No matter how experienced or proficient you are with a guitar, or even with music in general, there are sure to be a couple of things you just have no idea what they are for or what they do. This article will look into one thing that most people, including novice guitar players, have never heard of.

Yes, we will be talking about pickups. We’re talking about guitar pickups, a simple little instrument that is essential if you really want to hear the notes over the amplifier. Keep reading to find out what a guitar pickup is and how do guitar pickups work; it might help make you look like you know your stuff.

What Is a Guitar Pickup?

Before we get into how guitar pickups work, we will look at what they are. Without knowing this, knowing how they work will be of little value. Guitar pickups are metal box-like strips seen along the stomach of bass and electric guitars.

The pickups consist of several small magnets around which a copper wire, known as the coil, is wrapped. Some pickups can have one or two coils, also called a humbucker.

Other instruments like acoustic guitars, double basses, and cellos use a piezoelectric pickup. These pickups are made with a piezo crystal, a crystalline structure that can accumulate a piezoelectric charge. Piezo pickups are generally placed along the neck or bridge of the instrument.

What Does a Guitar Pickup Do and How Does It Do It?

Now that we have an idea of what a pickup looks like, we can discuss what it does. First, the pick serves as a transducer that allows the picked notes to be heard over the amplifier that the guitar is plugged into.

It does this by capturing the vibrations made when a metal string is played, which it will then convert into an electrical signal that will be picked up and registered by the amplifier. Without a pickup, you would not be able to hear any of this, either on a bass or electric guitar, or even over the sound system/speaker.

Furthermore, the pickup helps define and express the instrument’s sound. Therefore, this critical function means that the choice of pickup you use will influence and shape the sound of your guitar, similar to how the strings and wooden bodies of guitars and violins affect the sound they produce.

It should be no surprise that you can purchase a staggering number of pickups, all of which purport that they have a unique sound of their own.


Humbuckers, for instance, produce a much thicker or fuller sound compared to single-coil pickups. That is how the magnetic pickups found on electric and bass guitars function.

Piezo Pickups

Piezo crystals function similarly to the magnet pickup. It will capture and convert the vibrations made by the strings, which will then be converted into a voltage signal.

The main benefit of piezo pickups is that they do not pick up on or draw from nearby magnetic fields created by other sound equipment pieces that also discharge a magnetic field. That said, they do produce a very different sound from the traditional magnetic pickups or humbuckers.

How Do Guitar Pickups Work

Hybrid Guitars

If you own a hybrid guitar, something to keep in mind is that it can have either or both kinds of pickups mounted on it. Furthermore, due to the higher voltage produced by piezo pickups, they need to be fitted with a buffer amplifier to handle the broader range of frequencies that the piezo gives off while also managing the voltage levels to prevent audio distortions brought on by clipping.

Active and Passive Pickups

One last bit of terminology to cover – there are active and passive pickups (more so only for basses and electric guitars). Passive pickups are the standard magnetic pickups that can be identified by their metallic case and poles (which appear as tiny metal dots).

Active pickups do not show any magnetic poles and usually have a plastic cover, and require a battery to run. The main difference comes down to the strength of the electric signal. Passive pickups produce weak signals and need a strong/good amplifier to help carry and amplify the sound.

In addition, active pickups produce strong signals and sounds because they have their own battery source, which means they do not need to rely as much on the amplifier to help project and increase their sound.

So, How Do Guitar Pickups Work?

In principle, pickups work when you play a string, creating a series of vibrations. These vibrations then enter the magnetic fields of the pickups, which produce variations within the field. These variations generate a current inside the copper wires that wrap around the magnets.

The current travels through the transmitter and the plug connecting the guitar to the amplifier. Once it reaches the amplifier, the speaker transforms that current into sound, which becomes the music you hear. As you know, there is more than one kind of pickup, not only variations of the same types but also different types (piezo pickups).

Where are Pickups Placed?

Pickups can be placed on different parts of the instrument’s body, within reason and where possible or allowed. The difference in placement will influence the sound that is produced.

It’s different but similar to the principle of playing higher or deeper notes on your guitar by pressing down on different frets. The chosen placement will influence the produced sound as the pickups register the strings somewhat differently.

Closer to the Neck

Pickups placed higher or closer to the neck will produce deeper, fuller, and warmer sounds. Pickups placed lower or closer to the bridge will produce lighter and higher-pitched sounds.

The guitar’s bridge is the little wooden bar that is generally seen below the circular hole on acoustic guitars, the structure into which the guitar strings are fixed.

Middle Pickup

You also get the middle pickup, where you would find the audio hole of an acoustic guitar on the stomach of the guitar, between the bridge and the beginning of the neck.

This position lends itself to creating a mix between the other two extremes and creating what could be described as a sound you would hear in funk music. The other benefit is that it tends to reduce the hum of the strings, more so than the other two positions.

Which Pickup Position Is Best?

The position you choose to place your pickups ultimately comes down to your own preference and what style or tone you prefer.

If you need help on what pickup type to get for your instrument or where to place it, you can ask someone at your local music shop or more than one shop if you feel you want a broader range of answers.

Final Thoughts

That brings us to the end of this discussion on what pickups are and how they work. Hopefully, this article achieved its goal of explaining everything to you in an informative and easy-to-understand manner and therefore showing that niche or obscure elements of a hobby, field, or topic can be explained to anyone when done correctly.

Consequently, we hope this article explained all you would need to know about guitar pickups and that it provided you with some interesting knowledge that you can now use to impress your friends at your next get-together.

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