Everyone knows that the pickups in an electric guitar are super important when it comes to determining how they sound. There are plenty of different pickup types, like humbuckers, P90’s and single coils, which all produce different kinds of tones.
But what about the number of pickups? Why do some guitars have only one pickup, and others have two or three? It’s hard to know what the best option is for you, when there’s plenty of choice out there.
So in this article I’ll go through the pros and cons of guitars with one, two and three pickups, so you can decide which option to go for. So let’s get started!
The Quick Answer
Having three pickups on your guitar, makes it more versatile than having only one or two pickups. However, the middle pickup can tend to get in the way when strumming the strings.
Two pickup guitars are a happy medium, because you still get plenty of versatility, but you won’t usually end up hitting your pick on the pickup when strumming.
One pickup designs are very simple and uncomplicated to use, but they don’t give you much versatility when it comes to altering your tone using only your guitar, and not your amp settings.
There are plenty of guitars out there that have three pickups. The most notable, is the Fender Stratocaster, which has three single coils. But there are also plenty of other guitars which use a three pickup configuration. Brands like Ibanez, often use a mixture of single coil and humbucker pickups.
Superstrat guitars, also use a three pickup configuration, which is usually a H-S-S design, meaning there’s a humbucker in the bridge, and single coils in the neck and middle positions.
You’ll rarely see guitars with three humbuckers though, except for the Epiphone Les Paul Black Beauty, and some limited edition Gibson SG and Les Paul guitars.
So what are the pros and cons of three pickup guitars?
The main advantage of having three pickups on an electric guitar, is that it gives you more versatility. It gives you a lot more flexibility when it comes to choosing the types of pickups you have on your guitar as well.
Take the Superstrat guitar for example. Having a humbucker in the bridge position, and single coils in the middle and neck positions, gives you tonnes of versatility and potential for producing different kinds of tones.
You can use the bridge for high gain punchy riffs and power chords, and then use the single coils when you need some more brightness and sharpness to your tone.
As well as being able to fit more pickup types into your guitar, you also get more pickup selection options. For example, with a two pickup design, you get three possible pickup selections: the bridge pickup alone, the neck pickup alone, and both in combination.
But with three pickup designs, you get five possible pickup selections:
- Bridge pickup alone
- Bridge and middle pickup in combination
- Middle pickup alone
- Middle and neck pickup in combination
- Neck pickup alone
This is super useful and gives you more options and versatility. It’s what makes the Fender Stratocaster such a great guitar, because positions 2 and 4 give you a really balanced but unique tone.
So if three pickup designs give you so much added versatility, why don’t all guitars have them then? Well, unfortunately, having three pickups does come with it’s disadvantages.
The most significant disadvantage of three pickup guitars, is that the pickups almost always get in the way when you’re playing. It’s super common to see the middle pickup with tonnes of scratch marks from hitting it with the pick. Not only does it look bad, but it get’s in the way when you’re actually playing.
To combat this issue, a lot of guitarists actually lower the middle pickup, to move it out of the way. But if you do this, then the output will of course decrease, in comparison to the neck and bridge pickup. So if you feel the need to do this, then you might just be better off with two pickups.
Another thing to consider, is the looks of the guitar. The Strat, and most other guitars with either all single coils, or one or two humbuckers in a three pickup configuration, look absolutely fine.
But in my opinion, guitars with three humbuckers, look pretty terrible. They’re all your eyes are drawn to, and it just makes the body of the guitar look crowded. But I’m sure there are plenty of guitarists out there which really like this look. It’s all personal preference.
The vast majority of electric guitars, have two pickups. The famous Gibson Les Paul, has two humbuckers, positioned close the the bridge and neck. And the Fender Telecaster, has two single coils.
So let’s talk about the pros and cons of having two pickups on your guitar.
Having two pickups, is kind of like a happy medium. You get enough versatility for most situations, and you don’t get the middle pickup getting in the way when you’re playing.
Having two pickups position at either end of the body, gives you pretty much all the tonal variation you need. If you want a brighter and sharper tone, with more emphasis on the treble, then you can use the bridge pickup. And if you want a warmer and more mellow tone, then you can switch to the neck pickup.
Want something in between? Then just use the middle pickup selector, so you get a balance between the two.
It’s very rare that you need more variety than this. And if you feel the need to adjust the warmth or brightness, then you can just tweak this on your amplifier, or use the tone control on your guitar.
So are there any disadvantages of having two pickups on your guitar?
The only one I can really think of, is that it’s not quite as versatile as having three pickups. This is less of an issue if you want a guitar that only has one type of pickups, for example two humbuckers. But it may be an issue if you want multiple pickup types on your guitar.
With two pickup configurations, you’ll usually find that both pickups are the same type. Although some guitars do have a humbucker in the bridge, and a single coil in the neck position, or vice-versa, this is less common.
You may have to shop around a bit more for a guitar with different pickup types, if you only want two pickups instead of three.
One pickup designs, are the least commonly found. However, there are still some guitars out there that have this design.
The PRS SE One Korina, has just one humbucker in the bridge position. The Les Paul junior has one P90 pickup, again in the bridge position. The Gibson ES-150, has just pickup, but this time in the neck position.
So what difference does this make? Why do some guitars have only one pickup?
The advantages surrounding one pickup designs, are pretty debated.
There’s some belief that having just one pickup in the bridge position, makes it sound even more bright, than if the neck pickup was present as well. However, this isn’t an exact science.
The main reason that single pickup guitars were invented, was because they cut down the cost of manufacturing, not because they added anything to the tone specifically.
There’s also a lot less wiring and routing that goes on with only having one pickup. This is a potential advantage, because there’s less that can go wrong and break with this design.
The main advantage of only having one pickup, in my opinion, is that you’re very unlikely to hit it with your pick when playing. It’s usually far out of the way, and gives you more room to pluck where you want to on the strings.
It can also be said that the simplicity of a single pickup guitar is an advantage. It does make them easy to use, and uncomplicated.
The most obvious disadvantage of having only one pickup on your guitar, is that it really limits the versatility when it comes to pickup selection.
You can’t switch between pickup positions to brighten your tone, or make it more mellow. Instead you have to use the tone control on your guitar itself, or use your amplifier.
This can be pretty annoying if you are used to having two pickups and being able to switch up your tone with just the flick of a switch.
I’ve written a complete buyer’s guide for electric guitars which takes you through all the things you need to consider and a step-by-step method to narrowing down your selection and choosing the best option. Here is a link to the article.
So there you go! That’s the difference between guitars with two and three pickup configurations! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful: