Solid-bodied guitars normally contain two or three pickups. With such a design, manufacturers aim to add range to the tonal palette and endow sound with more personality. Though somewhat uncommon,single-pickup guitars are cherished and played around the world.
Why do some guitars only have one pickup? Some guitars are designed with a single pickup (often a bridge pickup) for reasons of tonal simplicity, playability, cost-effectiveness and general aesthetics. Most acoustic-electric guitar guitars have a single pickup under the saddle or soundboard to capture their sound as audio signals.
In this article, we'll begin by examining the reasoning behind the idea of multiple pickups, following up with a discussion on why single-pickup guitars are still in production. We'll also touch on electric-acoustic, electric-classical and bass guitars and why they, too, can be designed with a single pickup.
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Why Multiple Pickups?
As outlined above, some guitar manufacturers stick to one-pickup because they see more advantages in terms of sound, playability, and production expenses instead of including multiple pickups.
The first electric guitars only had one pickup. It was not until 1939 that the first multiple-pickup guitar saw the light of day, namely, the National Sonora, which was promoted as an unusual guitar focused on delivering more power without compromising tonality.
Other major manufacturers would follow suit some years later. Gibson would launch updated versions of both the ES-300 and ES-350 in 1948. Fender started commercializing the Telecaster in 1950, an immediate follow-up to the Esquire that sported an additional pickup at the neck.
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According to modern consensus, the main appeal of multiple pickups lies in the sonic diversity they present. Pickups act to capture the vibrations of the strings in their immediate surrounding. So, by allocating multiple pickups at strategic spots within the guitar's body frame, we're able to highlight certain tonal profiles depending on the location.
In that sense, the string vibration at the bridge pickup (near the anchor point) has a much more constricted movement than at the neck pickup. This renders a tone with weaker low-end frequencies and harmonics, giving a tinnier, brighter sound. Conversely, the strings vibrate with much more amplitude around the neck, which results in a stronger and rounder sound with a greater representation of the fundamental and other low-end frequencies.
Having multiple pickups gives us access to each of these tonal positions. Many guitars allow us to blend the outputs of the neck and bridge pickups for even greater tonal variety.
To learn more about bridge and neck pickups, 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?
Finally, the Fender Stratocaster revolutionized the electric guitar market due to its distinctive body design and its three-pickup setup, bringing even more versatility to the player in terms of timbral range. While three pickups would be seen as overkill for some, the Fender Stratocaster is, to this day, one of the most imitated guitar models worldwide.
Why Are Single-Pickup Guitars Still An Option?
Just as many guitarists continue using single-coil pickups in this era, many also keep using single-pickup guitars.
One would expect that later innovations would supersede earlier technology. However, these early designs retain their fair share of the market. In fact, some players within these circles even question whether those advancements really improve the playing experience.
To illustrate, when the humbucker came out, it offered significant improvements with relation to noise cancellation and strength. Still, other aspects such as sound layering were dumbed down to bring cleaner sounds, a trait that only a percentage of guitarists would welcome.
Likewise, multiple pickups on paper would offer more tonal variety. Still, the guitar would lose its natural sound and feel for some purists. They argue that, considering that pickups work by electromagnetic induction, having more than one pickup will create more magnetic attraction on the strings, to the point where they are restricted from moving naturally. This reportedly reduces sustain and amplitude.
Some multiple-pickup detractors would additionally point out that the differences in tone are highly negligible and not worth the sacrifices in other areas where multiple pickups will pose a hindrance. Furthermore, there's a perception that a single pickup near the bridge will foster a much brighter output when compared with guitars that sport additional neck pickups.
Perhaps one of the most prominent arguments is the one that emphasizes the playable nature of one-pickup guitar as opposed to what one would get with a multiple-pickup arrangement. It's virtually undisputed that having free space for the playing hand to move will definitely improve the playing experience. By achieving this, a guitar player may find a way to develop techniques aimed at providing a semblance of nuance to the timbre, regardless of the electronics a guitar might be endowed with.
A more technical argument has to do with the simplicity of the circuit, which presumably makes it less prone to interference and noise. This is mostly because there are fewer wires and connections to look after, which translates into fewer bugs or issues.
One final consideration is made regarding the manufacturing costs of pickups, which would be reduced to a minimum on a single-pickup guitar. When we analyze the retail prices of pickups, it's easy to see the steep difference that additional pickups would make on the production costs of a single guitar, let alone a whole batch.
Still, while many of the purported benefits of single-pickup arrangements can be granted by the other side of the discussion, many of the observations are still debated and at times deemed as mere subjective opinions. Moreover, the quality of a guitar transcends the mere presence of one or more pickups without undermining the importance of pickups in the general performance of a guitar.
Famous guitarists who favour the usage of single-pickup guitars include Allan Holdsworth, Phil-X, Richie Sambora, Billie Joe Armstrong, Pat Metheny, and so on.
Meanwhile, apart from the aforementioned “Frying Pan”, these are some of the most renowned guitar models featuring a single pickup:
Ibanez is featured in top brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!
What About Acoustic & Classical Guitar Pickups?
Acoustic and classical guitars are sometimes designed with internal pickups to make them compatible with amplifiers and PA systems. Other times, they are modified temporarily or permanently to host pickups.
Sometimes these pickups are of the magnetic/electromagnetic variety discussed above, but more often, they are of the piezoelectric design.
Piezo pickups are designed with piezoelectric crystals, hence the name. These crystals produce an electrical current as they are physically deformed. Note that this “deformation” happens at the atomic level, where the pressures upon the piezo crystals cause compression and tension to push and pull the atomic structures.
The strings' vibrations, which resonate the bridge and soundboard of acoustic and classical guitars, are enough to deform these crystals and cause the piezo pickups to produce audio signals.
For this reason, piezo pickups are often attached directly under the bridge or soundboard of such guitars. As we could guess, there is often only a single pickup in these designs and modifications.
I should note that the steel strings of acoustic guitars can certainly work with magnetic pickups, though they typically have poorer magnetic properties than electric guitar strings. The nylon strings used on classical guitars are not magnetic and, therefore, would not work with magnetic pickups.
Soundhole pickups are sometimes used in steel-string acoustic guitars. As the name suggests, these pickups are inserted into the guitar's soundhole. Soundhole pickups are magnetic and work the same way as the typical magnetic pickups in electric guitars.
Note that the loss of vibrational energy that would occur between the soundboard and the soundhole pickup makes piezo transducers a poor choice for soundhole positioning.
What About Bass Guitar Pickups?
Electric bass guitars can also be designed with one or more pickups. Acoustic basses largely follow the same pickup designs as acoustic guitars.
The Precision bass is a popular bass style that has one pickup. Note that it's a split-coil pickup at the middle, also named P-style pickup. Split-coil pickups are basically humbuckers that are half-bound, so one coil is not exactly parallel to the other.
The split closest to the neck covers the lower strings for a slightly fuller tone, while the other split closest to the neck covers the higher strings for a slightly brighter tone.
Many basses come with multiple pickups. However, a single pickup design can offer the same benefits of simplicity, playability and affordability as a single-pickup guitar. The downside of decreased tonal variety is, of course, present in basses as well.
For more information on guitar and bass pickups, check out my article Complete Guide: Guitar Pickups Vs. Bass Guitar Pickups.
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