Guitar Pickups: a brief history and overview

This is the first in what will be a series of blog posts on guitar pickups. The intent is to present the info in a way that's informative to someone who might not know anything about pickups, but is still interesting to those more familiar with them.

Guitar pickups have been around since before the widespread use of solid body electric guitars that made them an instrumental part of modern music (excuse the pun).  Before Les Paul, before Leo Fender, there was Charlie Christian.  While not the first guitar pickup model ever built, Charlie's pickup was the first used in wide scale production starting in the 1930's.  Then as most people know, Les Paul, Seth Lover and Leo Fender (among a few others) helped innovate and popularize the concept of a solid body electric guitar pickup. Even in the very early days there were a variety of different models all with their own unique tone, design and aesthetic appeal.  Here's a brief summary starting from the early days and moving forward.

Single Coils:  As the name implies, the single coil is built with a single coil of wire (wound on a bobbin, with magnets, pole pieces, etc).  These were used (and still are) in Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars.  They're know for their bright and punchy tone and helped define entire genres of music.  Oh yeah they also are known as inherently noisy due to something called 60 cycle hum (more on that later). While Strat and Tele pickups have their own unique tone, the basic concept, design and tone is very similar.  In later years other models would use a similar pickup design, but with a different size and shape.  Models such as the Jaguar, Jazzmaster, and the Mustang.

Humbuckers: These used a similar, yet slightly more complex design to single coils.  Instead of just one coil of wire, a second coil is used right next to the first, but wound in the opposite direction and with a magnet opposite in polarity.  This produces a few unique characteristics.  First, the output of the pickup is higher (hotter, louder, etc).  Second, the tone is also a fuller, fatter tone with more mids and bass.  Lastly (and perhaps most importantly) the introduction of the second reverse wound coil eliminated the 60 cycle hum found in single coils (get it? "Hum"bucker? Old joke, I'll be here all night).  That function alone was the driving reason behind the design of the humbucker, but obviously the advent of the humbucker also produced another tonal option for guitarists to choose from.  The humbucker was and is still widely used.

P90's: The P90 was originally used by Gibson to replace the aforementioned Charlie Christian pickup.  Initially it came in two different sizes/housings: the soapbar and the dogear (names are self-explanatory).  The P90 is a single coil pickup, but due to it's size it has its own unique tone.  It's not as bright as Strat & Tele single coils, but is brighter and more transparent than the humbucker.  In recent years the humbucker sized P90 has become a popular pickup.

Mini-Humbuckers: The mini-humbucker grew in popularity a little later than the other models mentioned thus far. Originally designed by Epiphone, then acquired by Gibson when they purchased Epiphone in the late 1950's, the mini-humbucker is exactly what it sounds like: a smaller humbucker.  Gibson used the mini-humbucker in many of their models in the 1970's.  Tonally they offer the hum cancelling of a humbucker, but due to the smaller size they have a brighter tone not found in standard humbuckers. With the increasing popularity in replacing pickups, the mini-humbucker offered another unique feature.  Coupled with the mounting ring, the mini-humbucker was a perfect retrofit for a soapbar sized P90. This allowed replacement of P90's without having to route into the body of a guitar.

Active pickups: In the mid 1970's, a whole new design came along - the active pickup.  Introduced and popularized by EMG Pickups, active pickups utilize electronic circuitry within the design of the pickup to affect it's tone.  Part of the design requires external power usually coming from a 9v battery. Active pickups still use the basic concepts of traditional pickup design, but with the active circuitry produce different tones, typically flatter frequency responses and also allow for higher output than a traditional pickup.  Active pickups have grown in popularity over the years and as with most types of pickups they help define whole genres of music.

I've skipped over a lot of great innovations and models, but this hits the high points of the history of the electric guitar pickup. Another great article I read recently featured some of the great innovations in guitar pickups put together by Guitar Player magazine.  Check it out here.

Stay tuned for the next installment!