Skip to Content

The Complete Guide to Hot Rodding Your Electric Guitar Pickups

The Complete Guide to Hot Rodding Your Electric Guitar Pickups

“What kind of pickups do you use?”

If you’re like most guitarists, this is one of the most common questions we ask each other. Because we all know that, along with the guitar and amp, pickups are the primary source of the sound.

Also, between humbuckers, single-coils, lipsticks, P90s, PAFs, Filter’Trons, etc., not to mention active and passive options — there is a pickup for every type of guitarist and every type of guitar style.

But, all of these choices can lead to analysis paralysis.

In this article, we take a look at the history and science of guitar pickups. Plus the most common options available add some modification suggestions. This way, when you decide to hot rod your guitar, you don’t choose a pickup sight unseen or sound unheard.

If you just want the facts, scroll down to the FAQ Section, and you might find quick and easy answers to your questions.

The Birth of the Single-Coil Pickup

single coil guitar pickups

Long before the Larry Dimarzios and Seymour Duncans of the world was a young Texan, who set his sights on Hollywood in the 1920s. His name was George Delmetia Beauchamp (pronounced Bee-chum), and he was a guitarist in his mid-20s.

Apparently, Beauchamp found steady work in the Los Angeles area as a musician, but there are no recordings to check out his guitar work. The funny thing is most guitar nerds don’t even know who he is, and we owe him a considerable debt. George Beauchamp invented the first fully functional electric guitar pickup. And he put his pickup to work in the first commercially produced electric guitar.

It was the Roaring Twenties, and Hawaiin guitar music was #trending. George could play both the Hawaiian guitar and the Spanish guitar. But, the speakeasies of the day required more volume, and the banjo could easily be heard over a guitar.

So, around 1926, Beauchamp walked into a shop owned by John Dopyera, a European-born instrument maker, and threw down the challenge to make this thing (his guitar) louder. And together, they developed the acoustic resonator guitar.

Both men were thinking about amplifying an acoustic guitar, and the acoustic guitar’s vibrations are focused around the bridge, and the soundbox is responsible for amplifying the sound. So, they made resonating cones out of spun aluminum and attached them to the bridge like an acoustic horn amplified a phonograph. It actually makes sense.

The following events are much more involved (and a story for another time). But, Beauchamp managed to get the tri-cone resonator into the hands of Sol Hoopii (a famous Hawaiin guitarist at the time). He also commissioned the Sol Hoopii Trio to play a house party for his cousin-in-law, Teddy Kleinmeyer. Teddy was young, wild, and wealthy from an inheritance, and he was also a playboy.

The Sol Hoopii Trio was hit, and this reflected nicely on George. Teddy was so impressed with the music and George’s invention that he agreed to fund the Beauchamp & Dopyera guitar manufacturing business. Teddy, George, and John launched The National String Instrument Corporation in January 1928.

George and John designed the guitars. But, the nickel silver bodies were outsourced to a Swiss immigrant named Adolph Rickenbacker. Rickenbacker worked as an engineer/machinist for the Hotpoint oven company before setting up his own machine shop in Los Angeles.

Adolph and George hit it off from the start, but Adolph and John locked horns. By 1929, Teddy had blown through his inheritance. John left National and started a business with his brothers called Dobro (probably short for “Dopyera Brothers”). On October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed. Beauchamp and Dopyera then ended up suing and hating each other.

Dopyera Brothers

Dopyera Brothers

One of my favorite observations of the Beauchamp/Dopyera relationship was by guitar historian Matthew Hill, “The Dopyera brothers hated one another, but they hated everybody else even more.”

But what about pickups? After all, that’s what this is all about.

I haven’t forgotten. There’s just so much backstory—trust me, I’ve left quite a bit out—to provide you with the context. I’ll continue.

Amplifying string vibrations was the problem keeping Beauchamp awake at night. And he wasn’t the only one. Many others had tried to amplify guitars and violins with little to no success.

Ideas of the electric guitar date back as far as 1890, when U.S. Navy Officer, George Breed, filed for a patent for the first electric guitar. But, he never brought the guitar to market.

Another significant event occurred in 1928 when the Stomberg-Voisinet Electro was developed. This electric hollow body guitar was designed in the modern style and used an electromagnetic pickup. Inside the body, the pickup was mounted under the guitar’s top. But, the guitar didn’t work very well and was discontinued.

This is where George Beauchamp re-enters our story. And he was puzzled because he saw the potential of the electric guitar. But amplifying a solid body?

He tried everything. He began with a microphone which worked in theory. But, there were limitations on how loud you could turn it up before unwanted feedback became a problem. Also, a microphone in front of an acoustic is not an electric guitar.

But, Beauchamp was not to be denied. His next attempt was using a telephone microphone. He took the microphone apart, pulled out the carbon button, and attached it to a guitar. And it worked but still had its limitations.

He followed the telephone effort with a phonograph—others had tried this before. He created a one-string guitar by removing the pickup, the part that converts the needle’s vibrations into electric current, and attaching a 2 x 4 plank of wood with one string.

Others had tried to amplify the vibrations of the wood. Beauchamp attempted to amplify the strings, so he mounted the phonograph pickup (without the needle) onto the wood plank. The pickup was set up to sense the vibrations of the guitar’s strings. But, where others had failed, he succeeded and came to the logical conclusion, “The string is the thing.”

Others had focused on the guitar’s top, and Beauchamp discovered that the primary source of the sound vibration came from the plucked string. Experimenting on the 2 x 4 plank guitar, Beauchamp focused on optimizing the guitar pickup design before progressing to a full-body guitar.

The Frying Pan guitar (also called the Pan-handle and the Pancake) is one of the holy grail instruments of guitar history. Beauchamp enlisted the help of his old colleagues Adolph Rickenbacker and John Dopyera to help finish the prototype and bring the instrument to market.

The Frying Pan guitar

The guitar strings’ vibrations disrupt the pickup’s magnetic field. This disruption creates an electric current that can then be amplified. This is the reason that you need steel strings on an electric guitar. I go into more detail regarding the science below in “How Does a Guitar Pickup Work?”

The Guitar Pickup

A guitar pickup is a simple device made up of one or more magnets inserted into a bobbin and wound with conductive wire. The pickup takes the energy of the vibrating strings and transforms that energy into electric signals.

The electric signals are then transferred (via your guitar’s cable) into your guitar amp. The amp then converts the electric signals to sound waves (vibrations in the speaker).

How Does a Guitar Pickup Work?

We now know what a pickup is and does, but many of you may like to know how it works. Understanding this is more than my six-string-strumming brain can handle, but I’ll give you a simplified version, and you can continue your investigation from there.

Here’s how I understand it in a nutshell

In 1831, Michael Faraday, a self-taught English scientist, believed that electricity could be generated from magnetism (electromagnetic induction). So, he put his theory to the test:

  1. Farady prepared a paper cylinder by connecting it to a wire.
  2. He coiled the wire around the paper cylinder.
  3. He then connected the wrapped cylinder to a galvanometer (a gadget that measures small electrical currents).
  4. Finally, he inserted and removed a magnet from the cylinders.

And the process generated an electric current.

But, this still left us with a debate over how a pickup produces an electrical current. Is it the magnet or the string?

  1. Magnet-centric model: A magnetic field is produced by a guitar pickup’s pole pieces. Then the string’s vibrations agitate the magnetic field, creating a magnetic flux that generates a current.
  2. String-centric model: The string is magnetized by the pickup’s pole pieces, and the string’s vibration creates its own dynamic magnetic field. This means that the coil doesn’t need to wrap around the magnet. It only needs to magnetize the strings. And this could theoretically be done by holding the magnet above the strings. (This would look weird, and we’d need to develop a palm-muting workaround).

I’m no scientist, and I’ll leave it to more intelligent people to decide whether it’s the magnet-centric or string-centric model.

For our purposes, a pickup works by converting string vibrations into electrical energy amplified into a glorious wave of guitar tones.

Let’s Talk Pickups

Above, we discussed the history and science of pickups for the curious. But many of you are just interested in learning about the pickup itself and how you can choose the proper pickup to hot rod your guitar.

The wood of your guitar, the strings, and the amp are essential to your tone production. And you should add pickups to that list. In many cases, swapping out a set of pickups is the final element in successfully attaining your dream sound.

But, pickups come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Plus, some are voiced for specific styles of music.

types of guitar pickups hot rodding

For example, you’re not going to use the same pickup to play country that you would use to play hard rock and metal. And there’s nothing worse than not getting the tone you want from your gear.

Because of the many different guitar pickups, I’ve set out to answer many questions that any guitarist new to the pickup game might have. Each pickup type deserves a deep dive, but I’m only going to cover the essential information so that you can make an intelligent buying decision.

Electric Guitar Pickup Types

Electric guitar pickups fall into three main categories; single coil, humbucker, and P90. Let’s take a closer look at each of these. Also, I discuss some considerations and dive deeper into modifications in the “Basic Pickup Maintenance” and “Typical Modifications” sections below.

Single Coil

Fender Custom Shop '54 set hot rodding

Single coil pickups are the most uncomplicated design and use a single magnet. The classic Fender Stratocaster sound is attributed to the guitar design using three single-coil pickups. Compared to humbuckers and P90s (more on these below), the single coil has a brighter sound and is used in countless other models (not just Fender).

Read also: What’s the Difference Between P90s vs Humbuckers.

Although single-coil pickups sound fantastic in practically every genre, they provide the sought-after tone for country and surf music. Single-coil pickups have two main drawbacks:

  1. They don’t work well in some of the highly distorted hard rock and metal styles, where humbuckers are the pickup of choice.
  2. They are susceptible to 60-cycle hum, which makes them noisy. But, there are alternatives. (Ed note: 60-cycle hum happens when background electrical noise gets transferred to your amp when your guitar strings vibrate.)

Ed’s Single Coils Hot Rod Suggestions

In the early 2000s, I was gifted an S-style guitar by a new guitar manufacturer for organizing a focus group and connecting them with an overseas manufacturer. This was a $2000 instrument. But, the prototype had better pickups than the one I received.

I swapped the pickups and used the Fender Custom Shop ’54 set, which I was thrilled with. The Fender Fat ’50s is a higher output version of the ’54 set. The Lace Sensors Hot Gold PUs are inspired by an NYC jazz player I met on the club scene in the early 2000s. He played in a club date band performing disco, R&B, pop, rock, you name it, all with the same guitar—a Fender USA modded with Lace Sensors.


Humbucker hot rodding

Although 1957 is generally attributed to the birth of the humbucker, the pickup was developed in late 1955 and used in Gibson steel guitars. The humbucker was advertised in the catalog as the “new, powerful hum-bucking pickups eliminate all electronics disturbances.” The “disturbances” refer to the 60-cycle hum and a marketing dig towards their Fender rivals.

Seth Lover was the Gibson engineer tasked with solving the “disturbance” issue. He did this by connecting two single-coil pickups in series (as opposed to parallel). Lover then joined the coils electrically and magnetically out-of-phase. The idea is that the signal noise of each separate coil would cancel out (or “buck”) the noise (or “hum”) of the other coil. That is how the pickup came to be known as a “humbucker.”

Humbucking pickups are known for a fuller and warmer tone than single coils. This is why they’re preferred by most jazz guitarists. But, because they produce higher output (volume), they are better suited for music styles where high levels of distortion are required. Country and surf are the only genres where you don’t see humbuckers as much as single coils. But that’s strictly a taste issue. Humbuckers perform well in practically every situation.

Ed’s Humbucker Hot Rod Suggestions

I’m a humbucker fan. If you’re looking to hot rod an entry-level L-style guitar, you can’t go wrong with the Gibson 57 Classic Humbucker Pickup set. This is based on the classic PAF sound for which the Gibson Les Paul is famous.

But, if you have something like the Epiphone Les Paul Slash model or a dual humbucker S-style, you may want to try the Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates. I threw these into my Schecter C-1 Elite and Lawdy Mama, that guitar praises like a preacher during a Sunday sermon.

Finally, in the early 90s, I was in a hard rock band. My Les Paul’s pickups were dying (I had them rewound and, eventually, rebuilt). So, I replaced them with the Zakk Wylde 81/85 EMGs. I may have lost vintage sweetness, but that guitar growled like a Harley Davidson Fat Boy. After every gig, some guitarist would ask me, “what pickups do you use?”

I recently put the original pickups back in the Les Paul and had a custom T-style guitar built with the Zakk Wylde EMGs. The EMGs give me enough headroom for jazzy stuff, and I use that as my teaching guitar.


P90 pickups

Finally, we get to the P90. The P90 pickup was developed by Walter Fuller before WWII. But it wasn’t released until after the war in 1946 as an upgrade to the P13 for Gibson. This pickup was also known as “The Charlie Christian Pickup.”

The P90 is a single coil/single magnet pickup, and they fall somewhere in between single-coil and humbucker pickups. They produce a higher output than single-coil pickups, but they have a lower output than the humbucker.

Soundwise, their tone is a bit thicker (or fuller) than your standard single coil, but not as full and warm as humbuckers. Again, they fall somewhere between the two. But, the difference between the P90 and classic single-coil sound can be attributed to the wider bobbin used in the P90.

P90 pickups are incredibly versatile and perform well in most styles of music. But they really shine in blues and classic rock styles of music. They were also the sound of jazz from the thirties through the fifties until the humbucker was developed.

Ed’s P90 Hot Rod Suggestions

I’m becoming a huge fan of the underrated P90, and I don’t have a guitar outfitted with P90s. But, I played the Reverend Greg Koch Model outfitted with Greg’s signature Fishman Fluence P90s through a Tone King Imperial amp and the sound made me blush.

These PUs are on my wish list—the guitar plays great but it’s too heavy for me (I have shoulder issues). Here’s Greg’s Signature Fishman Fluence P90s in Black and his Signature Fishman Fluence P90s in Cream (which I like with a tortoise pickguard). is a free resource for all guitarists but isn’t free to produce. So, if you want to buy something new, please use our affiliate links. That helps us out more than you know. It keeps the lights on and allows us to create more content for you. Thanks!

A Final Word from the Pickup Whisperer

New Players

After you’ve been around the block a few times, you’ll know what to look for and, more importantly, what to listen for. For now, try a matched set of pickups.

Experienced Players

I sometimes create custom sets. It depends on the guitar and my needs. For example, I use a hot-rodded S-style for hard rock with a custom set of S-S-S Dimarzios. But, I also have a set of Eric Johnson H-H Dimarzios and a custom set of Seymour Duncan H-S-H.

I’ve been tone chasing for decades. And during that time, I’ve switched from tube amps and analog circuits to amp sims and multi-effects pedalboards. But, my main guitars are still my main guitars. As for the tone, I’m getting closer. Please let me know in the comments how your tone-chasing quest is going.

Basic Pickup Maintenance

bridge vs neck pickup

Dusty Pickups Are Not Cool

Not many people talk about how to perform simple maintenance on your guitar pickups. And a little bit of dust may not seem like much of a problem, but it can cause issues over time.

Let me take you through this easy process if you want your guitar to perform at its best. It’s as easy as 1-2-3, and I do this every time I change the strings.

  1. Wipe away the dust and dirt using a soft, dry cloth
  2. Use a can of compressed air to clean the dust that slips into the cracks and crevices of the pickup
  3. Wipe with a cloth one more time, then put strings back on

I also take advantage of this procedure to quickly look for loose screws, cracks in the pickup mount, and rust.

Rust Is Not the Way to Relic Your Guitar

A small amount of rust is more of an aesthetic concern than a performance issue that compromises your tone. However, excessive rust should be dealt with sooner rather than later. Here, I suggest using a non-acidic and non-toxic rust remover.

Dab a small amount on a dry cloth and treat it like you’re polishing the pickup’s magnetic poles. If you get any rust remover on the paint or the guitar’s body, simply wipe it off as quickly as you can.

Next, use a different clean, dry cloth to clear the remaining rust remover and loose bits.

Typical Modifications

Swap Out Those Bad Boys: Upgrade Your Pickups

Personalizing our sound is part of the tone-chasing journey. We chase that magical sound in our heads as we imagine the perfect solo composed of creative note selection, executed with perfect time, delivered with emotionally-charged phrasing, and smothered in just the right amount of mids, overdrive, and reverb.

You hit the note, slightly bend it and listen to it bloom and evaporate into a cloud of sonic goodness where everything in the world is perfect for a micro-moment.

Jazz Pickups

But first, there are a few considerations to ponder before you start yanking out the lungs of your beloved six-string.

Whether upgrading a budget or mid-priced guitar or looking to improve or change your guitar’s sound, you need to have an idea in mind or what your sonic goal is.

Here are some considerations to think about before diving in and taking the chance of making a poor decision. Especially if you’re unsure of your new pickup choice.

  • What does your current tone lack? More mids, less bass, clarity, warmth, etc., you need to be specific and, as difficult as it is, try to verbalize what your tone lacks.
  • Do you know what you’re upgrading to? Educate yourself if you’re just starting out and unsure which pickup make and model choice to make. While the opinions of others are essential, you still have to make (and live with) your decision. Also, listen to sound samples if you can’t hear the real deal. But, remember, the audio will be compressed, and you’re better off listening with headphones.
  • Choose with your ears and not your eyes. This is good to do with a friend. One of you can play while the other listens. Compare notes.
  • What do some of your favorite guitarists have in common? I realized early on that I love the sound of Les Pauls and 335s with humbuckers. But, I’m sometimes required to emulate single-coil sounds. So, I split (or tap) the coils (more on this below).

Once you’ve chosen your new pickups and swapped the old for the new, you can stop there; i.e., if you’re achieving the tonal results that you wanted. And, I suggest living with this sound for a while.

But, if you’re still tone chasing, there are a couple of simple tricks you can do. The first trick is adjusting the pickup height.

The Growing Pains of Pickup Height

Like many of you, I never thought much about pickup height. I always figured that the techs at the factory knew what they were doing. That is, until I visited a brand-name factory—a story for another time. Then, I moved to South America and needed a guitar tech. I should’ve known better; today, I’ve got a great tech. But, finding him was tough, and expensive.

I entrusted the Bad Tech Boy with my Les Paul, and when I got it back, the pickups were practically touching the strings. I have to add that he proudly pointed that “feature” out. But, the pickups, being that close to the strings, caused the magnet-to-string ratio to overload. And the magnetic pull was too much for the strings. Resulting in no sustain or definition, and the tone was horrible.

fender usa standard stratocaster pickup

I was livid. I grabbed my guitar and told Bad Tech Boy I wouldn’t pay him. He was very apologetic and offered to do all he could to fix it. But I wasn’t having any of it. I went home and called my old tech in New York.

He told me to relax and added that this was an easy fix. He advised me to get a machinist’s (steel) ruler and a small screwdriver. Next, he texted the following settings:

  • Stratocaster Pickup Height: bass side, 2mm; treble side, 1.6 mm.
  • Humbucker Pickup Height: bass side, 2.4mm; treble side, 2.4mm.
  • P90 Pickup Height: bass side, 1.6mm; treble side, 1.6mm.

I adjusted my pickups to the factory standard. Then, I played, listened, and adjusted the pickup heights. I fine-tuned the pickup heights using my ears and was pleased with the results.

In the end, the Bad Tech Boy did me a favor. I ended up adjusting the pickup heights on all of my guitars.

Tap It or Split It: I’m Talking Coils

As I said above, I love humbuckers, but I need more versatility. So, I went to my favorite guitar technician and asked him to split the humbucker and install a push/push pot (not the more popular push/pull pot).

But first, what’s the difference between coil splitting and coil-tapping? Yes, there’s a difference.

  • Coil Splitting: Splits the humbucker. As we discussed above, a humbucker is made up of two coils. The coil split can be engaged from a push pot or a mini-toggle switch. And, when it’s engaged, it cancels one of the coils giving you a single-coil sound.
  • Coil Tapping: Grabs (or “taps”) the signal from the midpoint of the pickup. You can tap the coil of both the single-coil and humbucker pickups. You’ll notice a volume dip as well. But, the resulting sound is more of a vintage sound.

This is a simple way of getting more tonal variety from your guitar without changing pickups. But, this is a little more complicated than a typical guitar setup, so unless you have some experience with electronics, I suggest taking it to a technician.

Now you’re probably wondering, which is best, coil splitting or coil-tapping? It’s really a matter of preference. I prefer coil splitting because I find that the “split” sound replicates the single-coil sound better. I also find coil splitting to be more versatile.

I’m not saying that coil splitting is better. I just like it better for my needs. I also have some coil-tapping friends who swear by the coil-tapped tone. When you’re this deep into your tone-chasing journey, it’s a matter of preference. I suggest you find a way to try each one out.

Or, you can do what I did: I had the tap installed first and lived with it for about a month. Then I asked my tech to switch it to a split, the resulting sound was a no-brainer. I immediately noticed the difference and never looked back.

Mini-Toggle Switches Are Tiny Tone Tweakers

You can also install a mini-toggle switch to do a variety of things. The two most popular are series/parallel and phase reversal.

Series or Parallel: There Is a Difference

Humbuckers are usually wired in series to get the most output from the guitar. But, the drawback is that you also get a darker tone. So, if you rewire the humbucker in parallel, you’ll get a brighter and cleaner tone with about 20% less output.

It’s a subtle color that I had on my Gibson ES-335, and I used it quite a bit for club dates when I didn’t own a single-coil outfitted guitar. It did the job nicely. I’ve since had the mini-toggle rewired to give me Clapton’s woman tone in one quick flick-of-the-switch.

Gibson ES-335

Turn that Phase Around

I was a teenager, and one of the older players that frequented the guitar shop (my after-school hangout) mentioned Peter Green’s unique Les Paul tone and the “out of phase” sound. Being a Les Paul lover, my ears perked at the idea of a mysterious trick that would give me a one-up on my guitar-playing peers.

Phase reversal is also called phase inversion. When phase reversal occurs, the resulting sound is out of phase, which can sound nasty. But, if controlled, it can add a pleasant sonic texture to your overall sound.

I didn’t know what phase reversal was, and it took a few listens, but I eventually identified Peter Green’s brighter and somewhat nasally tone on the “Black Magic Woman” solo. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite tones.

And it’s an easy modification that can be achieved in one of two ways:

  1. You can invert the pickup or reverse the magnet.
  2. Switch the hot lead to the ground connection and the ground connection to the controls.

My Favorite Pickup Mod: Blend Knob (It Blew My Mind)

I’m a stickler for the clean sound (with a little breakup) on the neck pickup. I like to roll off the volume and tone for different clean textures, which compromises my bridge pickup. I set everything to work off the clean neck pickup.

But this leaves my bridge pickup a little too harsh. Also, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton used to roll back the tone of the bridge pickup, and I always liked that sound. So, I end up wrestling with the bridge’s tone control every night and in every venue. This led me to visit my guitar tech and pester him with my tonal objections.

My guitar tech grabbed a hideously painted S-style guitar and told me to give it a spin. It had a Humbucker-Single-Humbucker (HSH) configuration and three control knobs that I thought were volume-tone-tone.

I fiddled with the guitar and then gave him a confused look. I am trying to adjust the bridge’s tone, but the control knob is not responding as expected. He tells me, “Master volume, master tone.” I look more confused and fiddle some more. I finally ask, “Then what does this do?” As I point to the third knob. He told me the third control knob blends a little bit of the neck pickup into the bridge position.

Subtle but powerful. I absolutely love this, and I’m currently having two guitars made that will include this mod as part of the electronics. I’m having guitars custom made because of my shoulder issues and the pain I experience due to the guitar’s weight. Sign up for the newsletter as I’ll be posting updates there.

10 Common Pickup FAQs

Question: What’s the difference between Alnico and ceramic pickups?

Answer: Alnico (an acronym for aluminum, nickel, and cobalt) is a family of iron alloys. On the other hand, Ceramic magnets are made from ferrites (a mixed oxide of iron and one or more other metals). But, both Alnico and ferrites are used to make permanent magnets. Ceramic magnets generate a stronger magnetic field than Alnico, resulting in a slightly hotter-sounding pickup with more treble response. So, what’s the difference tonewise:

1. Alnico magnets sound rounder, warmer, and smoother/sweeter. Also, they can be more dynamic, responding better to your playing style. But, they won’t push the amp as hard as their ceramic counterparts.
2. Ceramic magnets have a higher output than Alnicos, resulting in a brighter and more transparent tone with some scooped mids. They also perform well under heavy distortion. The downside is that they can sound harsh, brittle, and thin.

Question: What’s the difference between passive and active guitar pickups?

Answer: Passive pickups have a lower output than active pickups because active pickups need an external power source (like a battery). Active pickups give your sound more power and a more consistent tone than a passive pickup. But how does it affect your guitar tone:

1. Passive pickups make your tone more expressive because the pickup is more sensitive to the strings’ vibrations. They also pick up more subtle nuances in your playing, giving your music a greater range, and they’re more affordable than guitars and basses with active pickups. But, this comes at a cost as passive pickups have limited output and feedback easier than active pickups.
2. Active pickups provide a cleaner sound and handle high-gain distortions better than passive pickups. They also offer better tone with a lower-quality guitar or bass. But, guitars with active pickups are more expensive than guitars with passive pickups. You also need to keep an eye on the battery because when it runs out, your instrument is useless. Lastly, battery replacement can be a headache but newer models are experimenting with recharging the battery via USB.

Can you damage a guitar pickup?

Answer: Guitar pickups have a simple yet sturdy design, and they don’t have moving parts, so it’s difficult to permanently damage them. But, they can deteriorate under certain conditions. Here are four things that you should look out for:

1. Exposure to other powerful magnets: smaller magnets shouldn’t be an issue. But an amplifier’s transformer is a magnetic device with enough power to demagnetize a pickup.
2. Exposure to moisture: long-term exposure to moisture can cause rust and corrosion. Short-term exposure, like sweat, is okay. But, to be safe, you should wipe down your guitar pickups with a dry cloth after every gig and/or practice session if you sweat a lot.
3. The Coil: The coil (or wire) wrapped around the pickup is about the thickness of a human hair and is extremely delicate. But you don’t have direct access to it. The only way to damage it is to scratch or cut the coil; the only way to do that is by dismantling the pickup.
4. Solder Joints can come loose, weaken over time, and even break. But, the repair is relatively easy if you know how to solder (and, if you don’t, it’s easy to learn how). The risk here is not only that your tone will be negatively affected but that a loose or broken solder can cause a short circuit, damaging your pickup permanently.

Question: How many types of guitar pickups are there?

Answer: There are two types of pickups: single-magnet (single coils and P90s) and double-magnet (humbuckers). 

Question: How do I choose guitar pickups?

Answer: It depends on the sound that you’re looking for:
1. Single coils are bright, chimey, and/or twangy.
2. Humbuckers are warm, full, and beefy.
3. P90s fall somewhere between fuller than single coils and brighter than humbuckers.

Question: How do I know if my guitar has a bad pickup ?

Answer: You can tell by the sound. A lousy pickup loses clarity and can begin to sound nasal. Either way, you can use a multimeter to test the pickup to see if it’s performing correctly. If the pickup reading generates a steady number, then the pickup is working correctly. If the reading fluctuates, then there’s a problem with the pickup.

Question: What are guitar pickups made of?

Answer: An electric guitar pickup is made up of three elements:

1. Six magnetic bars
2. A black bobbin
3. Wire 

Six magnets are used to pick up the sound better from the vibrations of the six strings. These magnets are inserted into the bobbin and wrapped with enameled wire. Also, some pickups use metal rods instead of magnets.

Question: What makes pickups sound different?

Answer: Three primary factors affect the sound of the pickup:

1. Electrical structure: The single coil detects less string area than the humbucker. More string area equals more overtone detection.
2. Winding: A tighter wind (or high wind) creates more output and richer overtones when using high amounts of distortion. A looser wind (or low wind) provides more top-end sparkle with less drive and a tighter low-end. This is important to note when choosing between a “high-wind” or a “low-wind” pickup.
3. Wire gauge: Small gauge wires can muffle the high end.

Question: What does it mean when you have a ‘hot’ pickup?

Answer: Hot refers to the output. Classic or vintage pickups are considered reference points. And these types of pickups were designed to deliver a balanced and precise representation of the guitar’s natural sound. Hot pickups have been modified to create a higher output; therefore, the signal they generate hits the amplifier’s front end harder, overdriving the amp more easily.

Question: How does pickup height affect the tone?

Answer: Pickup height affects output, warmth, clarity, and string-to-string balance. It can possibly affect intonation and sustain. Many players will lower a pickup to achieve a jazzier or cleaner sound, which can cause problems. Conversely, raising a pickup too high (for more output) also can create new issues.

1. A pickup that’s too low can lead to weaker output and a thinner tone. Also, there can be a tonal imbalance between pickup positions.
2. A pickup that is too high can create an overload between the string/magnet relationship resulting in lost sustain and definition.

I go into greater detail on this topic below.

Final Thoughts

For those that read this entire pickup manifesto, I congratulate you and appreciate you. The truth is that I’m grateful to all the readers, even the power perusers (which I’m guilty of from time to time).

As you can see, there are plenty of options to upgrade, modify, and hot rod your guitar while personalizing your tone. Some are relatively inexpensive, while others can cost more than the guitar is worth. But tell that to Eddie Van Halen, who took a chisel to a Gibson Les Paul Gold Top and a hacksaw to a 1961 Gibson ES-335. The latter, he told Guitar World, “I loved that guitar.”

If EVH hadn’t put those classic Gibsons on his makeshift guitar operating table, the Frankenstrat wouldn’t have been born. The guitar community would’ve missed out on many revolutionary innovations by Eddie’s creation.

There is no price that you can put on the sheer joy of playing an instrument that feels, sounds, and performs just how you imagined it would. And, in some cases, it is better than first imagined.

We play because we love to play. We chase tones because our imagination is inspiring us to new heights. We never arrive at that elusive perfect tone because ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist. And every experience that we have changes our perception of perfection.

But that doesn’t stop us from tone chasing.

Thanks for reading. Remember, practice smart and play from the heart.

Find me
Latest posts by Ed Lozano, Managing Editor, Guitar Space (see all)