Scientists unveil secrets of electric guitar pickups: the heart of the sound

Pickups can be seen as the "heart" of the electric guitar, turning vibrations from the strings into electricity for sound. Credit: Yamaha Corporation of America.

The electric guitar has been a cornerstone of popular music for decades, and at the heart of this iconic instrument are its pickups.

These components transform the vibrations of the guitar strings into electrical signals that produce sound.

Electric guitarists have long recognized that pickups are crucial for the quality and character of their sound, known as timbre.

Takuto Yudasaka, a visiting scholar at McGill University and researcher at Yamaha, recently presented their research on the physics of electric guitar pickups.

This presentation took place on May 15 at 10:30 a.m. EDT during a joint meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the Canadian Acoustical Association in Ottawa, Ontario.

“In electric guitars, the vibration of a magnetized string generates an electric current in the pickup coil,” Yudasaka explained. “This current is very weak, but by winding the coil thousands of times, we can detect more signal.”

The way the pickup coil is wound significantly impacts the guitar’s sound. More winding increases the volume, but too much winding can reduce clarity. Even tiny adjustments in the coil winding, as small as a hundredth of a millimeter, can make a noticeable difference to a trained ear.

Other factors, such as the type and thickness of the wire, the winding pattern, the shape and size of the pickup, and the type of magnets used, also influence the sound. While the average listener might not notice these details, electric guitarists are keenly aware of them.

With so many options, finding the perfect sound can be challenging. Yudasaka and their team aim to help with this process.

“We were able to understand how the magnetic force of pickups affects the sound of electric guitars and how we can simulate it,” Yudasaka said. “This simulation can reduce design time and enable the development of electric guitars with new timbres.”

This knowledge allows guitarists to make informed choices about their pickups, eliminating much of the guesswork.

Yudasaka and their colleagues plan to continue their research, using simulations to further explore how pickups affect timbre. This ongoing work promises to bring new insights and innovations to the world of electric guitars.

Understanding pickups and their impact on sound is essential for both guitarists and those interested in the physics of music.

This research not only enhances our appreciation of the electric guitar but also opens up new possibilities for creating unique and personalized sounds.