No two electric guitars sound the same. This is due to a wide array of variables, but one of the most important ones is the pickups. Even pickups of the same model, brand, variety, and technology can vary depending on certain parameters and values.
What factors give guitar pickups their tone/sound? The three main factors that give pickups their tone are design, position, and technology. Various other external conditions also contribute to the performance of the pickups and the guitar's output, including the tone and volume controls, strings, cables, and signal chain.
In this article, we'll be expanding upon the factors that shape a pickup's sound, both internally and externally.
• Top 11 Benefits Of Learning & Playing Guitar
• Top 11 Best Electric Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market
• Top 8 Best Bass Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market
• How To Improve The Sound/Tone Of Guitar Pickups
The Factors That Affect The Tone/Sound Of Guitar Pickups
As exposed earlier, three main factors mould a pickup's sonic traits. These main factors contain several “sub-factors” that need further unpacking.
1. Pickup Design
Probably the most important factor. The design entails the external appearance of a pickup and the way the different components work together to deliver the final product.
Design encompasses various specifications, to wit:
1.1 Number Of Coils:
Coils are the circuits operating under a bobbin embedded by a row of magnets. Each row visually represents a coil. Pickups are generally built with one or two coils (and, to a lesser extent, even three).
Primitive electric guitars sported one-coil pickups, and they are still widely used today in some popular guitar models. Dual-coil pickups (also called “humbuckers”) were devised to address the noise issue in traditional single-coil pickups, but they didn't manage to replace the latter entirely.
Humbuckers are made of two coils attached to the magnets in polar opposites to cancel out the 60 Hz (or 50 Hz) hum and electromagnetic interference (EMI) more generally. Consequently, the output is much cleaner. However, the sound loses some of its dynamics and high-end frequencies due to noise filtering.
Therefore, single-coil pickups are a feasible alternative for many guitar players even though they aren't as rejecting of EMI as humbuckers.
As stated above, pickups are commonly made with one or two coils. These coils are comprised of enamelled copper wires wound to the magnets by several turns.
The number of turns by which the coil is wound around the magnet determines the output level. Manufacturers don't have a rule of thumb for this aspect, but generally, one would expect single-coil pickups to be wound 7,000-8,000 times, while dual-coils could reach 4,500-5,000 turns per coil. Bass pickups traditionally are wound with more turns (in other words, “hotter”) to boost the lower frequencies.
The number of turns per coil will generally determine the sound's midrange. The more turns per coil, the higher the midrange will get, making the sound “beefier” and darker. Overwound pickups will sound too “booming” and less nuanced, while an underwound pickup will deliver a very “glassy” and tinny tone.
Likewise, the winding tension and mechanism, the wire's diameter and length, as well as the distance between the coil and the magnet, will also affect resistance and the general sound of a pickup.
Some pickups have covers implemented (especially dual-coil pickups). The cover is supposed to provide more noise cancellation abilities, specifically by shielding the pickup from Radio Frequency Interference and grounding the electronics.
It's highly disputed as to what degree a cover may be responsible for the guitar's tonal change. Many argue that, by removing the cover, the tone gets sharper. This is especially the case when the cover is made out of metal. Nevertheless, it is generally believed that the cover produces a flatter response across the board.
For more information on pickup covers and guitar tone, check out my article Do Guitar Pickup Covers Affect Tone?
The type of magnets employed can define the general tone of the guitar, though the distinctions can be negligible at times.
For example, ceramic magnets tend to produce tangier notes, while alnico magnets lean on the smoother, warmer side.
There is also a difference in the magnet's shape. P90 pickups carry a magnet bar below the poles, contributing to a more “evened out” and thicker sound.
The diameter is crucial in the pickup's sustain. J-Bass pickups are made of smaller pole pieces paired parallel to each string, emphasizing the initial attack over the prolonged vibration.
To learn more about the different types of magnets employed in pickups, including neodymium, check out my article Ceramic Guitar Pickups Vs. Alnico Guitar Pickups.
1.5 Active Circuitry (Preamplifier):
Active pickups have built-in preamplifiers that act to amplify the signal from the transducer. They also reduce noise by filtering electromagnetic interference and have an effect on the frequency response (EQ) and the impedance of the audio.
With passive pickups, the guitar outputs the signal converted from the pickups almost directly (it generally passes through a tone-shaping circuit, which we'll get to later). On the other hand, active pickups have tone-shaping capabilities built into their printed circuit board (PCB) preamplifier circuits.
The PCBs can be designed to EQ the signal in a variety of ways and are designed at the discretion of the pickup designer and manufacturer.
For more information on active pickups, check out my article Are Active Guitar Pickups Or Passive Guitar Pickups Better?
2. Pickup Position
The position of the pickup relative to the strings and the guitar's body is also key in ascertaining its sonic traits.
The position can refer to the spot or location of the pickup, as well as the height.
As stated earlier, the pickup covers a radius, capturing the vibration from its surroundings and highlighting the frequency produced within its coverage area.
As the pickup reaches the neck, it will interact with the strings at their region of most amplitude, while a bridge pickup will highlight the strings' motion at their anchor point, which is much more restricted and, thus, higher in frequency.
To learn more about the different pickup locations and how they work separately and together, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• When To Use Bridge & Neck Pickups Together
• Bass Guitar: Bridge Pickups Vs. Neck Pickups
• Does Having More Pickups Improve A Guitar's Tone/Sound?
The height can refer to the distance between the pickup (as a whole or the individual pole pieces) and the strings.
The higher the pickup, the more magnetic attraction produced and, thus, the volume increases. However, magnetic interference will ensue if the pickup is raised too high, affecting the strings' sustain and producing tuning issues or unwanted overtones. On the flip side, the pickup will lose signal and render a dampened tone if the magnets are too far from the strings.
For more information on how pickup height affects tone, check out my article How Does Guitar Pickup Height Affect Tone?
3. Transducer Technology
A pickup's sound can also be determined by the mechanism of its operation and how it interacts with the strings of the guitar.
Most pickups nowadays are electromagnetic transducers. Alternatively, there are other less common pickup variants that convert the vibration of the strings into audio signals.
3.1 Magnetic Pickups:
Magnetic pickups are featured prominently in electric guitars and basses. They operate through a magnetic field generated in combination with the metal strings attached to the guitar.
The disturbance of this magnetic field is what produces the current that will travel through the circuit. This means that mostly the metal strings will be interacting with the pickup, while vibrations from the wooden body and other non-metal components are less emphasized.
Most magnetic pickups are passive. However, active pickups have become a popular type of magnetic pickup that, rather than acting as a mere transducer, filters noise and boosts the signals utilizing a preamp (powered by a 9V battery). Active pickups also have their disadvantages with respect to passive pickups, such as a lower dynamic range.
3.2 Piezoelectric Pickups:
Meanwhile, piezoelectric pickups don't operate by way of magnetic fields but because of the pressure changes generated by the surrounding vibrations, which are then transformed into electric signals through crystals.
These pickups are usually placed under the saddle and capture the vibrations of both the strings and the wood. This is why piezoelectric pickups are touted as offering a more acoustic approach.
3.3 Optical Pickups:
These are far less common. They function by way of infrared sensors that detect the movement of the strings.
Optical pickups are virtually devoid of interference and deliver some of the cleanest guitar sounds. However, they don't provide the wide sound layering of magnetic or piezoelectric pickups and are more sensitive to heat.
Related article: Does Guitar Pickup Performance Improve With Age?
What About Tone Controls?
Electric guitars will have tone control knobs that effectively shape the tone of the pickups. These tone controls have a major impact on the guitar's overall sound but don't affect the pickups directly. Rather, they alter the audio signal after it is transduced by the pickups.
So tone controls are incredibly important for tone shaping, but they aren't part of the pickups themselves.
Depending on the guitar model and the pickups engaged via the blade switch, the tone control (or multiple tone controls) will affect the output signals of one or more pickups. Tone controls act to adjust potentiometer in what are effectively low-pass filter (LPF) circuits.
To learn more about pickup switches, check out my article How Do Guitar Pickup Switches Work & How To Use Them.
Generally, rolling the tone knob toward maximum will allow more high-frequency audio signal content to “pass,” thereby yielding a brighter tone. Conversely, rolling the tone knob toward minimum will filter the signal at lower cutoff frequency points, thereby yielding a darker tone.
Note that a natural resonant boost is common in LPF near the cutoff frequency. Rolling the tone knob down may give a subjectively musical boost to important frequencies near the cutoff. It may also produce an annoying resonant peak at other positions.
For an in-depth discussion on low-pass filters, check out my article Audio EQ: What Is A Low-Pass Filter & How Do LPFs Work?
What About Volume Controls?
The volume control knobs on electric guitars affect the output level of the audio signal transduced by the pickups.
Though these control ideally only affect the signal level, they will have some effect on the overall tone of the guitar due to their real-world components.
Furthermore, adjusting levels at any stage of the signal path will have an effect on tone. In other words, a change in the guitar output level means any pedals, preamps or power amps further down the line will have different signal levels to deal with.
Other Factors That Affect Electric Guitar Tone
Beyond the built-in electronics, there are other factors that may affect the tone of electric guitars. I'll include additional resources where applicable.
The strings can affect tone. The magnetic properties, gauge (thickness), age/wear, and tuning/tension of the strings can affect tone.
Related My New Microphone articles:
• How Do Guitar Strings Affect Tone? (Acoustic, Electric, Bass)
• Do Heavier/Thicker Gauge Guitar Strings Sound Better?
• Do New Guitar/Bass Strings Sound Better?
The effects and pedals affect tone. The effect and quality of the circuit can affect tone. Buffered bypass and true bypass pedals can also affect the tone differently.
Related My New Microphone articles:
• What Is A Guitar Effects Pedal And How Do Pedals Work?
• Full List & Description Of Guitar Pedal Types
• Are Buffer Pedals Necessary & Where Do They Go In A Chain?
• What Does ‘True Bypass' Mean In A Guitar Pedal?
Guitar Patch Cables
The patch cables affect tone. Longer unbalanced tip-sleeve guitar patch cables will have greater distributed capacitance, which has a low-pass filtering effect on the signal.
Related My New Microphone article: How Do Patch Cables Carry Audio? (Guitar, Bass, Synth, Etc.)
The amplifier will have an effect on tone. This is true mostly of the preamplifier, though the power amp will also affect the overall tone. Any time gain is applied, the tone can be shaped. This is apparent in “dirty” or “distortion” channels. It's also worth noting that tube amplifier circuits tend to behave differently than solid-state amplifier circuits when it comes to gain and tone shaping.
Related My New Microphone article: Solid-State Vs. Tube Amplifiers (Pre, Power & Guitar Amps)
The speaker and speaker cabinet of a guitar amp can affect tone. Larger speakers are more capable of producing low-end but may suffer in the high-end and vice versa. Note that the amplifier output and the speaker input should be properly matched/bridged in terms of power output/handling and impedance.
Related My New Microphone articles:
• Why Do Loudspeakers Need Enclosures?
• What Is A Good Driver Size For Loudspeakers?
• Complete Guide To Speaker Power Handling & Wattage Ratings
• The Complete Guide To Speaker Impedance (2Ω, 4Ω, 8Ω & More)
• What Is Amplifier Impedance? (Actual Vs. Rated Impedance)
• Why Do Speakers Need Amplifiers? (And How To Match Them)
The wood (or composite material) has some effect on tone, though not nearly as much as with acoustic guitars. The density, hardness and natural characteristics of guitar tonewoods impact the overall sound of these instruments.
Finally, the guitarist and all the techniques employed will have an immediate effect on the tone of a guitar.
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!
This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.