If you’ve ever looked at an electric guitar, you may have noticed the big rectangular things that sit underneath the strings on the body of the guitar.
Those things are called pickups, which are used to literally “pick up” the sound of the strings for amplification. Electric guitars often have multiple pickups, and commonly have both a neck pickup and a bridge pickup.
Guitars come in all sorts of configurations, but based on my experiences, there are some general commonalities that they all share when it comes to pickups and their tone.
The neck and bridge pickups on the guitar share the same function (to pick up the string vibrations to be amplified), but due to their placement on the guitar they have different tones and sonic characteristics.
The neck pickup (located near the neck) usually has a softer, rounder tone and is often used for rhythm and soft lead guitar parts. The bridge pickup (located near the bridge) is usually brighter with more treble and presence and is generally more suited for lead lines and solos.
Like many things in music, these are not strict rules but a good starting place when trying to decide on which pickup to use, so feel free to experiment! As the saying goes, “If it sounds good, it is good.”
In the next sections, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between each pickup, and discuss how and when to use each one.
Table of Contents
What is a Guitar Pickup and How Does it Work?
A guitar pickup is a transducer that transforms the vibrations of a metal guitar string into an electrical signal. This electrical signal can then be amplified, using an amplifier (or more commonly called, an amp).
Pickups produce a magnetic field that the guitar strings vibrate in and the movement of the metal strings in this field induces an electrical current that becomes the signal output of the guitar.
If you’re still a bit confused, you can learn about (and see examples of) pickups in our detailed guide on electric guitar parts!
The Difference Between a Neck versus a Bridge Pickup
Deciding which pickup to use will depend on what type of music (genre, specific guitar part, etc.) you are playing and your personal preferences.
Location on the Guitar
As the names suggest, the neck pickup is closer to the neck of the guitar (the part with the frets) and the bridge pickup is closer to the bridge (where the strings connect to the main body of the guitar).
Some guitars also have a middle pickup, which is situated between the neck and the bridge pickups.
Tone/Sound They Produce
The neck pickup generally sounds smoother and rounder, with more mids and less treble and presence than the bridge pickup. The neck pickup is often more suitable for strumming chords and rhythm parts, but can also be used for lead guitar parts where a warmer and rounder sound is desired.
The bridge pickup, by comparison, is generally brighter with more treble and presence. This pickup is often more suitable for lead guitar work, especially when playing with other guitars.
The treble emphasis can help the guitar sound naturally cut through other instruments to be more easily heard.
Because of this, the bridge pickup is often the go-to position for guitars playing solos and lead guitar lines. While you can certainly play chords and rhythm parts with the bridge pickup, the tone will be brighter and can border on harsh if there are other guitars playing with similar tones.
Read More: How to Make Your Guitar Sound Metal
Pickups are made from magnets and copper coils. The two common types of magnets found in pickups are alnico and ceramic magnets. There are 5 types of alnico magnets that are used, each offering different tonal nuances.
Pickups are sold individually as well as in sets. They can range in price from about $100 per pickup to several hundred for a boutique pickup, however, most fall in the $100-150 range per pickup.
If you have some experience and are handy with a soldering iron, this can be a great way to change the tone of your guitar yourself. If you’d rather leave it to the pro’s, your local music store or luthier should also be able to install them (usually for an additional cost).
When to Use a Bridge versus Neck Pickup
When I am trying to decide on which pickup to use, I will play the part with each pickup and then decide which tone I prefer. As a general starting point, I will use each pickup in these scenarios:
- Neck: rhythm/ strummed chords, soft solos, lead lines that blend with the music
- Bridge: heavier solos, loud and clear lead melody lines
Keeping these generalities in mind, you can decide for yourself which pickup is the most appropriate for what you are playing.
There are no hard and fast rules for which pickup should be used in every situation, so you are encouraged to use your own preferences to guide you to use whatever you think sounds best.
Experimenting and finding what tones you prefer is a vast and exciting part of playing guitar!
How to Switch Between a Bridge versus Neck Pickup
Selecting pickups is generally done by toggling a switch on the body of the guitar. There are a few common styles of switches found on most guitars.
In this section, we’ll go over the most common types of switches, how to select the desired pickup, and how to troubleshoot your switch.
Gibson/Epiphone and Gretsch Style Guitars
Some guitar manufacturers, such as Gibson/ Epiphone use a 3-way switch in an up/down orientation. The up and down positions are labeled as Rhythm and Treble.
- To select the neck pickup, flip the switch to the Rhythm/ up position.
- To select the bridge pickup, flip the switch to the Treble/ down position.
- To select a blend of both pickups, flip the switch to the middle position.
Fender, Ibanez and Other Stratocaster/Telecaster Style Guitars
Most common Fender guitars (such as Stratocasters and Telecasters) and Fender style guitars use either a 3-way or 5-way switch (ie. three positions or five positions).
The 3-way switches are usually used for Telecasters and other two-pickup guitars (neck and bridge), and the 5-way switches are typically used for Stratocasters and other three-pickup guitars (neck, middle and bridge).
Unlike the Gibson style switches that point up/ down, the Fender style switches generally “point” to the pickup that is selected.
For example, on a two-pickup Telecaster, there will likely be a 3-way switch.
- To select the neck pickup, move the switch so the tip is pointing towards the neck.
- To select the bridge pickup, move the switch so the tip is pointing towards the bridge.
- To select a blend of both pickups, move the switch to the middle position.
Another common pickup arrangement can be found on the Stratocaster, which has three pickups: neck, middle and bridge.
These use a 5-way switch that also “point” towards the pickup or pickups that are selected. Starting at position 1 (which points towards the neck) moving towards position 5 (which points towards the bridge), the switch arrangement is (generally) as follows:
- Position 1 (points towards the neck): selects neck pickup
- Position 2: blends neck and middle pickup
- Position 3 (the middle switch position): selects middle pickup
- Position 4: blends middle and bridge pickup
- Position 5 (points towards the bridge): selects bridge pickup
Troubleshooting Your Guitar Pickup Switch
If your guitar does not follow these general configurations (or if you’ve smacked your switch into some unknown orientation doing windmills like I did on my Les Paul), there are a few simple ways to check which pickup corresponds to which switch position.
Method 1 – Toggle The Volume Knobs
This method only works for guitar models where the neck pickup and bridge pickup each have their own volume adjustments (such as on a Gibson/ Epiphone Les Paul or SG style guitar).
These guitars have four knobs: two volume knobs (the top set of knobs) and two tone knobs (the bottom set of knobs).
When holding the guitar and looking down on the knobs, the knobs on the left control the volume and tone for the neck pickup and knobs on the right control the volume and tone for the bridge pickup.
You can also associate the knobs with the part of the guitar that they are closer to: the knobs on the left are closer to the neck (therefore control the neck pickup), and the knobs on the right are closer to the bridge (therefore control the bridge pickup).
This method verifies that your switch is in the correct orientation:
- Plug your guitar into your amp and turn your amp on. Put your switch into a position the up position that we will call Position 1. Turn all of the knobs fully clockwise (fully on).
- Strum a chord and make sure you can hear it on your amp. Turn down the neck volume knob (the top knob that is closest to the neck) and strum another chord. If there is no guitar sound coming from the amp with only this knob turned down, then the switch is in the correct orientation: up selects the neck pickup, and down selects the bridge pickup.
- If the switch is in the up position and the left set of knobs does not affect the volume or tone, then your switch may be upside down. Move on to Method 2 to further test this hypothesis.
Method 2 – Touch The Pickup With Something Metal
- Plug your guitar into your amp and turn your amp on. Put your switch into a position that we will call Position 1 and make sure your volume knob is all the way up on your guitar.
- Take something metal, like a screwdriver, a piece of cutlery, etc. and gently tap the pole of the neck pickup (the pole is the magnetic circular part of the pickup directly under the string, you should feel the pole “pull” the metal piece towards it). Note if you hear a soft pop/ thud from your amp. A pop/ thud indicates that the pickup you touched is selected!
- Next, tap the poles on the adjacent pickup(s) with your piece of metal. Note if you hear a pop/ thud from your amp.
- Make note of which pickups pop/ thud when touched in each position. Many switches have in-between settings where both pickups are engaged (ie. the mid position on 3-way switches and positions two and four on 5-way switches). If multiple pickups make a pop/thud in the same switch position, then the pickups are blended when that position is selected.
If you can’t tell, or can’t hear anything from your amp when touching either pickups’ pole, check that your guitar and amp volumes are up. Strum a chord and make sure the pickup and amp are working. Also, make sure you are touching the pickup pole, and that you are touching it with a piece of metal. Plastic, wood, etc. will not work!
If you still can’t tell which pickup is selected, move on to Method 3.
Method 3 – Use Your Ears
This may not be the most reliable method, but learning the general tone of each pickup on your guitar is a very useful skill to have. As long as the pickups are matched or are the original stock pickups, this general rule can apply:
The neck pickup will sound rounder and a bit smoother with more mid frequency emphasis, and less treble/ high frequencies.
The bridge pickup will sound brighter and “pokier”, with more presence or high-mid frequency emphasis.
Guitar pickups are one of many factors that affect the overall tone of your electric guitar. Knowing which one to use in any situation is a valuable skill for guitarists to develop.
Understanding the difference between each pickup on your guitar and how to access them will help you get the sound you want and will add to the enjoyment and nuance of your playing.