Alright so you got through the first part of the guitar pickup up basics and now want to learn more. Though, you are also unsure of what more is there to learn of the guitar pickups. I mean it seem pretty simple and straightforward right? Humbuckers and single coils, you know these words and what they mean now, so you are pretty set. Well, hopefully you also learned the other types of pickups that exist on the market and what each one of them does, even if a little too generally. The lesson does not end there though. You see, there are other thing you need to know about pickups. The configurations, controls and what sound each little detail in your decision results in. You also need to find out about the art of changing your pickups and how it changes the sound of your guitar. It is all very important is what I found out after years of playing the guitar and then one day having my pickups die on me. So get ready, we are about to dive in on a journey to figure out everything. (or just whatever we can figure out)
Common Stock Setups
First let us get into the very basics of pick up setups, positioning and what this means for your sound. The simplest guitars usually have two pickups, while some go up to three. Anything more than that is usually the result of a custom make request to the manufacturer and rarely encountered. The fact that there are so many variations of pick ups means that there are also many possible combinations and configurations of them. Here is a quick list of some of the more common stock pick up setups among popular guitars. Quick disclaimer though: you can customize your guitar any way you want, so take these as a baseline rather than a suggestion.
- Single Coil – Single Coil: Located at the neck and the bridge of the guitar, this is a very common setup. It has a clear, vibrant and enjoyable sound.
- Humbucker – Humbucker: One of the most popular pickup configurations. The two are located at the neck and the bridge of the instrument and have a versatile sound with a bias towards low tones and sustain
- Single Coil – Single Coil – Single Coil: This full single coil setup is very popular among all single coil oriented guitars. Since the single coil output is low compared to a humbucker, a triple configuration compensates for it and produces a powerful, vibrant sound.
- Humbucker – Single Coil – Single Coil: This setup usually happens works with a humbucker at the bridge and the single coils located in the middle and at the neck of the guitar. It provides an extra punch to the sound of the guitar, with a lovely flexibility between sustain, warm sound and clear, vibrant sound.
- Humbucker – Single Coil – Humbucker: For some reason this is a configuration that you see about as often as the dual single coil configuration. It is actually a very interesting combo, which provides the guitar with all the benefits of two humbuckers while also adding on a nice, detailed sound high tone of the single coil. Very versatile and beautiful set up.
The above spoken of the configurations are some of the more common and famous. The reality is, you can go whichever way you want for your guitar. Whether you decide to do a custom setup or you go with something already available, there are configurations that are not common. These are the ones that provide different sounds and can be just as interesting to work with as the ones above. Here is a quick list and if you like any of them, give them a shot.
Yes, there do exist and yes they tend to have a lower power output than the others do. Though they also tend to be very interesting and fun to work with. Though they also tend to be very specific in their sound with little to no flexibility.
- Single Coil: You should not expect this guitar to have the highest output, but definitely a very clear, vibrant sound with detailed highs.
- Humbucker: A very homogenous humbucker sound, without hum and with a low tone bias.
- Humbucker – Single Coil: The single coil in this setup is located in the middle instead of the neck of the guitar. This one is moderately rare, with a nice flexibility between the two types of sounds. The reality is these are not too prevalent because the pickups don’t let each other be fully expressive of their qualities. The humbucker overpowers the output of the single coil while the single coil negates the humbuckers bias towards the low tones. Still very flexible in its sound, this pickup configuration can be a whole lot of fun, if done right.
- Humbucker – Humbucker – Single Coil: one of the rarer setups, which I have not encountered much. Though from what I have heard it is quite a powerful one, with incredible lows, powerful sustain and a very pleasant access to the high tones.
- Single Coil – Humbucker – Humbucker: this is the reverse version of the setup up above, which moves the single coil to the other side of the guitar. While still powerful this is a more balanced sound, with the high tones having a little more character thanks to the positioning of the single coil. Slightly more twangy, if I am to be honest.
- Single Coil – Humbucker – Single Coil: This one here is a little strange, in terms of what it results in. The middle position of the pickup means that the highs and the vibrant sounds are a little more subtle than they would be at the neck or the bridge. The two humbuckers produce a lot of power. This setup gives me the feeling of a very punk rock influence, which I do enjoy, a lot.
- Humbucker – Single Coil – Single Coil – Humbucker: I think this is the rarest pickup configuration out there. The reason is because it is a little expensive and a little hard to control at all times. Still, the guitars with this configuration are very interesting in terms of sound. They have a great balance between highs and lows, producing powerful lows and beautiful highs. The tones on these guitar are very pronounced, with each one having a strong personality.
Quick Note: Notation
Here is a quick note for you that I, probably, should have put somewhere in the past post. But what’s done is done and, to be honest, you need this now more than you did before. You could see that it might be a little annoying to keep typing Single Coil and Humbucker over and over again when talking about pickup configurations. It is also a little annoying to keep mentioning where each pickup is located at. Well, the guitar manufacturing world came up with a notation to allow everyone quick understanding. Here it is: The H stands for Humbucker and the S stands for single coil. So when you see S-H-H written in the description of a guitar, it means a Single Coil, Humbucker, Humbucker combination.
Another quick thing is, as a rule of thumb, pickup configuration notation usually starts from the bridge. So the first Single coil in the above mentioned configuration would be located at the bridge of the guitar. The humbuckers would be at the middle and the neck respectively. Now that you know, you can go ahead with your head raised high and read about guitars as much as you want. You will never be confused (I think).
Every electric guitar comes with a set of controls, that allow the player to control the sound of the instrument. How is this done? Well, the controls are for the electronics of the guitar, also known as what we are discussing right now, the pickups. Depending on the guitar, the controls will range from very basic to highly detailed. Whichever it is, here is a quick rundown of the controls on a guitar and what they do. Why they are important as well:
- Volume – Every guitar comes with a volume control. In the form of a knob which allows you to manage the loudness of your instrument without having to walk all the way over to the amp. The thing is, depending on the guitar, the volume control might either be a master volume control or individual controls for every pickup. If that is the case, you have a more individualized control for the instrument, allowing you to customize the sound of the guitar to your satisfaction.
- Tone – The guitar might as well come with a tone control knob. Whether it is a master tone control or a pickup individualised tone control knob depends on the manufacturer and the guitar. The treble tone controller allows you to control how your guitar sounds and the level of tone expressed by the pickups. With an individual pickup control you can customize your sound as much as you want.
- Configuration Lever – this is probably one of my favorite controls on the guitar. The thing is, if you have individualized volume and tone controllers, you probably don’t have one of these. On the other hand, the configuration lever, whether 3 way or 5 way, allows you to select the pickups that are active at the moment. This means you can play around with pickups, which ones are expressive and which ones are not. It’s a dope tool to have.
Here is another quick note: beginner players might not know this, but the positioning of each pickup works with their sound. The pickup at the bridge will sound different from the pickup at the middle or the pickup at the neck, even if the pickups are all identical models. This is because of the type of vibrations at each point of the strings are different, meaning they are picked up slightly differently by your electronics. Playaround with the pickup configuration lever will allow you to customize the sound and create character in sound when you thought you could not. Fun times!
Replacing and Upgrading
This is where the magic of owning a good quality electric guitar happens. Once you have a good body on your instrument and a good neck, you can start customizing your guitar’s sound. One of the best ways to do this is play around with replacing the pickups on your instrument. But why would anyone want to do this?
Well, after months or even years of working with the same sound on the same guitar, you might eventually get bored of the sound. Or maybe the pickups have finally outlived whatever limited lifespan they have had and (oh lord) have gone flat. I also have an even better idea: maybe after all these years you have finally realized what type of sound you want to have. Instead of buying a new guitar, you decided to replace the pickups you do have for this custom sound. Whatever it is, you have finally come around to replacing you pickups.
The process of replacing pickups might feel highly intimidating. If it does not you might either be an electrician or already have been through the process and know that hey, it is actually not that complicated. Whatever it is, the steps are rather simple and the only thing you need to do is be very attentive while working with the pickups, just so you don’t ruin them.
Step 0: Get the Stuff
Before you start messing around with your instrument, you need to gab a few things and prepare them. This will keep the headache of looking for them during the process away from your pretty head.
- Screws – you will be needing two. A small one and a bigger one. There are a whole bunch of screws you will need to be unscrewing in the process so you need to be prepared!
- Pen and Paper – taking notes throughout the process is a good idea. Where the strings are attached, how they are attached, keeping track of the number of screws and their placement and other details will come in handy when you get distracted for a second and forget everything, ever. Trust me, I know.
- New Strings – Just cause
- New Pickups – The key element!
- Soldering Iron – You will be doing some soldering throughout the process so you will be needing one of these. Make sure you know how to use one and wear gloves just in case, as well as some safety goggles. Don’t want nasty burns now, do you?
- Solder – How can you solder anything if you don’t have any solder?
- Extra Wiring – If anything breaks or goes bad, you need a little bit of backup, just in case.
- A cardboard box where you can put all of the loose items that you do not want disappearing forever.
Step 1: Open Sesame
Alright so the first step of replacing the pickups is opening up the guitar. Before you do that, you need to go through a few things.
- Strings – Before you get to doing anything at all, take the strings off. They will only be getting in the way of the whole process and honestly, you might want to replace them after you are done. If you are installing new pickups might as well update the strings as well right?
- Get a paper and pen handy and prepare to start taking notes.
- Let’s do this! – put the guitar face down onto the floor, table or any other working surface. Start unscrewing the back of the guitar to get access to the cavity that has the wiring and the connections in it.
- You have arrived at the cavity. Well done! Before you do anything, start taking notes of where every wire is attached. This will help you when you start rewiring everything.
- Start desoldering the wires, gently. If you have never done this before, go take a look at a video explaining soldering and desoldering, or talk to someone who knows what they are doing.
Step 2: Stripping and Mounting
This is the fun part of the process. And no I do not mean the dance, I mean stripping the guitar of all of the things that make it a guitar. It helps you learn more about your instrument. Be careful and keep track of where you put everything, so that you do not end up losing any important parts of your instrument.
- Remove all of the loose hardware off of your guitar. The bridge, the tailpiece and everything that may fall off and be gone forever. Take all of it and put it in a safe place somewhere. Maybe in the cardboard box you have prepared?
- Take the smaller screws and unscrew the backplate of the pickups. Take the pickups but keep the surrounds in place.
- Once you have taken off the old pickups, take the new ones and mount them into the place of the old ones. Before you do, feed a length of solder through the hole into the cavity.
- Wrap the solder around the neck pickup cable and pull the cable until it is in the control cavity.
- Put the bridge pickup wire through the cavity and screw the bridge pickup into place.
- Keep doing this until all of your pickups are in place.
Step 3: Almost there!
We’re almost done! Now for the hardest part.
- Once all the pickups are in place, start soldering the wires into place according to the notes (and hopefully, diagram) of the wiring you had taken earlier.
- Turn the guitar over and test the pickups. Tap against them, very lightly, with your screwdriver. You will hear a thud if the pickups are connected right.
Step 4: Resting
You are done, if you did everything right of course. Now all you have to do is close up the cavity after returning all of the hardware to its rightful place and put the new strings on. Before you get too excited though, check that there are no parts remaining in your box that should be in the guitar. Now you are ready to start playing!
That’s all folks
That is it for the pickups discussion up this point. Hopefully, everything you have learned here today will come in handy. If you do come up with any questions, don’t worry, so will I come up with answers (eventually) and talk about them.