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Pickups 101: How They Work and Who Needs One


Pickups are basically transducers, which are devices that convert the vibration from a musical instrument into an electrical signal and permit the sound to be audible. There are several types of pickups for amplifying acoustic instruments that sample/collect the sound in three different physical ways – piezoelectric, microphones and magnetic.

Piezoelectric

Piezoelectric (or piezo) are the most common type of pickup for acoustic instruments. These pickups convert the physical movement of a solid object, such as the vibrations of a guitars top wood, into an electrical signal. They are often what are called “under-saddle” pickups and create a crisp/clear tone that articulates the sound of the strings. This style of pickup works well for a wide range of applications, including playing in a group setting where there are many instruments and frequencies that need to blend.



(K&K Fantastick undersaddle pickup)

 
The other common type of piezo pickups is what is called a bridge plate pickup which adhere to the bridge plate inside of a guitar. These can sound much better for solo playing due to the lusher tonal quality. 



(K&K Pure Mini bridge plate pickup)
(K&K Pure Mini bridge plate pickup)
 


Piezo pickups can come as “active” (requires a battery to work) or “passive” (doesn’t require a battery to work). Active pickups provide a stronger signal coming out of the guitar and often have volume and tone controls built in, while passive pickups are more of a plug and play style. Any changes to sound and volume must be made on the amp the instrument is plugged into.

Microphones

Microphones convert the physical movement of air into an electrical signal. These transducers offer the closest to the true sound of an instrument. They work similarly to the human ear drum in that sound pressure waves will move a thin conductive membrane across an electrified backplate to turn the sound waves into an electrical signal. These are the same type of microphones you find in a recording studio but smaller to fit inside different types of instruments.

Microphones are ideal for solo performance because they sound full and true to the actual acoustic tone of the guitar (also because they pick surrounding sounds, so they can be temperamental with other instruments). They are active systems and almost always come with the ability to control the volume and tone of the instrument on board. They also tend to be pricey because of their more sophisticated electronic components and require a pre-amp built into unit to work.


(L.R. Baggs Lyric microphone pickup)
(L.R. Baggs Lyric microphone pickup)

           

Magnetic pickups

Magnetic pickups work on a different principle than the piezo and microphone in that they create a magnetic field for the strings of an instrument vibrate within. These vibrations create fluctuations in the output signal of the pickup which creates the sound.

Magnetic pickups have a sound unto themselves and is ubiquitous in the world of electric guitars. Rather than sampling the vibrations of the wood, this pickup samples the way the strings move through a magnetic field. This makes the construction of the pickup integral to the sound being generated. Different magnetic pickups will use a variety of components to tailor the sound, most notably using different types and sizes of magnets, as well as variances to the amount of copper wire wrapping.

The magnetic pickup is ideal for a player looking to play in a louder ensemble – like a rock band or anything with a full drum kit and electric players.

 

(L.R. Baggs M1 passive pickup)
(L.R. Baggs M1 passive pickup)

 

Let us Help You Pick Out a Pickup!

There is a lot of variance in each group of pickups, so choosing the right one can be confusing. That’s why we are here to help! Call or visit the Denver Folklore Center and let us help you pick the perfect pickup for your playing needs.