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How electric guitar pickups work

Electric guitar pickups generate an electromagnetic field which is modified by the vibrations of the partly steel strings of the guitar. The magnetic field is then transformed into electric current sent to an amplifier.

In order to create this magnetic field, the microphones are composed of one or more magnets and one or more coils of copper wire. There are many configurations and many types of microphones.

The different electric guitar pickups

In chronological order, the main microphones are:

  • Charlie Christian pickups, named after an electric pioneer Jazz guitarist
  • Gibson P90 pickups, consisting of a coil and two magnet bars
  • Telecaster type single coils or Stratocaster created by Léo Fender. They are composed of 6 cylindrical magnets around which a copper wire is wound.
  • The double coils, called Humbucker because it allows by their construction to remove background noise, “hum” in English.

There are a very large number of variants made from these microphones. The single coil pickups of the Jaguar for example are very close in their construction to those of the Stratocaster but with in particular a metal base which surrounds the base of the microphone. The Jazzmaster’s pickups are modeled on other Fender single coils but in a format reminiscent of Gibson’s P90 while being wider and flatter than the latter. Last example, the Gretsch Filtertron is a double coil but with specific characteristics and a different look from the Gibson Humbuckers.

Most electric guitar pickups passively generate the magnetic field, that is, without an external power supply. Since the late 1970s, there have also been active microphones, most often powered by a 9v battery. These microphones are most often used by Metal guitarists and bassists. They allow a higher output level and variations in voicing by an electronic system directly incorporated into the microphones.

The composition of electric guitar pickups

The passive microphones, which you will find on this site, are composed for the most part of magnets known as “AlNiCo” which indicates the alloy of Aluminum, Nickel and Cobalt of which they are made up. There are different Alnico gradations from 1 to 9. For the manufacture of microphones you will find Alnico magnets 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9. They all give a different output level and a sound character specific to microphones they equip.
The microphones with Alnico 2, 3 and 4 magnets have a very pronounced vintage coloring and a moderate output level. The Alnico 3, which has the lowest output level and more pronounced mids, is very suitable for equipping a Jazz guitar. It is also used for high-end models, including the Les Paul and ES-335 from Gibson.

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