Guitar pickups produce a different output depending on their setup, build quality, and positioning. Some pickups produce a higher output than others, but determining what constitutes a high-output pickup can become tricky.
What would be considered a high-output guitar/bass pickup? High-output pickups are the ones that transfer stronger signals to the amplifier relative to the string's mass and vibration when compared to a pickup with lower output. There is no set rule to ascertain what constitutes a high-output pickup, but they have some common traits.
In this article, we'll be discussing the following:
- What makes a pickup “high-output”.
- Some examples.
- Comparisons by type
- Whether it's better to have a high-output pickup or not.
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What Makes A Pickup “High-Output”?
As explained above, a high-output pickup delivers a higher signal to the external amplifying device than a lower-output pickup on a guitar with the same strings' mass and movement.
Normally, passive pickups produce a very low voltage, and much of the signal is boosted by the amplifier. They are simple transducers that transform vibrational energy from the strings into electricity by means of magnets and coils. The magnets receive the disturbance produced by the strings' motion, and the coil attached to the magnets translates that into a current that travels through the output jack to the amp.
Regardless, the way a pickup is installed can greatly influence what is reproduced by the external output. The tone of high-output signals tends to be high towards the midrange frequencies.
For instance, the winding mechanism (the way the magnets are wrapped by the copper wire comprising the coil) can significantly shape the tonality of a pickup.
Machine-wound pickups are expected to possess better capacitance than a hand-wound pickups because of the compact nature of the wrapping. However, hand-wound pickups have the advantage of not being bound by template patterns, meaning that you'll be able to mould the tone to your preference.
However, perhaps more relevant for this article is the number of turns per coil. Higher numbers of turns (the number of times the coil is wrapped around the pickup magnets) cause greater midrange responses and overall gain. It could get to the point where the tone gets too dark and loses nuance and definition, a sign that the pickup is overwound or “too hot”.
The way the magnets are distributed and their shape can also make a difference in output volume and the tone proper. It's usually the case that pickups with wider bobbins will produce higher output since they fit additional magnetic slabs below the coil.
Also, the size of the pickup itself will enhance the output. Dual-coil pickups send more signals to the amp than single-coil pickups.
Higher-output pickups generally produce overdrive and distortion with more ease.
Finally, we must talk about DC resistance in relation to output level. DC resistance values are expressed in Ohm, and while it doesn't define the output level itself, it can ultimately give a clue as to how loud a pickup will sound compared to a pickup of the same kind and position.
For example, the higher the Ohm value in a Telecaster bridge, the more output you would expect, but not necessarily so compared to a PAF bridge. By contrast, the lower the Ohm value, the clearer the signal induced by the pickup of the same kind and position.
It bears repeating that there is currently no set standard by which one is able to determine whether a pickup is high or low-output. Most categorizations stem from subjective analysis and personal preference. Still, some pickups are advertised specifically as being “high-output”. We'll disclose three examples by brand:
DiMarzio's line of high-power pickups includes:
- The Crunch Lab 7 Bridge Humbucker (Output: 410 mV Resistance: 11.07K Ohm)
- DP100 Super Distortion Bridge/Neck Humbucker (Output: 425 mV. Resistance: 13.68K Ohm).
- D Activator Neck (Output: 385 mV. Resistance: 7.22K Ohm).
- X2N (Output: 510 mV. Resistance: 15.83K Ohm)
DiMarzio is featured in a few top pickup brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
Fralin's High Output Humbuckers don't list the millivolts, but they have a resistance range of 12-13.5K Ohm, which is comparable to other models from other brands that are similarly deemed as high-output.
Fralin is featured in My New Microphone's Top 11 Best Electric Guitar Pickup Brands On The Market.
The Duncan Distortion is Seymour Duncan's flagship high-output passive humbucker. The 6-string Distortion has a DC resistance reading of 22.5K Ohm, a relatively big resistance value.
Seymour Duncan is featured in a few top pickup brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
Comparisons By Pickup Type
If we compare by pickup type, we will find that some types can be considered high-output with respect to others, though they are not always promoted as such.
Single-Coils, P-90s, And Humbuckers
In a previous section, we explained how dual-coils frequently (but not always) deliver stronger signals than single-coil pickups. But this is generally due to the dimensions of a humbucker – which can capture a wider motion area from the strings – and not specifically to the coiling itself.
The same principle applies with regard to the P90, which has a wider but shorter bobbin and encases an additional magnet at the bottom of the poles. This construction aids in rendering a warmer and louder sound than traditional single-coil pickups.
One of the apparent “shortcomings” of dual-coils and P-90s is the lack of sound fidelity and dynamic layering resulting from the midrange boost. Furthermore, in the case of humbuckers, the noise-cancelling properties may also reduce nuance. As the sound of single-coils is more “open”, it can convey more nuances from the vibration.
Nevertheless, performers of more heavy genres will certainly welcome the strong and mature sound of P90s (favoured by punk performers) and humbuckers, especially those who lean on low-pitched power chords.
The distinction in output level between single-coils, P90s, and dual-coils has been recently challenged by the development of high-output single-coils, particularly catered to hard rock and metal players.
To learn more about the different pickup types, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Are P90 Pickups & How Do They Work?
• How Do Single-Coil Pickups (Guitar/Bass) Work?
• How Do Different Types Of Guitar/Bass Pickups Affect Tone?
Active And Passive Pickups
Passive pickups have been installed in electric guitars since the beginning. They are inserted in most electric guitars to this day.
While passive pickups are simple transducers that don't carry any signal augmentation capabilities by themselves, active pickups include a preamp add-on, often powered by a 9V battery, that boosts the signal and filters noise before the signal hits the amp or whatever is next in line after the pickup. This preamp has factory set EQ values and gain levels and captures virtually no interference.
While active pickups are not ordinarily included on stock guitars, they can replace the passive pickups of most guitars. There are several benefits of having active pickups, but there are also disadvantages, following similar reasoning as in the case of single-coils vs. humbuckers.
For more information on active and passive pickups, check out my article Are Active Guitar Pickups Or Passive Guitar Pickups Better?
Is It Better To Have High-Output Pickups?
The answer to this question depends solely on the player's specific needs. It bears repeating that high-output pickups are prone to have a heavy midrange response, which would not be ideal for players who prefer a more open sound.
Adding to that, there are ways to increase the output of a pickup (and filter noise) without having to permanently install another pickup, with all the hassles associated with the process. Some pedals have boosting capabilities that can be used on the go, but that could be a hindrance for guitarists with a limited luggage capacity.
The best possible choice for those who like to alternate between powerful and bright tones would be to opt for a mixed arrangement of high-output and lower-output pickups, with a switch that enables the player to select between them or a combination of both.
To learn more about pickup switches, check out my article How Do Guitar Pickup Switches Work & How To Use Them.
Choosing a midway option (such as a P90) could also work, but provided that the player is aware of the compromises in terms of both low and high frequencies.
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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