Having the right pickups in your guitar or bass can majorly contribute to achieve your own distinct sound. First thing to do is decide whether or not you are happy enough with the sound of your original pickups to not want to replace them. If you aren’t – and that’s usually the case – you have to concentrate on what you are after – what’s the “sound you hear in your head” that you want to replicate with the help of your new pickups. If you have more than one pickup in your guitar, you can get just as many different sounds too. The next step is to check the style and size of the pickup routes or holes you have in your guitar body, because unless you are willing to broaden these cavities by re-routing them, you have to stick with what you have, and choose the new pickups for these existing pickup cavities.
Pick your pickups wisely – I dare you
Now let’s check the tonal spectrum of the most generally available guitar pickups. Notice that I’m not going deep into analyzing the thousands and thousands of pickup designs. Let me just give you a general advice on what to look for when you want a certain sound.
Things that usually make your pickup sound mellow or bassy:
- Metal pickup cover: the thicker it is, the more it attenuates the highs (due to eddy currents).
- Steel pole piece(s) with magnets further away from the strings: weaker magnetic field than with the same magnet being close to the strings.
- Wide aperture: when the magnetic field covers a larger area and longer bridge-to-nut distance under the strings, it results in a less “focused” sound. It happens by picking up a greater number of different harmonics at the same time, that results in phase cancellation.
- Higher number of winds (or thinner winding wire): greater inductance that attenuates the highs.
- Passive, regular high impedance pickups with no preamp directly following them right in the guitar: the increase in guitar cable length (higher capacitance) will attenuate treble frequencies in most cases.
- Pickups placed closer to the neck (lower harmonic content available from the vibrating strings).
Things you should look for if you want a brighter, more trebly sound:
- No metal cover: no eddy currents that negatively effect your highs (there can still be metal parts below the surface of the pickup, however).
- Magnetic pole piece(s) close to the strings: stronger magnetic field.
- Narrow aperture: the magnetic field covers only a small area of the strings. It results in a more focused sound.
- Lower number of winds (or thicker winding wire): less inductance. The extreme end of this scale is to go with low impedance passive pickups – they require the kind of preamplification microphones do. Think of Anthony Jackson’s Fodera.
- Active pickups, or passives with preamp in the instrument (in general): guitar cable length has virtually zero effect on your treble content. It can result in an almost “hi-fi-like” tone.
- Pickups placed closer to the bridge (higher harmonic content).
With these things in mind you can usually predict what a pickup will sound like, even before you have a chance to try it. What I personally always gravitated towards were more highs and note definition, so I use active EMG pickups. Since my guitar has cavities routed for regular sized humbuckers, I went with the EMG HA models, they are basically noiseless strat pickups in a humbucker sized housing.
I hope you can find the best pickups for your style too; good hunting!