Today we are continuing our discussion on all things related to pickups. Since we discussed the acoustic guitar last time around, let’s circle back to the electric guitar for a bit – we already reviewed the basic types of electric pickups, but that’s not the whole story.
One feature of electric guitars that is unique from acoustics – no matter the type of pickup used – is that the electric guitar was designed (pretty much from its’ origins) to have multiple pickups in different positions between the neck and the bridge. What’s the big deal about that? Isn’t one pickup all you need?
To just get a signal from your guitar, then yes – all you need is one. Normally that’s all you have on an acoustic – just a single way to get the signal out. With an electric though, having multiple pickups opens up your tonal options in a way that isn’t really necessary on an acoustic; I say that because with an acoustic, once you get a good tone you usually do your best to NOT play around with it!
What’s Your Position?
Let’s get the party started by looking at a typical Strat-style guitar pickup configuration:
There are three single-coil pickups called the bridge, middle, and neck. Using the five-way selector switch that is mounted under the volume and tone knobs, you can activate five different combinations of pickups that are active at one time (more on this in a bit).
That’s important because, based on where the pickup is mounted relative to the bridge, the tone that you will get through the amp will be different.
The pickup closest to the bridge (commonly called the “bridge” pickup, for obvious reasons) always has the brightest sound that has a good amount of treble response. This is because of complicated physics stuff that has to do with how a string resonates as it gets closer to the contact point on the bridge saddle.
You really don’t even need a pickup to hear the difference. Take your guitar – without it being plugged in – and pluck the string right close to the bridge. See how bright and tinny it sounds? We should make a point that the bridge pickup is “normally” the one that is used.
Now move up towards the neck. You’ll hear right away how the tone gets warmer and mellows out quite a bit.
THAT is the reason for having multiple pickups – to take advantage of the changes in tone!
Switch It Up
Now that the physics lesson is over (I personally hated physics in school)…
Let’s go back to the pickup selector switch on a typical Strat-style guitar. There is no option to turn all of the pickups off (that’s what a volume knob is for); on a typical Strat, this is what allows you to pick from five different configurations – each with its’ own unique set of tone character.
- Bridge pickup only
This is the brightest sounding setup, and it is the one most commonly used. A good example is the sharp, twang-type tone that is common in country music.
- Bridge and Middle
A little warmer but still has a bit of bite to it (think “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Sultans of Swing”)
- Middle only
Yet a little warmer. Clapton and Gilmour tended to use this a lot in the early to mid-’70s.
- Middle and Neck
Getting warmer…and thicker.
- Neck Only
The thickest of them all. Take a listen to the solo on “American Woman” and you’ll get the point.
Current basic Strat-style guitars mostly come with the five-position switch, but it’s interesting to note that it wasn’t always that like that. Up until 1977, a three-position switch was standard equipment where only one of the three pickups would be active. Some players found that they could trick out the switch and set it up as noted above to get those “in-between” tones.
This concept isn’t just for a Strat-style guitar. The traditional Les Paul setup of two humbuckers (bridge and neck positions) uses the same approach but is a little simplified. Those guitars have a three-position switch only (bridge only, bridge and middle, and neck only).
You’ll find that pretty much any tone you have ever heard was created using the three single-coil or the dual humbucker setup. Many guitarists have one of each type and will switch out depending on the song – which is a great way to copy signature tones if you are playing in a cover band.
Pick It Up…Mix it Up
Tonal ranges for a guitar can be taken even further by mixing up different kinds of pickups in the same guitar. Nowadays it’s not uncommon to see guitars with configurations different from what we have already discussed (note – it’s most common to see these setups on a Strat-style guitar):
Humbucker (bridge position) – Single-Coil – Single Coil. This is known as “Fat Strat”
Humbucker (bridge position) – Single-Coil – Humbucker
These setups take advantage of the unique characteristics of the actual types of pickups themselves and give you even more tone options.
Break On Through…
Is your practicing time getting a little boring? Experimenting with different pickup configurations can be an exciting way to break out of the rut. Try playing songs you already know with new settings, or use the new tones as inspiration to do a little songwriting of your own.
Having a whole set of new tone possibilities can be as simple as flipping a switch, and sometimes a simple change in your approach can be the spark that creates a new flame.
We’re getting close to the end of our series on pickups, but we still have one more topic to discuss…and I’m hoping that we get a lot of feedback on it. Yeah – I just let the cat out of the bag, but feedback is a topic that deserves its’ own time in the spotlight.
Until next time – peace out!