Pickups 101: A Primer on Passive Electric Guitar Pickups

Perhaps one of the most misunderstood components of the electric guitar is its pickups. Ironically, pickups are one of the most untapped resources for custom tailoring your signature sound, a far less-costly process than replacing amps, speakers, and effect systems. Because MusicPlayers.com cares about your tone, we want to clarify a few things about pickups and offer some sage advice.

This tutorial will give you an essential primer for understanding pickups, and our second pickup tutorial (Pickups 201: Pickup Replacement) walks you through the entire process of replacing your pickups just in case what we talk about here inspires you to take things to the next step.

To begin with, modern electric guitar pick-ups can be active or passive designs. Active designs incorporate an internal power supply (such as a nine Volt battery) and internal preamp circuitry to provide much lower impedance and higher signal levels than passive designs. Since passive guitar pickup designs still make up the majority of pickups being used today and all vintage models are of passive design, we will focus our discussion on passive pickups and leave the topic of active designs for a future article.

Passive electric guitar pickups are created by winding a coil of conductive wire around a permanent magnet, working on the principals outlined in Faraday’s Law. Without getting into the mathematical side of things, and specifically for our purposes, it can be stated that:

Any change in the magnetic environment of a coil of wire will induce a voltage in the coil. This induced voltage (emf) can be created in a number of ways, so long as the magnetic environment is affected. For instance, the change could be produced by moving the coil into or out of the magnetic field, changing the strength of the magnetic field (strength of the magnet in our case), moving the magnet toward or away from the coil, rotating the coil relative to the magnet, etc.

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