How Does an Electric Guitar Pickup Even Work?

You’ve probably heard an electric guitar unplugged from an amp, and it’s not that exciting. We know we need amplifiers to hear them well, but what’s creating the sound we hear through the amp? What makes and electric guitar electric? Let’s dive in a little and learn!

What Is A Pickup?

At their most basic, pickups are magnets. These magnets have a certain magnetic field in which our signal is picked up (hence the name). 

What are The Pickups Picking Up?

Our strings can be made out of many things, but all strings are magnetic alloys. When we introduce them into the magnetic field, when not moving, they do nothing. But, once we strum we are disrupting that magnetic field at a given frequency. The frequency (or note) that’s appearing in the magnetic field can be changed by us fretting the strings at different points on the neck.

So, That’s What I’m Hearing?

Of course there are many types of pickups; single-coil, humbucker, P90, warm, bright, metallic–the list goes on for awhile–but at their core pickups are magnetic fields that “hear” different frequencies, and put them through our electronics, into our amp, and out for our ears to hear. In an acoustic guitar you’re hearing the amplified vibration of the strings, but on an electric you’re hearing the frequencies that travel through the pickups and our tone/volume circuits. 

I want to go even further…

For more questions about shaping your personal sound via pickups or tone circuits, come on in and talk to me or John! We would love to share our experiences, educate you, and even do some research with you. Creating your electric sound profile is a ton of fun, and a great learning experience. 

For a more scientific dive into how pickups work, checkout Hank Wallace’s post on Atlantic Quality Design’s website.

Author: Nicole

Hi! My name is Nicole and I am the Band Instrument Repair Technician, as well as the Assistant Manager, here at the North Conway music Center. You can find me in the back of the store at my bench, or up front ready to help you learn!

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