People who set the pickups of their guitars too high may find themselves touching them regularly during a performance, either with a pick or with their fingers. If you’ve ever experienced this or are wondering whether making contact with a pickup may be detrimental to you or the pickup, keep reading.
Is it bad/damaging to touch guitar pickups? There is no solid evidence suggesting that touching guitar/bass pickups can cause damage. Pickups are transducers that produce small amounts of voltage that won’t cause harm. Damaging the pickup should not be an issue unless the pickup is exposed to hard impacts or metal with strong magnetism.
In this article, we’ll focus on the processes behind a pickup’s functionality, how they may or may not affect the player and how a pickup can be damaged from contact.
How Does A Guitar Pickup Work?
We affirmed earlier that touching a pickup is not bound to produce any harm or damage to the guitarist or the pickup itself. Yet, to understand why that is so, we should summarize how a traditional magnetic pickup operates.
A magnetic pickup is a transducer that transforms the vibrational energy from the strings into electric energy through electromagnetic induction. This alternating current (audio signal) mimics the sound waves produced by the vibrating strings.
The audio signal ultimately travels through the wiring and output of the guitar and arrives at the amplifier. The average output voltage produced by a pickup is generally between 100-400 mV.
Pickups are usually passive and require external equipment to boost the signal. Most guitars carry passive pickups by default.
Some pickups, known as “active pickups,” have a preamp module incorporated, powered by a 9V battery, responsible for filtering noise and enhancing volume. These pickups output stronger audio signals, though they also require additional gain stages for recording and sound reproduction purposes.
For more information on active and passive pickups, check out my article Are Active Guitar Pickups Or Passive Guitar Pickups Better?
The pickups of electric guitars and basses take the place of the traditional soundbox or soundhole found in acoustic/classical guitars. Their capacity hinges on the quality of the magnets and the coiling rather than on the body design and material.
So the typical pickup is designed with a magnetic core complete with a pole piece for each string. This magnetic core is wound with a coil of conductive wire. This is all housed in and protected by a bobbin. As the vibrating strings disrupt the magnetic field, electricity is produced within the coil.
Can A Pickup Cause Damage From Touching?
At most, pickups could cause mild physical traumas such as abrasion if one plays repeatedly hits it for an extended period. As a way to solve this, it’s recommended to lower the pickup to a point where sound is not terribly compromised while your playing hand is more at ease. Other than that, no serious injuries should result from approaching a pickup.
In terms of electrical damage, pickups, by themselves, are not liable to inflict any. The voltage produced is not enough to be perceptible to humans.
Nevertheless, a poorly-grounded pickup or similar piece of equipment may potentially provoke electrical shocks. However, these shocks are most often produced by touching the strings and not directly from touching the pickup.
Besides, this happens only when the guitar is connected to an electrical device through the cable jack. A guitar pickup on its own will not produce enough energy or current to create these types of shocks.
Electric guitars are generally considered harmless, but there are safety hazards that might arise, for example, from poor wiring in a performance venue. In fact, there have been instances of famous guitarists receiving nearly fatal electric shocks on stage, such as Keith Richards’s case during a Rolling Stones concert in 1965. These are usually the result of faulty connections with ungrounded mic stands or vintage amplifiers designed with non-polarized plugs.
Related article: Why Do I Get An Electrical Shock When I Touch My Microphone?
Can A Pickup Be Damaged From Touching?
From the perspective of the pickup itself, there is no possible way to cause immediate damage to a pickup by touching it with your fingers. Still, if you constantly rub your fingers against the magnets, all the sweat and dirt from your fingers will be transferred to the pole’s surface. In the long term, the pole pieces will start developing signs of corrosion.
Moreover, human sweat contains salt, which can make its way into the pickup’s coil and produce a short circuit. Meanwhile, salt has the property of accelerating the corrosion process by boosting the movement of electrons from iron to water and, thus, the iron loses consistency and strength. Needless to say, this will affect the pickup’s performance, as the iron loses some of its mass and incorporates atoms from other elements.
Regardless of what we explained above, there is no real, immediate danger resulting from your fingers touching the pickups, let alone accidental touches.
However, a more palpable risk may arise when metal objects are involved, especially those with strong magnetic properties.
It will admittedly take more than accidental touches with a screwdriver to demagnetize a pickup. You would need to purposely rub the metal part against the surface of the pole piece to do the smallest amount of demagnetization. Conversely, soldering guns create heavy electromagnetic fields that are capable of putting in danger the pickup’s magnetic force.
Similarly, when the magnet poles come into contact with stronger rare earth magnets, the magnetic force of the weaker magnet will be pulled by the stronger one. This process of decreasing a residual magnetic field is called degaussing, named after the gauss, a unit of magnetism coined in honour of Carl Friedrich Gauss.
Alnico pickups are some of the most sensitive when it comes to demagnetization or degaussing. Exposure to physical shock, stray magnetic fields, and temperature shifts will take a heavy toll on the magnet’s strength and residual flux.
To learn more about alnico magnets and pickups, check out my article Ceramic Guitar Pickups Vs. Alnico Guitar Pickups.
Another thing to keep in mind is the occasional bumps. When your pickup receives hard hits, the bobbin can break, exposing the coil underneath. The coil’s copper wire is very thin (almost a hair’s diameter). It’s reasonable to expect that these wires could shift or break, affecting or even nullifying the sound output. However, the winding is tight enough, and the bobbin is protective enough to keep the coil safe under normal conditions.
For additional protection, pickups covers could be beneficial for the pickups.
For more info on pickups covers, check out my article Do Guitar Pickup Covers Affect Tone?
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.