order to take full advantage of its potential. So, for those musicians out there always looking to learn as much as they can about their passion, read on and check out the anatomy of a single coil pickup and the different ways in which they can be built as well as the resulting effect.
And for those of you unfamiliar with the way a pickup works as it relates to sending a signal to an amp check out this article here.
The Anatomy of a Standard Single Coil Pickup
For the most part, pickups are actually very simple devices. Although there are different variations of pickups that use either more or different parts, such as the active variety, they still work essentially the same at the basic level. Once you figure out all the pieces that go into making a pickup work, which aren’t very many honestly, you can essentially build your own pretty easily, but that will have to wait for a different article.
A standard single coil pickup, like the kind found on Stratocasters, pretty much consists of a magnet, a wire and a case known as flatwork to hold everything in place. The wire itself is made of copper and is wound around the magnet, either clockwise or counter clockwise. In the case of a humbucker, which consists of two single coil pickups placed next to each other, the wires are wound opposite of each other, one clockwise and the other counter clockwise, in order to cancel out the hum. As far as the magnets are concerned, they usually come as individual pole pieces, one for each string, made of either alnico or ceramic.
An important part of the magnets that many fail to realize is polarity. In case some our readers have forgotten the basics of magnets, they have two poles of opposing charges usually designated with either a + or a – with two sides of the same charge pushing off each other while opposing charges attract. This is also true of the magnetic pole pieces found in pickups – one end has a + charge and the other a –. This is important because depending on which side of the pole is directly under the strings, the tone can be affected, but more on that in a bit. If you take a look at the figure A, you will see that the + charge is designated in green. Basically, you can either construct a pickup so that either the + or – charge will be facing the strings.
After you have the pole pieces oriented in your chosen position, the next choice to be made regards the winding of the wire. As many probably already know, the coil of a pickup consists of a long copper wire wound thousands of times around the magnets to create a coil. The start of the wire is on the inside of the coil form, usually in contact with the magnets, while the tail end of the wire is on the outside of the coil form. Just think of one end as the “start” point and the other as the “stop.” The wire itself is very thin and can tear easily, so both the start and stop points of the wire are wound several times around small metal eyelets on the pickup’s base which are then fitted with larger hookup wires known as leads. Once the leads are in place, they will be soldered to the guitar’s main circuitry.
To back track, this means you can pretty much build a coil four different ways; with the wire running either clockwise or counter clockwise and with the pole’s + charge facing either north or south.
The Advantages of Reverse-Wound Reverse-Polarity (RWRP)
So, what difference does it make in regards to the direction of the winding and the position of the charges? 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 of opposite winding and polarity and you get that nice midrange tone and the more important effect of cancelling the hum. What many don’t realize is that although humbuckers have their two pickups right next to each other, they don’t actually have to be close at all in order for the humbucking effect to take place. As long as the signals from the combination of two pickups eventually combine, such as when selecting both the neck and bridge pickup during play, the effect can be achieved – so long as the pickups are of opposing polarity and winding as mentioned above.
Although guitarists who play instruments already equipped with humbucking pickups might not get much out of this information, players who gravitate more towards single pickup guitars such as the Telecaster or Stratocaster can use this information to equip their instrument with a good degree of hum cancelling. 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.
There you have it, a nice little trick that not too many players are aware of but can give you that extra edge when applied correctly.