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Instrument and Equipment Guide

This guide is meant to illuminate and educate readers about the many facets of what makes a guitar feel and sound different from one another. This is to aid students decide what guitar will best suit their needs when checking an instrument out at the libr

Pickups: Single-Coil, Humbucker, P90

An electric guitar produces sound by transferring the vibration of the steel string through a specialized magnet (the pickup) and moves that sound through an instrument cable and into an amplifier. With electric guitars there are two main camps that pickups will fall into. A single-coil pickup and a humbucker pickup.

The single-coil pickup was first designed and manufactured in the mid-1930’s to give guitar players a louder volume when playing in a large big band. Although, there was a lot of electrical ‘hum’ that would occur as a result of electrical interference. This was mitigated with the advent of the Humbucker (or twin coiled guitar pickup), which utilized another coiled pick-up to reverse the signal polarity and cancel the hum.

  • Single-coil pickups are generally more responsive to dynamic playing. This touch sensitivity balances well with the pickup’s punchy and open sound. Single coil pickups are typically found in the hands of Funk, Country, Indie, Punk, and Bluegrass players who favor dynamic playing and a brighter sound to cut through the mix.
  • Humbuckers have a more full sound, and a slightly darker, mellow tone as well. However, many modern (last 15 years or so) humbuckers are brighter in sound to meet the demands of today’s market. Humbucker pickups are found most often in Rock, Metal, Punk, Jazz, and Blues players who want a fatter sound with more consistent tonal variation.
  • The P90 pickup, though less common than other pickups, is a hybrid taking the dynamic responsiveness of the single-coil and combining it with a wider, fatter sound of the Humbucker. While the P90 is technically a single-coil, it has been designed to mitigate and lessen some of the traditional single-coil hum. Although for high-gain genres you would be better off with a humbucker or noise-cancelling P90. As a result of these tonal characteristics, the P90 is loved for its punchy attack sound and its higher output of volume.

Active Pickups vs. Passive Pickups

The electrical signal produced by a set of magnetic pickups is very small. Therefore, when amplifiers are cranked in volume or add more gain and the signal distorts, you will notice many passive pickups have a electrical buzzing (or Hum) when the guitar is not being played. The amount of electrical background noise to the sound of the vibrating strings is called the signal-to-noise ratio. Many passive pickups have this issue, some to greater degrees, but they do not detract from the guitar signal or imply an inherent lack of quality in sound. This is simply a flaw in the physics of guitar amplification.

However, some pickups can utilize an external power source to increase the signal-to-noise ratio, which also changes some of the other characteristics of the guitar's amplified tone. These are called Active Pickups.

  • Active pickups are (typically) powered by 9V batteries which contributes to the guitar's sound being noticeably different from passive pickups. 
    • Active pickups use this added power to have a higher signal output which increases the signal-to-noise ratio, allowing for higher output pickups to have less buzz and static when plugged into an amplifier. The many players report finding it easier to have consistent volume in their playing, as active pickups have slightly more compressed dynamics. And while active pickups are typically seen in metal or rock scenes where high-gain amplification is a staple of the sound, many other guitar players use active pickups for their controlled dynamics and variable tonal controls. 


Some extra reading from Sweetwater: