Understanding Guitar Pickup Resistance and How to Choose the Right One

The science of sound in a guitar pickup is a fascinating field that explores how sound waves are created, transmitted, and perceived by humans. Understanding pickup resistance is crucial for achieving the desired tone and sound quality from your guitar.

What is Pickup Resistance and Why Does it Matter?

Pickup resistance measures the amount of electrical resistance in a guitar’s pickups. This measurement affects the output level and tonal characteristics of your guitar. The higher the resistance, the more output you will get from your pickups, resulting in a brighter tone Lower resistance pickups produce less output but have a warmer tone.

How to Measure Guitar Pickup Resistance

In a guitar pickup, resistance measures the amount of opposition to the flow of electrical current through the wire coils that pick up the guitar’s vibrations. To measure guitar pickup resistance, you will need a multimeter that can measure resistance in ohms. There are two types of multimeters you can use: analog and digital. Analog meters have a needle that moves across a scale, while digital meters display the resistance value on a digital screen.

Some multimeters have automatic Ohms resistance but others require you to select the range.  For measuring guitar pickups you will select the 20,000 or 20k ohms range on your multimeter.

To measure resistance, set the multimeter to the resistance measurement mode (usually indicated by an ohm symbol). Touch the multimeter probes to the two leads of the pickup. If you have a single-coil pickup, you should see a resistance reading between 5,000 and 10,000 ohms. For humbucker pickups, you should see a resistance reading between 7,000 and 17,000 ohms.

Measuring Multiple Pickups After They are Installed

If you want to test the resistance of multiple pickups that are already installed, you can use a selector switch to switch between pickups while measuring the resistance with the multimeter and the guitar cable.  Here is how you do this.

Plug in your guitar cable to the output jack of you car.  Use the selector switch to select the pickup you want to measure.  Now touch one probe at the very end of the male jack end (tip) and the other probe around the bottom of the jack (sleeve).  It doesn’t matter which probe you use because you are measuring the resistance of the connection.

Choosing the Right Pickup Resistance for Your Guitar

When selecting a pickup for your guitar, consider factors such as playing style, musical genre preference, and personal taste. If you play rock or metal music that requires high gain levels, choose high-resistance humbuckers for maximum output power.  Distortion sounds more saturated when you have high output and pickup up higher ranges of the treble tone.

For jazz or blues styles that require warm tones with less distortion, low-resistance, low output pickups are often better.

Tone of single coil pickups vs. tone of humbuckers

The tone of single coil pickups is often described as bright, clear, and twangy, with a sharp attack and a wide frequency range. They are known for their clarity and definition, making them popular for genres like country, blues, and surf rock. However, they can also be susceptible to noise and interference, particularly in high-gain settings.

Humbuckers, on the other hand, are known for their warm, thick, and smooth tone. They are designed to cancel out the hum and noise that single coils are prone to, resulting in a quieter signal. Humbuckers also have a higher output, which can give them more sustain and a fuller sound. They are popular in genres like rock, metal, and jazz, where a thicker, more powerful tone is desired.

Since humbucker use multiple coils, you don’t want to compare their output to a single coil. Always compare single coil to single coil and then humbucker to humbucker.

Pickup resistance and Tone

Understanding pickup resistance will help you find the desired sound from your guitar. Just keep in mind that higher output doesn’t always mean better. I’ve heard high output humbuckers that sounded muddy with a lower output humbucker that sounded much better. Still it helps to get an idea of what resistance means, so you can achieve optimal tonal characteristics that suit your needs as a musician.

Rob Z

Got my first guitar in 1987, took lessons and played nonstop. Spent some time in hard rock and metal bands in the 1990s. I eventually switched to acoustic guitars only and rarely played for years. I got back into electric guitars when my daughter began playing in 2018. I now collect way too much gear.
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