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Choosing The Best Pickup For Your Guitar

June 19, 2012; William Lewis

Aside from the guitar itself or the amp, the pickups are the most important factor in good guitar tone. Different pickups will impart a different tone, but the tonal properties of the wood and strings must be considered before selecting your pickups. Check some reviews and the pickup manufacturer's web site for suggestions on the woods that work best with the pickups you're considering. Let's talk a little bit about some pickup basics.

Decide on the Tone You Want from Your Pickups
When selecting pickups, first define the tone you are going for. Once you know that, it will be easier to find pickups with the right characteristics.

Passive Guitar Pickups

Most pickups are of passive design. These work like small generators. When you have a ferrous material (like a guitar string) oscillating in a magnetic field, it creates a small AC current. A standard pickup is composed of a magnet wrapped with copper wire. So when a string vibrates in the pickup's magnetic field it generates a current that travels through the wire and eventually to your amp. For passive pickups the voltage is very small. Typically, you see passive designs run between 350mv and upwards to around 600mv or so. They can go higher, but usually closer to and above 1v of output is starting to enter active pickup territory.

How Magnets Influence a Pickup's Characteristics
That output translates to how 'hot' it is (how hard the pickup is going to hit the preamp of your amp). That is a key factor in determining the pickup's ability to distort the amp. Pickups actually don't do any distorting, that all comes from your amp. But how hard that preamp is hit will determine how distorted the tone will be. Passive pickups use various magnets, ceramic, steel or AlNiCo. AlNiCo is an acronym and stands for Aluminum, Nickel, and Cobalt. These magnets came about way back in the 1930s and have a high coercivity (a resistance to losing their magnetism). AlNiCo pickups come in a few types, namely II, III, V and now VIII, based on the proportions of Aluminum, Nickel, and Cobalt in the alloy. These magnets also offer less string pull than your average ceramic magnet. The AlNiCo III's were used in the early Stratocasters due to their low string pull. The III's actually have the least string pull of any in the AlNiCo family. The II's has a softer attack, though not as soft as the III's. It also has what you might consider a "spongy" bottom end.

AlNiCo V's are associated more with a hotter tone, but they have more string pull than the II's and III's. They also have a sharper attack. Since it's more powerful, it tends to sound brighter than either the II's or III's. AlNiCo VIII magnets are geared toward a modern, aggressive tone, but without the annoying treble you can run into with ceramic pickups. Ceramic magnets are powerful, but as I said earlier, that makes them brighter. They also have a lot more string pull. Ceramics tend to have a rougher type distortion, where the AlNiCo's have a smoother distortion. So the AlNiCo is the more refined sounding of these two.

I don't want it to seem that ceramic magnets are inferior to AlNiCo. They are simply a different in tone. Ceramic magnets have their own sound to them. I have an SH-5 in my Les Paul right now. It works for me when I need it. It all comes down to what you want. Sometimes I like that rough around the edges tone. When I want a smoother distortion, the AlNiCo's fit the bill. Passive pickups have that organic tone everyone talks about when comparing them to active pickups.

How Active Pickups are Different from Passive Pickups
I know quite a few people who think active pickups have a higher output by design. Technically, this isn't the case. While they do have a high output, that is due to a preamp inside the pickup, not the pickup itself. In passive designs, the copper wire winding is the determining factor of the output. More winding equals more output. Active pickups actually use a larger wire and fewer winds. This leads to lower output, but a very wide frequency response. Active pickups tend to have more clarity than passive pickups. The preamp inside is what makes the output go up to around 1v to 2v for most active designs.

The structure and preamp create a powerful pickup that is very clear under high gain. While it is true that the built in preamp colors the tone, it does not make every guitar sound the same. I've seen this argument everywhere. It's simply not true. The pickups will react to different guitars. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply ill-informed or has never actually tried an active pickup. Most times, they are just going off of what they've heard others say. Another argument against active pickups is the need for a 9v battery. If you have two active humbuckers, you'll see around 1,500 hours of battery life. One active and you have around 3,000. Those are for the EMG systems. Seymour Duncan Blackouts actually consume slightly more current, so those numbers may drop slightly for those pickups.

One thing about active pickups is that they use bar magnets and are covered, meaning they have no pole pieces. Those pole pieces on passive pickups give them a plucky tone, whereas active pickups have a smoother tone not only due to variances in magnets, but because they lack pole pieces. Personally, I don't see a lack of that plucky sound as bad. Musicians are all different and we all have preferences that are ours alone. So again, it's up to you to decide what you want.

Choosing between Active Pickups

Now, you might be wondering what the difference is between available active pickups. Right now, you have two major players: EMG and Seymour Duncan. EMGs are a bit more compressed, but very transparent. Seymour Duncan Blackouts have more of the "organic” tone you'd associate with passive pickups, but they lack the clarity of the EMGs. While tonally they do have a bit more over the EMGs, the clarity is something you'll want to consider. EMG also has more options to choose from.

EMG Active Pickups
The 81 is a ceramic/steel magnet offering a high output, more modern tone. It's more trebly and cutting than the 85. The 85 is an AlNiCo V magnet, making for a smoother tone and more bassy sound compared to the 81. The 60 is closer to a single coil. It's also a ceramic/steel magnet, but it's often used in the neck position, so it won‘t be as bright as a bridge position ceramic pickup. EMG also offers that pickup with an AlNiCo magnet. I used to pair a 60A with an 85 in the bridge slot and loved that combo. Nice and smooth all around.

EMG also has active pickups that can be coil-tapped. The 89 and 81TW can be tapped for a single-coil type tone. Essentially, you have an SA single coil when the 89 is tapped. The 89 is the coil-tapping version of the 85, so it has an AlNiCo V magnet. The 81TW would basically give you an EMG S, since it sticks with the ceramic/steel magnet like you have in both the EMG 81 and S single coil pickups. You also have the 58, which is basically a P90 in a humbucker housing. It has the aggressive tone that is associated with the P90 as well. And for the record, EMG does offer actual P90 pickups. EMG recently released the JH James Hetfield Humbucker Set, yet another way to capture the passive sound in an active format.

Seymour Duncan Active Pickups
Seymour Duncan has its regular Blackouts, which use different magnet types; a ceramic magnet in the bridge pickup and an AlNiCo V in the neck position. The other type is the Blackout Metal pickup, which to my knowledge uses AlNiCo V magnets in both slots. They also offer the Livewire line, which basically is an active version of their passive pickups. The AlNiCo V makes another appearance here too. I believe they based these off of the JB-4 and the SH-2 Jazz pickups, but I may be mistaken. Duncan recently offered the Gus G set, which has passive pickups, but puts that signal through an active preamp that's outside the pickup.

The Bottom Line for Guitar Pickups
Each pickup is different and possesses its own sonic character. One pickup isn't better than the other, they are simply different. You need to decide which will be best for you. If you only have one guitar, it can be hard to figure out what you want. It's nice to have more than one guitar so you have whatever options, tone-wise, that you want to be available to you when you need it. I use guitars with active pickups and guitars with passive pickups. It is even possible to combine active and passive pickups in one guitar. But then you need to consider the fact you'll probably only have a volume pot for each pickup. Active pickups take a 25k pot whereas passive pickups start at 250k (typically for single coils) to 300k (Gibson uses these) to 500k (most humbuckers), and even up to 1 meg. Also, the jack for active pickups is a stereo jack, so while it is possible to hook up a passive pickup to go along with a preexisting active pickup, if you have passive pickups and would like to add an active pickup, you'll probably need to switch out your jack.

I hope I've provided some information that you might find useful, should you ever decide to change the pickups in your guitar. It's such an important part of your tone, but a bit of a complex one at that. Often, it's one that's hard to really try out too. You can go into a store and try a guitar or an amp, but you can't really walk in and ask to try that DiMarzio Tone Zone in that SG. Buying pickups can be risky too. You might look one up and think it'll work, but when you get it in your guitar pair it with your amp, suddenly it doesn't produce the sound you are after. I had that happen recently. I spent a good chunk of change on a Seymour Duncan only to find it didn't quite do what I was looking for. Then, in comes the SH-5 to give me what I wanted.

This is why being informed is the only way to make a relatively sound choice. Going in armed with knowledge is going to give you the best chance to get what you want the first time. But don't be discouraged if you still don't find what you wanted. There are a ton of pickups out there. You'll find one that fits you. All it takes is some patience and some quality time with a soldering iron.

I had a lot of my students in the past ask me about this type of thing and I figured that a lot of other people would want to know about it, too. Plus, if they can find that information on the site where they can buy these items, it might help them to make a better decision.




William Lewis teaches and writes about guitar online. He says he has been playing the guitar for 14 years and his style leans toward bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera and AC/DC. He lives in Terra Alta, West Virginia. You can email him at: vault_87@yahoo.com.  

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