The Physics Of Guitar Pickups: A Deep Dive

February 23, 2024 by
Nebula Belgium, Steven Van Hout

Guitar pickups, while seemingly simple in design, are a culmination of intricate physics, materials science, and engineering. Their function is rooted in principles that date back to the 19th century, yet their design continues to evolve. Let's embark on a deep, technical dive into the world of guitar pickups.

1. Electromagnetic Induction: The Core Principle

Every pickup operates on Faraday's law of electromagnetic induction. When a conductive object, like a guitar string, moves within a magnetic field, it disrupts that field. This change induces a voltage in a nearby coil, producing an electric current.

2. Magnetism and Its Nuances

  • Magnet Types: Alnico, ceramic, neodymium, and cunife have distinct magnetic properties. For instance, Alnico 5 is stronger and brighter than Alnico 2 due to differences in their elemental compositions.
  • Magnetic Field Strength: A magnet's Gauss rating indicates its strength. While a stronger magnet can yield a higher output, it can also exert more pull on the strings, potentially reducing sustain.

3. Coil Dynamics

  • Wire Gauge and Material: The wire's diameter and material affect its resistance. Copper, with its high conductivity, is commonly used. However, the purity level and any alloying elements can influence its conductive properties.
  • Coil Windings: The number of windings impacts the pickup's inductance. More windings increase the inductance, which boosts the low-mid frequencies but can reduce the high frequencies.

4. Impedance and Resonant Peak

While DC resistance gives a snapshot of the pickup's output, the real magic lies in its impedance, a frequency-dependent property. The impedance peak, or resonant peak, is where the pickup is most responsive and greatly influences its tonal character.

5. Interactions with Guitar Circuitry

  • Potentiometers (Pots): These act as voltage dividers. A 500k pot allows more high frequencies to pass than a 250k pot, making the tone brighter.
  • Capacitors: In tone circuits, capacitors act as high-pass filters. Their value determines the cutoff frequency, shaping the tone's warmth and brightness.

6. Pole Pieces and Stagger Patterns

The pole pieces' arrangement can be adjusted to ensure even output across strings. This is crucial, especially when considering different neck radii and string gauges.

7. Eddy Currents: The Unseen Challenge

Metal components, especially those made of conductive materials like brass, nickel, and steel, can induce eddy currents when placed near the pickup. These currents can create an opposing magnetic field, dampening the pickup's response and leading to potential tonal loss, especially in the treble frequencies.

8. The Metals in Play: Brass, Nickel, and Steel

  • Brass: Often used for baseplates and bridges, brass can add warmth to the tone. However, its conductivity can induce eddy currents, requiring careful design considerations.
  • Nickel: Commonly used for pole pieces and covers, nickel offers a balanced tone. Its magnetic properties can subtly influence the pickup's overall magnetic field.
  • Steel: Steel parts, especially when magnetized, can significantly affect the pickup's inductance and tonal characteristics. Its high permeability can boost the pickup's output but may also introduce non-linearities in the response.

9. Challenges in Design

Achieving a balanced tone requires meticulous design. Factors like the proximity of metal parts, the choice of magnet, and the coil's properties must harmonize. Additionally, external factors like string type, playing style, and guitar wood can introduce variables that challenge the pickup's design.


The world of guitar pickups is a realm where art meets science. Every component, every winding, and every metal piece plays a role in crafting the final sound. As technology and materials science advance, the quest for the perfect pickup continues, driven by an understanding of these intricate principles and a passion for music.

Nebula Belgium, Steven Van Hout February 23, 2024
Share this post