Another Guitar Question

      • So I have gotten curious about learning how to play guitar, at least a little, because it’s the main instrument that I can’t convincingly fake on my PC MIDI setup. So I’m poor, and I’m going and looking at guitars, and they seem to have pickups, and different pickups, in different varieties. One, two or three, and there’s different kinds, and what pickups are present and where they are placed detirmines much about how the guitar sounds. Some that have multiple pickups allow you to select which to use, and some only have one kind, but in three different places…
  • So if the pickups are that important, are they changeable? And why not make a guitar that has 10 or 12 different pickups, that lets you select which ones you want to use? Has this been done? The most I have seen on any store-bought guitar is three. - DougC

Pickups ARE changeable. My hollowbody has two pickups (humbuckers…they’re not original) and a three position switch. Position one is pickup 1. Position 2 in pickup 2. Position 3 in both. Gives and easy way to switch between a ‘rhythm’ feel and a ‘lead’ feel if you get me.

I’ve never seen a guitar with more than 3 pickups but I don’t see any theoretical reason you couldn’t have that many. There would be space limitations, I’d bet.

I think (and I may be wrong) that the OP was referring to actually physically changing the pickups. For some reason this idea has never caught on, but it was tried in the reissue of the Ampeg Dan Armstrong guitar, a clear axe that was most notably played by Keith Richards back in the 70s. Perhaps switchable pickups haven’t been popular may be because you have to take the strings off to put a new pickup on, a fair bit of work.

The reason for having 2-3 (and even 4 sometimes, which does occur rarely) pickups on a guitar is less to utilize different kinds of pickups and more to be able to capture the way the guitar sounds at different distances from the bridge. You’ll notice that the Fender Stratocaster, to use a famous example, will have 3 of the same pickup but they all sound very different; the closer to the bridge the more cutting the sound the closer to the neck the smoother the sound.

Humbuckers are two pickups stuck together, something you can see in any Gibson Les Paul, and they create a significantly more intense sound. Some people like this characteristic and others don’t.

In general pickups are important, but not as important as where they are placed on the guitar. Furtherermore, the main thing to be concerned with is how they wind up sounding; use your ears as your guide and don’t be too concerned about the pickups.

Pickups are definately changeable. There are hordes of aftermarket pickups available out there, for nearly any sound you could want. But it’s not a quick job to change them and most decent guitars come with adequate pickups off the shelf. There are a few exotic guitars that feature plug-and-play swapable pickups, but that is not very common at all. Some common types of pickups are:

Single-Coils - The stereotypical Fender Stratocaster pickup. They have one coil of wire wrapped around the magnets. Often described as having a ‘bright’, ‘clear’, or sometimes ‘twangy’ sound. They are susceptible to picking up hum from the environment, which can degrade their sound quality at very high gain.

Double-Coils - Also called ‘Humbuckers’. These have two coils that are wired so that external interference cancels out. Described as ‘warm’, ‘dark’, or ‘powerful’ sounding. These pickups have higher gain than single-coils and no hum.

Piezo-electric - Found on many acoustic/electric guitars and on increasing numbers of solid-body electric guitars. These use piezoelectric crystals to directly sense the vibration of the strings. Usually are mounted within the string saddles or under the bridge. They have very broad frequency response, with a lot of treble. They have a very ‘clear’, ‘jangly’ sound thaat can sometimes be a little harsh unless the treble is turned down a little bit. They are impervious to picking up external electrical interference, but they can amplify finger noises and other physical things.

Now, in addition to the type of pickup, the placement factors largely into the sound as well. Pickups near the bridge will generally sound brighter and clearer, while pickups near the neck will be more mellow. Just being able to switch between these positions gives you a lot of flexibility in your sound, especially when you add in the amplifier.

Why don’t they put more pickups on guitars? Several interrelated reasons for this, in no particular order:

First, space limitations, as Jonathan Chance already noted. There really isn’t room for more than 3 or 4 humbuckers on most guitars. You could squeeze in a few more single-coils, but probably not more than 6 or 7. Anyway, with that many pickups, they would be very close together. So the sound qualities would be very similar between neighboring pickups. Would you use the bridge pickup or the 2nd to the brdige pickup? They’d sound almost the same.

Second, cost. Pickups can be expensive. On some electric guitars, the pickups are 1/4 or 1/3 of the total price of the guitar. So there is a point of diminishing returns in adding more pickups. You could build a guitar with the maximum number of pickups, only to find that you’ve priced it too high to sell.

Third, lack of need. Once you’ve got 3 pickups on a guitar, you’ve generally gotten all the versatility you can. Adding more pickups would only slightly increase the flexibility of the guitar, while adding a lot more to the cost (See points above.) Most guitars let you select more than one pickup at a time and control the tone as well. So you can get a lot of sounds out of only 2 or 3 pickups. Not everyone is after a lot of versatility in their guitar anyway. There are plenty of player who find one signature sound and stick with it most of the time. They just want a guitar that does one or two things really well.

Fourth, complexity. Adding more pickups means that the switching and wiring has to be more complicated as well. So the reliability of the guitar may decrease. Also, complex switching arrangements can make for confusion when you are playing live. Switching between your rhythm sound and your lead sound needs to be quick and easy. Trust me, I know from painful personal experience.

Fifth, other factors influence the sound as well. The types of wood used, the method of neck attachment, the mass of the body. . . There are a ton of factors in the sound of a guitar. Placing a humbucker on a Strat doesn’t make it sound like a Les Paul. So, if you are after a wide variety of sounds, you often have to have more than one guitar anyway.

There are probably a few custom and experimental guitars out there with as many pickups jammed on them as possible. But the mainstream market won’t support them. I have a guitar that has four pickups (3 single-coils and a piezoelectric), which is as many as I can recall ever seeing on a normal guitar. It is very versatile, and I play it most of the time. But I still have 3 other guitars that I play, because they all have a different character to them regardless of the pickups.

If you have any guitar playing friends, get them to give you a demo of the different tone you can get from the different kinds of pickups. Also, a good music store will let you try out a few guitars. If there is a guitar sound that you particularly like, you can keep that in mind as a guide. But ultimately you have to just go with what sounds the best to you. And don’t let anyone get you bogged down with nonsense about certain types of guitar being only good for one kind of music.

Whew! That was a long (and poorly written) answer. :slight_smile: But guitars vary so much that choosing one can be difficult. Hopefully this helps a bit.

You must be kidding? Out of the three main different types of pick-ups on an electric guitar, the type of pickup is going to give you the biggest change in sound by far over the location. Single coils sound far different from humbuckers when placed in the same location and active pickups sound far different than either hunbuckers or single coils.

Location plays a difference, but not nearly as much as the type of pick up you are playing thru.

I really don’t feel like getting into an argument with you over this, but I stand by my word. Compare two guitars: a Gibson ES-335 and an ES-330. The ES-335 has a center block and humbuckers, the ES-330 has no center block and P-90s, otherwise they are the same guitar. A/B them on the neck pickup. Do they sound different? Yes, but not much. You’d have to listen closely to distinguish between the two. Now switch to the bridge pickup on one of them. HUGE difference in tone, even using the same guitar and same kind of pickup.

Pickups certainly matter but the most dramatic differences are determined by the location of the pickup. I know I have trouble distinguishing between a Strat with a humbucker in the bridge and one with a single coil, but I can tell right away what pickups are being used without trouble.

I guess we will agree to disagree on this, as we have on other things in the past.