The Different Types of Guitar Pickups: What You Need To Know

Guitar pickups are essential components that shape the sound and tone of your electric guitar. Different types of guitar pickups offer unique qualities and can significantly influence the music you create. When you strum the strings of your guitar, the pickups are responsible for capturing those vibrations and converting them into electric signals, which then travel to your amplifier to produce sound.

Understanding the nuances of various guitar pickup types can help you tailor your instrument’s tone to your personal playing style and genre preference. Single-coil pickups, known for their crisp and bright sound, are popular in genres like country and surf music. Humbuckers, with their thicker and warmer tone, are often the go-to choice for rock and heavy metal guitarists. Another variant, the P90, offers a balance with a warmer tone than a single-coil but with less hum than a humbucker.

The type of guitar pickup you choose will play a pivotal role in carving out your distinct sound. It is the defining element that can enhance your guitar playing, giving you the power to convey emotion and energy through music. Every pickup type has its characteristic influence on volume, clarity, and the overall sonic palette of your guitar.

The Different Types of Guitar Pickups What You Need To Know

Fundamentals of Guitar Pickups

When you strum or pluck the strings of your guitar, the vibrations created are the essence of your instrument’s sound. However, to convert these vibrations into an electrical signal that can be amplified, you need a guitar pickup.

A pickup typically consists of a magnet and coils of wire. The magnet creates a stable magnetic field which envelops the strings. When these strings vibrate, they disrupt the magnetic field, and this disturbance is captured by the coil of wire wrapping around the magnet.

Pickup designs vary greatly, but they generally fall into a few categories:

  • Single Coil: The single coil pickup roduces a bright and clear sound but can be susceptible to electromagnetic interference.
  • Humbucker: A humbucker pickup utilizes two coils to ‘buck’ or cancel hum, offering a warmer, fuller tone.
  • P-90: The P90 pickup sits between a single coil and a humbucker in terms of tone and design.
  • PAF: The PAF pickup stands for “Patent Applied For” and refers to the original humbucker pickups created by Gibson in the late 1950s. They offer a vintage tone that is warm and articulate, with less interference than single coils.

Here’s a basic breakdown of how the components work together:

MagnetGenerates the magnetic field.
CoilCaptures changes in the magnetic field as current.
StringDisrupts the magnetic field to create a signal.

Related: The History of Guitar Pickups

Types of Guitar Pickups

Understanding the different types of guitar pickups is essential for you to tailor your sound to your musical style. Within this section, we’ll explore the characteristics and uses of various pickups, so you can make an informed decision for your guitar.

Single-Coil Pickups

Single coil pickups are synonymous with the bright and crisp sound that’s become a defining characteristic of Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters. They deliver a thinner, more trebly tone that cuts through the mix, ideal for genres like surf rock, country, and funk. The pickups are visually narrow and elongated, and their open-coil design is iconic. Despite their susceptibility to electromagnetic interference, resulting in a 60-cycle hum, their clear and articulate tone makes them a favorite among many guitarists.

Single coil pickups are synonymous with the bright and crisp sound that's become a defining characteristic of Fender Stratocasters


  • Bright and crisp sound that excels in clarity.
  • Ideal for clean playing styles and genres such as country, funk, and surf rock.
  • Iconic look and design associated with many classic electric guitars.


  • Susceptible to electromagnetic interference, causing a 60-cycle hum.
  • Can sound thin or harsh in high-gain settings.
  • Less output compared to humbuckers, which may require more amplification.

Humbucker Pickups

Humbuckers, known for their rich, warm, and full sound, are a hallmark of Gibson Les Pauls and SGs, among other guitar models. These pickups feature two coils wound in opposite directions to cancel out noise, hence their name. Visually, they are broader and often covered, distinguishing them from single coils. Their ability to produce a powerful and thick tone without the hum makes them a go-to choice for heavier rock, metal, and smooth jazz tones.

Humbuckers, known for their rich, warm, and full sound, are a hallmark of Gibson Les Pauls and SGs, among other guitar models


  • Warm, rich, and full tone with more output than single coils.
  • Noise-cancelling design that ‘bucks’ the hum of single coil pickups.
  • Versatile, suitable for a wide range of genres from jazz to heavy metal.


  • Can lack the high-end sparkle and clarity of single coils.
  • Larger size may require modifications to the guitar to fit.
  • Some players find them too ‘muddy’ or ‘dark’ for certain styles of music.

P90 Pickups

The P-90 pickup offers a sound that combines some of the clarity of a single coil with the warmth of a humbucker. It’s a wider single-coil pickup, often found in Gibson guitars such as the Les Paul Junior and certain models of the Gibson SG. With a raw and punchy output, P-90s are loved for their strong midrange and crisp high end, making them suitable for rock, blues, and punk. Their distinctive look with a rectangular shape and exposed pole pieces sets them apart from other pickups.

The P-90 pickup offers a sound that combines some of the clarity of a single coil with the warmth of a humbucker


  • Offers a blend of single coil brightness and humbucker warmth.
  • Strong midrange presence with a punchy high end.
  • Unique look that stands out from other pickup types.


  • Still prone to some hum, though less than traditional single coils.
  • May not fit in all guitars without modification.
  • Can be too aggressive or gritty for players seeking a smoother tone.

PAF Pickups

The legendary “Patent Applied For” pickups are the original humbuckers produced by Gibson and are closely associated with the Gibson Les Paul from the late ’50s and early ’60s. These pickups are sought after for their smooth, vintage tone that offers a rich, warm, and complex sound with reduced hum. The PAFs typically have a subtle appearance, with a plain metal cover that often lacks any branding. They are prized for their historical significance and their contribution to the sound of classic rock and blues music.

The legendary Patent Applied For pickups are the original humbuckers produced by Gibson


  • Vintage tone that is warm, articulate, and sought after by collectors and players.
  • The original humbucker design, offering a piece of music history.
  • Less noise than single coil pickups, with a smooth sound ideal for classic rock and blues.


  • Original PAFs can be very expensive and hard to find.
  • Modern reissues may not capture the exact sound of the originals.
  • Some players may find them too mild or lacking in modern output levels.

Piezo Pickups

Piezo pickups, which are often found in acoustic-electric guitars and high-end electric models, use piezoelectric crystals to detect vibrations directly from the bridge or body of the guitar. This results in a very different sound from magnetic pickups, often described as acoustic-like and very dynamic.

They are typically hidden from view, embedded in the bridge, and are favored for their ability to produce a natural and clear tone without the feedback issues commonly associated with microphones. Piezo pickups are versatile and can be found in a variety of instruments, such as the Traveler Guitar Ultra-Light Series, offering an alternative amplification method that captures the physical vibration of the instrument.

Piezo pickups, which are often found in acoustic-electric guitars and high-end electric models, use piezoelectric crystals to detect vibrations directly from the bridge or body of the guitar


  • Produces a natural, acoustic-like tone from electric instruments.
  • Less prone to feedback compared to traditional microphones.
  • Can be blended with magnetic pickups for a wider range of sounds.


  • Sound may be too bright or harsh without proper EQ.
  • Installation can be more complex, often requiring professional help.
  • Typically more expensive than standard magnetic pickups.

Active vs Passive Pickups

The distinction between active and passive pickups lies in their circuitry. Active pickups require a battery to boost the signal, resulting in a consistent, high-output tone that can be advantageous in genres like metal. Passive pickups, on the other hand, have a more traditional design and don’t require external power, offering a dynamic range and a warmer tone.

  • Pros of Active: High output, less noise
  • Pros of Passive: No need for a battery, more tonal dynamics

When selecting a pickup, consider the style of music you play and the tone you want to achieve. Each type of pickup offers unique attributes that can significantly shape your guitar’s sound.

Pickup Characteristics

When selecting a guitar pickup, you should consider how it will affect the sound output and tone qualities of your instrument. Each type has unique attributes that influence the guitar’s voice, from sparkly highs to growling lows.

Output and Tone

Output refers to the signal strength the pickup sends to the amplifier. High-output pickups often push the amp harder, leading to more natural distortion and a robust sound, particularly favored in rock and metal genres. Conversely, pickups with lower output yield a clean tone, preserving the instrument’s natural sound and offering clarity which is essential for genres like jazz and blues.

Tone is shaped not only by output but also by the frequency range the pickup emphasizes. Single coils, known for a bright and sharp tone, accentuate higher frequencies. Meanwhile, humbuckers have a fuller midrange presence with a warmer tonality, hence their popularity in heavier music styles where a thick sound is desirable.

Frequency and Response

Guitar pickups vary in their frequency response, affecting how they reproduce the lows, mids, and highs. Single-coil pickups, for example, typically have a more pronounced response in the higher frequencies, contributing to a sparkling or cutting tone. This makes them excel in styles where articulation and twang are key.

In contrast, pickups designed with a particular response curve can emphasize the midrange frequencies, presenting a punchier sound that cuts through a mix. Such pickups can also provide a smoother transition between clean and distorted tones, fitting a wide array of playing dynamics.

By understanding these characteristics, you can make informed decisions to shape your guitar’s voice to suit your musical expression.

Pickups and Music Genres

Your guitar’s tone is significantly influenced by the type of pickups you choose, which can either restrict or expand your instrument’s versatility across various music genres.

Choosing the Right Pickup

Your goal should be to match the pickup to the genre you’re most passionate about. If you’re into diverse genres, consider a versatile option that can accommodate broad sounds. A guitar equipped with a combination of humbucker and single-coil pickups might be the jack-of-all-trades tool for you, enabling a transition from the creamy leads perfect for hard rock to the brighter twang essential in country.

Remember, the right pickup not only complements your style but can also inspire new musical directions. Assess your favorite genres carefully and make an informed choice to ensure your guitar sings true to your musical voice.

The Impact on Different Genres

For metal, the preference is commonly for active pickups due to their high output, tight low-end, and enhanced sustain necessary for this genre’s distinct sound. Single-coil pickups, however, with their bright and sharp tones, are typically favored in surf music, known for its distinctive twangy and reverb-laden sound.

Conversely, if country music is your realm, you might gravitate towards the crisp, clear tones that a Telecaster bridge pickup offers—ideal for chicken pickin’ and the genre’s storytelling tradition. Moving to blues, you’d likely seek the expressive warmth of P-90s or humbucker pickups, which can purvey the soulful and often melancholic feel of the blues with their rich and full sound.

In hard rock, the thick, creamy distortion that humbuckers provide is indispensable for the genre’s characteristic heavy riffs and powerful leads. On the funkier side, the spanky, percussive sounds produced by single-coil pickups, particularly those found on a Stratocaster, are a fundamental part of funk rhythm guitar.

Influential Brands & Models

the impact of legendary brands and their signature pickups

Your journey through the world of electric guitars is incomplete without understanding the impact of legendary brands and their signature pickups. This section digs into the iconic makers that shaped the sound of electric guitars and the notable models they are associated with.

Iconic Brands and Their Signature Pickups

  • Gibson: Known for creating the PAF humbucker in the 1950s, Gibson pickups are celebrated for their rich, warm tones. The Gibson PAF humbucker is a timeless model that revolutionized guitar sound with its powerful, noise-free performance.
  • Fender: A titan in the guitar world, Fender’s single-coil pickups found in the Stratocaster and Telecaster models are distinguished by their bright, crisp tones. Their custom shop creations like the Texas Special Strat Pickups remain sought after by professionals and hobbyists alike.
  • Seymour Duncan: With offerings like the SH4 JB, Seymour Duncan has positioned itself as a brand synonymous with versatility and quality. Whether you need a vintage sound or a high-output tone, they have a wide array of pickups to explore.
  • DiMarzio: Elevating the electric guitar market with their Super Distortion pickup in the 1970s, DiMarzio remains at the forefront of pickup innovation, catering to genres from jazz to metal.
  • EMG: Renowned for their active pickups, such as the EMG 81, which are characterized by their high output and clear, focused sound, ideal for heavy genres.

Notable Guitar Models

  • Gibson Les Paul: Equipped with the iconic PAF humbucker, the Les Paul is synonymous with a rich, sustained sound that has graced countless records.
  • Fender Stratocaster: Sporting three single-coil pickups, the Strat is known for its bright, bell-like clean tones as well as its comfort and playability.
  • Gibson SG: With its distinctive thin body and pointed horns, the SG stands out not just in looks but also in sound, offering biting leads and full-bodied chords courtesy of its humbucking pickups.
  • Epiphone: Often seen as the accessible sibling to Gibson, Epiphone guitars offer the classic Gibson designs like the Les Paul and SG with a more budget-friendly price tag, often equipped with quality pickups that emulate the Gibson sound.

In your discovery of guitar pickups, noticing the unique contributions of these brands and models will enrich your understanding of guitar tones and history.

Specialized Pickups

In the realm of guitar playing, specialized pickups are essential tools for certain sounds and applications. These pickups are crafted to meet the unique demands of various guitar types and playing styles.

Acoustic Guitar Pickups

Acoustic guitar pickups enable you to amplify the natural sound of your acoustic guitar without significantly altering its tone. Soundboard transducers and Piezo pickups are common types. Soundboard transducers capture the vibrations of the guitar’s top, providing a natural and dynamic response. Conversely, Piezo pickups, often found under the saddle, translate string and body vibrations directly into electrical signals.

Bass Guitar Pickups

For bass guitars, pickups are designed to handle the lower frequency range. You’ll find options such as precision and jazz pickups, each offering distinct tonal characteristics. Precision pickups are typified by a full, warm sound whereas jazz pickups, usually in pairs, provide a brighter tone with a punchier midrange.

Lipstick Pickups

Lipstick pickups, named after their distinctive tube-like casing resembling a lipstick tube, produce a bright and jangly sound characteristic of certain vintage electric guitars. Originally made with surplus lipstick tubes, these pickups now denote any that follows this same styling and tonal quality.

Unique and Custom Pickups

For those in pursuit of a particular sound, unique and custom pickups are built with specific tonal goals in mind. Whether searching for crystal-clear highs or thumping lows, you can explore various configurations and magnetic materials to find your ideal pickup. Custom windings and designs offer endless possibilities to shape your guitar’s voice to your liking.

Scroll to Top