With the exception of hand-me-downs, most of us probably picked out our guitars in a similar fashion.

We notice the gear bands we admire are using, and that’s our starting point, or we get lucky on Craigslist, or we head to a shop, play a bunch of stuff, and pick what sounds best. Whatever you play, the point is, if you’re anything like me there’s a good chance you picked it out more based on sound and feel, and less on technical specs.

If you’re ready to understand your guitar’s tonal character and learn to maximize that potential, the answer lies largely in the pickups. Of course, sound also affected by other aspects of design (wood type, neck construction) – but that’s not our focus right now. Maybe you’re dissatisfied with your tonal range and it’s time to switch your pickups out for a different design, or maybe you’re just curious and ready to do some systematic experimenting to reliably get the tone you want (or as close to it as possible), in any situation. Either way, tone perfectionists: this one’s for you.

Form and Function: Single Coil vs. Humbucking Pickups

Structurally, passive pickups (i.e., any pickup that doesn’t need a battery in it; these are far more common than active pickups) can generally be divided into two groups: single coil and double coil, also known as humbuckers. Humbucking coils have been around in PA equipment since the 1930s, but it wasn’t until that Seth Lover, a designer at Gibson, realized their potential as guitar pickups in 1955. What Lover discovered was that wiring two copper coils with reverse magnetic polarities out of phase effectively canceled the 60-cycle hum that comes through a lot of single coil pickups. This blog entry from Seymour Duncan has more detailed information on phase and polarity, and a previous Nuts and Bolts entry has some information on how pickups work.

With this new design came new sounds as well. Humbuckers are responsible for that sound that many metal players worship in their Gibson SGs and the like. Here is a compare/contrast list for single coil and humbucking pickups:

Sound: Humbuckers tend to have a warmer sound and distort more readily. Single coils are generally brighter and cleaner, sometimes even twangy.

Output Level: Pickups are generally described as having either a “high” or a “moderate” (not “low,” low is bad) output. Single coil pickups are generally moderate output; humbuckers are generally high. The high output of a humbucker is what leads it to distort more readily: sending a stronger signal to the amp drives it to distortion.

Remember that these are tendencies, not rules, and that there are ways to counterbalance these properties using other elements in your setup. Some manufacturers (Seymour Duncan is a big one) even intentionally make high output single coil pickups designed to fit in a guitar not routed for usually-hotter, and always physically larger, humbuckers. There’s also the ever-popular option of P90s, which offer the crispness of a single coil but with a fatter midrange, and come in a couple of different shapes and sizes. Here are some tips for counterbalancing your pickups to tweak your sound: 

  • Clean for dirty
    Outside of “specialized” pickups like Duncans, you can totally get a clean sound with high output pickups/humbuckers by using an amp with lots of clean headroom. The Roland Jazz Chorus is widely regarded as the gold standard when it comes to this. Solid state amps in general will give you a cleaner tone, too.
  • Dirty for clean
    Likewise, you can use moderate output pickups and distort your signal to hell with pedals and a cranked tube amp. In my experience, this is the most fun: I making my Jag—a single coil instrument dismissed by some heavier players for its “thin” sound—do what it’s “not supposed to do.” But you know, you do you.


Pickup Placement: What Does the Pickup on Your Guitar “Hear?”
Depending on the placement of a pickup on your guitar’s body, it will literally pick up or “hear” whatever frequencies are most prominent on the part of the string directly above it. Each pickup on the same guitar, therefore, will send a tonally unique signal through to the output. It can get a little complicated with interactions between pickup placement and pickup style, but here’s a breakdown:

  • Bridge vs. neck
    With two (or three) of the same pickups, the neck pickup will always yield the warmest tone. The bridge will give you the brightest tone. If you have a middle pickup, it’s tone will be intermediate.You’ve probably noticed that playing by the neck makes a warmer sound compared to the twang you get playing right by the bridge. That’s because the pickup closest to where you hit the strings is hearing more of the vibrations from that impact. Strings vibrate more widely closer to their centers, which gives you less of a biting attack, and more low end frequencies. The neck pickup is, obviously, closer to the center of the string than the bridge pickup.

  • Too much of a good thing? Or can’t get enough?
    You can balance or accentuate pickup placement tendencies with different styles of pickup. If you find your humbucking neck pickup to be pretty useless, try replacing it with a single coil, maybe a P90, which fits right into a guitar body routed for humbuckers. Telecaster stock bridge pickup *still* not twangy enough for you? Look for the hottest single coil you can find (again, Duncans are good for this sort of thing).

Before You Shop: Tips on Picking Your “Pups.”
Be methodical when shopping for pickups. Try playing guitars with different pickups through the same amp, ideally one similar to yours. The amp is held constant in this experiment, so you can really tell what differences are coming from the pickups. Narrow it down to a few favorite sounds. Take note of what pickup(s) you’re using, and in what position. If you use fuzz or distortion, try your favorites out through a couple of pedals. Guitar Center or a used instrument store with a large and varied stock is a good place to do this.

Once you’ve settled on which pickups you want, you can probably find them online – just make sure they’ll fit into your pickup slots, and if not, search for a similar sounding alternative. Hold on to your old pickups. Maybe see what happens with different combinations of old and new. Just remember that swapping out one thing at a time (pickup, pedal, amp setting, whatever) goes a really long way in experimenting to find the tone of your dreams.

Installing Your New Pup:
Out with the old:

  1. Remove your strings. If you need it, a step-by-step guide is here.
  2. Remove electrical covers: either your pickguard/control plate or the panel on the back of your guitar.
  3. Lift your pickups out of the guitar body. You’re going to disconnect your current pickup from the tone/output section of your guitar’s electronics. Refer to this Nuts and Bolts entry for general information on guitar electronics, and this one for a soldering how-to.

Take the following steps one pickup at a time. Replacing one pickup at a time will help you avoid mistakes. Exercise caution and care when soldering: heat the component and not the wire, tin your tip, etc.

  1. Follow the hot and ground wires coming from each pickup currently in your guitar. Most likely both ground wires will be soldered to the back of your volume pot, and each hot wire will be soldered to a lug on your pickup selector.IMPORTANT: Before moving on, take pictures, draw a diagram or take notes of what pickup wire connects where to make sure you remember where to solder these wires from your new pups!
  2. Heat up the solder connecting pickup wires to other components and pull the wires away. Put old pickups aside.
  3. Find hot and ground wires coming from your new, replacement pickups. Solder the new hot wire to where the old hot wire was, and the new ground wire to where the old ground wire was. Voilà: Done with soldering.
  4. Replace all electronics covers, plug in and experience the difference!

If you are getting no signal or a nasty buzz, you’ve made a soldering or wiring mistake. Open your guitar back up and look for poor solder joints or wires soldered to the wrong location. The entries linked in step 2 may be sufficient, but if you’ve lost track of where wires should go, you can probably find a wiring diagram for your particular guitar online. Here are a few common ones from StewMac.

Adjusting Pickup Height
Play with your new pickups. Check them out one at a time using your pickup selector. Is one too hot? Lower it. Not enough sustain? Lower it. The magnets in your pickups are what make them work, but if they’re too close to the strings, they’ll  pull them to stillness when you want them to keep vibrating and keep ringing. If you’ve ever felt like your tone is weird and round when you’re playing on the higher frets, you probably needed to lower your pickups. I may sound like a broken record, but it’s so easy to change pickup height, and many players overlook this! That said, if your tone is muffled, you should raise the pups.

All you need is a screwdriver to fit the screws on either side of your pickups. Turning these to the left or right will let you raise or lower your pickups to maximize clarity, sustain and balanced tone. Generally, you’ll want the treble side of your pickup to be a hair higher than the bass side, but keep in mind that these are all adjustments on the order of 64ths of an inch.

If you’re still having clarity or sustain problems, it’s possible that your action is too low. This is another common problem you can totally fix at home, and we’ll get into how to do that in the next entry.

Happy modding!