Uncover the hidden science behind electric guitar pickups

Electric guitar pickup
Credit: Electric Herald.

The electric guitar has shaped popular music for nearly a century, with pickups playing a major role in its distinctive sound. These components convert string vibrations into electrical signals, acting as the “heart” of the instrument.

Guitarists have long known that the magnetic force generated by the pickup affects sound quality, or timbre. However, Takuto Yudasaka, a visiting scholar at McGill University and a Yamaha researcher, has taken things to the next level. The researcher created a computer model that closely simulates the physics of the moment an electric guitar is played.

“In electric guitars, the vibration of the magnetized string generates an electrical current in the pickup coil,” Yudasaka said. “This current is very weak, but by twisting the coil thousands of times, more signals can be detected.”

What makes a guitar pickup shine

Each pickup truck contains a magnet and a coil of wire. When guitar strings, usually made of a ferromagnetic material, vibrate over a magnet, they disturb their magnetic field. This disturbance generates a weak electrical current in the coil of wire wrapped around the magnet. The generated signal then travels to an amplifier, which boosts it to create the rich, powerful sound associated with electric guitars.

Yudasaka confirmed previous knowledge and learned new things about the physics of pickups that could greatly improve the guitar design process in the future. For example, the coil winding process greatly affects the sound. Increasing the number of windings increases the output volume, but excessive windings can reduce clarity. Even slight adjustments in fill—even one-hundredth of a millimeter—can change the sound visibly to trained ears.

Several factors affect the sound of a guitar, including wire type and thickness, winding style, pickup shape and size, and magnet type.

Traditionally, pickup designers and engineers have relied primarily on their experience accumulated over decades to balance all these factors. What Yodasaka and his team aim to do is add more science to the process and demystify the search for the perfect sound by reducing the guesswork.

“We were able to understand how the magnetic force of the pickup affects the sound of electric guitars and how we can emulate it,” Yudasaka said. “This simulation has the potential not only to reduce design time but also to enable the development of electric guitars with new musical timbres.”

The results were presented at the joint meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the Acoustical Society of Canada. The conference will be held from May 13 to 17 at the Shaw Center in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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