If you are here chances are you have been drooling over an Esquire, a Les Paul Jr., or maybe even Frankenstrat. Hey, it could have also been an ESP or another of those amazing metal machines.
The thing is that single pickup guitars have something that many people can’t explain…
Some say it’s magic, some say is simplicity. The argument has been there for ages, and we are here not to close it, but to chime in with our experience and opinion.
If you want a short answer about what makes one pickup guitars sound different, and even better for some players, here it is:
Single pickup guitars are said to sound better, be more resonant, and have more sustain. This is due to that there are fewer magnets pulling the strings and affecting their vibration. The absence of other pickups makes for the bodies of these guitars to have more wood and simpler electronics.
If you want to stick around for a bit longer, in this article we will discuss what is the magic behind single pickup guitars.
We will go in-depth about the most important factors that could affect tone, the overall advantages of an instrument like this, and its main drawbacks.
Are you ready to get started?
The main selling point of single pickup guitars: Simplicity
To kick things off, I feel obliged to attend to the matter that, perhaps, defines the vast majority of single pickup guitar sales: They are extremely simple.
And that might sound appalling to gearheads like us who read articles on these things, but that’s the truth for a big percent of the public.
But can we blame them? Having a hundred different pickup combinations, coil splitting, tone controls, phase switches, piezo pickups, and whatever else we might have wet dreams about is a luxury that not all people enjoy.
Do you really use all the options your most complex guitar has to offer?
I will put myself on the spot and say something terrible: I tend to ignore the middle position of the 5-way switch in my favorite strat.
There, I said it.
For some people, having infinite tonal options is overwhelming, and the prospect of a plug-and-play guitar is just a dream come true.
Simplicity, however, doesn’t mean that these kinds of guitars are bad or absolutely constrained to one kind of sound. More on this later.
Do single pickup guitars sound different?
It would have been a very bad prank if we had kept you here for 400 words and then we said that there is nothing different about the tone of single pickup guitars.
Guitars with just one pickup do sound different and are the cause of a lot of arguments between believers and skeptics.
In my opinion, there are many factors that can’t be overlooked when trying to explain the differences in tone. And they are considerable enough to make this claim irrefutable.
However, how much does each of these factors influence sound, or in what manner do they alter the experience compared to a 2 pickup guitar are questions that become very hard to answer.
There are many experiments to be done about this, making sure to keep the scientific approach when controlling for the different variables.
But we are not pushing the boundaries today, we will only theorize about the main factors that could make these guitars unique.
What makes single pickup guitars sound different?
As we mentioned earlier, there are, at least 3 characteristics about one pickup guitars that clearly have to have an influence on the instrument’s audio output.
I leave to the reader, however, the difficult task of defining which of these situations is the most influential to the tone, and in what manner.
Here are the 3 top factors that make single pickup guitars sound different:
1. Single pickup guitars have more wood in their bodies
Of course, this doesn’t apply to, for instance, Eddie Van Halen’s frankenstrat, where the neck and middle pickup cavities are empty.
That example, however, might make us think that this point is not central to the sound of guitars with this pickup configuration.
On the other hand, it is neither something negligible. For those of us who believe that woods define tone (yes, there are nonbelievers in the crowd), of course having more or less wood in the body should be influential.
Is it better or is it worse? I can’t tell you that. Some might say that heavier instruments have more sustain, others might say that lighter guitars have fewer water molecules trapped inside thus making them more resonant.
2. Single pickup guitars have less magnetic pull on their strings
I can pull up many sources for this discussion, but we don’t need to get extremely technical, do we?
Just going back to the basics, guitar pickups are magnets. Magnets have a natural pull against metallic materials such as guitar strings.
So far, so good.
So, would it be crazy to think that leaving only one set of magnets, instead of 2 or 3, there would be less pull on the strings?
Probably not, but the question now is how strong is the physical interaction between the magnets and the strings. Is it significant or negligible?
The fact is that the presence of a neck pickup, in experiments where the wood mass of the guitar body remains the same (just taking off the pickup and leaving the hole unfilled) does alter the instrument’s tone.
A very interesting theory about this is that the magnetic pull that we have mentioned before of the second pickup adds overtones that are not present when the pickup is removed.
Don’t quote me on this, but that might have a similar (but orders of magnitude more subtle) effect than touching the string with a soft material on the exact spot of the magnet.
That’s how you get pinch harmonics in a very extreme comparison.
3. Single pickup guitars have simpler electronics
It is well known that guitar signals degrade when their journey elongates. That’s why using buffers mid pedal chain is a common practice to fight this.
A single pickup guitar has, by conception, a shorter length of cables inside, and a less obfuscated circuitry. Hey, we’re talking about no pickup selector here if you haven’t noticed yet.
This means fewer points of failure and a slimmer chance of getting interference into the circuit.
But again, the question that plagues this discussion: Is this a significant difference that could impact tone?
Probably not, but it is also hard to test, and if some, the differences would be really small.
What I will argue, further below in this article, is that the lack of a pickup selector (and other pickups) will inevitably make the player play differently to achieve different tones.
Do single pickup guitars have more sustain?
It is said that single pickup guitars have more sustain, and this could be because of 2 factors: The presence of more wood in the guitar body, where the extra pickups would be, and the lack of the magnetic pull on the string by these other absent pickups.
The gain in sustain by removing a pickup from a guitar might be small, but many veteran players claim that it is noticeable.
Another effect of the absence of extra pickups is said to be an improvement in resonance and string vibration.
Single bridge pickup vs single neck pickup: Different styles
The most popular configuration for single pickup guitars is probably having it in the bridge position, such as Esquires and Les Paul Jrs. do.
However, this is not the only implementation of the single pickup concept that exists. The benefits of this design are not exclusive to rock players.
Many jazz archtop guitars come with a single pickup in the neck position, this is a very common configuration that delivers amazing tones and improved sustain. It is also common to see these kinds of guitars with just a bridge pickup, or even with a single pickup in a position between the middle and the neck.
What are the benefits of single pickup guitars?
Until here we have discussed what makes one pickup guitars unique, and how it affects its tone.
It’s now time to define how is that different tone and feel better, or how it could be better for some players.
I defined 5 different categories in which I think these guitars are the better option:
1. Unique tone
Have you ever heard that advice we usually give to beginners about focusing on sounding like themselves and not like anyone else?
Well, having the unique tone of a single pickup guitar might get you started.
The majority of guitar players use 2 to 3 pickups. So if you are searching for your own voice, having just one pickup might be a great place, to begin with.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, for many people the simplicity of having just one pickup is a relief.
A lot of players might feel overwhelmed by having lots of options and might end up using just a handful of their available sound palette.
If having just one pickup would calm their anxiety and maybe also give them a unique, better sound, why not go for one of these guitars then?
3. Great to improve on “finger” tone
This is a great point for beginners.
All great players say that the “tone is in the fingers” and you get to understand that claim when you hear one of these guitarists play through a cheap amp with an even crappier guitar.
A single pickup guitar will take away the sound versatility of a pickup selector. With one of these, you will have to make your own different tones manually.
You will be paying more attention to what part of the string you decide to pluck, the dynamics of your attacks, and will be forced to make more intensive use of the volume and tone knobs to compensate.
One pickup guitars look cooler. It’s a fact.
5. More affordable
Have you ever shopped for replacement pickups? Have you seen how much they cost?
Having to pay for a single pickup instead of 2 or 3 will surely be a cost cut in your purchase.
Single pickup versions or models are usually cheaper.
Be nice with your wallet and get one of these instruments.
What are the drawbacks of single pickup guitars?
You might be asking, after all the nice things I said about these guitars if there are any drawbacks.
I’m asking that too as I write this article, and I’m struggling to come up with more than a few disadvantages to point out.
However, these downsides could be strong dealbreakers for many players, and probably are what keep these guitars as a very niche option.
Here are the 3 main drawbacks of single pickup guitars:
1. Lack of versatility
This is the biggest argument against a one pickup guitar.
You don’t have as many sound options as with a 2 or 3 pickup configuration.
Of course, you can compensate, to a certain amount, with what I said before: Paying attention to your picking and using the volume and tone knobs. However, remember that you can also do that on top of selecting a different pickup on a “standard” guitar.
The constraints are there, and many people would be afraid of painting themselves into a corner with one of these guitars.
2. Unique tone
The same unique tone that I claimed as an advantage for one pickup guitars could also be a big no-no for many people.
Perhaps you do want to sound like your guitar hero. And that’s nothing wrong with that.
Maybe you’re a session player working on many projects that need specific, industry-standard, tones that can only be achieved completely with more traditional instruments.
3. Cheaper instruments
As I mentioned earlier, having just one pickup might be a very noticeable cost reduction in an instrument.
Sadly, in most cases, the manufacturers approach these instruments as affordable options, and not as just different configurations for their main lines.
It is really not common to see premium lines of guitars with single pickups.
Single pickup guitars are the secret weapons of many players who stumbled upon them, in many cases, by chance.
The claims of them having a special tone are real and I challenge you to try them out to make your own conclusions.
Although there are limitations in the tonal versatility if you just need a guitar that gets a specific job done, having a single pickup would not be a drawback but an advantage in almost every situation.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.