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Bridge vs Neck Pickup – Which One Should You Use?

Bridge vs Neck Pickup – Which One Should You Use?

Being a studio guitarist, I am continuously faced with experimenting with different pickup positions and going in-depth into what makes them unique. In this Bridge vs Neck pickup article, I will help you understand exactly how the two main pickup positions are different, along with the best ways you can use them.

The versatility of switching between different pickup positions is one of the perks that make playing electric guitar dynamic and fun. As you probably know by now, most guitars have at least two pickups, one in the bridge and neck. Whether you are playing a Strat-style guitar, Les Paul, or anything in between, the Neck and Bridge pickup will always sound different.

guitar pickup

Bottom Line Up Front: The bridge and neck positions pickups sound different not only because they are placed in different positions but also cause they are built differently. The Bridge pickup is brighter, has more attack and more output than the neck pickup, which is generally warmer sounding and with less output to compensate for its position closer to the center of the strings.

Independently of your style, genre, or guitar, you should find a good balance between using both as tonal versatility is one of the main aspects of sounding good.

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A calibrated three pickup set for Stratocaster players who are seeking that bright vintage tone from their modern set-up instruments.

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Main Differences Between the Bridge and Neck Pickup

The Main Differences Between the Bridge and Neck Pickup are: 

  • The bridge pickup has more output and volume, whereas the Neck pickup generally has less.
  • The bridge pickup tone is brighter, has more attack and punch, whereas the neck pickup is darker, more mellow, and warm.
  • The bridge pickup tone usually has more sustain due to the higher output 
  • The bridge pickup is generally better for rock and metal riffs as the tone is more focused and has more gain, whereas the neck pickup is the leading tone for solos and rhythm, mostly in Blues, Jazz, and similar genres.
  • Since they are positioned in different places, whereas the neck pickup receives a different dry signal than the bridge pickup resulting in a different tone even when using no amplifier

The Bridge Pickup Tone and Best Usage

The bridge pickup is usually a standard position where most people start playing electric guitar. It’s also referred to as the 1st position, considering it’s wired on the leftmost or lower position of the pickup selector.

The general concept is that the bridge pickup is louder and brighter with more attacks. That’s true, but it’s essential to understand why first to use it better. The reason is connected firstly the physics of strings vibrating.

The farther to the center of the strings you get, the less the string vibrate and the thinner the tone becomes. You can try it out yourself on an acoustic guitar; if your strum is closer to the neck, the tone becomes fat and loud. The farther you go from it, the more high-end the guitar will have. In my experience, to dive deeper into tone, you should first consider the acoustic properties of the guitar and how you approach playing.

Since the strings vibrate less above the bridge pickup, they are built to have more output than the neck pickup to balance out the volume difference. This is why rock and metal guitarists prefer the bridge pickup for riffs and lead with a lot of sustain. However, the extra gain makes the bridge pickup much noisier in single-coil pickups and sometimes too bright, even starchy.  

Palm-muting sounds tighter at the bridge pickup, while if you want to do acoustic-like strumming, it’s better to go to the neck or the in-between positions.

A good trick to use when playing with the bridge pickup is to balance out the extra gain with the volume knob of the guitar, which actually dictates the gain rather than the volume, as the name suggests.

The lower you bring the volume knob, the mellower the tone becomes. When you want to have full gain and open up the sound, for example, on a powerful chorus or lead part, roll up the volume to have the entire output of the guitar.

Your guitar model will affect the tone, but most of all, your picking technique. Playing with your finger, the side of the pick, and further from the bridge are techniques I use all the time to balance out the bright nature of the bridge.

The Neck Pickup Tone and Best Usage

The Neck Pickup brings out the warm nature of the guitar and is associated generally with classic rock lead, blues, and jazz guitar

Having a more mellow sound the closer the neck you go enhances the tonal palette of your playing. The typical sound of a neck pickup most players might refer to is the “Strat tone” – a warm woody tone that still retains some attack. Players like Jimmi Hendrix, David Gilmour, Steve Ray Vaughan, and many others are known to use it for guitar solos as the pickup tends to round up the tone and make it overall sweeter. 

Humbuckers’ neck pickups have the same tendency but are much warmer, almost dark sounding. The PAF tone of classic Les Pauls, especially of the 60s, is a good example of that. Especially the famous P 90’s.

When comparing pickup positions, you should always do so within the context of the genre and gear you are using. For example, in heavy metal guitars, even 7 or 8 string ones, the neck pickup still sounds warmer and less gain. However, the pickups installed in guitars are still very hot and loud. 

Generally, if the neck and bridge pickups were built the same, the neck position would be much louder due to the string vibrating more. However, guitar manufacturers compensate for this in designing neck pickups differently. Even if the pickup looks the same and has the same name, when you buy a new set of them, there are instructions on which one goes where, whereas they have differences.

No strict rule dictates that the neck pickup is better for leads and not fit for riffs. Depending on your gear and style, you can achieve great results, considering that the pickup might sometimes sound muddy.

How are the Neck and Bridge Pickups Built Differently?

Guitar manufacturers use different designs and sometimes different magnets for the neck and bridge positions to ensure that the guitar’s volume is consistent in all pickup positions.

The main difference between the two pickups is the number of wraps around the magnet. The more copper wraps, the more output the pickup has. The bridge pickup is generally built with more wraps to compensate for the lack of string vibration above it. 

Since the strings are wider closer to the bridge, the pickup is often just slightly bigger on the sides than the neck pickup. In some humbucker models, the size of both pickups is the same, but the coil taps are spread wider. Strat-like guitars keep the same pickup size and coil tap spread but slightly angle the pickup to make lower string sounds warmer and higher strings brighter.

Different magnets are often used for both positions from some brands to make the tone more unique in their pickups. 

The goal of pickup designers is to keep balance and consistency. However, you can experiment with different pickups to give the guitar more versatility and cover more sonic ground.

Pros and Cons of the Neck and Bridge Pickup

Since there is no universally bad tone, the pros and cons of both pickups depend a lot on your playing style and the sound you are aiming to get.

The only cons to keep in mind are both pickups’ tendency to sound too warm or bright if you do not control the sound well. In certain situations, the high end of the bridge can be too glassy and twangy. However, the twangy tone on a Telecaster’s bridge pickup is what you need in a country music context.

For metal musicians playing riffs on the bridge pickup is the norm. Switching from an aggressive thrash metal rhythm to a solo high up the neck with the same tone might sound too bright and almost hurt. On the other hand, the risk of becoming too muddy or not having enough output for legato or tapping is real when playing solely on the bridge.

However, a good player with an understanding of tone will not have problems balancing the tone in both. A good EQ pedal or working with your amp settings can help you balance the frequencies.

Blending the Neck and Bridge Pickups

Almost every guitar model will have one or more in-between positions than blend the neck and bridge pickup.

There is generally a three-way switch on Les Paul style guitar, the middle position of which activates both pickups simultaneously. Having both pickups turned on will increase the guitar’s overall output but give a good middle ground between a mellow, warm tone with slightly more attack than usual.

Strat-like guitars are wired in a way that does not allow the neck and bridge to activate simultaneously. However, the middle pickup offers an excellent alternative, and there is an option to change the wiring with little work to have the play, then neck and bridge together. 

warwick bridge

Buyers Guide on Neck and Bridge Pickups

There are thousands of pickups types from many brands you can consider. I will suggest some of the ones I really like both for humbuckers and single-coil guitars.

Seymour Duncan California ’50s Strat Pickup Set

Seymour Duncan California 50s Strat Pickup Set

Seymor Duncan is a legend for pickups, and so are the 50s Strat vintage pickups. This set will give you the classic glassy Strat tone, bright and almost twangy on the bridge and woody on the neck.

The tone of this pickup is great for everything from rockabilly, country, blues, classic rock, and rock n’ roll. They do not have much sustain and are not very hot. However, if you are planning on using your guitar for rock, you can up to a certain level of gain.

More than that, the pickup can make noise and not respond as you wish.

Our Favorite
Seymour Duncan '50s Strat Pickups | Amazon
$237.00

A calibrated three pickup set for Stratocaster players who are seeking that bright vintage tone from their modern set-up instruments.

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01/27/2023 06:48 am GMT

EMG 85 Active Guitar Humbucker Bridge/Neck Pickup, Black

EMG 85 Active Guitar Humbucker Bridge

EMG humbuckers are well known for delivering at a high gain. Being active means that they have a lot of sustain, are very sensitive, and are perfect for heavy genres of music.

You can use this single-pickup both on the neck and bridge positions as it balances well to deliver wherever you put it. This is a great pickup, especially for Les Paul-style guitar, as it will fit in most models without much work.

On the downside, active pickups require you often replace the battery. Also, this pickup can become very dark and muddy if not used well.

EMG 85 Active Guitar Humbucker Bridge/Neck Pickup | Amazon
$99.00

The 85 is one of EMGs first pickups and is the slightly more sophisticated and well-rounded half of its famous brother, the 81. 

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01/27/2023 04:03 am GMT

Sheptone Tribute PAF Style Humbucker Set with Nickel Covers Nickel Cover

Sheptone Tribute PAF Style Humbucker Set with Nickel Covers Nickel Cover

This premium set brings back the vintage warm PAF tone. The pickups sound warm in both the neck and bridge and become aggressive enough for most rock and metal music. However, they are not that hot to handle massive gain, considering classic rock is where they are inspired.

If you are into rock and blues, they will completely satisfy all your needs for tone. They are pricey, but not as much as most vintage PAF pickups that are listed sometimes at almost twice the price.

FAQ

Question: What happens if you put a bridge pickup in the neck position?

Answer: Generally, it will sound very loud compared to a regular neck pickup as it has more output. What you can do in this situation is lower the height of the pickup to match the volume of the old neck pickups and experiment with the tone.

Question: How do I know which pickup to choose?

Answer: The two criteria to keep in mind are their limits and tonal range when choosing pickups. If you require a high output shaper, distorted tone is best to choose the bridge. The neck pickup might be a better choice for a sweet bluesy lead. There is no string rule, just guidelines that, with experience, become habits.

Question: Does pickup height affect volume?

Answer: The closer to the string a pickup is more output it will have. However, be careful as to how close you place the pickup as it might saturate the sound or even detune the guitar.

Question: How can you tell bridge from neck pickup?

Answer: The best way to tell them is by measuring the pickups’ output as visually they might be the same. The one with more output is generally the bridge pickup.

Final Thought on the Bridge vs Neck Pickup

Being an electric guitar player means learning to use the entire sonic palette of the guitar. Choosing which pickup works best in different depends a lot on your style and tone goals but requires some knowledge.

Experiment with both positions, the in-between ones, and the volume and tone control a lot in your playing to truly understand the difference between the neck and bridge pickup. 

From my experience, it’s better not to rush to conclusions of which is better for what genres, but keep in mind the general characteristic of each pickup and use them based on your gear and taste.

Our Favorite
Seymour Duncan '50s Strat Pickups | Amazon
$237.00

A calibrated three pickup set for Stratocaster players who are seeking that bright vintage tone from their modern set-up instruments.

Buy at Amazon.com Check availability on Reverb
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.
01/27/2023 06:48 am GMT