Pickups make sound, and just like everything else, not all are created equally. Essentially, there are two types of pickups; passive and active.
Both types of pickup come in two different forms: a hum bucker or a single coil. Hum bucking pickups simply have two coils, for a fuller sound, whereas single coiled pickups have a single coil and have a more fragile sound.
So with only two types of pickups on two forms each, finding pickups should be easy, right? While those are the basic statistics, there are actually hundreds of different pickups. Each falls into those four categories, but each has their own unique sound.
First off, you need to figure out whether you want to go the active route or the passive route. Active pickups tend to have a more sterile quality, meaning they tend to let your amp do most of the work. Passive pickups tend to color your sound. This means they either have more bass, more trouble, sound richer, sound more frail, etcetera.
While there is no right or wrong choice in pickups, it is all about goals. The most popular active pickups are the EMG lines and the Seymour Duncan Blackouts. While mostly geared towards metal guitarists, don’t let active pickups scare you off because of this fact; many guitars themselves are geared towards metal and yet would be perfect for a variety of different styles.
Active pickups are made active because they have a built-in preamp, or power source. This means they also require a battery to operate. While some guitarists don’t mind, some see battery maintenance as a nuisance. Because they take nine volt batteries, active pickups tend to stay properly juiced for about six months.
The biggest thing you have to pay attention to is your jack; don’t leave your guitar plugged in when you aren’t using it if you want active pickups. This will help drain the better, as a chord being plugged into the jack is what ‘turns on’ the pickup.
With passive pickups, variety is astounding. There are dozens of brands, the most popular of which are DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, Bare Knuckle, and Ludgren. The latter two are what are known as boutique pickups, meaning they are hand wound. This also means each pickup is nearly double the price. There are also different levels of passive pickups; high output, mid output, and low output. These stages are also known as hot, warm, and cold.
Output simply means how much power your pickup gives out. High output pickups are have a lot of saturation, with higher EQ ranges. Mid output pickups are less saturated, with less EQ range. Low output pickups have low saturation and low EQ range. EQ range is simply how much color your pickup adds, (bass, treble, mid) and saturation is simply how distorted your pickup can be.
The best way to find your pickups is to analyze your playing goal. Every pickup manufacturer has their pickup qualities listed, so it should be easy for you to find pickups that suit your taste. Listen to sample of different brands and compare. Choose the pickups you honestly believe sound best, and ignore trends.
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