Electric guitars rarely have only one pickup, but one-pickup guitars do exist. Normally, guitars have two or three pickups installed. This may prompt the question of whether the number of pickups makes any significant difference in the sound.
Does having more pickups improve a guitar's tone/sound? Having more pickups won't necessarily improve tone and may even worsen the tone due to electromagnetic interference between pickups (especially if they're very close together). However, two or three pickups will increase the variety of tonal possibilities as we swap and combine the pickup outputs.
In this article, we'll discuss how adding pickups may or may not improve tone and consider examples of guitars with one or multiple pickups.
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Does Having More Pickups Improve A Guitar's Tone/Sound?
Increasing the number of pickups will not necessarily improve the tone of the guitar.
However, by having multiple pickups, we will have more control over the tone and sound of the guitar. For example, if we need a treble-heavy tone, we can engage the bridge pickup. If we want a warmer tone, we can engage the neck pickup. If we want something more balanced, we can engage both. If we're after more midrange, perhaps engaging the middle pickup (if the guitar has one) will get us what we need.
In short, extra pickups won't improve the tone per se but will allow for more versatility in your output.
Depending on the location of the pickup, the characteristics of the sound will change. This is because, depending on the location, strings are more or less restricted in movement.
When playing around the bridge pickup, you will get brighter notes, for the strings are so close to the anchor point that they're basically stiffer, so the frequency is higher in that area. The fundamentals and low frequencies are effectively weakened.
As we approach the neck, the strings are freer, and their oscillation is wider, so the vibration is less compressed, rendering a warmer tone with stronger fundamentals and low harmonics.
Note that bridge pickups tend to be wired to output stronger signals in an attempt to make up for the smaller vibrations and naturally lower signals.
The Case For One Pickup
Several experts affirm that it's overkill to place more than one pickup on an electric guitar, arguing that guitars with multiple pickups don't offer that much more tonal variety than a single pickup could. Of course, this is a technical impossibility, though the tonal variety may certainly be negligible.
There is a myriad of other arguments presented in favour of using only one pickup. They can be all summarized as follows:
- Strings are freer to move and easier to play (without obstruction), producing a more “natural” guitar sound.
- The design is more elegant and practical.
- By having multiple pickups, the signals are subjected to electromagnetic interference, are more filtered and, as a result, end up sounding dimmer.
- Most guitarists use the bridge pickup almost exclusively.
Although the first and second arguments are somewhat granted (albeit the second could be deemed subjective), the third and fourth are debatable. While there may be some truth to those statements, the differences are at times dismissed as relative or mild, while detractors point to all the other advantages of a multiple-pickup build.
One of the biggest disadvantages of having only one pickup is relying solely on the guitar's amplifier or control knobs to manage tonality. When having multiple pickups installed in key spots, you may be able to handle your sound delivery on the spot without having to rely on equalizers.
Nevertheless, a clear advantage of this type of setup is its simplicity and the ability to cut down manufacturing costs, which theoretically should be able to make them more affordable for guitarists with a limited budget.
As a side note, most one-pickup guitars have theirs installed near the bridge.
The Gibson Les Paul Junior is a famous guitar with a single pickup featuring a Gibson P-90 single-coil bridge pickup.
Gibson is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
The Kramer Baretta Vintage is another example of a single-pickup guitar. It has an angled Seymour Duncan JB bridge humbucker pickup.
Two Vs. Three Pickups
A great majority of guitars are made with only two pickups instead of three. These are positioned right next to the fretboard (neck pickup) and the bridge (bridge pickup).
It's rightly argued that, by introducing a third pickup between the other two, playability is more compromised since the area occupied by the pickup restricts handling. Additionally, having pickups too close together will cause some amount of interference, which may or may not degrade the audio signals.
With two pickups, you should be able to get enough nuances in tone, which is why most guitar manufacturers rely on this setup as a winning formula and a perfect middle ground.
The PRS SE Custom 24 is an example of an electric guitar with two humbucker pickups (neck and bridge).
PRS is featured in My New Microphone's Top 13 Best Electric Guitar Brands In The World.
The Fender Telecaster is an example of an electric guitar with two single-coil pickups (neck and bridge).
Fender is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
The Gretsch G2215-P90 Streamliner Junior Jet Club has a P-90 soap bar single-coil neck pickup and a Broad'Tron BT-25 humbucker bridge pickup.
Gretsch is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
Three pickups, as should be expected, offer a wider range. However, it should be evaluated whether one can sacrifice practicality for the sake of further tonal gradation.
Of course, it should be stressed that one of the most popular guitars of all time, the Fender Stratocaster, is built with three single-coil pickups. This means that three-pickup guitars should not be automatically discounted. This should also indicate that, in the end, many other features alter the feel and sound of the guitar, and while the pickup distribution is one of them, it's not the only factor.
Most guitars with a three-pickup design use single coils, whereas few manufacturers install three humbuckers or P90s. Some guitars alternate between double-coil and single-coil pickups.
Some of the Gibson Custom 1957 Les Paul Reissue go all in, packing 3 humbucker pickups for the neck, middle and bridge.
Multiple Pickups Vs. Multiple Coils
People shouldn't confuse multiple pickups with multiple coils. Coils are the magnet rows contained in a single pickup. In that sense, one pickup may have one or two coils. Single-coil pickups were manufactured first, while double-coil pickups came soon after.
In 1934, Electro-Voice came up with double-coil pickups in order to address the hum produced by single-coil pickups. By having two rows of magnets in very close proximity to each other, each would basically cancel out the other's hum or noise, producing a very clean and warm sound.
However, this hardly made a dent in the popularity of single-coil pickups. During the western swing craze of the '40s and '50s, performers and audiences were enamoured with the “twangy” sound of single-coil guitars. Humbuckers simply could not render tone with sufficient high-frequency content to make them fit for this type of music.
Electro-Voice is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section below! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!
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