Picking a pickup
November 24, 2019
Hey Heather, it’s me again.
I’m just about finished with my guitar build. I put a lot of time in the shop during the summer and now that the lacquer finish has set I’m about to solder the pickups. I don’t really remember choosing the pickups though. I may have rushed through that decision. I just remember the part where I messed up the body using a router that went rogue on me. Anyway, I’ve added the hardware to check the fit and someone said “looks like you’ve got a humbucker there!”. Yessiree buckaroo! … I spent a week thinking that a humbucker was just another term for the bridge and saddle. It’s not. It’s a type of pickup. I learned a bit about pickups this week and I’m here to share this information.
First of all, sound.
The more I think about it, the more sound is a fascinating and weird phenomenon. You have this physical vibrating event that happens which causes air molecules to move and push adjacent air molecules back and forth until it reaches your eardrum. At that point bodily mechanisms take over receiving the vibration and transforming it to a signal that the brain will interpret as sound. There’s sooo much you could get into just trying to understand sound but let’s just keep it at that for the moment.
Now a pickup is a device that transforms energy from one form to another. A broader term for a device like this is a transducer. In the case of an electric guitar, it’ll take the vibrations produced by a moving string and will convert them into an electrical signal which is then amplified. Most of the time electric guitars will have magnetic pickups which are wrapped in copper wire. They create a magnetic field that magnetizes the guitar strings which are composed of some type of ferromagnetic material. So when the string vibrates, the magnetic field around it bends with the string. This movement affects the current that is running in the copper coil that was wound around the magnets. For now this is as much as I have understood of the general nature of pickups. This video goes into more detail on how pickups work and different things that can affect how a guitar sounds.
Now the question to ask yourself is what type of sound you want. Mostly I’ve seen the answers separated into two categories: bright or warm sound. In terms of pickups, bright is associated with single-coil pickups, and warm with dual-coil or humbucker pickups although there’s no hard line drawn. When I answered the question of choosing either bright or warm my default answer was to go with warm. This for no other reason than “I prefer the feelings associated with the word”. This was unclear to me until I looked into what the words represented in terms of actual sound but by then I had already chosen my pickups. It’s still good to know so searching a bit I found this video which does a side-by-side comparison. Besides the sound, the other impact your choice of pickups will have is whether the body will be routed with a narrow or wide space for the intended pickup. There are ways to adapt for whatever cavity you make so in the future you can still change your mind. Though it’ll just make switching a bit more complicated.