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You are here: Home > Advice > Electric Guitar Basic's > Guide To Pickups

Guide To Pickups

Single-coil pickups

The first electric guitars all used single-coil pickups. A single-coil pickup has only one coil of wire. It may have a single magnet, a single magnet with screws for adjustable pole pieces, or a separate magnet for each string. Regardless of the number and arrangement of magnets, it is still a single coil pickup if it has only one coil of wire. 

Single Coil

Unfortunately, in addition to producing an electrical signal from a vibrating magnetic field, a coil of wire is a very efficient antenna. A coil of wire will "pluck" electromagnetic radiation out of the air, and we are surrounded everywhere by this radiation - most notably the sixty-cycle hum from building wiring, electrical noises from fluorescent lighting, and the most recent source of noise troubling guitarists with single coil pickups: the computer monitor. In short, single-coil pickups are susceptible to hum.

The single-coil sound

Single-coil pickups have a thin, clean, and transparent sound. These pickups are usually about 3/4th of an inch wide and 2-1/2 inches long. Single-coil pickups are common on Fender guitars such as the Stratocaster and Telecaster, two guitars that are very common in rock, country, and pop. Some of the most notable users of the Fender Strat single-coil sound include Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Famous Telecaster players include Bruce Springsteen, James Burton, Mickey G & Danny Gatton.

Humbucker pickups

As early as 1935, Gibson introduced the first electro-magnetic pickup, referred to as the "bar." The first model this appeared on was the Gibson "Hawaiian Electric," but was quickly adapted to the ES-150 model by 1936 and Gibson banjos by 1938. Made famous by electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian, the "bar" pickup was extremely successful. Even today it is known as the "Charlie Christian" pickup.

HumbuckerIn the 1950s Ted McCarty, president of Gibson and an engineer by training, assigned Walt Fuller and Seth Lover the task of designing a pickup that would not be prone to "humming" in the presence of transformers, rheostats, and other electrical interference. Lover began work in 1954 and a year later filed a patent application for a pickup that utilized two coils to cancel or "buck" the hum, commonly known as "humbuckers."

A humbucker uses two coils and either two magnets (or sets of magnets), or pole pieces at opposite ends of a single magnet. Contrary to popular belief it is incorrect, or at least very misleading, to say that the two coils are "out-of-phase." When speaking strictly of electrical coils by themselves, they are said to be "in-phase" when they are wound the same direction. However, pickups are said to be "in-phase" when their signals are in phase (the signal generated in one pickup adds to the signal generated in the other, instead of subtracting from it). In a humbucking pickup, the two coils are wound with opposing electrical polarity, but the magnetic polarity for each coil is also reversed. Without going into great technical detail, this means simply that each coil carries two signals; the string vibration signal, which is reinforced, producing a thick, meaty sound, and the noise signal, which is cancelled.

The Humbucker sound

The humbucker was featured on two models of Les Pauls in 1957, the goldtop Standard and the three-pickup Les Paul Custom. The warm, smooth, double-coil sound of the Gibson Les Paul is a favorite for rock, blues, pop, and jazz. While most of the guitarists mentioned above have played Gibson guitars, the most famous players whose sound is associated with the double-coil "humbucker" sound include in Jimmy Page, Joe Perry & Slash.

Many guitars have a combination of single- and double-coil pickups. It's also common for a double-coil pickup to have a switch that will turn one of the coils off to offer the player a choice between single- and double-coil.