You’re at your favorite guitar store shopping for a pickup. As you browse, you see some pickups are labeled bridge and others as neck. What does this mean? Are there any discernible differences between and bridge and neck pickup, and if so, what are they?
The differences between a bridge and neck pickup are:
- Neck pickups are higher up on the guitar than bridge pickups
- Bridge pickups boast greater output compared to neck pickups because of their higher resistance
- Since your guitar strings at the bridge don’t move as much, the bridge pickup has more windings, giving it a different sound that many players call sharp and clear
- Neck pickups have a muddy sound because they’re low-output and low resistance, although their mellow tone does have warmth
If you’re still a little confused, I’ll elaborate on all things pickups in this article. You’ll learn more about the sounds and stylings of bridge and neck pickups, their differences, and when you may use one type of pickup over the other. You’re not going to want to miss it.
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What are Guitar Pickups: A Quick Definition
If you’re relatively new to the guitar and you’re looking to buy your first pickup or two, a small definition of what a guitar pickup is might help.
A guitar pickup is a type of transducer. In other words, when your guitar produces mechanical vibrations, the pickup well, picks up on these vibrations and then makes them into electric signals. Your guitar amp boosts the signal so you get a cool sound.
It’s really that simple, at least for the most part. Now, granted, you have a variety of pickup types on the market for you to choose from, which I’ll talk about later in this article. For now, let’s focus on bridge and neck pickups.
What Is a Bridge Pickup?
Both the bridge and neck pickup are named because of where on the guitar they go. In this case then, you’d attach your bridge pickup to the bridge of your guitar.
Bridge pickups produce a sharp, bright, crisp sound because they have a lot of high-end frequencies. You’ll also notice your notes boast great definition so you can clearly tell one apart from the other as you play.
This is due to how the bridge pickup works. The strings at the bridge won’t move when strummed or struck nearly as much as they do at the guitar neck. Thus, the vibrations from the bridge pickup give you a sound that some guitarists call spanky and punchy. Overall, it’s a much tighter sound.
Depending on the type of bridge pickup you use, such as a single-coil, or your amplifier, sometimes the pickup doesn’t sound as appealing as it usually does. That brightness will come through loud and clear to the point where your tone is overbearing.
What Is a Neck Pickup?
Okay, so if a bridge pickup is used on your guitar bridge, then you can rightly assume that a neck pickup goes on the neck of the guitar. Indeed, it does. Since this pickup is higher up on the instrument where the strings move more freely, the frequencies are much lower here.
Also, with lower tension, the amplitude of each string as it vibrates increases. This gives you a round, thick, warm, even mellow sound from a neck pickup. The clearly-defined notes you’d get with a bridge pickup are not nearly as easy to distinguish here, as the guitar neck pickup sound can sometimes be unclear and even muddy.
You also lack the attack that bridge pickups have because the neck strings on the guitar aren’t as tight. Even without quite as much power behind your playing, when you strum a guitar with a neck pickup, the sound comes across as large and booming, so it’s anything but ignorable.
The Differences Between Bridge and Neck Pickups
Now that you know the basics of bridge and neck pickups, let’s move on to comparing the two.
Here are all the differences to keep in mind.
Placement on the Guitar
The most obvious difference between a bridge and neck pickup is where on your guitar they go. Your neck pickup is up higher on the instrument, at the thin guitar neck, while the bridge pickup goes towards the guitar’s base, or its bridge.
Bridge Pickups Have Higher Resistance and Output
This positioning gives bridge pickups a higher resistance and output, as I said before. In the world of guitar pickups, a pickup’s resistance is how well the wire coil can prevent the flow of electrons throughout. Resistance is expressed in kiloOhms and can affect both the sound and performance of your guitar.
A pickup’s output allows the pickup to send electric signals to the amp through the instrument cable at a certain rate.
Bridge pickups also have more windings than a neck pickup to prevent noticeable differences in volume caused from the higher output and resistance. This can give bridge pickups a hot sound, according to some guitarists, that neck pickups simply don’t have.
The neck pickup’s output and resistance are lower, but this is what lends the pickup its warmth, which can sort of make up for the muddiness of the sound.
Bridge Pickups Have a Clearer Sound
The clarity of bridge pickups is a big difference between them and neck pickups. Your sound has much less distortion, and, as I mentioned, you can tell one note apart from another with little difficulty. If you’re part of a band and you want your guitar sound to stand out, you can do so easily with a bridge pickup. Using a neck pickup would make you blend right in, even if your playing sounded bigger and a bit more voluminous.
The tonal freedom bridge pickups offer is another point of discussion, as you get less versatility with neck pickups in that regard.
Neck Pickups Boast a Bigger Sound
With a round, heavier sound, you lack tonal clarity with a neck pickup. Your notes can come across as muddy due to the low-end frequencies, and sometimes even a little muffled. That said, they’re also big and warm, and, as I hope I’ve gotten across, I mean big. You can’t cut over a whole band like you can with a bridge pickup, but you can make sure that everyone hears your presence with a neck pickup.
When Should You Use a Bridge Pickup vs. a Neck Pickup?
I’m not here to tell you that a neck pickup or bridge pickup is better. Both have their purposes at different times, so you should ideally own one of each pickup, maybe even a few kinds of each type.
Here are the instances in which you’d want to use a bridge pickup versus a neck pickup and vice-versa.
If You Want to Play Solos, Use a Neck Pickup
Although you might think a bridge pickup’s clarity is awesome for solos, most guitarists recommend using a neck pickup for that big lead solo to have the kind of appealing sound that listeners go for. In genres like blues and jazz especially, most solos you hear will be played with a neck pickup.
Gary Moore’s “Still Got the Blues” and Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” are both great examples of the neck pickup in action, with the GNR song featuring the pickup in the intro and part of the solo.
When You Want a Tone with Attack, Use a Bridge Pickup
The twanginess combined with its bite makes the bridge pickup a natural choice for genres like bluegrass, country, and other southern music. The Telecaster bridge pickup especially comes highly recommended for producing this type of sound.
For Some Rock Riffs, Use a Neck Pickup
Outside of chunky, thick riffage in rock, a neck pickup adds grittiness, grunginess, and muddiness that’s also desirable in this genre. Avoid power chords with a neck pickup though, especially A through E chords, as these sound better on the bridge pickup. Playing them on a neck pickup will sound very muffled.
For Rhythm Guitar, Use a Bridge Pickup
I may have suggested a neck pickup for guitar solos, but for the rhythm parts, a bridge pickup is much more suitable. That also applies if you’re playing riffs that are more distorted, as the bridge pickup lends a clear sound to the notes without them becoming hazy.
For Fingerpicking, Use a Neck Pickup
Fingerpicking sounds pretty good on a neck pickup, as the largeness of the sound and the warmth you get with a neck pickup are especially noticeable here.
These rules aren’t written in stone, by the way. If you want to try fingerpicking with a bridge pickup, you can. You can also play rhythm with a neck pickup or take a solo with a bridge pickup. Experiment and see what sounds good to you, but the above suggestions are what most guitarists favor.
What Influences Pickup Sound?
If your neck or bridge pickup doesn’t quite fit the sound profiles as described in this article, it’s not that something is necessarily wrong with your pickup. Certain factors can make the pickup sound slightly different.
Let’s take a closer look at these now.
Like a Les Paul doesn’t sound like the Prestige Series, the brand of pickup you select is quite an important decision in influencing the pickup’s sound. Some of the recommended manufacturers of guitar pickups are Benedetti, Tornade, Fender, Gibson, EMG, DiMarzio, Bare Knuckle, and Seymour Duncan.
My advice? Spend more money on a better pickup. Not only will it give you the type of sound you’re after, but it will probably last longer too.
What kind of guitar are you using with your pickup? If it has more tonewoods, especially in the fingerboard and the neck, then the harmonics may sound different. For example, you get more warmth out of a fingerboard made of rosewood.
The wood used to construct the guitar body is also another big determinant of sound. Ash bodies boast a higher treble, while you get a great warmth out of a mahogany-bodied guitar.
Once you know all this, you can shop for a pickup that’s calibrated to your type of guitar. Buying a pickup from the same manufacturer of your guitar is a great way to ensure the pickup augments the natural qualities of your guitar’s body.
The Type of Pickup
Not all pickups are the same. Besides bridge and neck pickups, here are some other types you might come across.
An active guitar pickup uses a battery or another power source to boost the output of your sound. You’ll tend to notice better consistency with your tone, especially compared to a passive pickup. Your guitar sound also has more power, and who doesn’t want that?
The passive pickup follows the basic guitar pickup premise I described in the intro. Copper wire and a magnet detect your guitar string vibrations as you play. These vibrations again become a current that enters your guitar amp and produces sound.
With their simple construction, you don’t get as hardy a sound with a passive pickup as you do with an active one. You’d need a really good amp to compensate for a passive pickup.
The single-coil pickup is easy to visually distinguish from a double-coil pickup because it has just one coil. What does this really mean though?
Single and double-coil pickups are called humbucking pickups. These started out of necessity in the 1950s as guitarists looked to combat the unwanted hums and buzzes that came from using amplifiers of the day.
The single-coil pickup produces a crisp, bright guitar tone, and their attack and bite are sharper than double coils. You can play around with a single-coil pickup to alter its sound so it’s glassier, or you can get a gritty tone out of it depending on what you’re going for.
Humbuckers have twice the coils to reduce the interference and humming that can otherwise ruin a great guitar sound. Humbucker pickups also use magnets, with one coil at the magnet’s northern pole and another coil at its southern pole. When the coils meet, phase cancelation occurs, hiding interference very well.
Depending on the configuration of the coils in a double-coil pickup, such as in parallel or in series, it’s possible to mask and cancel hum in different ways.
Those magnets within the pickup serve quite a big purpose, as they too can influence your sound. If your pickup has alnico or ceramic magnets inside, your tone could sound warmer or slightly more sterile. Pickups with ceramic magnets tend to be quite hot.
If you use a bridge and neck pickup at the same time and the neck pickup has an alnico magnet and the bridge pickup a ceramic one, the neck will produce a cleaner sound and the bridge great distortion. Just watch out for discrepancies in the volume, which can arise with such a setup.
A bridge pickup goes on the guitar’s bridge and the neck pickup on the neck, but the differences between these two types of pickups are more distinct than that. With a neck pickup, you get a warm but muddied sound while bridge pickups sound clear and crisp.
Both the bridge and the neck pickup are favorable to use at different times, so you might as well buy both!