There are many electric guitar pickups on the market today. This can make it extremely difficult to know what pickups you have in your guitar. But understanding the differences can be very important, as using the wrong type could be hurting your sound.
Pickups are generally identified by the way they look, their dimensions, and their sound. If you are still not able to identify them this way, then removing them from the guitar to access the manufacturer’s label may be necessary.
In this guide, we are going to look at how to identify the pickups in your guitar and the benefits of knowing the differences.
Identify Guitar Pickup Sets Visually
Electric guitar pickups fall into one of three main categories:
1) Single Coil
Each of these styles not only has a distinct sound, but looks different from each of the others as well. This makes it easy to determine which pickup set you have on your guitar.
These are very popular pickups and can be found on guitars like the Fender Stratocaster. They are a thin pickup when compared to the others and typically have six poles (magnetic slugs) spaced evenly around the circumference of the coil.
The slug in the center is often slightly longer than the others. Sometimes there will not be any poles at all, but one metal strip located in the very center in place of them.
You will also find two screws that hold them to the guitar, one on each side.
Humbucker pickups were designed to cancel out the hum that is often associated with single-coils. They are wider than single coils and have two coils wound in opposite directions. Most simply look like two single coils stacked to make one pickup.
They also typically have two rows of slugs (magnetic poles), instead of just one. The slug in the center is again often slightly longer than the others.
Some humbucker styles look like one large square with only one row of poles on one side. This is normally just a decorative plated, or plastic cover that houses both coils.
Humbucker pickups can range from 1.43 to 1.5 inches wide.
P90 pickups are single coils, but are larger and wider than a standard unit. They were originally introduced by Gibson and can be found on many vintage guitars, but are the least common of the three kinds.
They are not quite as wide as a humbucker, but not as thin as a single-coil. On average, they measure 1.35 inches wide.
Recognize Pickups By Sound
While the way a pickup looks can give you some clues as to what it might sound like, the only way to know for sure is by plugging in and giving it a listen.
That said, some generalities can be made about each kind of pickup.
These pickups tend to have a thin, bright sound and are often associated with country, blues, and jazz. They can be used for other genres as well, but the sound may not be quite as full as with a humbucker.
Single-coil pickups are also known to buzz and hum a great deal.
Humbucker pickups have a fuller sound that is often described as being beefier than a single coil. They are great for all genres of music, but are particularly well-suited for rock and metal.
Their output is much hotter than a single-coil, which can drive an amplifier into distortion much easier.
They also don’t buzz or hum as much as single coils.
P90 pickups have a sound that is somewhere in between a single-coil and a humbucker. They are often described as being softer sounding than a humbucker and warmer than a single-coil.
They have a bit more output than a single-coil, but not as much as a humbucker.
P90 pickups are also known to be very versatile and can be used for a variety of genres.
Identify Pickups By Guitar Brand and Model
If you are still having trouble identifying which pickups are in your electric, the best way to figure it out is by looking up the make and model of your guitar.
Most companies have their guitars set up with a specific type of pickup in mind, so it should be fairly easy to find out what yours are.
This can be a pickup made by the guitar manufacturer themselves, or supplied by another company that specializes in them.
Here are a few examples:
Fender American Professional II Stratocaster
Just like all Stratocasters, this model is loaded with 3 single-coil pickups. These particular units are designed and manufactured by Fender, which still provides a vintage tone with some modern refinements.
They are called Fender V-Mod II single-coils and are a high-quality pickup design. This is easy to find when you know the make and model of your guitar.
PRS SE Custom 24
Another company that designs their own pickups is PRS. Their custom 24 guitar model is equipped with 85/15 “S” humbuckers that are also coil-tapped for single-coil performance as well.
This information can be found right on their website, making it very easy to know what pickups are in the guitar.
Charvel Pro-Mod San Dimas Style 1
This guitar has a pair of Seymour Duncan humbuckers, which are some of the most popular aftermarket pickups available.
You can find this out by looking at the specs listed on the Charvel website, or by doing a quick Google search for the make and model of your guitar.
The pickups themselves are labeled with the Seymour Duncan brand name, which at least helps you along. But this is a great example of a company that uses another brand’s pickups in their guitars.
Identify Pickups By Model or Serial Number
When all else fails, you can also try to figure out what pickups are in your guitar by looking up the model or serial number.
This is a bit more of a shot in the dark, but sometimes companies will use a specific code to denote which type of pickup is in the guitar.
Seymour Duncan began using codes after 2002 for customers to identify their guitar pickups and even include dimensions.
An example of this is the SH-12 Screamin Demon pickup. It has a label code 80031500165 which refers to this model but in black. Because there were other color choices, they were given different labels.
You can find the Seymour Duncan label system here.
The only hard part when it comes to finding the label, is that they are normally applied to the backside of the pickups. This means that you will have to remove the pickup from the guitar to get at it.
This is quite easy to do and is best done when a string change is being performed.
When the strings have been removed from your guitar, here is how to remove the pickups quickly.
If your guitar has a pickguard, simply remove the screws holding it to the body. They are normally located around the perimeter, or edges, of the pickguard. Once they are removed, carefully lift it from the guitar and flip it over. Be careful with the wires.
If your pickups are mounted directly to the body and do not have a pickguard that holds them, then they will have a bracket. This is normally metal or plastic and holds the pickup. Each of the 4 corners of the bracket will normally have a screw.
Remove each one to lift the pickup away from the guitar to expose the backside.
In either case, the screws that are on each side of the pickup are used to adjust their height and should be left alone.
Knowing what pickups are in your guitar can be a helpful piece of information. It can help you to figure out what style of music it’s best suited for and give you an idea of its sound capabilities.
It can also help when it comes to finding replacement pickups when yours wear out, or making other modifications.
If all else fails, you can always reach out to the company directly and ask them. They should be able to give you the information that you need.
How do you tell if you have active or passive pickups?
Passive pickups will not have a battery pack attached to them, while active units will. So if your guitar requires a battery and has a compartment for one, you more than likely have active pickups.
How can you tell if guitar pickups are original?
The best way to tell if pickups are original is to compare them to pictures of the same model guitar. If they look different, then they have been replaced at some point.
You can also look for a label or stamp on the back of the pickups with the manufacturer’s name. This is a good indication that they are original.
How do I know what size guitar pickup to get?
The size of the guitar pickup is determined by the routes that were cut into the body to accommodate them. So if you are replacing them, you will need to get the same size.
You can measure the outside dimensions of the pickups or take them to a guitar shop, and they should be able to tell you what size they are.