Factors that Affect a Pickup's Tone - Part 1

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We all know that pickups are very important to a guitar’s overall tone. While certain other factors such as the wood and body shape of a guitar most certainly play an integral role in tone shaping, the pickups are probably the single most prevalent factor in determining an overall sound – aside from effects and amps, of course. From the thickness of the wire to the type of magnet used, all play a role in the resulting tone of a pickup. Because so many components affect a pickups sound, it’s important to know exactly what causes what changes so you know what to look for when aiming for a certain tone. With that said, let’s take a closer look at some of the more important aspects that determine the sound of a pickup.



Wire Thickness and Coil Size

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 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.

A 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 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.

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 effect 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, 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

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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. It’s when two pickups are combined that 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 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.

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 technique to equip their instrument with a good degree of hum cancelling without having to sacrifice their ax’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.

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 be 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.


Although the thickness and direction of the coil play a huge part in a pickup's tone, there's still much more to cover. Make sure to come back later this week for Part 2 where we will be discussing pickup magnets along with coil over-winding!

One thought on “Factors that Affect a Pickup's Tone - Part 1”

  • Bob Bailey

    Back in the 60's I discovered that if I reversed the polarity of either my bridge or my neck pickup the tone when combined was totally different when they were combined than when they were combined with the polarity the same for both pickups. This gave me a Strat sound that basically no other Strat had. Would this also have created a Hum Bucker or does one of the pickups have to be reverse wound? I never noticed back then if I was obtaining less hum. I also noticed that if I could control the volume of the two pickups independently, I could get a much "fatter" sound when combined as long as the neck pickup was at full volume and the bridge pickup was slightly turned down. It was a really nice sound.

    I found later that this also worked with a pair of Gibson Humbuckers with one of the two wired in reverse polarity. Again, the sound was thin if both pickups were at full volume but "fatter" if the bridge pickup was at a slightly lower volume. I was always able to "dial in" the fatter sound on either the Les Paul or the Strat.

    This past year I switched to a PRS SE Custom with stock Humbuckers. I really like the sound of the bridge pickup at full volume. The one thing I miss, though, is a cleaner sound from time-to-time like the Strat has. I can't seem to get that sound with these pickups. I've considered researching replacement pickups for the guitar but I've not tested any of the other PRS pickups. I don't really like the full size Gibson Humbuckers. I have a 1999 Custom Shop Les Paul that I never play. My preference is for the Mini-humbuckers like you find on a Gibson Les Paul Deluxe. I always loved the smoothness and power of my '71 Les Paul Deluxe. When it popped off of my strap at a gig in the mid 80's it fell to the floor and hit on the headstock at a 45 degree angle and split the neck. I moved the neck pickup to my '87 Strat and played it for the next decade.
    The neck pickup on my Deluxe for some reason was not as powerful as the bridge pickup so I didn't move the neck pickup to the Strat but I always wanted to have a neck pickup that was the same power as the bridge pickup. In '99 I bought a new Strat and put the old Deluxe pickup in the neck position. It was great. Then, one day on ebay a pair of '71 Deluxe pickups appeared for sale. I took the chance and bought them. I put them on my new Strat, giving me a full set of three. I was lucky. The three pickups matched in sound level and tone. But I could still get a clean "Strat-like" tone out of the neck pickup when I wanted it. Now, though, with the PRS SE Custom, I've lost the ability to get that clean, bright sound. Considering my preference of the mini-humbucker sound, although it won't fit in place of the stock humbuckers, any suggestions?

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