Sound is complex….Transferring it from your guitar to a listener at the back of a large hall or stadium requires picking it up initially, and by various manipulations, delivering it to the target. How is this achieved? By means of a purpose built device – a pickup.
What’s the definition of a guitar pickup?
This is a widely used term which can have a range of meanings. Whether it be a type of truck to rescue stranded motorists, a meeting point to collect someone or something, or a method to find a new girlfriend, to musicians it means only one thing – a way to make your guitar sound better and louder!
Just as a microphone is used for the voice, so a pickup is used to enhance the sound of an instrument, guitar, violin, trumpet, bass, or anything that produces sound.
Simply put, a pick up is a device that registers sound and converts it into an electrical signal, which is usually routed to an amplifier or recorder.
This signal can be modified and manipulated in many ways in terms of characteristics as well as intensity i.e. tone and volume.
Pickups come in numerous versions, mainly magnetic and piezo. The magnetic type is simply a coil of insulated wire wound many times around a magnet. A steel string vibrating in the magnetic field produces a current in the coil. Piezos consist of a crystalline material that produces a current when compressed or vibrated. The shape, size and appearance varies from one instrument to the next, but the function is the same. For the most part, electric guitars usually use magnetic pickups. Acoustic electric guitars and classical guitars will often use a combination of Piezo under bridge pickups and/or a microphone inside the instrument, because these tend to give a more acoustic sound.The construction of the pickup determines sound. The type of magnet, the thickness of coil wire and the number of windings are the most significant factors. Also of vital importance is the position of the pickup in relation to the strings and the bridge of instrument. The general rules are, the closer to the bridge the brighter or more trebly the sound, the nearer the strings, the louder the sound.
Some commonly used types include : single coil pickups, humbuckers (twin coils), open coil, covered, reverse wound, distortion, vintage, bluesy, clean, heavy, active or passive. The kind of magnet used also affects the tone, from vintage Alnico to modern bright Ceramic.
They come in different colours, sizes, shapes and quality. Wide string spacing, narrow spacing, magnetic poles showing or covered, 5 string, 6 string, 7 string, and more!
Many people customize their guitars by fitting new pickups to get the kind of sound they prefer. But don’t forget the pickup is right near the beginning of the sound line. After it comes the on board controls, then any effects, followed by the amplifier, PA and venue.
However, for the guitarist, this is a bonus. A relatively simple modification – a change of pickups – can turn a humdrum instrument into a vibrant, enthralling guitar.