Guitar Pickups (Part 1): Pickups 101

Electric Guitar Pickups 

An Overview of Pickups, Styles and Features of Each

Some of us have studied, played and researched dozens of pickup brands and designs trying to hunt down the perfect tone, and yet some of us have landed on a guitar we love with little knowledge about the pickups we play other than maybe that they are humbuckers or single coils.

Pickups are the key component that differentiates electric guitars from all other acoustic instruments, and so they deserve some discussion when it comes to building a custom electric guitar.  These simple magnetic devices have revolutionized music over roughly the last hundred years by amplifying instruments and ultimately electrifying and revolutionizing the way humans will play and create music forever.

Today there are almost endless varieties of guitar pickups.  The original designs of the early to mid-20th century still dominate the market, but now come in many different shapes, sizes and outputs to accommodate a vast array of guitars and styles. The two main categories are passive pickups and active pickups.  We will leave much of the history and design of pickups for another day, but here is a quick overview.

Passive Pickups

These are the pups that spurred the dawn of rock ‘n roll, and much of the music us electric guitar fans love, create and play ourselves. Passive pickups or magnetic pickups are called such because they do not require any independent power source. These simple magnetic devices generate a small direct current of electricity, which carries your guitar’s sound through your guitar’s controls, to the output jack, and out to an amplifier. 

Why choose Passive?

  • Natural Classic Tones
  • Expressive Feel & Response
  • Good for everything from Big Clean Acoustic tones to High Gain
  • No external power source needed (low maintenance)


Single coil Pickups

These are the original magnetic pickups and came into fruition somewhere around the 1920’s. Most modern single coil pickups have an extended high frequency response due to their narrow design. Simply put, this creates the articulate, responsive, glassy sound for which they are so popular for. They are responsible for decades of classic music from the big band music of their generation to sounds of Jimmy Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Albert Collins, David Gilmore (Pink Floyd), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine), and John Mayor to name a few.

Main Attributes:

  • Classic Vintage and Acoustic Tones
  • Clear, High Frequency Range & Sparkle
  • Neck Pickups – Better clarity than Humbuckers, Excellent Neck Lead tones
  • Can handle high gain if rig is ‘quiet’ (Well shielded guitar & signal chain).
  • Ideal for R&B, Blues, Country, Classic Rock
  • Modern ‘Noiseless’ Options


Humbucker Pickups

Humbuckers are the most popular style of pickups in electric guitars. Most people recognized Seth Lover, an engineer at Gibson™, for the original humbucker design most guitarists know as the P.A.F, but the Filter’Tron made by Gretsch™ was actually the very first humbucking pickup. These pickups were designed to remove the ‘60-cycle’ hum and feedback that plagued single coil electric guitars in the early days of rock ‘n roll.  Ever since countless musicians have used humbuckers to record everything from warm moody jazz riffs, rock anthems, singing solos, avant-garde soundscapes and searing metal riffs.  There are as many varieties of humbuckers as there is music styles made with them.  When it comes to pushing amplifiers into their breakup zone and beyond, humbuckers are the go-to. They have a familiar tone, ability to stay tight and punchy under high gain, and maybe most importantly they are quiet, so your sweet sounds come through clearly.

Main Attributes:

  • Higher Gain and Overdrive
  • Warmer and Darker Tones (compared to single coils)
  • Punchier Tighter Low-End Frequencies
  • Great for nearly all types of music
  • Ideal for Jazz, Classic & Modern Rock, and Metal Tones
  • Live performances and rigs subject to unwanted noise.
  • Low Output P.A.F style is essentially a humbucking P90

P90 Pickups

P90’s are a variety of single coil pickup that tend to have a slightly fatter, warmer tone compared to a traditional single coil pickup.  While these have been around since the 1940s, have been on countless records, and are still extremely popular amongst musicians and guitar enthusiasts, P90 pickups tend to be less popular amongst modern players, especially amateurs and hobbyist.  We suspect that this is due to a long run of modern music influences from the 1970’s to early 2000’s, which drew the large majority of electric guitar players and manufacturers to focus mostly on single coil or humbucker pickups on their guitars. These trends have been shifting the last decade as guitar players are becoming more open to alternative designs, and the guitar industry has begun return more to its roots as well as cater to a broader range of styles, tastes, and influences.

Main Attributes:

  • Warmer, Darker and Punchier tones than a single coil
  • Balance between Single coil and Humbucker pickup styles
  • Remains articulate with higher gain and overdrive
  • Less prone to squeals and feedback compared to Single coil
  • Great for everything from Jazz, Blues and Rock to Punk, Grunge, Stoner Rock & Doom Metal
  • Works well with overdrive and fuzz pedals
  • Great for bright amps
  • Modern Versions come in almost all pickup shapes (P90 & Humbucker shape)
  • Vintage versions sometimes have more output than a P.A.F. Humbucker


Active Pickups

Active magnetic pickups are powered utilizing batteries or inline power and are usually accompanied by a pre-amp to amplify the sound of the lower impedance (resistance) pickups.  Many active pickups also utilize active tone shaping, have low noise, and have tight punchy low-end response, which is why active pickups are so popular with electric bass guitars.  The uniform digital frequency response and ability to push amplifiers into ultra-high-gain territory is also what makes active pickups ideal for heavy metal genres.

Piezo pickups (sometimes called acoustic pickups) are also powered and utilize a pre-amp similar to active magnetic pickups. These are often used on acoustic guitars and sometimes on electric guitars for live performances that require clear string articulation and resistance to feedback.  Some piezo pickups can record each string individually, which makes them ideal for midi setups where individual note modeling is desired.

Best for:

  • High Gain and Heavy Metal Genres
  • Piezo / Acoustic Pickups
  • Digital and Midi powered rigs
  • Guitar & Amp Modeling
  • Bass Guitars
  • Piezo – Blending Tones with Passive Pickups


Other unique Pickup Designs and Variations

Electric guitar players are infamous for chasing tone, and many of us experiment with different pickups (and every other component on our rigs) to achieve the elusive and magical tone we imagine in our heads or have heard on our favorite albums.  In the never-ending search for tone manufacturers have created a large array of pickup designs over the years.  Today’s pickups can look like one style, but sound like another, some have their own unique looks and sounds, and others look average but the inner workings are surprisingly complex and are the result of years of engineering.

No matter what direction you want to go in with pickup choice, Born is here to help guide you towards the perfect fit for your Born Custom Guitar TM.  We can integrate nearly any style, brand or custom wound pickup on the market into your Born electric guitar. Not sure about the pickups you selected? We are happy to swap your existing pickups out for something that you will be happier with.

Unique Pickup Examples:

  • Lipstick (Single coil) – Low output, Bright, Jangly, Articulate, clean tone (Danelectro Style)
  • Gold Foil (Single coil) – Warm creamy single coil tones, breaks up better than traditional singles, unique vintage look. Maintain Good Articulation and have unique personality.
  • Filter’Tron (Humbucking) – Punchy Lows, Meaty Mid-range, and Top-end Chime
  • DynaSonic (Single coil) – Original Gretsch Pickup, Big Bright Wonderful Clean Tones


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