Pickup the tone!
One thing I get asked a lot about is pickups, and how much they contribute to the tone of an electric guitar.
My immediate response is always a nice little soundbite from Paul Reed Smith, who said the pickups are the microphone for the guitar, and I think that's a very neat little metaphor that outlines the relationship between the guitar and the pickups when it comes to tone. Paul often quips "Put a different mic in front of Frank Sinatra, and he won't sound like Dean Martin." What he means is while the pickups will affect the tone, it can only pick up the vibrations that the guitar is allowing the strings to create - they don't, in themselves, influence that.
All that said, there's no doubt pickups contribute significantly to the sound that ends up coming out of the amplifier. Here's a quick guide to the basics.
Active vs. passive
The majority of pickups are passive, i.e. they require no power source or pre-amp before the signal enters the amp. Companies such as Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio do a vast range of such pickups to cover all tonal eventualities. Active pickups, most famously made by EMG, have a pre-amp built in, and require a 9v battery to power it. The output tends to be higher and slightly compressed and scooped, making them very popular with players seeking high-gain metal tones. Beware, however, when buying active pickups, that some guitars will need extra space routed in the pickup cavity to accommodate the battery.
Most commonly, pickups are classified by output, vintage, medium and high output. This helps to narrow down the search a little, but beware! Just because a pickup is classified as 'vintage' absolutely doesn't mean it won't be suitable for higher gain sounds - some of the best high-gain sounds are from pushing vintage-voiced equipment to breaking point! The major manufacturers will cover all of these bases with often more than one option.
If you're confident with a soldering iron and can read a wiring diagram, there really isn't much to be frightened of to fit pickups yourself. Often, it's a case of just replicating what is currently in your guitar. If you'd rather not attempt it though, we offer free installation on pickups bought from us, so feel free to pop into store and ask our technician!
Until next time, TECH care of yourselves, and your guitars. Ed.