The output of an electric guitar pickup is an important consideration to make when purchasing a new guitar, or aftermarket pickups. In this article I’ll compare low (aka vintage) output pickups compared to high output pickups and discuss their pros and cons in-depth.
High vs Low Output Overview
High output guitar pickups distort more easily compared to low output pickups because they send a stronger signal to the amplifier. Low output pickups are more sensitive and dynamic, and better for bluesy overdriven tones, whereas high output pickups are often preferred for metal.
|Low Output Pickups||High Output Pickups|
|Sound cleaner and quieter||Sound crunchier and louder|
|More dynamic and sensitive||More compressed and smooth|
|More sustain||Less sustain|
|Preferred for blues/ vintage tones||Preferred for heavy styles e.g. metal|
Difference in Sound
The output of a pickup refers to the level of signal that the pickups send to the amplifier. High output pickups send a stronger signal to the amp compared to low output pickups.
The output of a guitar pickup affects the following:
- How clean/ driven the tone is
- EQ balance
Let’s take a look at each of these factors individually.
Clean vs Driven
Sending a stronger signal to your guitar amp will cause it to sound more distorted. This is as long as the amp is pushed to the edge of breakup or beyond.
In other words, higher output pickups sound “dirtier” as they push the amp into overdrive and distortion more easily compared to lower output pickups which sound cleaner as they don’t drive the amp as hard.
High output pickups sound louder than low output pickups. However, there is a caveat here.
This rule only applies if the amp is not driven enough to get an overdriven/ distorted tone. It must still be within the clean headroom for this to work. Otherwise, the higher output pickup will just sound grittier (as discussed above).
The output of a pickup also affects the EQ balance which refers to the bass, mids and treble frequencies which shape the overall tone.
The effect that output has on this EQ balance really varies depending on how the output of the pickup is achieved (more on this in the next section).
For example, if the output is increased by overwinding the coils, then there will be more bass and mids, but less treble. The result is a looser and warmer sounding pickup with less top end clarity and definition.
On the other hand, if one pickup has a higher output than an other simply due to the type of magnet used, then the EQ balance can range massively depending on the magnets being compared.
For example, alnico II magnets have a lower output than alnico V magnets, but alnico II sounds warmer and looser in comparison to alnico V which sounds tighter and brighter. Hence, in this instance, increasing the output by this method has the opposite effect on the EQ balance compared to increasing the number of coils.
What Affects the Output?
The output of a pickup is affected by several different factors, three of the main ones being:
- Number of coil winds
- Whether it is active or passive
Guitar pickups consist of magnets (one for each string typically) inserted into a bobbin to hold them in place, wire is then wrapped around the magnets. The number of times the wire is wrapped around the magnets (also known as the number of coils) affects the output of the pickup…
More coil windings = higher output
This also affects the EQ of the pickup though. More coil winds results in more mids and bass, but less treble meaning that you can lose clarity, definition and brightness.
Hence why you can’t just wrapped the magnet a load of times just because you want it to have a high output. You also need to consider the magnet and whether the pickup is active or passive.
Check out this comparison between the Gibson Burstbucker 2 and 3. The Burstbucker Type 2 has a lower output, whereas the Type 3 is overwound so has a higher output. The other specifications are pretty much the same for both pickups.
You can hear that the Burstbucker 2 pickups sound brighter as they have more treble compared to the Burstbucker 3 pickups which definitely sound warmer and less defined due to the higher output which increases the mids/ bass but decreases the treble.
There are two main types of magnets used in guitar pickups:
Alnico magnets are often described as being “weaker” compared to ceramic magnets, meaning they have less magnetic pull on the strings and a lower output.
There are also different types of alnico which vary in their output. Here’s the order from the highest to the lowest output:
- Alnico 8
- Alnico 5
- Alnico 4
- Alnico 2
- Alnico 3
Notice there’s no alnico 1, 6, and 7 as these are rarely used in guitar pickups.
As well as affecting the output, the magnet also affects the EQ balance of the pickup.
Check out my article comparing the different types of alnico to learn more.
Active or Passive
In order to still get a high output pickup, but maintain enough treble response to make the pickup sound clear, a popular choice is to go for active pickups.
Active pickups typically have fewer coil windings but use a pre-amp to boost the signal so you get a higher output pickup but with plenty of definition and clarity. This pre-amp is powered by a 9V battery which is inside the pickup.
Active pickups are very popular in the metal scene as they allow you to get a high output but a tight bass response and enough treble to retain clarity when using heavy distortion.
Check out this video comparing active and passive pickup and see if you can guess which is which.
Pros and Cons of Low Output Pickups
One reason why some players prefer lower/ vintage output pickups is because they have less magnetic pull compared to high output pickups, so they don’t restrict the strings vibration as much. The idea here is that if the string can vibrate more, then the sustain is increased.
Another reason why you may want lower output pickups is because it allows you to control the overdrive more. High output pickups push the amp to overdrive more easily, whereas with low output pickups you have to work harder to push the amp, but that can also give the player more control.
Lower output pickups are often described as being more dynamic, so if you dig into the strings you’ll get more variation in the volume/ drive compared to if you pick them more lightly. With higher output pickups some of this sensitivity is lost.
Lower output pickups allow you to achieve that vintage bluesy overdrive that many players absolutely love, and they have no use for searing high output pickups that take subtle overdrive all the way to out and out distortion.
You may also want lower output pickups if you need a lot of clean headroom, meaning you want to be able to increase the volume on your tube amp without pushing it to distortion.
In terms of the drawbacks of low output pickups, you get less volume and also less grit and crunch which can be a problem for some styles of music. Heavy metal for example does not mix as well with low output pickups.
|Good for bluesy overdriven tones||Don’t drive the amp as much|
|Easier to get a clean tone||Not very loud|
|More dynamic and better sustain||Not great for heavy styles e.g. metal|
Pros and Cons of High Output Pickups
If you’re looking to get plenty of saturation and grit, then a high output pickup will typically be the best choice. High output pickups are popular in the hard rock and metal scene for this reason, as they drive the amp as much as possible.
However, overwinding the pickups to achieve this high output is not as common as it causes the pickups to lose clarity and definition, hence why many heavy metal players use active pickups instead of passive pickups as this yields a high output but also plenty of treble.
One drawback of high output pickups is that they are often described as being less sensitive and dynamic meaning you won’t get as much variation in the sound according to how heavily or lightly you pick the strings.
If the pickups have a high output because they are overwound, they can also sound a bit muddy with more bass and mids and less treble so they don’t sound as crisp and clear which can be a disadvantage to a lot of players.
|Great for grittier tones||Can result in loss of clarity if overwound|
|Popular for heavy styles e.g. metal||Not great for vintage/ bluesy tones|
|More consistent and compressed tone||Less sensitive and dynamic|
Pickup Output Examples
Here are some examples of popular low, medium and high output electric guitar pickups. I’ve split these lists up into different brands as the definition of low, medium and high varies between manufacturers and is often used more comparatively.
- Burstbucker Type 1
- Burstbucker Type 2
- Burstbucker Pro Neck
- ’57 Classic
- Burstbucker Pro Bridge
- Burstbucker Type 3
- ’57 Classic Plus
- 70s Tribute
- Pure Vintage
- Pure Vintage
- Vintage Noiseless
- Hot Noiseless
- Deluxe Drive
Seymour Duncan Pickups
- Pearly Gates
- Vintage Blues
- Lipstick Tube
- Custom 5
- Parallel Axis
- Cool Rails
- Hot Stack
- JB Model
- Hot Rails
- Quarter Pound
- Air Classic
- EJ Customm
- Air Zone
- Gravity Storm
- Crunch Lab
- D Activator
- Super Distortion
Bare Knuckle Pickups
- Stormy Monday
- PG Blues
- Riff Raff
- Boot Camp Old Guard
- The Mule
- Black Dog
- Boot Camp True Grit
- Cold Sweat
- Boot Camp Brute Force