No two electric guitars or basses sound the same. Various factors can intervene in tonal quality, one of them unmistakably being the pickup arrangement. Guitars hardly come with only one pickup, many of them sporting two or even three pickups. Readers may be wondering if the number of pickups makes any significant difference.
What are the differences between using one, two and three guitar pickups? The differences between 1, 2 and 3-pickup guitars are primarily in the tonal range. Strings vibrate differently along their lengths—pickups (neck, bridge, middle) capture audio with various frequency responses and output levels. Switching between and combining pickups gives greater tonal variety.
In this article, we'll begin with how a pickup operates to understand the science behind multiple pickups. Once we cover the basics, we'll discuss the mechanism behind the differences between pickups, along with the advantages and disadvantages of having two or three pickups instead of one.
How Does A Pickup Operate?
As stated earlier, electric guitars may have two and three pickups, each one offering a different tonal frequency depending on its position. Nevertheless, to understand these differences, it's convenient to review the main features of a guitar pickup and how it operates.
The pickup is a device comprised of several magnetic poles or bars embedded in a bobbin which, in turn, lies inserted below the strings in the guitar's body. Its main function is to create a magnetic field that “picks up” the strings' vibrations and transforms them into electrical audio signals.
Pickups may have one or two coils. You may be able to identify the number of coils usually by the number of magnet rows visible. The coils are the circuits operating below the bobbin, attached to the magnets by several turns.
Originally, pickups only sported one coil. It was not until the 1950s that the first dual-coil pickups started to be installed on guitars.
Dual-coil pickups are also called humbuckers. The name derives from the purpose of their design, which is to reduce the 60 Hz humming that afflicts single-coil pickups. This is achieved by winding each coil in opposite polarity in order to attain noise cancellation.
The Reasons Behind The Differences
Pickups operate similar to antennas, capturing the disturbances in their immediate surroundings. Depending on the positioning, they will highlight the frequencies produced in the immediate area.
Thus, the pickup's position relative to the guitar's body will determine the sound's frequency.
As it reaches the strings' anchor point, namely the bridge, the vibration becomes restricted, especially at the fundamental and low frequencies, which results in a thinner, more treble-rich sound.
Around the middle, where the neck and body meet, the strings vibrate with wider oscillations, and lower frequency content (harmonics) is better represented.
A guitar with multiple pickups has a wider tonal range, meaning that if the strings' vibration is triggered near the bridge, the bridge pickup will detect most of the disturbance, resulting in a brighter sound. Conversely, the middle and/or neck pickup will be prominently disturbed by playing the strings near the neck, rendering a warmer sound.
On paper, owners of guitars with multiple-pickup arrangements are at an advantage, for they're able to portray a myriad of tonal nuances with more ease in contrast to having only one pickup.
However, this last assertion is not without detractors.
Is It Better To Have Multiple Pickups?
Various hard rock and glam rock guitarists love having only one pickup. Some of the most prominent guitarists favouring single-pickup guitars include Allan Holdsworth, Eddie Van Halen, Keith Richards, and Billie Joe Armstrong.
Some specialists assert that owning a guitar with more than one pickup is not really necessary since there will be no real, discernible differences in tonality. They further state that the real drive behind tonal nuances lies in the guitarist's particular abilities rather than the guitar's architecture.
These are some of the most common arguments in favour of using one pickup:
- Strings can vibrate with more freedom, which results in a more “natural” guitar sound.
- Playability is improved, as the pickups won't restrict the movement of the playing hand.
- Having more pickups is overkill and they end up increasing manufacturing costs.
- Most guitarists end up using mostly the bridge pickup anyways. In fact, most one-pickup guitars have their pickup installed near the bridge (e.g., Gibson ES-150, Les Paul Junior, etc.)
- There is less magnetic force exerted on the strings, resulting in better sustain, resonance, and tuning accuracy.
For more information on single-pickup guitars, check out my article Why Do Some Guitars Only Have One Pickup?
Even though many advocates of multiple pickups could grant, at least partially, the first three arguments, the fourth and fifth are still debatable and, furthermore, they don't address the versatility problem.
Having only one pickup has one significantly major flaw (at least from the point of view of multiple-pickup advocates): You will have to rely solely on the amplifier or the guitar's control knobs to handle tone. Conversely, you can do that almost on the spot with multiple pickups by flipping the pickup switch to engage a different pickup (or multiple pickups) or even by changing your playing hand's position.
Three-pickup guitars naturally deliver more nuance, but it comes at a cost. By filling the space between the neck and bridge with pickups, you are ultimately left with less room for your playing hand to operate, especially if the pickups are set high. Manufacturers, furthermore, are forced to install mostly single-coil pickups to address the playability problem (although, in theory, you could still install three humbuckers).
The sweet spot, according to many, is a two-pickup arrangement. By relying on two pickups installed near the neck and bridge, the space between them grants more playing freedom for the player, meanwhile achieving a decent tonal range. You can also decide whether you want humbuckers, single coils, or a combination of both, all the while not hindering performance considerably.
To learn more about bridge and neck pickups and using them together, check out my article When To Use Bridge & Neck Pickups Together.
It should be stressed, though, that one of the most popular electric guitars of all time, the Fender Stratocaster (link to check the price at Sweetwater), sports three single-coil pickups. One should not automatically disregard three-pickup configurations as a lesser option, for other features need to be taken into account and factored into the overall analysis.
Fender is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
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