“What’s your favorite pickup?” I get asked that a lot. I’m around a lot of pro guitar players and a lot of full-blown guitar nerds, and though the question of favorite guitar comes up most often, a player’s preferred pickup is always a close second.
There are many different kinds of guitar players in the world. There are those guitarists who are just absolutely amazing musicians, local hometown guys and pros alike who are great players and know a lot about their equipment. There are some of those same guys that know very little about the guitar in technical terms, but are what we refer to as “monster players.” They can hear something one time and play it note-for-note. They know theory, and they have amazing ears. They might not know much about their equipment, but they are great at figuring out what sounds good and what gets the job done.
On the other side of the coin, there are guys out there that aren’t super-gifted at music or the guitar, but they love the instrument all the same and go deep into the gear rabbit-hole. Regardless of skill level, all of these players still have pickup preferences.
Let’s take a look at three of the most popular types of pickups—single coils, P-90s, and humbuckers—and explore their history. I’ll also try to explain why they’re still the most popular types of pickup in use today.
A single coil pickup is essentially a magnetic transducer that electromagnetically converts the vibration of the strings to an electrical signal. This is actually what all three of the pickups we’re going to cover do. All passive guitar and bass pickups are using a magnet, or a series of magnets, to create an electromagnetic field. This field senses the vibration of the strings, converts that signal, and sends it out of the guitar to an amplifier.
Single coil pickups were originally designed in the 1920s by George Beauchamp, a guitar dude from Los Angeles who went on to work for Rickenbacker. He is credited with creating the “Horseshoe” pickup that was used on the earliest example of a solid body guitar, which was called the “Frying Pan” because of its odd shape. It was essentially a Hawaiian lap steel guitar prototype. Gibson ran with this idea when it introduced the Charlie Christian bar-style pickup a few years later in 1935, and this design is still being used today.
Side note: Gibson is also responsible for creating the extremely popular P-90 style pickup (which is just a type of single coil). We’ll get to that in a minute.
The Fender Guitar Corporation, more specifically Leo Fender, began designing solid body guitars in the late 1940s. During this period of early experimentation and innovation, Fender began winding his own single coil pickups. Leo’s introduction of the Fender Telecaster and Stratocaster in the 1950s set the standard for single coil pickup design and sound. Fender’s pickups had a special quality to them and seemed to pair perfectly with each guitar’s design.
Fender’s pickups have a nice top-end, and a very round, bell-like tone. Some of his pickups were wound super hot and had a lot of output, while others had more of a thick, mid-rangey, vocal quality to them. They are some of the most copied pickups of all time. Many of today’s top boutique pickup manufacturers are still copying Leo’s original designs.
The only inherent drawback to single coil pickups is that they do not eliminate 60 cycle hum, and therefore they tend to be very noisy. A lot of the best musicians in the world still prefer single coil pickups because of their tonal qualities and single note articulation.
P-90s are some of the most sought-after pickups across all genres. They typically have a medium to high amount of output, and can produce a very thick, warm tone. Depending on how they’re wound, they can also be very bright with a lot of top-end bite.
P-90s come in many shapes and sizes, but the “soapbar” and “dog ear” P-90s are probably the two most popular models. P-90s are essentially overwound single coils, but with a wider coil and a wider magnetic frequency range. This tends to make them less articulate, but as stated above, you end up with a much fatter tone than traditional “Fender” style single coils.
Guitars like the Gibson Les Paul Junior, mid-50s Gibson Les Paul Standards, and Fender Jazzmasters are three of the most popular guitar models of all time, and all of these came stock with P-90s. They are but a few examples of many, and the P-90 is yet another pickup design that is still being copied and replicated by top boutique pickup winders all over the world. Many of today’s custom-built guitars, as well as standard production models, still incorporate P-90s. They have a timeless appeal to the guitar community.
The humbucker is possibly THE most popular guitar pickup of all time. It’s one of the most versatile pickups ever made. Its dual coil design “bucks” the hum, or in more technical terms, it cancels 60 cycle hum due to the reverse polarity of its second coil.
Early humbuckers hit the scene during the 1930s, but were in the form of two coils stacked on top of each other rather than the side-by-side configuration you see today. In 1955, Seth Lover was working for Gibson under the direction of Ted McCarty when he designed the most popular humbucker of all time. To this day, it’s still referred to as a PAF, which stands for (Patent Applied For), and it debuted as a stock pickup option on the 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. It has been in production ever since.
Early PAF’s had the secret sauce. There is just something really magical about those pickups. They have a great amount of clarity, more output than single coils, far less noise, and amazing low end with a smooth treble response. Several pickup winders and humbucker enthusiasts all over the world have attempted to recreate that special sound for many years now.
The very first Gibson Les Paul standards to come stock with a flame maple top, often referred to as “bursts,” also carried the original PAF’s from 1958 to 1960. These are possibly the most sought-after guitars in the world for collectors and pro players.
These days there are several different manufacturers all producing their own brand of humbucker, and you can get a nearly unlimited amount of custom features. Humbuckers can be wound “hot” by overwinding the pickup, or they can be underwound for lower output and a more transparent tone. Various types of magnets can be used, from alnico to ceramic, which also has an effect on the overall tone of the pickup.
Nearly every guitar player I know owns at least one guitar loaded with humbuckers because you can’t get that particular sound any other way.
Pick your favorite, or take all three!
So there you have it—three of the most popular types of pickups ever invented. And they are all still in heavy rotation today. These are the pickups I see the most in the hands of friends and pros alike. From garage rock to stoner metal, you’re likely to find a guitar player using one, if not all three, in his or her live rig.
So, what’s your pickup of choice?
Desmond Smith is a guitar player and tech living in Nashville, TN. He’s also the co-host of our podcast and our resident gear head. You can follow him on instagram or read all of his contributions here.