How Guitar Pickups Work

We always loved playing them, but have we any idea how guitar pickups actually work? Yep. Magnets. Ceramics. All of that jargon will be discussed. So feel free to read on.

Female guitar player with vintage hollow body jazz guitar.

Overview (Electric Guitar Pickups)

We’re all probably already aware that the electric guitar is capable of producing such divine tones.

It can bring life to your instrument, covering tones like Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name”, and even John Mayer’s “Gravity”.

These tunes are just some of the classic songs that are made possible by playing the electric guitar. Of course, we all know that these sounds are the culmination of a variety of factors – effects pedals, amplifiers, and every other gear that our favorite artists use.

But most of the time, we forget that all of these tunes that we all enjoy and love are made possible by something else, that in reality, only little manage to appreciate and understand. We are talking about the electric guitar’s pickups.

If this is the first time you’re hearing the term “guitar pickups”, then you’ve definitely come to the right place! We are going to be covering the basic discussions of pickups, what their differences are, what they are made of, and how they work.

Let’s pick up (geddit?) the pace, and let’s get right into it!

What are humbucker and single coil pickups?

All right, no need to panic and be on Google for a good long 24 hours just figuring out what pickups are.

Simply put, pickups are plainly copper wires wrapped around pieces of magnets. At least, this is how things are better explained to people who have little to no knowledge of pickups.

They are called as such because they simply sound and they come out of your amplifiers or your dedicated speakers.

When I think about guitar pickups, I always thought of it as a really difficult matter to understand. Like, how does one produce sound out of metal pieces, right? At first, it seems pretty simple to understand.

Let’s get a bit more technical so you have an idea. Let’s discuss energy conversions and how they help produce your precious tone.

Think of this: when you pluck or strum your strings (or their vibrations), they produce what we call and understand as mechanical energy. They are then converted into an electrical signal – a language that your pickups understand. They then send your signal via an instrument cable, and it gets processed and amplified through your amplifier or speakers. 

When they are translated by your speakers, they get released and produced as sound waves – giving you that sound you always loved and treasured.


Once you look closely at the core of electric guitar pickups, you can easily identify the pole pieces of the magnet once you pick up a pickup (hehe, sorry for the puns). These pole pieces in your favorite pair of pickups will constantly produce a certain magnetic field.

One of the most common materials used for a pickup magnet is widely regarded as alnico – which houses aluminum, nickel, cobalt, and iron, with copper wrapped around it.

Another form of a pickup magnet is called ceramic, which is most commonly seen in P90s pickups. They are characterized by having steel-adjustable poles. These magnets are considered permanent magnets, allowing you to have the same consistent performance from your pickups gig after gig, and recording after recording.

Another important piece to understand is bobbins. They are used to mount the magnets and hold the wire in a fairly consistent shape. They are known to be made from a variety of materials depending on the manufacturer, such as compressed paper fiber, molded plastic, and bottom plates.

Single-coil vs. Humbucking Pickups

Ah, yes. Things are about to get even more interesting.

Certain players prefer the pristine and bright sound of single coil pickups. Some, on the other hand, prefer the low-end heavy and dark-sounding tones of a humbucker pickup.

Sure, you can label it as one over the other, and some players even have specific tastes when playing certain genres. It can depend on the style that you play, or the model of the pickup you use, or even the output you prefer!

An example would be single coil pickups for country music while humbucker pickups for rock and metal.

Pretty fair analogy when looked at at a glance, right?

Well, things can get a bit daunting when looked at closely. Right off the bat, it’s important to understand that the names “single-coil” and “humbuckers” got their names based on their respective design.

Single-coil pickups are designed as a bobbin with dedicated magnetic pole pieces. They have thin wire wrapped around them.

If you’ve been playing electric guitar for quite some time now, you might have already encountered the word “hotter” in pickups. What this simply means is that you have more wraps, creating a louder signal, and a heavier sound. (Think of it as cranking up a gain knob of your favorite overdrive pedal).

One of the good things about having single-coil pickups is that you are catered for if you are aiming for that chimey sound and bright tones. If you are opting for high-end clarity, then single coil pickups are definitely the thing for you!

Be mindful of interference and noise though. This is what is popularly known as hun.

Speaking of hum, let’s get straight to humbuckers. Humbuckers are generally made to fend off the hum inevitable among single-coils. They have traditionally been covered, but some players prefer more high-end and treble, which made them resort to removing the said covers.

Also, since there are two coils, they tend to produce a much lower tone, which makes them popular with musicians opting for that tight low-end.

Hum Cancellation

Thanks to its genius design, humbuckers are able to cancel out the noise.

Why, you ask?

This is because they consist of two bobbins: one with magnetized screws, and another with round in reverse. This cancels out any of the hum, notorious in single-coils. This is also called “opposite polarity”, which enables the humbucker to cancel out interference to a greater extent compared to single-coils.

5-Way Pickup Switching

This is a popular feature in single-coil guitars.

Let’s say you have a traditional Stratocaster. Simply put, since you have three pickups, you have the option to blend them with another – bridge, bridge to middle, middle, middle to neck, and neck.

Starting from the neck, you tend to have a warmer tone. Notice that the sound from your Strat gets brighter as you head on to the bridge pickup. This is also what makes the Strat one of the most versatile guitars on the market today.

You even have the option to go for a single-coil, single-coil, and humbucker configuration, allowing you to cover more musical terrain!


Whatever your playing style may be, there is definitely a guitar pickup for you. You just have to figure out first what sort of sounds you are aiming for, and you are all set for your musical journey!

Just remember to have fun and explore as much as you can in creating your own unique sound!