The 50s and then the 60s saw the electric guitar become the dominant instrument in music. But it wasn’t in the 50s that it first reared its head. First created in 1932, it became an important part of the Jazz setup from then on.
Soon, others took it on, and we saw it spread into other genres. T-Bone Walker and Les Paul were notable early users. But nothing could have prepared us for what was about to happen. The world was about to change, and it had nothing to do with politicians.
The Driving Force
Some say it was the 50s rock n roll era that drove its development. Some say it was the electric guitar that opened the door to the rock n rollers like Buddy Holly. I tend to think they fed off each other, driving each other on.
That said, the advent of guitar pickups certainly made all of these things possible. Furthermore, having bridge and neck pickup differences explained will shed more light on how we got to where we are today. But first, let’s get our foundations sorted out.
If you look at rock and associated genres today, two men were responsible for what we’ve got. Leo Fender on one continent and 5,500 miles away Jim Marshall in London. Leo gave us those early guitars. “Big Jim,” the volume.
Leo was “The Man” that gave us an electric solid body that could be just plugged in. It evolved into the Telecaster and was quickly followed by the Stratocaster. Those two instruments, followed by his Precision bass, set the groundwork for the music we hear today. The leap from “How much is that Doggy in the Window” to what we have was abrupt but quite outstanding.
The Telecaster had two pickups, one at the neck and one at the bridge; The Strat had three with an extra one placed in the middle. We are going to look at the differences between neck and bridge pickups. And there is quite a difference.
Not Just Differences, but Variations
As we shall see, there are differences in guitar pickup sounds, either in the neck or bridge positions. But another variation is the type of pickup that is installed.
Leo Fender’s first electric guitar was the Esquire. It had a choice of one or two pickups. A revised version followed with a truss rod and two pickups called the Broadcaster.
Introduced in 1950, it had to change its name after Gretsch complained as they had a drumkit with the same name. It then became the Telecaster. A name and a legend that still reverberates around the world of guitars and music in general.
Single-coil to Humbucker
The Telecaster, along with the Stratocaster that followed in ‘54, was fitted with single-coil pickups. Great sound, but they did have that “60 cycle hum”. In 1957, at the NAMM show, both Gibson and Gretsch turned up to show off their guitars that had pickups that “bucked the hum.” Or Humbuckers as they became known.
I am not sure they were actually aware of what they had discovered. Seth Lover had created the Gibson version, and the rest is history. Having Humbuckers or Single-coils in the neck or bridge position is going to give you a different sound.
Pickups Designed for their Position
Pickups are made to perform at their best depending on the position they are intended to fit. The design is based on the output and the resonant frequencies. The reason for different guitar pickup designs is based on how the pickup reacts to the strike when the string is hit.
The Placement of the Pickup
Where you put the pickup will determine to a large extent the sound you will get. We will look at this a bit closer later. But, when you pluck or strike a string, the amplitude is greater in the neck position than the bridge position.
Amplitude is measured from a position of equilibrium and measures the amount of vibration. As the neck position has more “movement” compared with the bridge position, the amplitude is greater. Hence the different sounds between the two positions.
Let’s take a quick look at the construction of neck and bridge pickups. They are, in fact, both practically the same. They both have cylindrical pole pieces or magnets. Both are wound with copper wire. However, the difference in the construction comes in the calibration of this wire.
To give the bridge pickup more power, there are more turns of wire. This makes it “hotter,” meaning more output. This is done because of the smaller string amplitude to give the two pickups some balance. The neck pickup has fewer turns of wire, thus reducing the output.
Different basic design features
Part of the sound collection process of the pickup is the volume produced by the string. As the amplitude is different for neck and bridge pickups, each must be designed to accommodate this to achieve “balance” between them.
Pickups that are closer to the bridge are designed to give you more output. Because they are receiving less amplitude, therefore, you can say that the bridge pickup is designed to give you slightly more volume. A “hotter” sound than you will get from the neck pickup.
This is why, to get the best results, pickups should be placed in their intended positions. They are designed to do different things. Let’s look a bit closer so we can have bridge and neck pickup differences explained in greater detail.
The Sound from the Bridge Pickup
One of the first things you will notice about the bridge pickup is its tone. Whether you use a single coil or a humbucker, it is going to be brighter and sharper. It is going to have more high frequencies than the neck.
This is a natural result of it being closer to the bridge where the string is “tighter.” Of course, manufacturers emphasize this sharper sound to varying degrees to create their own distinct-sounding pickups.
What is the Bridge Pickup Best Used For?
It is going to provide you with a sound that is going to be heard. Additionally, it’s going to cut through the sound of the band, especially when you use overdrive. It is a very treble-based sound, and it is responsible for many of those riffs that you are familiar with. Especially those riffs played with a humbucker at the bridge.
One thing you might have to be careful of is what you do with the tone control. Some players like to have it up to the maximum. But it is likely you won’t need that, or the top-end will be excessive.
Single-coil or Humbucker
The results, if not the sound, will be the same for both. With the single coil, you are going to still get the treble-loaded sound. The Bridge pickup is going to kick a bit. It is going to be brighter and sharper, whichever type of pickup you use, courtesy of its position.
The Neck Pickup Sound
Moving to the neck, we find that the string tension is not so tight. Therefore, it will vibrate with a larger amplitude. This creates a rounder sound, less bright and quite mellow, a tone with less attack to it.
This sound is going to have to be “managed” somewhat. Because while in my book it is a superior overall sound, it can become muddy. If you play a lot of power chords, then it is an area where you will need to be careful and manage the tone.
What you tend to get from the neck pickup is a “bigger” sound. The frequencies from the lower end give it a more rounded sound than you will get from the bridge.
What is the Neck pickup best used for?
You will find it being used for sounds that need clarity. Fingerpicking is one, also rhythms that are clean-sounding. This is where the single-coil vs. humbucker pickups debate favors the former. Clarity is not always the first thing you think of when talking about a humbucker played with any volume.
Furthermore, you will find it in a lot of Jazz-type solos where a sharper tone is not a good idea. They need that “rolled-back” feel that is not aggressive.
Oh yes, that is what prompted me to say, I found it superior. There have been some great solos played using the neck pickup. And some great players used the neck most of the time.
Richie Blackmore was one with both Deep Purple and Rainbow, Jimi Hendrix, another who often used it. Robin Trower based his sound around the neck pickup. Those three heavyweights were, of course, using a Stratocaster.
But for those with a Les Paul, one song does stand out. One of the “great” solos was played on a neck pickup on a Les Paul, “Still Got the Blues” by Gary Moore.
The Neck pickup has its place
There is no doubt it has its place on the guitar, and there are some that have maximized what it can do.
The Difference Exists
Some do experiment by switching pickup locations around and having neck at the bridge, and bridge at the neck. However, the standard format is still the one that works best.
Generally speaking, the bridge is sharper and cuts through more. It is good for riffs, solos, and power chords. The neck can also be used for soloing but with far less attack and a much warmer sound. The neck will also be better for clean rhythms.
Thinking of a pickup upgrade? Well, here are some excellent options. For the neck, Seymour Duncan SHR-1 Hot Rails Single-Coil Sized Humbucker Neck Pickup. A great one for the bridge, Seymour Duncan SL591B Little 59 Strat Bridge Pickup. And for the neck and bridge of a Telecaster, ASCENDAS TC5&TM5- Single Coil Vintage Guitar Pickups Set Neck and Bridge.
Looking for more great Guitar Pickup options?
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Also, have a look at our detailed Seymour Duncan Black Winter Review, our Seymour Duncan SH8 Invader Review, our Seymour Duncan JB Humbucker Pickup Review, our Seymour Duncan 59 Model Review, and our EMG JH James Hetfield Electric Guitar Pickup Set Review for more awesome items currently available.
Bridge and Neck Pickup Differences Explained – Final Thoughts
I would like to finish this discussion by making a simple observation. It’s not really about what each pickup is used for. Rather, it is more about what “you” will use them for. That is the real difference. Now, go make some noise.
And until next time, let your music play.