Underwound or Overwound | Which Pickup Is Best For Me?
“Do you want more power, or more definition? More bite or more warmth?”
Pickups. The heart and soul of an electric guitar. Shrouded in mythology and widely misunderstood.
Two of the buzzwords you see frequently discussed in guitar articles and forums are underwound and overwound pickups. Many people espouse the benefits of these mysterious objects, but what are they and what’s all the fuss about?
Electric guitar pickup fundamentals
Put simply, a pickup is made up of 3 main elements:
- The bobbin
- A magnet
- Copper wire
The magnet sits either within or underneath the bobbin, around which thousands of turns of fine copper wire are wrapped. This basic design allows for almost endless variations, but assuming the pickup bobbin remains the same, the main changes that can be made are:
- To use a weaker or stronger magnet (AlNiCo II – VIII or ceramic); and/or
- To use more or less windings of copper wire around the bobbin
The two main types of pickup
Single coil pickups
Single coil pickups are based on having just one bobbin with one magnet per string located within the bobbin. This assembly is called a coil – and in this case there’s only one, hence the moniker ‘single coil’. Good examples of this are the pickups used in a Fender Stratocaster or the P90 ‘soap bar’ and ‘dog ear’ pickups used in early Gibson models.
The standard number of windings around a Fender Stratocaster single-coil bobbin was around 8,000.
‘Hum-bucking’ pickups were invented in the 50s by electronics guru Seth Lover while working at Gibson, in response to issues that guitarists were having with electrical interference from lighting and appliances invading their performances and recordings. He found that by placing two single coil pickups side by side and wiring them ‘out of phase’ the annoying electrical hum was eliminated.
The standard number of windings around a Gibson humbucker bobbin was around 5,000 (per bobbin).
So what do underwound and overwound mean?
Now that we understand what a pickup is, how it functions and what the standard number of turns (or winds) of copper around it are, we can get to the bottom of the underwound/overwound puzzle.
Regardless of the type of pickup, the same principle applies:
- Reduce the amount of turns (or windings) around a coil from the standard number and you’ll have an under wound pickup
- Conversely if you add more turns, you will have an over wound pickup
What are the characteristics and benefits of underwound and overwound pickups?
For years I was confused when I looked at Seymour Duncan’s tone charts and noticed that often the pickups marked ‘Pro’ seemed to have a lower output than their other comparable models. Surely the pro guitarist would want just as much power as the bedroom player? It wasn’t until I started experimenting with making my own pickups that I understood that as you increase one characteristic of a pickup, another is diminished.
The bottom line here is that the pickups we’ve come to know in old Fenders and Gibsons were likely made that way for a reason. It’s kind of like the way a car manufacturer builds vehicles. They test and trial what combination of components will give the best balance of economy, performance, driveability and durability for the majority of their customers’ requirements. It’s in customisation for individual requirements that changes are made to the blueprint. Do you want more power, or more definition? More bite or more warmth?
Underwound pickups have more sensitivity to variations in pick attack. You can make an underwound pickup sing sweetly or bite like a brown snake just by varying how you play. Conversely, their overwound cousins offer more gain and provide a ‘smoother ride’ – meaning that you don’t have to be as conscious of how hard you dig the pick in to produce a consistent result.
Other useful facts:
- The stronger the magnet, the brighter and at times more brittle the tone. AlNiCo II is warm and subtle; ceramic magnets are more aggressive and have an increased treble response.
- Underwinding increases treble, overwinding reduces it
- Chrome covers also reduce treble
- The thickness of the copper wire has a sizeable effect on the overall tone and gain
The Final Word
So what kind of pickup is right for you? It’s all down to what you want to do with it. You can’t have everything in one pickup (although you can come close with a graduated set of 2 or 3), so you must decide what’s most important. More than likely this will be dictated by the style of music you’re playing, how you play, your level of right-hand proficiency and if you’re playing in a band where others in the band sit in the mix. Understand these factors and begin the journey towards discovering your tonal holy grail.