Types of Guitar Pickups Explained: Acoustic, Electric, and Bass

When it comes to the sound and tone of an electric guitar, there are no other parts as important as the pickup. The guitar pickup is responsible for converting the string’s vibrations into an electrical signal, which is then sent to an amplifier.

This amplifies the sound of the guitar so that it can be heard through speakers.

There are many types of pickups available on the market, each with its unique tone and output. The type of pickup you choose will largely depend on the style of music you play and your personal preferences.

But with so many types of pickups to choose from, how do you know which one is right for you?

In this article, we’ll break down the different types of guitar pickups and help you find the right one for your music style.

types of guitar pickups

Types of Electric Guitar Pickups

When it comes to electric guitar pickups, there are many shapes and sizes available for this very important part.

Single-Coil Pickups

Single-coil pickups are the most common type found on electric guitars. They were first introduced in the 1930s and have been used on some of the most iconic guitars ever made.

single coil pickup

Single-coil pickups are known for their bright, clear sound with plenty of attack. They’re perfect for genres like country, pop, blues, and rock because of their spanky, tight tone.

Single-coils are made up of one coil of wire wrapped around an arrangement of metal poles, one for each string. Each pole makes contact with a magnet that provides the magnetic flux field used to pick up the vibrations created by the strings.

Advantages of Single-Coil Pickups:

  • Bright, clear sound
  • Good attack
  • Versatile.

Disadvantages of Single-Coil Pickups:

  • Can be noisy (hum)
  • Prone to microphonics
  • Maybe too “thin” sounding for some genres

One of the main disadvantages of the single-coil design is the buzz and hum they produce, as they are susceptible to electromagnetic interference.

Guitars That Come With Single-Coil Pickups:

  • Fender Stratocaster
  • Fender Telecaster
  • Schecter Hellcat

Humbucker Pickups

Humbuckers were invented in the 1950s as a way to combat the noise produced by single-coil pickups.

humbucker pickup

They are made up of two coils of wire that are wrapped around separate magnets. The coils are connected in a series wiring, which cancels out the electromagnetic interference and produces a much smoother tone.

Humbucker pickups are known for their rich, full sound with plenty of midrange. They’re perfect for genres like heavy metal, hard rock, and jazz because of their thick, creamy tone in both the bridge and neck positions.

You will also find that artists in genres like blues, and pop will also use them for their warm tone. Some guitars come with coil taps that allow the player to separate the two windings. With the pull of a knob, you can switch between single-coil and humbucker tones.

Advantages of Humbucker Pickups:

  • Rich, full sound
  • Warm tone
  • Less noise
  • Higher output

Disadvantages of Humbucker Pickups:

  • Might be too “thick” sounding for some genres
  • Some designs lack treble

When a very dark-sounding humbucker is placed on a guitar with mahogany wood, it can be so dark that the tone can become muddy.

Guitars That Come With Humbucker Pickups:

  • Gibson Les Paul
  • ESP LTD EC-1000
  • PRS SE Custom 24

Mini Humbuckers

Mini humbuckers are a variation of the traditional pickup. They were first introduced by Epiphone in the 1970s and quickly gained popularity among players who wanted the tone of a humbucker, but in a smaller package.

mini humbucker

Mini humbuckers are made with smaller magnets and coils, which gives them a brighter, clearer sound with less thickness. They’re perfect for genres like country, pop, and blues because of their twangy, biting tone.

Many players feel their sound falls in between a single-coil pickup and a humbucker. The extra bit of warmth and the lack of buzz makes them a great option over the use of single-coils. Especially when you tweak your guitar controls like tone and volume.

Advantages of Mini Humbuckers:

  • Brighter, clearer sound
  • Slightly warmer than a single-coil or P90
  • Great for clean tones

Disadvantages of Mini Humbuckers:

  • Can sound “thin”
  • Not as much output as a full-size humbucker
  • Too big for a single-coil cutaway in a guitar body

Guitars That Come With Mini Humbuckers:

  • Epiphone Firebird
  • Gretsch Electromatic

P90 Pickups

P90 pickups were first introduced by Gibson in the 1940s and quickly became one of the most popular models of all time. They’re known for their bright, gritty sound with plenty of attack. They’re perfect for genres like rock, blues, and punk because of their raw, edgy tone.

P90 Pickup

P90 pickups are made in the same manner that single-coils are, except for the bobbin and case. As a result of the larger parts and a different type of winding, the P90 has more output than a single-coil, but not as much as a humbucker.

This puts the P90 in a class all its own, and even to this day they are still sought after in certain music genres.

Advantages of P90 Pickups:

  • Bright, gritty sound
  • Good attack
  • Warmer than single-coil pickups
  • raw, edgy tone

Disadvantages of P90 Pickups:

  • Can be noisy
  • Easily mistaken for humbuckers

Because they are made in the same fashion as regular single-coil pickups, they hum and buzz the same way.

Guitars That Come With P90 Pickups:

  • Fender Noventa Telecaster
  • Gibson Les Paul Special
  • Gretsch G-2262T Streamliner

Acoustic Guitar Pickups

There are many types of acoustic guitar pickups, but the most common are piezo, in-body microphones, and magnetic soundhole devices.

Piezo Pickups

Piezo pickups are small ceramic discs that sit under the saddle of an acoustic guitar and translate the string vibrations into an electrical signal. They are known for their natural, acoustic sound and are often used in live performances.

Piezo pickup

Piezo pickups do not use magnetic energy to translate vibrations, but instead, measure the actual vibration of the saddle and instrument with a transducer to produce the signal. This is great for guitars that do not use steel strings, as magnetic pickups are useless.

And because there are no magnets in the Piezo design, the hum and noise are also not anything to have to worry about like a single-coil pickup.

Advantages of Piezo Pickups:

  • Natural, acoustic sound
  • No Noise
  • Works with all string types

Disadvantages of Piezo Pickups:

  • Sound can be “quacky”
  • Not as versatile as other types of pickups

Magnetic Acoustic Pickups

Magnetic acoustic pickups are devices that attach to the soundboard of the guitar and use a conventional force to translate the string vibrations into an electrical signal. They are known for their versatility and ability to be used in a wide range of genres.

Acoustic Pickup

Magnetic pickups can only be used with steel-string acoustics, as the technology will not work with nylon or gut options. They are also known to add a bit of “color” to the sound, as they are often made with Alnico magnets.

Alnico is an alloy made of Aluminum, Nickel, and Cobalt, and is known for its distinctive tone.

Advantages of Magnetic Acoustic Pickups:

  • Versatile
  • Can be used in a wide range of genres
  • Adds warmth to the tone

Disadvantages of Magnetic Acoustic Pickups:

  • Only works with steel-string acoustics
  • Not as natural sounding as piezo pickups

In-Body Microphones

In-body microphones are, as the name suggests, microphones that are placed inside the body of an acoustic guitar. They are known for their natural sound and are often used in live performances.

In-body acoustic pickup

In-body microphones work by translating the string vibrations into an electrical signal that is then amplified. Because they are placed inside the guitar, there is a good chance of feedback and instability if not installed right.

But because they are a microphone, the tone is more natural, and so the acoustic qualities are captured and amplified. Any percussive playing or tapping on the soundboard will also be amplified.

Advantages of In-Body Microphones:

  • Natural sound
  • Amplifies Percussive playing

Disadvantages of In-Body Microphones:

  • Can be difficult to install
  • Feedback prone
  • Expensive

Electric Bass Guitar Pickups

Electric bass guitar pickups come in a few different varieties, but the most common are passive and active.

P-Style Pickups

P-Style, or precision, pickups are one of the most common types for electric bass guitar. They are passive, meaning they do not require a battery to work, and consist of two halves.

P Style Pickups

The P-Style pickup halves are mounted on the body of the bass, one further up than the other. This is to allow the two higher strings to have a deeper sound, and the lower ones to make use of higher frequencies.

They each use two magnetic poles, or “slugs” per string, to generate the signal. This provides a consistent output on each string no matter how it is being played.

The slugs are wrapped in copper wire, and then each assembly is placed into its own housing.

P-Style pickups are known for their bright, punchy tone and are often used in jazz, funk, and even hard rock music.

Advantages of P-Style Pickups:

  • Consistent output
  • Bright, punchy sound
  • Hum canceling design

Disadvantages of P-Style Pickups:

  • Not as versatile as other types of pickups
  • This design is somewhat limiting

J-Style Pickups

J-Style pickups are similar to P-Style in that they are passive and have two magnetic poles, or “slugs”, per string. They are also mounted on the body of the bass, but in a different configuration.

J style pickups

With J-Style pickups, the slugs are placed side-by-side rather than one on top of the other. This gives them a wider magnetic field to work with and results in a fuller sound.

The J-Style pickup is also known for its “Growl” which is a result of the way the string vibrates against the slugs. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on the style of music you are playing.

While the J stands for jazz, there are many players even from metal and rock that use this pickup because of its versatility.

Advantages of J-Style Pickups:

  • Versatile when used in pairs
  • Thick and full
  • Can add growl to the sound

Disadvantages of J-Style Pickups:

  • The single-coil design is noisy

Noiseless Jazz Style Pickups

As the name suggests, Noiseless J-Style pickups are designed for jazz basses, but can be used in a wide range of styles. They are passive pickups that use a humbucking design to cancel out any unwanted noise.

Noiseless Jazz Pickups are J-Style that have been modified to reduce the amount of interference. They achieve this by using two coils that are out of phase with each other.

This results in a pickup that is quieter and less prone to feedback. They still have the growl that is associated with J-Style pickups, but without the unwanted noise.

Advantages of Noiseless Jazz Style Pickups:

  • Quieter than standard J-Style
  • Less prone to noise
  • Still have the growl

Disadvantages of Noiseless Jazz Style Pickups:

  • More expensive than standard pickups
  • Not quite the same sound as regular J-style

Dual Coil Bass Pickups

Dual coil bass pickups are similar to the precision and jazz style in that they have two magnetic poles, or “slugs”, per string. However, they differ in that they have two coils of copper wire rather than one.

dual coil bass pickup

This results in a louder and fuller sound as there is more surface area for the string to vibrate against. It also means that they are less susceptible to interference and noise as they are designed like a humbucker.

Dual coil pickups are often used in rock and metal styles of music, as they can provide a very “fat” sound.

But because they are more harmonically rich, they are used in all sorts of musical genres.

Advantages of Dual Coil Pickups:

  • Loud and full tone
  • Less susceptible to interference and noise
  • Can be used in a variety of genres

Disadvantages of Dual Coil Pickups:

  • More expensive
  • Highs are slightly attenuated
  • Not ideal for all music genres

Soap Bar Bass Pickups

Soap bar pickups get their name from their rectangular shape that resembles a bar of soap. They are one of the most popular types of pickups as they are very versatile and can be used in a wide range of styles.

soap bar pickup

Soap bar pickups are passive units that use either a single or dual coil design. This will then determine which music style they will fit best, as only the case differs in this regard. This can be hard to determine as you cannot see the pole pieces.

In most cases, however, they will be a dual coil design with full tonal characteristics and higher output levels.

Active Pickups

These are a type of pickup that uses an active preamp to boost the signal. This results in a louder and clearer sound as well as less noise and interference.

You will find that there are active pickups made for all guitar types, from single-coil size to a humbucker. They rely on battery power to work properly, and so some manufacturers either have one built-in or require it changed occasionally.

Active Pickups For Guitar

While active pickups can be used on any guitar, they are most commonly used on electric models. This is because they require battery power and so are not as practical for acoustic guitars.

active pickup

Many types of active pickups are designed for different styles of music. For example, some are designed to replicate the frequency range of a single-coil pickup.

They are designed to provide plenty of the chime and brightness you would expect, but without the noise that commonly comes with the single coil. Some designs, however, can sound shrill and lack definition.

Then there are the humbucker-style active pickup models. Some are made to be very hot, meaning the output is well above that of a passive. Sometimes this can mean that they don’t sound like you may have hoped as they begin to lack clarity in their tonal character.

A well-designed active pickup on the other hand can sound well-defined, provide exceptional sustain, and the perfect output. Some companies are better at active pickups than others.

Active Bass Pickups

Bass pickups are also available, and these use an active preamp to control the output signal. This results in a louder, clearer tone with less noise and interference.

Many types of active bass pickups are designed for different styles of music. For example, some provide a very “punchy” sound that is perfect for funk or R&B.

Others are designed to replicate the sound of a passive pickup, providing plenty of the warmth and fullness that you would expect.

FAQs

What is better P90 or humbucker?

There is no definitive answer as to which is better, as it depends on your personal preference and the type of music you play.

If you want a fuller sound then a humbucker would be better, whereas if you prefer a brighter, grittier tone, then a P90 would be more suitable.

What is the best guitar pickup for metal?

The best guitar pickup for metal would be a high-output humbucker as this will provide you with the full, heavy sound that you need.

Sometimes this can be either active or passive, it just depends on the sound you are shooting for.

Are active pickups worth it?

Active pickups are worth it if you are looking for a louder, clearer sound with less noise and interference.

They are voiced differently than passive pickups and don’t quite respond the same way when you roll down the volume.

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Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!