Types of Pickups
While major corporations who produce thousands of pickups—as well as designers who work on small batches in their garages—continue to evolve pickup manufacturing and technology, there are just a few basic models you should be acquainted with. These fundamental pickup types helped produce the tones of early jazz and blues players, classic rockers, shredders, and even the wonderfully quirky YouTube influencers of today.
Tech Talk: Single-coils are called single-coils because the pickup magnets are wrapped with a single coil of wire.
Common Sightings: Fender Stratocasters use the classic bar-style (or “Fender style”) single-coils. Notable Strat players include Stevie Ray Vaughan (solo artist), Andy Summers (The Police), and H.E.R. (solo artist). P90 pickups are also single-coils and many possess what came to be known as a “soapbar” look. Classic Gibson guitars, such as the Les Paul Junior, utilized P90s.
Pros: Produces clear, transparent, and dynamic tones with an articulate midrange.
Cons: Susceptible to electrical interference from lighting, computers or other devices, which can result in buzzes and/or a 60-cycle hum.
Popular Musical Styles: Classic rock, blues, surf, country.
Tech Talk: A humbucking pickup does exactly that—it “bucks” 60-cycle hum. It does this by having two adjacent coils with reversed polarity that serve to cancel out most sonic gremlins.
Common Sightings: The Gibson Les Paul, as wielded by Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Mick Ronson (David Bowie), and Gretchen Menn (Zepparella).
Pros: Negates hum. Warm, deep, powerful, and creamy tones with robust mids.
Cons: Diminished chime and crystalline highs.
Popular Musical Styles: Classic rock, blues, hard rock, jazz.
Tech Talk: Filter’Trons are actually a type of humbucking pickup, but as devised for Gretsch guitars, rather than iconic Gibson models.
Common Sightings: Gretsch hollowbodies, as played by Duane Eddy (solo artist), Brian Setzer (Stray Cats), and Poison Ivy (Cramps).
Pros: Clean, dynamic, and twangy tones that deliver a coherent string attack for fast note flurries and chicken pickin’ styles.
Cons: Diminished low end compared to conventional humbuckers. Lower output typically less desirable for styles that rely on saturated guitar tones (modern metal, industrial, etc.)
Popular Musical Styles: Rockabilly, country, jazz, indie rock.
Tech Talk: While the pickups we’ve discussed to this point are considered “passive” models that require no additional power, “active” types possess an onboard, signal-boosting preamp that is usually powered by a 9-volt battery
Common Sightings: Guitars designed for metal players and/or players seeking a high output pickup sound.
Pros: Uber-powerful, incredibly articulate, incisive, and dimensional sounds. Some active pickups include comprehensive EQ controls for modifying your tone.
Cons: If the battery dies, so does your sound.
Popular Musical Styles: Modern metal, shred, math rock.