Pick Up the Pieces (Part 1)

The electric guitar is an incredible evolution of our well-loved instrument that has been around since the 1500s.  As modern music in the 20th century developed (particularly “big band” ensembles), it became obvious that something needed to happen in order for a guitar to be heard.  For the most part, guitar designs were based around archtop hollow-bodies that, by their essence, allowed a primitive form of
“amplification” similar to that of an acoustic guitar.  The guitar’s role was mostly to provide background support by playing chords behind the soloist (usually some sort of wind instrument like a clarinet). 

Guitar solos?  Never heard of such a thing.  Why?  Because you (literally) couldn’t hear a guitar much over an entire band.  As players such as Charlie Christian came to prominence, their talent could not be overlooked.  There just HAD to be a way to get a guitar to be loud enough to hear in a band context. 

In the 1930s two gentlemen named Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp designed and manufactured what is considered to be the first modern “electric guitar”.  The most important part of this radical new invention was the method used to get the guitar amplified and heard – the electric guitar pickup.

A guitar pickup is a pretty simple device.  A magnet has a bunch of copper wire wrapped around it, which radiates a magnetic field.  Any sound source that vibrates within this field is “picked up” by the device and sent as a small electrical signal to the output jack of the guitar.  From there that small signal is sent to a guitar amplifier where it is processed and eventually delivered through the amplifier’s output speaker.

Sounds simple enough, right?  It is…but at the same time – as needs for guitarists evolved – different types were designed and made that tried to solve drawbacks in the earlier designs.  Let’s take a look at how things have progressed over time.

Hey, are you single?!?

The first pickups were what are referred to as “single coils”.  The ultimate example of what a single-coil pickup is can be found just by looking at the iconic Fender Stratocaster.  There’s three of them, and they are located right under where your right-hand hits the strings (if you’re a right-handed player):

The name says it all – it is a single-coil made up of (as noted above) a magnet wound with copper wire.  Single coil pickups are known for having a tight, treble based tone that gives, for example, country music all of the twang-delicious and snappy tone that it can handle. 

Pole dancing…

To help with getting volume across all of the strings to be the same there is what is called “pole pieces” that are installed right below each string (the six-round pieces are shown on each pickup): 

There are two different types of pole pieces – some are basically adjustable screws that go through the pickup’s magnet – to get a string to sound louder you simply adjust the pole piece up towards the string (and away from the string if you have one that is too loud).  Additionally, most modern guitars allow the entire pickup assembly to be raised and lowered to get an overall volume change once the pole pieces are properly adjusted.

Some pickup manufacturers use a fixed-height type to keep the heights constant where they are not adjustable at all.  These weights are based off a particular string height specification.

It’s a hum-dinger!!

While single-coil pickups are great, they have an inherent design issue that can certainly be a problem – they can give off a background “hum” that certainly isn’t what anybody would want to hear.  While it can be reduced to some point through volume and equalization adjustments, it sometimes is just a problem that won’t go away. 

To combat this problem the double-coil pickup (or, a “humbucker” as it is more traditionally known) was designed:

The humbucker solved the hum problem by an internal wiring trick.  The two coils are wired so that they phase out any unwanted noise while helping to improve the overall signal as well.  Humbuckers have pole pieces too; it’s not uncommon to see them where one coil has fixed ones and the other is adjustable.

A humbucker tends to produce a tone that is warmer and less treble-focused than a single coil.  A good portion of rock and roll was created using humbuckers due to their tone and the ability to get a “hotter” (higher output) signal.  Hotter signals can help when trying to get a more distorted tone out of your amp by giving the amplifier’s preamp section harder than with a single coil; single coils at higher levels can be prone to excessive feedback.  Feedback for the most part is a big no-no, but don’t tell that to someone like Hendrix!

Stack em’ up!

So, what if you have a Strat-style guitar but you want that humbucker sound and functionality?  You have a few options:

  • You could either get a router out and blow away part of your guitar body to get it to fit (not recommended for us common folk – better left to a trained luthier)
  • Just go buy a Strat style that has a humbucker already in it (SUPER common configuration nowadays thanks to Mr. Eddie Van Halen)
  • Get a “stacked” pickup

While a stacked humbucker isn’t really a “new” design per se, it is a nifty way to get that humbucker into your single-coil guitar with a minimum of modifications.  It takes the two coils of a humbucker and “stacks” them on top of each other so it will fit in a single coil envelope.  Some designs still have the coils side by side but the compromise here is that the coils themselves are smaller.

To wrap it all up, pickup designs have come a long way since the early days.  Engineers have come up with ways to change tone characteristics by changing magnet types, wire types and sizes, and also the amount of wire wrapped around the magnet.  With all that is available on the market, you should be able to get your perfect country snap or rock and roll roar!

But wait – what about acoustic guitars?  Can we get pickups for them too?

Yup.  You most certainly can.  But you’ll have to wait until next week to get the scoop on those… 

Peace out!

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