How Guitar Pickups Work

Describing how guitar pickups work could be a bit boring I'm afraid :-( In fact there isn't really any way to make pickups sound exciting until you plug them in to full blown Marshall stack, and CRANK IT !! But in the meantime....

The movement of the strings when plucked generates or induces a very small electrical current in the magnetic pickups (induction), which is channelled via volume and tone controls, through the output socket on the guitar, and then through a cable, to the guitar amplifier.

That's basically it, except that it is desirable in most cases to isolate the pickups from the vibrations of the strings to prevent the pickup from having a microphonic effect, howling or squealing at higher volumes, and so pickups will sometimes be embedded or "potted" in epoxy or wax, which fills all the little gaps and air pockets in the pickup which help to cause this unwanted 'feedback'.

Change which pickup is 'active' using the pickup selector switch and tapping each of the pickups in turn with a coin or something metallic to understand which is the 'live' pickup in relation to the pickups selectors position. When you get a bit of thump through the speakers you know which pickup is switched on.

The Diagrams below show which position the selector switch should be in to enable each of the pickups individually, or in pairs. With single coil pickups combining the pickups also helps eliminate the hum associated with these types of pickup.

How Guitar Pickups Work...
In Stratocaster type guitars there are normally 3 single coil pickups, one at the bridge, one at the neck and one in between (the Middle pickup obviously). The Neck pickup provides a warmer, mellow sound. The bridge pickup is brighter, more cutting , and the Middle pickup has a more mid-range, quacky sound. Stratocasters traditionally came with a 3 way selector switch, allowing the player to select either one of the pickups individually. However, some tinkering guitarists soon found a way to cock the switch in between the positions to enable both the bridge and middle pickup to be enabled at the same time (and also between the middle and the neck pickup), which also helped reduce the hum by putting the coils out of phase with each other. This provided a very distinctive sound, and soon the 5 way selector switch was born.

fender guitar pickups

With Gibson style guitars (with two humbucker pickups) the selector switch is a 3 way which swaps between the Bridge and Neck pickup (indicated by 'Rhythm' and 'Treble' on the selector switch plate) , with a third position (actually the middle position) to combine both pickups.

Gibson Humbucking Pickups

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