Getting an amplified sound from your guitar is best done with pickups. For acoustic guitars, you don’t necessarily trouble yourself about pickups. But, if you have an electric guitar, you can never appreciate its tonal versatility and characteristics without learning about the pickups, particularly, the neck vs bridge pickup. This article will explain the basics of pickups and the essence of neck and bridge pickups.
What are Pickups?
In general, guitar pickups are transducer — a device that converts energy into another form. Basically, the pickups have a magnet and a coil inside. This device captures the mechanical vibrations of the strings and converts them into electrical signals. Then, through the amplifier to produce the sound of the instrument.
For electric guitars, you can find three pickups in one guitar, which include the neck, bridge, and the middle. Along with these pickups is a pickup selector switch that helps you play the bridge, the neck or a blend of different pickup positions. In this article, the neck and the bridge pickups will further be discussed and why there’s a need to install such pickups.
Neck vs Bridge Pickup Sound Characteristics
Firstly, they differ in the position — the neck pickup is located towards the neck, while the bridge pickup is somewhere closer to the bridge. Neck pickup has a rounder and more bassy, while the bridge pickup is trebly and has “bite”. So, neck pickups are usually utilized to get a clean rhythm or heavily distorted lead tone, while the bridge pickup is ideal for lead tone and rhythm.
The reason behind the difference in sound characteristics is simple physics, specifically on the string amplitude and on how the pickups interpret the string vibrations to get a certain tone. When a guitar string is plucked, in general, it creates a larger amplitude towards the neck and lesser towards the bridge.
Since pickups have magnet and coils, the string vibrations disrupt its magnetic field to induce an electric current. From this, the output is generated.
To test if you’ll get the same results from your electric guitar, try it when unplugged and turn the volume down. Now, pluck a string closer to the neck, then, pluck the same string, this time, near the bridge. You’ll notice a big difference — the sound near the bridge is brighter than the neck. The pickups are designed to ‘hear’ and reproduce the sound the string produces.
If you’ll use the same pickup in these two positions, you’ll get a thin sound on the bridge, while a dark and very loud tone at the neck. To enhance and give balance to the sound output, bridge pickup has higher output since they’ll receive lesser amplitude than the neck pickup. The majority of the distorted heavy riffs are played on the bridge, while solos on distortion and fingerpicking can be best done on the neck.
You want to hear the sound difference between these two pickups and get a more comprehensive comparison from this YouTube video:
Neck vs Bridge Pickup: Applications
Since the neck pickup offers mellower, thicker, and rounder tone, it’s often used when fingerpicking and for clean rhythms. Additionally, neck pickups have more low-end frequencies, so it sounds muffled, yet still has warm character, which could be good for classic hard rock. The neck pickup is used as an intro for a song, like the “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”
Bridge pickup has sharper and more defined tone, perfect for cutting through mixes, distorted riffs, and rhythm parts. You can turn the tone knob all the way up to get the maximum potential. On the flip side, you can turn down the tone knob to lose some high-end frequencies and get clean tones.
Can You Use Bridge Pickup at the Neck Position and Vice Versa?
Ever wonder why the pickups are labeled for ‘neck,’ ‘bridge,’ and ‘middle’? It’s because they are designed for that specific position. Although you can put a pickup anywhere, you don’t necessarily get the kind of sound you expect.
Bridge pickups are wound hotter and have more turns to increase the output. So, if you’ll put it in the neck position, you’ll get darker and bassier responses, which couldn’t be good. In the same manner, if you’ll put a neck pickup in the bridge position, thin and fat tone.
A bridge position is designed to have around 4% to 50% more turns when using finer gauges. Hence, manufacturers are really calibrating each pickup to be used in a specific position. Some manufacturers made pickups with the same winding both for neck and bridge positions. Though interchangeable, you’ll get unstable settings, because as you change the amplifier settings for the neck pickup, the bridge will be affected and instead have a thin and less output.
The right pickup for the specific position will help you get a balanced tone. Increased magnetic fields will give more brightness. So, stronger or larger magnets offer more output and sustain. It’s important to be mindful of what kind of pickup you’ll put in its designated position to get great results and not mess up with your guitar.
Electric guitars usually have a neck and bridge pickup. What has transpired in the neck vs bridge pickup discussion is that the former has more bass and rounder response, while the latter is bright and trebly. The neck pickup is primarily used for fingerpicking and getting a clean rhythm, while the bridge pickup is great when you’re playing with a band as it helps you cut through mixes and riffs.
Pickups are designed to be installed in their dedicated position, but it won’t stop you from experimenting. However, you’ll mess your setup and you don’t get the kind of sound that you expect. So, depending on the application and the genre that you want to play, you can utilize the neck pickup, bridge pickup or both.