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What constitutes a "good" pickup.


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  • What constitutes a "good" pickup.

    I have been looking into making my own pickups for a while and it made me wonder about the quality of cheaper pickups such as the "Duncan Designed" stuff. What is it that makes the pickups worse than a genuine Seymour Duncan?

    From what I have learnt the aspects that change a pickups tone are the type of magnet, the thickness of the wire and the number of winds. Surely a Duncan Designed then would sound just as good as long as the magnets were the same type (Alnico V for example), had the same thickness wire (42AWG for example) and the same number of winds. I'm not saying there isn't still a difference, I am just curious as to what creates that difference. 

    I should point out, that I'm not talking about Seymour Duncan stuff specifically I'm just using that as an example.

  • #2

    You have to put it in perspective. A pickup isn't the source of sound, the string is. If the string has bright tones and specific harmonics due to the wood types used to design the acoustical part of the instrument, that gets converted to an AC signal by the pickups magnetic flux lines.. Different winds and magnetic strength will have different eqing and gains created in that signal. On the other end, you have what the guitar is plugged into. The amp has affect on the tone and the speaker that changes electrical into acoustic sound has its affect on the signal. You may have different effects boxes in the chain as well.

    The only thing you can say for certain, is whether the tones that are reproduces appeal to the widest variety of people. There have surely been plenty of albums made with bad tones used in unique ways so even that is no guideline.

    You can take a more scientific approach. Don't know if this helps, but here it is.

    If you use a flat piezo sensor on a guitar body, then run the signal through a frequency analyzer, you would be able to see the actual frequency response and resonances the wood produces. If for example, the body produces allot of 500 hz and a dip at say 5K, you may want a pickup that produces less more 5K and less 500hz to get a flatter response.

    From there its a matter of signal strength. If you want hotter pickups you either use stronger magnets or add more winds. When you do add more winds, you wind up narrowing the frequency response on the high and low ends. And wind up with more midranges due to their loss.

    That may be fine on a fender type guitar with a bright tone due to its maple neck (the neck accounts for 50% of the string tone, and the body is the other 50%. On a darker sounding guitar that's made of mahogany that already has allot of mid tones, that pickup may be a bad match. You may need more highs to bring out overtones and therefore a cooler wind to widen the response curve and capture more highs.

    You also have the EQing of the amp and the speaker choices so the whole idea of what constitutes the best pickup is at best subjective. To someone who likes metal tones, a hot wound pickup may be their ideal tone. To another that same tone sounds like mud city, and then you have how the instrument sounds solo vs. in a full band where its only part of a mix.

    To another, a cool wound pup with allot of lows might give them enough bass for great jazz tones. For another who switches between clean and driven, they might think something middle of the road gives then the widest range of tones and therefore the best tone possible.

    There's just no wrong or right here because you're dealing with an artform that containes a wide range of opinions which change on a regular basis. Manufacturers don't make it easy for you either because many have simply copied tried and true designs and have no idea why they do what they do for the sound.

    Others like Seymour attempt to give you an idea. They may say one has warmer tones and another brighter tones, but what's their basis for those opinions? If they posted frequency response curves then you'd still have to figure out how it would sound in one guitar or another.

    One thing your bigger manufacturers do though is they do have a method for designing a pickups response and gain curves. They use a coil like a guitar pickup and pass a signal into it. This generates a magnetic field around the coil.  They place the new pickup on close proximity to the pickup like a string would be and it produces the same signal output.

    This is in essence an air core transformer. Whatever is produced in the primary coil, gets produced in the secondary pickup. If the primary has a full frequency response and you pump say pink noise into it, you could view the pickup output on a frequency analyzer and see how well it produces a copy of the original. You can compare your new design to other vintage pickups or your competitors, and then tweak your design adding or removing winds, or changing magnet types and strengths to target any frequencies you want. You can vary the signal strength and figure out the pickups gain/sensitivity as well.

    In this way, you remove all the mysticism from the building of pickups and use a scientific method to build your coils upon. They do this kind of stuff in nearly all types of electronics. They use tools, scopes, analyzers, etc to aid with what can't be seen, and it tells you the truth about what can be heard as well.

    Most everything in music is a matter of taste. Most people don't want to hear a flat response form an electric guitar. So you build response curves into the pickups that give the people whatever they want, or I should say what they think they want.  



    • isaac42
      isaac42 commented
      Editing a comment
      I don't think the type of magnet as such affects the sound of a pickup. The coil characteristics do: coil geometry and electrical characteristics, which are affected by wire thickness and the number of windings, as you stated. They are also affected by the shape of the coil. The magnets contribute the magnetic flux. That's all they do, but more powerful magnets can give the same flux in a smaller package, and that can affect the coil geometry.

      Similar to what WRGKMC said, "good" is a judgment call, a personal opinion. That's why there are so many different kinds of pickups available. Some like humbuckers, some like single coils. Some like hot pickups, which necessarily have a more limited frequency response, while others prefer a wider range.

      As for "Designed by Duncan" as opposed to actual Seymour Duncan pickups, I'm guessing that they're designed to be less expensive. Less expensive magnets which are almost surely less powerful. Not as many turns on the coils, because copper is expensive. Actual SD pickups cost, so they can afford to make choices based on sound rather than price.

  • #3
    Thanks heaps for the info guys. That helps a lot.


    • Kazinator
      Kazinator commented
      Editing a comment

      There is hardly a bigger scam in the music equipment industry than pickups.

      Twits like Duncan and DiMarzio do not do any R&D whatsoever. They wind some copper around a magnet and expect a hundred bucks. Someone else invented and perfected this before 1960.

      For about the same, you can get a tablet computer representing millions of dollars sunk into recent R&D.

      The best pickups have a clear, chimey high end. You can roll off high end when you don't want it. You can't restore it when it isn't there.

      After deciding what you want: what position, and form factor: full size humbucker or single-coil-format, a good starting point is something vintage, like a "PAF" type humbucker, for instance. These can do anything. Jazz, blues, country, "classic rock", metal, you name it.  Pair them with the right (pre)amp and you get all those instantly recognizeable sounds.

      If you want to accurately "nail" certain specific sounds, you can get more specific. For instance, if you're covering some early Motley Crue, you might want to have something very similar to a DiMarzio Super Distortion. But you can "fake" it more cheaply.

      The inductance of the pickup (L) together with the resistance of its windings (R) and the capacitance of your instrument cable (C) make an LRC resonant circuit. It has a peak response whose frequency depends on those three values. More windings in the pickups increase L, for instance, and lower the resonant peak.

      You can mimic the sonic effect of a hotter pickup with more windings by adding a small capacitor across a brighter pickup, which can be controlled with a switch.

      If you have a PAF, a $0.25 capacitor will get you something resembling, perhaps, a "DiMarzio Super Distortion"  type tone, only without the volume (which you can compensate for by having enough gain in the preamp). There is no need to spend another hundred bucks, not to mention procure another guitar to put it in: a flip of a switch will give you two (or more) guitars in one.