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I'm fairly familiar with how pickups work (difference between single coil and humbucker, coil splits, coil taps, active vs. passive, the fact that they are made from magnets with wire wrapped around them, etc.), but the connection between build configuration and the resulting frequency response is still a big mystery to me.

Suppose that a manufacturer of passive guitar pickups has an idea for how a pickup should sound, how would they go about achieving that sound? How much fine tuning is possible? Or maybe they go the other way: make many combinations of magnet type X magnet strength X amount of wire, and then categorize the results?

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2 Answers 2

The harmonics look like this:

harmonics

If a pickup was positioned at, say, a quarter of the way across the string, it would pickup the fundamental and second harmonics most (remember that the higher harmonics have less overall amplitude), but if it was positioned very close to the start of the string then since the amplitudes of the lower harmonics are less at that point it would pick up on the higher harmonics more.

Imagine drawing a line down the graph above at the position of the pickup. Depending on it's position, different harmonics will have different amplitudes (and if the pickup happens to be at a node point of a harmonic then that harmonic will not be picked up at all).

This is probably not the only thing affecting the frequency response, but it is very important. (disclaimer: I don't know much about guitars but I know stuff about physics)

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I posted about the node / pick up positions some time ago. On Telecasters (and others), the neck pup is put at effectively 24th fret position. So when the 2nd harmonic ic played, from an open string, with the neck pup only switched on, it's not heard. Switch to bridge pup and there it is. However, the OP's question is not about where the pups are, but how they're made, to produce different sounds. –  Tim Mar 28 at 7:19

There are also electronic effects -- the large number of windings involved in guitar pickups tend to behave as low-pass filters. Single-coils (generally) have brighter response due to the fact that there are less windings, therefore less inductance, thus less cutoff in the higher part of the spectrum.

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