Electric guitars are used for many different kinds of music, each with a particular style that requires that guitar to sound a certain way. A band playing metal music would use a guitar that has high output to it. Each genre is just slightly different, and the biggest way to make a change in the sound of your electric guitar aside from a different amp is to buy a new set of pickups for your guitar. There are so many different kinds of pickups and manufacturers, and it is important to know what each one offers before you make a purchase.
What is your guitar is capable of?
Certain guitars are designed for specific acoustic or tonal qualities, and this will affect the way a pickup interacts with the sound created by the guitar. Electric guitars typically have solid bodies and will produce very different vibrations than acoustic guitars. While electric guitars function primarily through the string vibrations because they do not produce strong acoustic sounds, there are subtle effects on these vibrations created by the type of wood or synthetic material it is constructed with. An acoustic guitar creates sound through the shape of its body, and produces sound by capturing and amplifying the actual sound waves as they move the air in and around the body. As such, the same pickup would react very differently when used for an electric guitar and an acoustic guitar. The same is true for all guitars that are constructed differently.
Research, Research, Research.
Gather company based information, which often includes a description of the sound, what genres of music it was designed for and sometimes scales on 1 to 10 or similar devices that display the pickup’s frequency responses for bass, mid and treble ranges. You may be able to find sound clips and demos of the pickup being used. YouTube and similar sites also have other demos and audio reviews contributed by the general public. All of this information is important in the decision-making process but shouldn’t be solely relied upon. Also be sure to purchase from reputable vendors as these products can be defective from time to time.
Choose a pickup with your desired qualities
A general rule is that for warmer, fuller, louder and fatter tones humbuckers are better suited. For brighter, thinner and with a set of 3 being used, more universal guitar sound, single coils are better suited. But within these types there are again many, many possibilities and variations.
What does your favorite artists use
If you’re not sure where to even start with considering possible pickups for purchase find a musician or a band where there is a guitar that you would like to own the sound and tonal capabilities of. This will narrow things down greatly because once you have an example in mind; you just need to follow that example. For instance, if you had decided you would like your guitar to sound similar to Steve Vai’s guitar you could do some celebrity research and find out what his pickups are used for that song. Even if you don’t want those exact pickups, it will help you decide between types of pickups such as a humbucker, single coil, P90, etc.
There is usually more than one pickup in a guitar, and you have to put the right pickups in the right place, or your guitar will sound strange. There are normally three places a pickup can go on a guitar: the neck position, the bridge, and the middle position. The fourth are saddle pickups. These pickups are special designed bridges with the saddles acting as the pickup. They amplify the direct vibration of the string and sometimes are used in conjunction with normal pickups. Graphtech is currently manufacturing a great saddle pickup system called the Ghost Modular pickup system and are available here. Pickup manufacturers make pickups for certain positions in the guitar, so if you are going to replace your pickups, buy ones that are made for the space that you are replacing.
One last major factor involved is the operation means of the pickups. Pickups will either be passive or active. There are also more complicated ways of pickups operating but these are often very high tech ways that will carry very unique properties. Most pickups are passive. Passive pickups require that the guitar be plugged into an amplifier that is connected to a power supply, since the pickups themselves do not provide any means of pre-amplification to boost the signal they capture. Active pickups have a built-in power supply within the guitar, and most are powered by a 9volt battery, or similar. This allows for more expansive control over the guitar tone when using the on-board controls (volume knob, tone controls, pickup selectors, etc.) although many say there is also a distinctive difference between the sounds of active and passive pickups, which can be hard to resolve, even with other tonal controls.
There are many different kinds of pickups, but there are only a few companies that actually make them. Besides Fender and Gibson, who make pickups for their own guitars, the big three are Seymour Duncan, EMG, and DiMarzio. Each one has different ranges of pickups and different tonal properties. Here is a quick rundown on each of them:
Probably the most popular of the three, Seymour Duncan creates pickups for every single possible guitar setup and sound that you could want. They have single coil pickups, humbuckers, active pickups, and pickups for 7 and 8 string guitars as well. This company has what most people call “a natural tone” that sounds better the louder you play it. Used by artists such as Slash (Guns n’ Roses, Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Keri Kelli (Alica Cooper), Steve Harris & Janick Gers (Iron Maiden), Paul Stanley & Bruce Kulick (Kiss), Tom Hamilton (Aerosmith), Scott Ian (Anthrax), David Gilmour (Pick Floyd), Michael Wilton (Queensyrche), Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen), and Yngwie Malmsteen.
DiMarzio is known for its often-revolutionary pickup designs and offer many kinds of pickups for all styles of music. Some notable players include (past and present) Eddie Van Halen (Van Halen), Joe Satriani, David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Frank Zappa, Pete Townshend (The Who), Yngwie Malmsteen, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Adrian Smith & Dave Murray (Iron Maiden), Ace Frehley (Kiss), and Steve Vai.
EMG is one of the biggest makers of active pickups in the world. Their simplistic look and super heavy crunch is distinctive and used by many famous bands. Users of the pickup include Kirk Hammet & James Hetfield & Robert Trujillo (Metallica), Zakk Wylde (Black Label Society & Ozzy Osbourne), Glenn Tipton & K.K. Downing (Judas Priest), Kerry King (Slayer), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd), and Chad Kroeger (Nickelback).
There are many things that affect your sound besides the pickups. Your amp, the wood that your guitar is made from, the tremolo, different string gauges, and even the fingerboard all make a difference in how it sounds. You may have to experiment with many different combinations to find the sound that you like. Till next time, play on.