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Does the pickup really have any effect on the guitar's distortion sound? Mine is a rockwell factory pickup and Iwant to change it. But, does it really have any effect?

  • 2
    If you go to a guitar store and set up an amp with distortion and then try out a few different guitars through the same amp with the same setting, you'll hear for yourself that the pickups, electronics, and body and neck construction all make a big difference on the sound, even when using lots of distortion. – Todd Wilcox Nov 12 '15 at 15:55
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Depends on how much your new pickup differs from your current one. Pickups have multiple properties. I'll list the most important ones and comment on their effect on your distortion sound:

  • Output volume. Output depends on the amount of windings and the pull of the magnets in the pickup. More output changes the way your amplifier and effect pedals respond: If your amp is on a clean setting, the final volume will increase. If your amp is breaking up, your sustain and gain will increase, and thus affect your distortion sound. Note that a stronger magnet will increase the pull on your strings. This will counteract the string vibration and decrease the sustain.
  • Output frequencies. Some pickups excel in a British midrange punch, while others are known for their sparkling highs. Distortion emphasizes these differences.
  • Hum cancelling. If you like using heavy distortion, I recommed using noise cancelling pickups like humbuckers. Like I just said, distortion emphasizes the most boosted frequencies. You don't want an exaggerated humming sound.
  • Active/passive. I don't know much about active pickups, but they are both loved and hated. They deliver higher output than passive ones and so they can push your amp to its limit while retaining a clear sound. Active pickups require a power supply. Check for yourself if you like the sound. To make the choice even more difficult: there are active pickups that sound exactly like passives.

Concluding, your pickups can have a big influence on your distortion sound.

If I forgot to mention an important pickup property, feel free to let me know.

  • Another aspect of active pickups is that they are quieter than passive pickups, connecting back to the issues brought up under hum-cancelling. – Dave Jacoby Nov 12 '15 at 15:44
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    Additionally, and you may want to add this in, the stronger the magnets in the pickup, the more they affect the string, damping the sustain, and dimming the tone as higher frequencies suffer most. – Doktor Mayhem Nov 12 '15 at 20:20
  • Good answer, but it's a common misconception that active pickups have a particular sound which is necessarily different from passive ones. What's true is, some active PUs (EMG81) have a response that you can't get with any passive PU. But it's actually possible to replicate exactly the sound of any given passive pickup with an active model. – leftaroundabout Nov 13 '15 at 20:30
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Absolutely. Without diving into the technical details... To my ears, single coils have more tone and nuance than humbuckers, but humbuckers (obviously) have a lot less hum and therefore, a lot less of that nasty grit when playing through heavier distortion. And that's just one example. But yes, different pickups can serve different purposes and they all have slightly different characteristics. I once had a set of pickups that sort of clipped everything over certain frequency. They were weird sounding, but worked pretty well for bluesy stuff.

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