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Most electric guitars and some basses allow players to select different combinations of pickups. For example, modern Stratocasters have a five-way switch between the neck, middle, and bridge pickups. Some of the Fender documentation refers to the neck pickup as “Rhythm” and the middle or bridge pickup as “Lead.” They also note that only the neck and middle pickups have tone control; the bridge does not.

What does this all mean for guitarists in practice? What are the differences in sound between different pickup positions? Are neck pickups better suited for clean rhythm sounds, and bridge pickups better suited for crunchy lead sounds, as the Fender manuals suggest? Where does the middle pickup fit into all this?

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Because of the way vibrations on a string work, from the fundamental all the way up to the highest harmonics, the closer to the bridge you get, the more the balance skews towards higher harmonics. Conversely a pickup at the 12th fret would be overwhelmed by the fundamental on the open string.

From Wikipedia:

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So what Fender mention is generally correct: you get a fatter sound from the neck pickup, with more lower harmonics, which is usually good for playing rhythm guitar. The bridge pickup gives a tone which can cut through the sound of a band, with the bias towards higher frequencies, and while it may be lower amplitude, it can be very clear.

A tone pot is usually used to roll off higher frequencies, so for example if the bridge pickup is too piercing, you can roll off some of those top frequencies to make the sound a bit 'mellower'

The middle pickup is just halfway between the two - giving a bit of a blend. Depending on wiring, one or more pickups may give you the option to be 'out of phase' which lets a combination of two pickups actually cancel some frequencies, allowing even more tonal variety.

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    On Teles, in particular, the neck pup is exactly under the 24th fret harmonic node. Whether accidental or purposely I don't know. But the sound of that harmonic (also over 5th fret) disappears when the neck pup is on, but re-appears when the bridge in switched on. – Tim Sep 3 '14 at 8:28
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A pick-up will pick up (!) the sound a string is making just above it. The three pups on Strats are (or used to be, originally) identical. The string vibrates at a different amplitude - hope it's the correct word - as in the movement is greater the closer to the string centre you get. So by the bridge, the pup will hear a tighter, thinner sound. One uses the pup configuration one likes for a particular situation. Generally, neck pups will give a rounder sound, more suited to chord/rhythm playing. Les Pauls have a 'treble/rhythm' switch, between bridge and neck pups.

I guess Leo thought that if you wanted a more piercing sound, thus using the bridge pup, there would be no necessity to attenuate the sound with a tone control. Jazz players will often use the neck pup, and roll some treble off that.

It emulates where you pluck the strings, to a degree. As in, if you use a pick close to the bridge, then the sound will be a lot less bassy than anywhere else. That's the sort of tone that the bridge pup hears.

A lot of guitars these days will wear different pups in different places along the strings, and can be switched in and out of phase.

The middle pup gives a sound somewhat between the other two. Fender was an electrician rather than a guitarist, but realised that there was another sound to be harvested between bridge and neck, and on the original guitars, he only had a 3-way switch. We soon found that it could be put carefully into the 'in-between' positions, giving 5 options. Later, Strats were equipped with the now common 5-way.

This still left a decent sound unavailable, that of bridge and neck combined. A Strat I played some years ago got over this by having 3 push button switches, one for each pup. This gave 2 more options also - all on and all off ! The bridge and neck combination on my own guitar ( not a Strat) is one that works well for rhythm playing in a big band situation - the roundness is there with an edge to cut through for the more choppy bits.

I played a bass last year, Steinberg, maybe, that had one pup, that was slideable on rails. The tone could be changed by moving it about 4/5 " between bridge and neck. Different !

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