Your guitar pickup positions can be really confusing for beginners, but today we are going to take a look at which pickup positions do what, and how they are usually used.
Guitar Pickup Positions: The Beginner’s Mystery
I get this question from students so often, that I thought it was time to write an article about it. I have had 13 year old students ask about the guitar pickup positions, as well as some students older than me! They ask what the difference is, and why do we even have so many options? The answer lies in the design of the electric guitar itself, and different positions can change your whole sound.
Modifying your guitar with different pickups, and different wiring has taken off in popularity over the last 30 years. Guitarists in the past often bought a guitar, and just used it as-is since there were not many aftermarket options. The 1980’s saw all kinds of innovations, and now it is almost standard to swap out some parts on your guitar. But if you are a beginner, it is important to figure out how guitar pickup positions work, at a base level, before you start ripping stuff out.
My very first guitar was an absolutely terrible Stratocaster knockoff that cost about $90 at the time, in 1993. That would still only be the equivalent of about $180.00 today (adjusted for inflation), so this was a cheap guitar for sure. Budget guitars were not as nice as they are these days! Later on, I got something much nicer when I delved into Epiphone territory. I will always remember that first guitar though, because it had a 5-way pickup selector.
I had no idea what the 5 positions did at all. I knew that two of them eliminated a lot of the hum coming from the single coil pickups, just from experimenting. But I had no idea how it was working, or what the positions are used for. Today we are going to tackle what the different positions on classic electric guitars do, and how to use them. Even if you don’t own one of these classic style guitars, chances are your guitar works in a similar way.
There are a lot of different ways to wire a guitar and change the sound, and we have already talked about the tone and volume knobs. But most guitars come with guitar pickup positions to choose from, as well. These two type of pickup configurations are what you will find on most beginner guitars, and most guitars in general. The pickup selectors also work pretty much the same, no matter what kind of guitar you have.
But what about the guitar pickup positions themselves? Why does the neck pickup sound so vastly different than the bridge pickup? This comes down to physics, and how the string vibrates. So before we dive into the pickup switches/selectors, let’s look at the common places pickups are positioned. Where you place the pickup on the body of a guitar can change the sound immensely, and every millimeter counts!
Let’s take a look at the main pickup positions for any guitar.
Guitar Pickup Positions: How Are They Different?
Today we are going to go over the two most common configurations for electric guitar pickup positions, and talk about what they are generally used for. But I think it is important to understand WHY the pickups sound so different. A Les Paul might have the same two types of humbuckers in it, so why do they sound so vastly different when you move the switch?
The guitar pickup positions have a lot to do with their physical placement on the body of the instrument. A pickup is basically a microphone for your guitar strings right? If we use that analogy, then think about how a microphone works. If you hold the microphone close to your mouth, it is louder and has more bass response right? But if you pull it away from your mouth, it starts to lose volume, bass, and has more high end.
Look, I’m no physics professor, so bear with me here.
The guitar has a “voice” just like you do, and the guitar pickup positions have different sounds in the same way. The “voice” is how resonant the guitar is, as well as how the strings ring out. Lots of factors make up the “voice” of your guitar, but at the most simple level, it comes down to the strings vibrating. This vibration is what the pickups amplify, like a microphone.
The neck pickup sounds muddier and has more bass, because the strings are more elastic towards the neck, making them ring out/vibrate more. This is like holding the microphone close to you mouth. The neck pickup is picking up more string movement, as the strings have more room to vibrate. This is why the neck pickup has more bass response.
The bridge pickup has more treble, because the strings are not vibrating the same near the bridge of the guitar. Take your pick, and strum as close to the bridge as you can. It has almost a sitar sound to it, right? The strings are not ringing out as much, the closer you get to the bridge. This increases the treble frequency drastically, and your bridge pickup “picks up” that sound. But it can actually be a little more complex than that…
Lots of things factor into this. The scale length of the guitar has an effect on how much the strings ring out, and where the pickups are positioned. Likewise, having 22 or 24 frets also has an effect on where the pickup physically sits. The wood resonating when you strum the guitar also has an effect, as well as the thickness of the strings. There is so much that goes into the guitar pickup positions, and why they sound the way they do!
But the easiest way to explain it is: The Closer to the neck you get, the more bass response since the strings have more room to ring out. The closer to the bridge you get, the less room you have for the strings to vibrate, resulting in a more treble-focused sound. This goes for humbuckers and single coils alike.
Pickup manufacturers always take guitar pickup positions into account when designing a pickup. If you see that a pickup is labeled “for the bridge” it probably has a higher output. The neck pickup is usually lower output since it is closer to the vibration of the strings. The more vibration you have, the less output you need to boost all of the frequencies, just like your voice and a microphone. I knew I could tie together the microphone metaphor!
Early hollow body electric guitars in the 1940’s only had one pickup, and it was in the neck position. Later on, with solid body/semi hollow guitars in particular, the bridge position was added. Some metal and hard rock guitarists only use the bridge pickup, like Eddie Van Halen did with his original “FrankenStrat”. That’s why you see so many metal guitars that only have a bridge pickup. Usually it is a humbucker in the bridge position.
Country guitarists also favor the single-pickup guitar style, usually with a single coil instead of a humbucker. This gives them the signature “twang” that you hear in so many country guitar solos. The original Fender Telecaster was called the Broadcaster, and it was famous for having just one single coil in the bridge position. Brad Paisley is a great player and example of a lone single coil bridge pickup enthusiast.
Having 24 frets also changes the sound of the instrument, and the guitar pickup positions. This puts the neck pickup just slightly closer to the bridge of the guitar. You may not think a few millimeters may change the tone when it comes to guitar pickup positions. But technically, the neck pickup IS closer to the bridge, making it have a little more treble. For this reason, many people prefer a 22 fret guitar, to have the neck pickup in the “proper” position. But both are just options, and it is totally up to the player.
The key takeaway here is: The bridge pickup gets you a snappy, bright, twangy sound that is treble focused due to being closer to the bridge. The bridge pickup cuts through the mix better, which is why it is favored by metal players. The neck pickup is warm and has more bass response because it is closer to the neck. The neck position works great for smooth solo tones, and warm jazz tones alike.
So now we know how the guitar pickup positions work when it comes to where the pickups physically sit, but what about switching between the different options? There are two main examples of how pickup switch deigns work. Some guitars may work completely different, but I think that most guitars fall into these two categories. So let’s take a look at switching between the guitar pickup positions, and when to use the different positions.
Guitar Pickup Positions: Dual Humbucker/3 Way Switch
When it comes to guitar pickup positions, one of the most famous and easiest to learn is the Les Paul style. This is usually a dual humbucker setup, with a 3 position switch. On some dual humbucker models, you might find that the switch is up on the top, or down by the knobs. Either way, it does the exact same thing. You have three positions to choose from:
- Only The Bridge Humbucker
- Both Humbuckers Blended
- Only The Neck Humbucker
On a Les Paul, the “poker chip” piece under the switch is actually a little bit deceptive when it comes to describing the pickups. The poker chip usually says “Treble/Rhythm” in gold lettering. While the neck pickup can be used for rhythm playing, it rarely is. The treble description is more accurate for the bridge position, since the bridge humbucker will not be as thick sounding as the neck humbucker.
You don’t just find 3 way switches on a Les Paul, though. You may also find them on a Telecaster, SG, Explorer, PRS Guitars, or any Semi-Hollow guitar. Just about any guitar that only has 2 pickups will have a 3 way switch. Only having three guitar pickup positions to choose from, may seem limiting at first, but it is a more versatile setup than you might think. Most Epiphone/Gibson guitars use a 3 way switch.
The 3 way switches almost always work with the three guitar pickup positions mentioned above. I am going to explain to you how these are generally used, but there is no rule that they have to be used this way. If you get the sound that you want from a particular pickup, then by all means…use it!
The first position (all the way up) is almost always the neck humbucker only. The neck humbucker is always going to have more bass, and less clarity than the bridge. I like using the neck position for clean tones, and for solos. The neck humbucker sounds smoother, and has more bass response to it. This makes it perfect for guitar solos if you want a vocal-like quality to your tone. Turning down the tone knob on the neck pickup makes it even fatter, and smoother under distortion.
The middle position is both humbuckers at the same time. Now logic would make you think that this position is going to be louder, but it isn’t. It is a blend of both pickups, and this is my favorite position for clean rhythm sounds. This is also a good choice for playing solos, as it gives you more treble/clarity than just the neck pickup alone. Gary Moore was famous for using this position to get his lead tones, and he later modified the wiring to accent this.
The bridge position might sound a little bit… frail to you at first. This is not the case, since most metal players will use the bridge pickup to get that famous chug sound. The bridge pickups provides the clarity and output you need for playing heavy chords, making it perfect for rhythm guitar parts. Just about every metal riff you hear is played on the bridge position, and usually with a humbucker. The bridge also cuts through the mix, making it good for solos too.
Now some dual pickup guitars also have something called a “coil tap” that splits the humbuckers into a single coil pickup. This makes the 3 way switch even more versatile, since you get 6 sounds instead of just 3 when you pull the coil tap switch. But the basic premise is always the same: The neck pickup has more bass/less output, and the bridge pickup has more treble/output.
Like I said, you may get a excellent rhythm tone that you like from the neck pickup. There is nothing wrong with that at all, since guitar is all about experimenting. The ways I have described the pickups to be used is just how most players use the guitar pickup positions. Some players only use the bridge pickup, and never use the neck at all. Phil X is famous for removing the neck pickup from his guitars completely!
A good example of a player that uses all of the guitar pickup positions is Slash, who favors a Les Paul. His lead tone is built on using the neck pickup for solos, with the tone knob turned down. His rhythm tone is almost always the bridge pickup, with some high gain from his Marshall amps. Carlos Santana also uses this method with his playing, and his neck pickup tone is the signature sound of Santana.
This is how you use the 3 way switch on most dual pickup guitars, and it doesn’t matter if the pickups are active or passive. The idea, and application remains the same. But what about other guitars that are not dual pickup configurations? Well, those can seem really complicated at first, but they really aren’t. Let’s take a look at the most famous example…
Guitar Pickup Configurations: The 5 Way Switch
Leo Fender was a radio repairman that never played guitar, yet he engineered one of the most perfect electric guitars ever created. The Fender Stratocaster was first released in the 1950’s and it remains very much the same today when it comes to the basic design. The Stratocaster was a trailblazer, and with the many innovations that it brought to the table for guitarists, the 5 way switch is one of the most popular.
But Leo Fender didn’t start with the 5 way switch! The original design for the Strat only had a 3 way switch to begin with. Many famous players like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix started doing something different with their Strats. Players started jamming the switch in the “in between” positions. They did this by blocking the switch with a coin, or anything else they could find. But why would they do this?
The original 3 guitar pickup positions on the Stratocaster were straightforward. Just like a dual humbucker guitar you had neck, middle, bridge to choose from. But when Fender heard that players were jamming the switch to catch these “in between” positions, he decided to design a 5 way switch to accommodate players that wanted that sound.
“Guitarists soon discovered that by positioning the switch in between the first and second position, both the bridge and middle pickups could be selected, and similarly, the middle and neck pickups could be selected between the 2nd and 3rd position.
When two pickups are selected simultaneously, they are wired in parallel which leads to a slight drop in output as slightly more current is allowed to pass to the ground. However in newer guitars, since the middle pickup is almost always wired in reverse (and with its magnets having opposite polarity), this configuration creates a spaced humbucking pair, which significantly reduces 50/60 Cycle hum. Fender introduced a five-way selector in 1977, making such pickup combinations more stable.”Wikipedia On Fender Guitars
Fender had a huge success with the new 5 way switch, and now it is a staple of all Stratocaster-style guitars. Having 5 different guitar pickup positions is what makes the Fender Strat such a versatile guitar that players still enjoy. Each position has a signature sound, and players use them all in a different way. But I am going to try to break it down as easily as possible to describe how to get the most out of each pickup position.
The first position (closest to you, or all the way up) is the neck pickup, just like on a 3 way switch. The neck pickup still has the most bass response, and many guitarists use the neck pickup on a Strat to get a warm solo tone. Blues players favor the first two guitar pickup positions on a Strat because of the sounds you get, especially for rhythm playing. John Mayer and Stevie Ray Vaughan are notorious for using these to positions to get their bluesy tones.
The second position is the neck and middle pickups blended together. This was one of the “in between” positions described above, and it takes away a lot of the hum that single coil pickups are known for. This is also the position that players call the “quack” sound. It has tons of midrange, but with the bass blended from the neck pickup. This is a great tone for solos, and you hear it in blues guitar solos all the time. Again, John Mayer uses this position a lot for his solos. In fact, John uses the first and second position almost exclusively.
The third position is the middle pickup all by itself. I think out of all of the guitar pickup positions, this one gets overlooked the most. I think the middle pickup sounds great all by itself, and I use it on my Schecter NJ to record beautiful clean tones. To me, it has an almost acoustic guitar quality to the sound. Don’t over look this one for playing clean chords and arpeggiated notes!
The fourth position is the middle and bridge pickups blended together. Like the other “in between” sound, this also has the signature Stratocaster “quack”. But this position has much more treble than the second “blended” position, and you can hear it most in funk and R&B music. The midrange of the middle pickup combined with the bridge’s treble makes for a cutting sound that also has less hum than the bridge position alone.
The fifth position is the bridge pickup all by itself. Some people ignore this guitar pickup position because the bridge pickup can have an “ice pick” quality to it, since it has so much treble. This pickup has a dedicated tone knob for that reason. If you use the tone knob to dial out some of that treble, you get a great solo tone from the bridge pickup. David Gilmour is known for using this guitar pickup position for playing some of his most famous solos.
Some Stratocasters may have a humbucker for the fifth position bridge pickup. These are called HSS, or “Fat Strats”. But the same rules apply no matter what the bridge pickup may be. Some metal players prefer to have a humbucker in the bridge of their Strats to get a solid rhythm tone for chugging, but still have the single coils for cleans parts. A Stratocaster with a humbucker in the bridge can be very versatile, no matter what kind of music you play.
You may have heard of the term “Super Strat” before, and most of these also have a 5 way switch, especially guitars made by Ibanez. The rules are basically the same with these guitars, as the different guitar pickup positions have blended options. Guitars like the Ibanez JEM is famous for blending the single coil in the middle position, with the dual humbuckers. This gives you a multitude of options when it comes to dialing in your tone.
The 5 way switch is definitely one of the most important innovations in guitar history. This invention opened up the door to all kinds of pickup combos that we still see today. The “in between” positions can be made to do all kinds of different blends, and sometimes it can be confusing. If you are not sure how yours works, you can always look up the wiring diagram for you guitar model.
Guitar Pickup Positions: Wrapping Up…
Hopefully, this information will dispel some of the mystery of what the different guitar pickup positions do, and how they work. There are no stupid questions when it comes to guitar, and I tell my students this all the time. But I also like to stress that while this is how most guitarists use the pickup selector, there is no wrong way to play. Do whatever you have to do to get the sound that you are looking for!
Most experienced guitarists have a “default” when they pick up one of the two guitar pickup position examples that I described today. For me, I always go directly for the bridge pickup on a Les Paul, and directly to the neck pickup on a Stratocaster. Other players have their preferences, and it is always fun to see how famous players use the pickup positions to get their signature tone.
But which one you like, is totally subjective. In fact, it may change over time as you get more accustomed to different types of guitars. I prefer 24 fret guitars, and I have learned how to dial in the neck pickup the way I like it. There is no wrong answers when it comes to the guitar pickup positions, only what you prefer. Like most things involving guitar, it is better to toss out the rules sometimes and blaze your own path. You might find something new and unique!
We wouldn’t even have the 5 way switch if it wasn’t for guitarists experimenting. So next time you pick up your guitar and play, try out a different pickup position than what you usually use. Get your ear accustomed to the sound of each pickup, and experiment! You might discover a brand new tone, and change your mind about your “default” setting.
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Why does the bride pickup sound so different from the neck pickup?
The Closer to the neck you get, the more bass response since the strings have more room to ring out. The closer to the bridge you get, the less room you have for the strings to vibrate, resulting in a more treble-focused sound. This goes for humbuckers and single coils alike.
Does having 24 frets affect my tone?
Having 24 frets changes the sound of the instrument, and the physical guitar pickup positions. This puts the neck pickup just slightly closer to the bridge of the guitar. Some people can’t hear the difference in a 24 fret guitar versus a 22 fret, but that slight difference does change the tone. Technically, the neck pickup is closer to the bridge, making have a little bit more treble response.
Where did the 5 way switch on the Stratocaster come from?
Leo Fender didn’t start with the 5 way switch! The original design for the Strat only had a 3 way switch to begin with. Many famous players started jamming the switch in the “in between” positions. They did this by blocking the switch with a coin, or anything else they could find. Fender released the new 5 way switch in 1977, officially.
Why do some guitars only have one pickup?
Some players only use the bridge pickup. Others believe that the neck pickup, even when not in use, causes magnetic issues with the strings. Single pickup enthusiasts think that having only a bridge pickup makes the guitar more resonant without the neck pickup’s magnetic pull. Phil X is a great example of one of these players.
Why is a Stratocaster with a humbucker called an HSS?
A “Fat Strat” is a Stratocaster with a humbucker in the bridge. The “HSS” describes the guitar pickup positions: Humbucker, Single Coil, Single Coil.