The Secret to Single Pickup Guitars

The Secret to Single Pickup Guitars
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Single pickup guitars have their secret, their magic. The effect of the neck pickup affects the audio. Thus, many guitarists have opted for these guitars with more pure and direct audio.

Famous guitarists with single pickup guitars

Keith Richards, Billy F. Gibbons, Eddie Van Halen, Marty Friedman, Allan Holdsworth, Joan Jett, Johnny Thunders, Phil-X, Billie Joe Armstrong, Jared James Nichols among many other players, have opted for single pickup guitars. Probably some for simplicity and practicality, that is, they only use the bridge pickup. But other guitarrists do it by tone, by audio. They affirm that the guitar with a single pickup has something special, something magical in its sound.

Simplicity, an attraction of single pickup guitars

There is something incredibly liberating about playing a Gibson Les Paul Junior, a Gibson Melody Maker, or a Fender Esquire. So, you just plug it into your amp and play, without any preamble, with nothing else you need.

Many heavy styles like Glam Rock from the 80’s, Hard Rock (ZZ Top, Van Halen, etc.), Punk Rock or Garage Rock, which almost exclusively use the bridge pickup. Thus, many guitarists like Billie Joe Armstrong are attracted to the sexapile -Sex-appeal- of the Gibson Les Paul.

Billie Joe Armstrong on a Gibson Les Paul Junior, single pickup guitar
Billie Joe Armstrong with a Gibson Les Paul Junior

Do single pickup guitars really sound different or better?

Yes, hard to believe, single pickup guitars sound better. Although, everything is a matter of taste, we can affirm that they do.

This has its scientific explanation for why they sound and respond differently to two- or three-pickup guitars. The pickups are made with a magnet, which generates a magnetic field regardless of whether it is connected or not. This affects the vibration of the string.

Probably, you have ever felt that the sixth string of your Strat had an out of tune overtone, which you solved by moving the pickups away from the strings. This is because Singlecoils have a stronger magnet and it affects the vibration of the string more obviously, distorting its audio. This example is a good way to see how the magnetic field generated by the pickups influences the vibration of the strings and the tone of the instrument.

Richie Sambora with Orianthi playing a Fender Esquire, the first guitar with a single pickup.
Richie Sambora with Orianthi playing a Fender Esquire

Why do guitars with a single pickup sound different or better?

The absence of a pickup in the neck or middle means that less magnetic force is exerted on the strings, allowing you to get more sustain, more resonance, and fewer tuning problems.

Phil-X, a great lover of single-pickup guitars, explains why he takes the neck out of some of his guitars, such as his black Yamaha SG: “Why a single pickup? (…) You mainly use the high pickup – Treble Pickup is called the bridge pickup – unless you are a jazz guitarist. ” And he continues explaining: “I have a test recording the same guitar with the two pickups and later with one. And I found that without the neck pickup it had more harmonics and more tone overall because you have more string vibration.”

If you want to check it yourself. You can do it like Phil-X. Since taking out and putting in a pickup is complex and time consuming, there is also another simpler but less precise way. You can test it by seeing how an Esquire sounds and feels vs a Telecaster or a Les Paul Junior and Special.

Phil-X with his Framus Custom with a single P-90 pickup.
Phil-X with his Framus Custom with a single P-90 pickup.

Simplified circuit

Guitars with a single pickup also have a simpler circuit, since they have less wiring, they do not have a pickup selector, which reduces the risk of faults, noise and interference.

There are those who believe that this also makes a difference in tone. Presumably, by reducing the length of the cables and not going through a pickup selector, this would reduce the level of signal degradation.

The reality is that the few centimeters – maybe less than 10 cm. on a Telecaster or 20 cm. in a Les Paul? – and going through a selector has no impact on the tone, at least audible to the man. To check this, try seeing the difference in tone between a 3 meter cable and a 6 meter cable, where the cable difference is 300 cm. You will see that the difference in tone will not be perceptible, with which a difference of a few centimeters, less.

Another way to verify that the tone change is due to the absence of a pickup and not due to the simplicity of the circuit, is to do the test without connecting the guitar. It is logical that the differences are more noticeable when connecting it, since all frequencies are amplified which makes it easier for the human ear to perceive them.

Jared James Nichols with his Gibson Les Paul Custom with a single P-90 pickup
Jared James Nichols with his Gibson Les Paul Custom with a single P-90 pickup

The magic of a single pickup guitar

Beyond the objective factor which is that the string vibrates more and more freely, giving more harmonics and sustain. That it is worth clarifying that perhaps for a poorly trained ear it can be very subtle or even imperceptible.

There is also another reason that makes single pickup guitars special, and that is a subjective factor. The guitar with only one volume and tone pot invites you to develop new ways of obtaining different audios, thus stimulating the use of the volume and tone control.

Also, it helps you develop a touch with more dynamics, work the attack, try different ways of playing the string to achieve different tones and textures. Attacking the string closer to the bridge gives you more snap, attack, shine and less body, while moving away you achieve warmer tones, with less pronounced highs and more body. The difference between playing hard on the bridge and softly near the neck with your fingertips is remarkable.

All this expands your technical resources and enriches your tone as a guitarist, and that is probably the best and most important virtue of a guitar with a single pickup.

You can share opinions or also chat about this and more with other musicians in our comments section.

Related News: Fender’s Failures: Ugly, Weird, or Misunderstood Guitars and Best Years of the Gibson Les Paul.

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Federico Valle

I've been a guitarist since I was 13 years old, which means 30 years with music. I studied guitar construction for three years. Also, I am a gear enthusiast with a collection of guitars that cover practically all styles. In addition, I owned more than a hundred guitars.

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