Five Major Guitar Pickup Myths

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 2 December 2012 |

The world of guitars just wouldn't be the same without its legendary raft of myths and misconceptions. If it wasn't for the myths, some forums would have literally nothing to talk about. But whereas most myths die a relatively quick death, the odd few linger almost indefinitely, gathering momentum as more people read them, accept them, and pass them on. In this article I've addressed five such persistent myths, relating to guitar pickups. I've cited each myth in bold capitals...

Replacement guitar pickup - with 1980s DiMarzio catalogue
A replacement Stratocaster pickup sitting atop a page in the 1987 DiMarzio pickups catalogue. DiMarzio pioneered the replacement pickup industry as we know it today. You can read more about the beginnings of the industry in The Rise of the Retrofit Pickup.

THE ONLY THING THAT DEFINES THE AMPLIFIED TONE OF AN ELECTRIC GUITAR IS THE PICKUP(S). NOTHING ELSE (INCLUDING THE WOOD, HARDWARE, ETC) MATTERS

Ah, lol. This is utter, utter, utter, utter, utter nonsense. In fact I can’t really believe I’m dignifying it with a rebuttal, but so many people are now starting to take this supposedly ‘scientific’ theory seriously that someone has to embark upon the task of setting the record straight.

Take the bridge pickup out of the guitar and put it in the neck position. Does it sound the same? No. Of course it doesn’t. Because it’s sensing a point on the string where the vibration pattern is different. Any element of the guitar which causes the string to vibrate in a different way is going to change the way the pickup’s magnetic field is disturbed. The wood (type, quality and age), the hardware, the design of the guitar, the action height, etc, all inevitably influence the way the strings vibrate. These factors therefore influence the electrical signal produced by the pickup, and thus the amplified sound of the guitar. The combined influence of the guitar’s age, build, setup, etc, can make a huge and very obvious difference to the amplified tone. There really is no more to be said on this matter.

CERAMIC MAGNETS ARE WORSE THAN ALNICO MAGNETS

This is an issue of personal taste, pickup design, magnet spec, and pickup build quality. Because of their use in many classic vintage guitars, alnico magnets (an aluminium, nickel and cobalt alloy) gained a reputation for being the ideal basis for a guitar pickup. Their natural ageing process has been proven to mellow out a guitar’s tone over the decades, and as relatively weak magnets per se, alnicos are considered to have more subtlety and finesse than the typical ceramic. But that doesn’t mean alnico is better than ceramic for every guitarist, or for every type of pickup.

One of the things that really brought ceramic magnets into disrepute was their use in very cheap pickups, which replaced alnico pickups in some Fender style guitars. Rather than the cheap pickups featuring individually magnetised alnico pole-pieces, they had non-magnetic poles, magnetised ‘by proxy’, courtesy of one or more ceramic bar magnets – usually on the base of the unit. Magnetising the poles ‘by proxy’ with a bar magnet was actually a traditional concept. Gibson had done it with, for example, their classic humbucker units, and third party pickup replacement companies had carried that principle across to Fender type pickups, switching the trad alnico bar magnets for ceramics to help boost output.

But when some budget-end Fender, Fender-authorised and Fender copy guitars adopted the ceramic magnet in their stock pickups, it was done primarily for economic reasons, and depending on the budget of the precise model of guitar, the quality of the whole pickup could vary wildly. Some of these ceramic-powered pickups have been atrocious – loosely wound, microphonic, lacking in clarity, tinny, boxy, lacking in output, etc. And because the more expensive alnicos didn’t sink to the same depths, a lot of people began to associate the ceramic magnet with a poorer pickup.

Ceramic magnets are not, however, inherently worse than alnicos. Well made pickups with ceramic magnets can be fantastic. The Seymour Duncan JB is a very famous example of a superb and highly regarded pickup with a ceramic bar magnet, and indeed it’s courtesy of the ceramic magnet that the unit is able to deliver its distinctive powerful and piercing, yet extremely smooth sound. Alnico just wouldn’t have done the job. So the notion that alnico is better than ceramic is a myth. Rubbish pickups are worse than good pickups, and a lot of rubbish pickups have ceramic magnets, but that doesn’t make ceramic magnets rubbish.

NO ONE HAS EVER MANAGED TO REPLICATE THE GIBSON PAF

Gibson’s PAF pickups of the late 1950s and early 1960s have probably prompted more rubbish to be talked in the field of guitar pickups than any other entity. It’s been in a lot of people’s interests to turn the Gibson PAF into an international mystery. Especially those selling them, or trying to launch their own replica. But actually, there’s very little mystery about it. The original manufacturing methods were hit and miss, and could result in big differences in spec from one PAF to the next. It would be impossible to replicate ALL PAFs in one pickup, because the originals varied so much. However, anyone who’s used the correct type of coil wire, magnet and construction, paid attention to how the originals were wound, and worked within the tolerances, has made something which can be classed as an accurate PAF replica.

So why don’t people think these pickups sound like PAFs? Well, I think Larry DiMarzio summed that up best when he explained the theory behind the DiMarzio 36th Anniversary PAF. He openly admitted to having deliberately modernised and adapted the 36th Anniversary model to create something different from an original PAF, but which actually sounds more like a real PAF in a new guitar than an accurate replica. If you watch the short video I’ve linked to below, you’ll hear Larry stating that the reason you can’t make a new Les Paul sound like a ’59 original by putting in an accurate PAF replica, is that the guitar is different.

The ageing process with the wood, and the fact that the wood was in any case different from new on an old Les Paul as compared with the woods available today, means that if you want a new Les Paul to sound like an old one, you have to re-voice the pickups. You have to build in a kind of compensation. And that’s exactly what DiMarzio did with the 36th Anniversary PAF. I don’t like the idea of linking to what’s effectively an advert (and let me make it clear that I have no affiliation or commercial connection with DiMarzio), but in this vid DiMarzio has made an extremely important point, which explains away most of the nonsense talked about PAF replicas. It’s the guitars that are different. Not the pickups…

Larry DiMarzio explains the 36th Anniversary PAF

IF YOU WANT TO CHANGE THE TONE OF YOUR GUITAR, THE EASIEST WAY TO DO IT IS TO FIT NEW PICKUPS

Another misnomer. The easiest way to change the tone of your (electric) guitar is to adjust the tone and volume knobs on the instrument, and/or on the amplifier. If you also use a digital processor incorporating some kind of equaliser, as many guitarists do, you can probably do more with the tone of your signal than most pickup replacements could ever achieve. For as long as I can remember, there’s been a tendency among some guitar owners to change parts without necessity. I’ve done it myself. But I’ve learned over the years that you should know exactly why you’re making changes, and have a clear idea of what’s it’s going to achieve. Just thinking something is going to sound better is not enough. You need to know precisely how the sound will change, and only if it’s going to change in a way you can’t achieve by tinkering with all the conventional parameters on guitar, processor and amp, should you be considering replacement pickups.

HUMBUCKERS HAVE MORE SUSTAIN THAN SINGLE COIL PICKUPS

A pickup in itself doesn’t have any ‘sustain’. It can, and does, howewer, affect the excursion of the strings, and it affects the output level of the guitar. These factors can impact on the actual or perceived sustain.

To look at string excursion first; if the magnets on the pickups are powerful, and the pickups are set fairly close to the strings, then the motion of the strings will be dampened by the magnetic pull. This creates what became known as ‘wolf tones’ (alien, unmusical frequencies), whilst also reducing sustain. The freedom of the string to vibrate naturally is physically being restricted, so the reduction in sustain is real and literal. Strong magnets, set too close to the strings, impair sustain.

As regards the output level; the effect of the guitar’s volume on the sustain is only perceived, and not literal. If the guitarist uses a setup with high volume, valve-type amplification (and in particular overdrive or distortion), or if the guitarist uses an electronic compressor of some kind, then feeding a higher output level into that setup will create the impression that the guitar is sustaining for longer. This is because greater output volume from the guitar means greater levels of compression, and compression creates the illusion of greater sustain by limiting the dynamics. You can read about how this works in a bit more detail in my Boss Compressor article, but it is an illusion – the guitar is not really sustaining for any longer.

So now we come to the matter of whether humbuckers create more actual or perceived sustain than single coils. Typically and as a general rule (although there are of course exceptions), a humbucker will be louder than a single coil. The extra volume will therefore result in more compression, provided the amplification/processing setup in some way imparts compression – and that means the guitarist will hear and feel the illusion of greater sustain. So in general, humbuckers will, for many guitarists, sound and feel like they give more sustain than single coils. But again, this is not real sustain – just a perception.

In relation to magnetic pull on the strings, this is down to the strength of the magnet(s) or magnetised components, and their proximity to the strings. So if a single coil exerts less magnetic pull on the strings than a humbucker, it will facilitate better sustain. That’s literally better sustain – not just perceived. But if the humbucker exerts less pull, then the humbucker will facilitate better sustain. Some single coils have very low magnetic pull, as do some humbuckers. It can’t be said that either one or the other has the lowest pull as a breed, so there’s no truth in the assertion that humbuckers create greater genuine sustain than single coils.

What affects the real sustain most, of course, is the guitar’s design, construction, materials and hardware. A Gibson Les Paul is inherently going to have a lot more real sustain than a Fender Jaguar. Some people believe the Les Paul sustains for longer than a Fender Jaguar because it has humbucking pickups. The Les Paul’s pickups are louder than the Jaguar’s so they can create an illusion of extra sustain through dynamic compression, but where the Les Paul’s real, literal sustain comes from is the density of wood and the way the guitar is built.

Inherently, humbuckers don’t have more sustain than single coils.


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