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Three’s Company: The Pickup Placement Paradigm

Three’s Company: The Pickup Placement Paradigm
This Charlie Christian pickup, designed by Gibson in the 1930s and made famous by Christian, was one of the earliest electric guitar pickups. Photo by Jol Dantzig

Why do guitars have two or three pickups? Why not four, or even six for that matter?

“If three pickups are good, would four be better?” That’s not the kind of question you’d imagine coming from upper management at a big guitar company. The same question had actually been asked—and answered—decades before. But there it was, hanging in the air like a big, smelly cloud of gas. It wasn’t out-of-the-box thinking as much as pure ignorance, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I’ve witnessed plenty of these kinds of moments during my career, most of which can be laughed about today. But this one actually begs the question: Why do guitars have two or three pickups? Why not four, or even six for that matter? Eventually, you’d run out of real estate, but let’s examine why guitars have multiple pickups in the first place.

In its early years, the guitar was mainly considered an accompaniment instrument. Then, beginning in the early 20h century, Andrés Segovia and others began to legitimize the guitar as a solo instrument. In that setting, it could also keep pace with the piano and other instruments in terms of volume. But imagine that you’re a guitarist in the 1930s. You’ve just scored a good gig with a big band playing jazz tunes alongside horns and drums. You long to rock a solo like your fellow horn players, but the meager volume of your instrument has relegated you to playing rhythm—like a sort of glorified guiro block with strings.

To right this wrong, guitar makers built bigger and bigger bodies to maximize the vibration of the strings, but it still wasn’t enough. Some guitars employed internal devices, like the disc-shaped Virzi Tone baffles designed for Gibson by Lloyd Loar in the 1920s. Instruments like those from Dobro and National used resonator plates that looked like speaker cones, and some guitars even sprouted gramophone-like horns in order to project their sound. But all of these methods were rooted in the mechanical thinking of the prior century, and this was the dawn of the electronics era. It demanded a bold new solution. If only you could just turn it up a notch like a radio and compete.

Indeed, designer Lloyd Loar famously experimented with the idea of an electric pickup as early as 1929 while at Gibson. After a falling out with management at Gibson, Loar formed his own company to pursue his radical visions. His 1936 Vivatone guitar utilized an integrated, electric pickup and was one of the first solidbody Spanish 6-strings. By the late 1930s, Rickenbacker, Gibson, and others had realized there was a future in electrically amplified guitars and their requisite amplifiers. Guitarists could now drown out those horns and drums with a twist of a knob. What a happy day!

So with the manufacturing race to sell these newfangled electric guitars, builders turned to escalating the number of features available on their merchandise. Taking a cue from the radios of the day, a “tone” control soon became standard on guitars. Able to throw away higher frequencies for a mellower sound, this probably came about to emulate the rounder tones of other instruments, since the piercing twang of country swing, rockabilly, and surf music was still a decade away.

Designers also learned that the location of a magnetic pickup along the length of the strings affected the tonality of the output. At first, the preferred placement was close to the end of the fretboard where the mellowest of tones were found. Builders then thought: If one pickup is good, and a tone control makes it even better, why not add another pickup? Switching between or combining pickups provided a new lexicon of sounds to guitarists. And soon, two pickups placed far apart became the standard of the industry for premium guitars, because it offered the most variation in sound.

Having learned their lesson and not to be outdone, Gibson debuted a monster with three pickups called the ES-5 in 1949. It had three volume controls for a huge amount of tonal control. Renamed the Switchmaster in 1955, it gained a 4-position blade switch to make the pickup selection and was expanded to include six knobs for volume and tone control!

It was around this time that Fender started producing the Stratocaster, and guitars equipped with three pickups entered the mainstream. It’s interesting to note that the first Strats only had the Telecaster’s 3-way switch, and therefore only three sounds. But enterprising guitarists learned that an additional two tones were available by “jamming” the switch in-between the stock positions. And this actually went unnoticed at headquarters for a couple of decades until the 5-way switch made its official debut in 1977.

Dan Armstrong’s London model guitar broke with tradition in 1972 by featuring a sliding pickup that the player could physically move along a track to change the sound. It was interesting, but only a few hundred were built.

So what about four pickups? In 1965, Fender’s Marauder utilized a quad of high-powered pickups concealed beneath the pickguard. It was prototyped, and then scrapped before any production models were made.

And this is pretty much where we’ve been for 60 years. When my father took me shopping for my first electric guitar, I was dead set on getting a Fender Strat like my heroes played. No doubt deterred by the price, my dad pointed out an inexpensive Teisco guitar with four pickups and a bevy of white-plastic rocker switches. “Look,” he said while pointing at the cheesy axe, “it has four of those microphone things. The Fender only has three.” Maybe my dad missed his calling as a marketing VP, but then again, maybe not. I left the store with Fender Duo-Sonic (and two pickups).