Tech Tips: Mixing Pickup Types
22nd April 2020
The Phase Issue
Different types of guitar pickups offer a wide range of different sounds and feels, with a huge proportion of their character coming from the physical construction style and dimensions of each type. For some really versatile setups, or interesting and innovative new tones, combining and blending pickups together can be really rewarding. There are a few things to take into consideration, though, regarding the compatibility of different types of pickups.
Arguably, the most important element to consider is phase. The phase of a pickup relates to "which way up" the signal is that comes out of the pickup when you move the guitar string above it. When presented with a string that is vibrating up and down, some pickups will give a signal which goes UP as the string goes up, but some pickups will give a signal which goes DOWN as the string goes up. Which one you get is a factor of the magnetic polarity of the pickup and the direction that its coil is wound. Because different pickups have different phases, you can often find that pickups will clash with each other when used together, with one pickup pushing as the other pulls, cancelling out frequencies between them and creating a weak sound. Indeed, sometimes, that's just the kind of new sound we're looking for and it can work, but often, we want to make sure this is avoided.
Broadly, Humbuckers, P90s and Telecaster pickups are the same phase and Strat coils are opposite to them all. It does, however vary from one manufacturer to the next and even changes over time within one manufacturer, as they change production methods
One of the benefits of using Bare Knuckle Handwound pickups is that, because we make the majority of our pickups one by one, to order, we can adjust the phase of your pickups to match when ordering a mixed set, or adding a new pickup type to an existing setup in your guitar. Also, by choosing smart with your hook-up wiring, you can make sure that your pickups are adaptable for different phase situations. Specifically, 4 conductor wiring for humbuckers and 2conductor + screen for P90s will give you some flexibility.
When looking to balance the volume of different pickup types, we know that people will often look at the DC resistance of the coils, to get a ballpark balance. Because the build and characteristics of each pickup type can be quite different, that's not always terribly accurate, so it pays to bear in mind how different types measure up.
First and foremost, P90s are loud! When compared to a similar style of humbucker, with a similar coil resistance reading, the P90 will have two bar magnets, with a humbucker having just one. This gives P90s a powerful magnetic field, which drives a strong signal. This, along with their broad coil dimensions, is what gives P90s the fatness and punch that makes them so great! You can safely use a moderate / vintage P90 with a contemporary humbucker with a great balance of volume.
Humbuckers generally come next. With their pair of series-connected coils covering a large area and a good sized bar magnet at their core, they put out a solid signal
When it comes to the classic Fender style single coils, the output of Telecaster bridges come out on top, with their metal baseplates and generously sized coil. Strats come next with only a slightly smaller coil and no metal baseplate (usually, although that is available if you want to add some more fatness) and, generally, Telecaster necks are the quietest with their smaller coil and short magnets.
So it's worth considering going up a little on a Tele neck to pair with a humbucker bridge, down a bit on a P90 to pair with a Strat coil and so on.
Of course, if you need any help finding the right combination of pickups for your project, we are always on hand to help. Please feel free to drop us a line any time!