I’ve been there. Before we started Goldsound, I did not know much about pickups. I knew they were essential to getting sound from your electric guitar or bass, but I knew nothing about how they actually worked. But in order to get what was best for Baum, I had Google (a lot) and learn about different magnets, constructions, types of cobber wire, magnetic fields, and so much more. And now I want to share this with you. Let’s do this together.
How is a guitar pickup made?
Let’s try to demystify this subject. First and foremost, the pickup is the most important part of your guitar’s sound.
It is the microphone to a vocalist. It is the heart of your guitar.
The guitar pickup is responsible for: the gain and gain structure, dynamics (the output range – the highest and lowest signals), frequency range, and resonance peak.
And it picks up every nuance of the players characteristic that ‘color’ and shape your sound.
How does a guitar pickup work?
One of the core things in the electric guitar that has not changed over the years is the construction of the electric guitar pickup. Today’s pickups are still made with the original formular and intended sound.
Before we continue, take a look on is the construction of a single coil. Perhaps the most basic and essential guitar pickup ever wound.
This signal gets amplified via your amp and voila – you can now hear your electric guitar loud and clear!
One of the core things in the electric guitar that has not changed over the years is the construction of the electric guitar pickup. Today’s pickups are still made with the original formula and intended sound.
The electric guitar pickup consists, in its most basic form, of a magnetic pole or pole pieces with a coil permanently wrapped around making it an inductive sensor. We are dive deeper into other pickup constructions later, but let’s stick with this basic setup as a foundation for the different following subjects.
How does a guitar pickup work?
Strings cause the sound.
Getting the metal strings to vibrate effect and disrupt the magnetic field of the pickup, which creates a signal. This magnetic field may span a wide or small area, depending on the pickup’s design and construction.
Strings are also made of different components and in different gauges, which disrupts the magnetic field in different ways and gives different tonal results. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.
How does pickup height affect the tone?
Changes in the height of the pickup will change the balance of the bass and treble disproportionally. Lowering the pickup and putting it further away from the strings will reduce its overall output (volume) and more bass is lost, making it sound brighter. And vice versa.
Likewise, the string vibration is greater in the area around the neck pickup and less towards the bridge pickup. That is why pickups are also very sensitive to positioning (and why the neck pickup on 24 fret guitars sounds different from 22 fret guitars). And also why bridge and neck pickups are often wired with different outputs to compensate.
The guitar pickup – outside to inside.
Different wire – different sound?
The copper wire comes in various gauges. These are typically AWG (American Wire Gauge) 42, 43, or 44 (thicker to thinner). As the number refers to the diameter of the wire (around 0.05 mm), thicker wire means decreased resistance.
To prevent that the copper wire touches copper in the coil, the thin wire has to be insulated. The two most common insulations are Plain Enamel (dark chocolate colored insulation) and Formvar (shiny bright gold insulation).
Hand-wound vs machine wound pickups.
How the copper wire is wound around the coil is often debated on forums. You may have read strong opinions about “Hand wound pickups” or “Machine wound pickups”. So why would you choose either?
Our Goldsound Range has been made by both (currently machine wound) and that is due to our conclusion that both methods are equally good, they just give different results which cover different needs.
The difference though is how this copper wire is given to the machine and onto the spinning pickup.
Basically, the hand-winding technique required a person to hold the wire and firmly guide it properly onto the pickup, while the machine winding technique automates this. It should rather be called “hand-guided” instead, but let’s just stick with the known terminology.
Some of the thoughts we have had on the two results are:
- A more irregular spread (also known as scatter winding) of the copper wire onto the bobbin. A more random pattern will not place the wire as close to itself on each layer as compared to what a machine can. This lowers the distributed capacitance, which influences the overall sound.
Less consistency in the number of windings and pressure making the tightness of the coil around the bobbin more irregular. Depending on how much force the winder uses, the pickup can be either darker or more open sounding.
- Every pickup is somehow unique and will be a variant of the intended sound. This is because the human factors in the process are difficult to repeat.
Lastly, price. Hand-wound pickups are more expensive because you pay for two factors: the winder’s know-how to winding a pickup and the time spent on winding each pickup.
- Being an automated process, the copper wire is spread regularly onto the bobbin. This just means that a machine spins the bobbin and moves back and forth at a consistent pace, which distributes the wire evenly across the bobbin. This places the wire close to itself on each layer making it identical to the one wound before.
Having an even tightness to the coil around the bobbin makes the pressure regular, and thus gives the pickup manufacturer a better chance to voice the pickups either darker or more open sounding – and repeating this pattern.
Each pickup sounds and measures the same as the one before it and after it wound for the same intended sound.
Again, price. Machine wound pickups are less expensive to craft because the machine can evenly wind pickups without much attention by humans. This doesn’t mean that machine wound pickups are easier to make. You must know what intended sound you want and teach the machine to reproduce this.
And that’s all about the copper wire.
What are the differences between pickup magnets? And how does it affect the sound?
Coming from the outside of the magnet, it is now time to take a look at the inside: the magnets.
A quick physics lesson: Alnico and ceramic magnets are the most used in electric guitar pickups, with alnico being the most popular and well-used.
Alnico magnets are composed primarily of aluminum (Al), nickel (Ni), and cobalt (Co), hence the acronym. Alnico magnets also contain copper, and sometimes titanium.
A great property for alnico magnets is their very high resistance to demagnetization, making them an almost permanent magnet.
That is why we can pick up a vintage guitar today and still get sound from their up-to 70-year-old pickups.
Alnico 3 produces the overall lowest output of the Alnicos, with a softer bottom end and more clear-cut treble. This type of magnet is not used very often.
Alnico 4 has a medium output, but a flatter EQ than the other variants. The bass and highs are tighter than Alnico 2, and the highs are softer than Alnico 5.
This characteristic makes the magnet more “transparent”, because the flat EQ color your tone less.
Alnico 5 has a medium to higher output and is the most used Alnico magnet in guitar pickups today due to its versatility. It is also what we use in our own Goldound Pickups.
Alnico 6 & 8 have a massive output and are less frequently used, because the magnets have the strongest magnetic field of all Alnico (with 8 being stronger than 6).
The EQ has a massive low end, lots of midrange, and strong highs (Alnico 6 tends to be a darker sound than alnico 8) with a sharp attack on the note.
Because of their characteristics, Alnicos 6 and 8 are often best suited for Metal, Hard Rock, Fusion, and Prog that requires that ‘in your face’ sound.
Alnico vs Ceramic magnets in guitar pickups.
Ceramic magnets have a different chemical composition, and the construction is also a little different (Ceramic on the left, Alnico on the right).
Ceramic magnets are stronger and have a higher output than Alnico. Also, ceramic magnets are cheaper than Alnico magnets, which is why they are often found in cheaper pickups. However, this association is not quite fair, so do not write a ceramic magnet off due to this generalization. A well-made ceramic pickup can be the perfect match for that modern high gain distorted sound. It is a matter of the overall design, not just the individual materials.
Brands like Seymour Duncan or DiMarzio make high-quality ceramic pickups, with tonal characteristics that are preferred by some players. Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton have also used ceramic Lace Sensor pickups in some guitars.
The Ceramic magnets are more powerful and tend to have a stronger midrange, but a less pronounced treble. They are louder and can often be perceived as having a “fuller” sound.
I may be guilty of using certain buzzwords when describing pickups, so take a look at this good myth-buster video by the Youtuber and guitarist, Darrell Braun. The short conclusion is: yes, they differ. But not in a “better/worse way”, but in a “which do you prefer and for what context”? Don’t just trust forums or blogs. Trust your ears.
Let’s wrap this up.
There is no right or wrong answer to which magnet is the better one for you. They are all just different, and it is up to you to define whether they suit your sound or not.
So, like many other topics, pickups follow a very general rule: The more you learn, the less you know. You are going down the rabbit hole now, but this is a fun one. Especially because swapping pickups (and all the variables listed in this article) have a major impact on how your guitar sounds with instant results. Much more than changing minor hardware parts or having it re-lacquered from poly lacquer to nitro-cellulose lacquer (or reverse).
This article will hopefully help you in the right direction, but it is now your job to explore the different sounds to create your own sound. With that in mind, go play now!