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Listen up! Bigger audiences, higher volume
At the end of the 19th century, acoustic music was already recorded, and also reproduced. The sound, bundled by large funnels, was, with the help of a mechanism, stored on a rotating medium. The playback process was exactly the opposite. Shellac records were initially established as the storage medium. Mechanically rotated, a metal pin ran through the grooves of the plate, causing a diaphragm in the tonearm to vibrate. Through a large funnel, these small movements were amplified into well-audible sound waves. All purely mechanical.
But both recording and playback had their limits in quality and achievable volume. The emerging and rapidly spreading broadcast technology did the rest. Orchestras were recorded, or even broadcasted live. The microphone, which was initially invented for the use in telephones during the middle of the 19th century, was further developed and patented in 1890 as a "carbon microphone" (sound waves are transferred into electrical impulses by coal). In the 1920s, Georg Neumann invented the condenser microphone, which massively improved the sound results. Thus, voices, soloists and ensembles could be recorded perfectly in a studio environment.
However, this technique quickly reached its limits in electrically amplified live performances. Dance events became larger, and plucked instruments, such as guitar and double bass, could only be insufficiently amplified by microphones, due to rapidly occurring feedback.
Mister Lloyd Loar – ahead of the times
The American composer and musician LLoyd Loar was undoubtedly one of the protagonists in the field of electrical amplification of acoustic instruments. From 1919 to 1924 he worked as an acoustic engineer at Gibson, where he developed models such as the successful Gibson L-5. During this period, he also spent a lot of time developing a pickup to amplify acoustic instruments. His first successes were a viola and a double bass in 1924, which were equipped with his electrostatic pickup. That year, Gibson parted ways with Loar. It was said, that his inventions were too modern for the traditional company. Loar then started teaching at Northern University in Chicago. During this time, he put a lot of work into his first electromagnetic pickup until it was finally ready for series production. He also founded the company Vivi Tone to distribute plucked instruments with electromagnetic pickups. Despite the high expectations, Loar could not achieve much success with Vivi Tone. Another company, founded around the same time in California, outstripped him.
Adolph Rickenbacher - from Switzerland to the world
Born in Switzerland, Adolph Rickenbacher moved to California after the early death of his parents. In 1925 he founded a company that, among other things, manufactured metal parts for the production of resonator guitars. Together with George Beauchamp, he also developed an electromagnetic pickup. In the early 1930s, the company was renamed "Rickenbacker", and an electrically amplified lapsteel guitar, the Frying Pan (because of its very simple, frying pan-like shape) was introduced. Rickenbacher sold his company and the rights to the name "Rickenbacker" in 1953 and retired. In the 1960s, the electric guitars and basses bearing this name became a worldwide success that continues to this day.
Solid guitars and pickups - the recipe for success
At the beginning of the 1950s, the idea of a flat guitar with electromagnetic pickups was established. A guitar without a resonating body is less susceptible to acoustic feedback, and can thus, with the help of electrical pickups, be easily amplified up to high levels. Above all, Leo Fender and the company Gibson invented the standards of electric guitars at that time, which have endured to this day. The Telecaster and Stratocaster models from Fender, equipped with so-called single coil pickups, and the Les Paul models from Gibson equipped with P-90 single coils and later with double-coil humbuckers quickly gained popularity and became worldwide sales successes. In 1951, Fender achieved another stroke of genius with the Precision Bass. Especially double bass players, always plagued by feedback due to the huge soundbox of their instrument, needed practical solutions to make them heard in the louder formations. Based on the Telecaster guitar in form and function, the Precision Bass was equipped with a single coil bass pickup, and could now be transported and electrically amplified just as easy.
Not just a big, practical vehicle – the pickup
How does a pickup work, and what are the main types?
The piezoelectric pickup: A piezoelectric ceramic transforms pressure into an electrical voltage. This effect was discovered as early as 1880 by the brothers Jacques and Pierre Curie. Unlike the electromagnetic pickup, the piezo pickup works with all types of strings. Thus, it can also be used on classical guitars with nylon strings, double basses, violins, etc. It is usually clamped under the bridge, where it reliably produces a rich sound with good bass reproduction. However, it is also quite sensitive to unwanted structure-borne noise and is therefore also susceptible to feedback. Since it delivers relatively low output voltages, it has to be amplified elaborately, usually by "onboard preamps" mounted in the instrument itself.
The electromagnetic pickup: In the housing of such a pickup, there are permanent magnets, around which a wire is wound to a coil. In the magnetic field of the pickup, the strings of the instrument, which must be made of ferro-magnetic material, vibrate. The vibration of the strings causes electromagnetic induction, which leads to the creation of a low alternating voltage. This can now be enlarged in electrical amplifier circuits. Essentially, there are two types of electromagnetic pickups found in electric guitars and electric basses. These are, on the one hand, the single-coil pickup, which takes its name from the single coil built into it and which provides a very clear and bell-like sound, and on the other hand, the humbucker (hum suppression), whose coils are wound in opposite directions, eliminating the hum of the single coil and creating a more voluminous sound with more present mids.
This technique is also widely used in hi-fi turntables. There are the so-called Moving Magnet pickups (MM cartridge for short), where the stylus has a small magnet at the other end of the cantilever. This magnet moves, according to the oscillation of the needle, between two small coils which are located in the housing of the pickup. Induction, again leads to the generation of small voltages, which are then amplified in the phono preamplifier of the hifi system. And there are the Moving Coil pickups (MC cartridge for short): In the MC pickup, the stylus connects firmly to two very fine coils through the cantilever. The movement of these coils is analogue to the vibration of the stylus, and it induces a small electrical current in the magnetic field located in the pickup housing. This is very low and requires a lot of amplification. A good hi-fi system provides inputs for both pickup systems.
The pickup makes the sound...
... at least to a large extent. Of course, the wood construction has a significant influence on how the string vibrates. But how and where it is picked up makes up much of the electrically amplified sound of an electric guitar or bass. For decades, pickups have not only been replaced if they are defective. Single coil pickups offer a very clear and characteristic sound. Made famous in models such as the Telecaster and Stratocaster from Fender, they also have disadvantages. If they are not used together with a second pickup (as in the Strat, with the pickup selector in position 2 & 4, or in the middle position of the tele), they hum. In addition, they often lack some punch and definition in the middle frequencies at higher gain settings. The humbuckers, made famous with the iconic Les Paul by Gibson, know neither humming nor the problem of lacking punch. They deliver a warm and punchy tone, especially at high gain settings, and eliminate the annoying hum, due to the two coils in the housing. So, they quickly became the first choice for the harder and faster Rock music of the 70s and 80s. However, they do not offer the characteristic, bell-like sound of single coils.
Manufacturers such as Seymour Duncan (https://shop.warwick.de/de/brands/seymour-duncan), DiMarzio, Bartolini or EMG offered and still offer a variety of options to change the tone of the guitar or a bass. A popular modification on the Strat replaces the rear single coil pickup with a humbucker. That´s a way to have the best of both worlds combined in one guitar. Humbuckers, on the other hand, are often split in special circuits, which means only one coil is used. That way, a single coil sound can be elicited from a humbucker. The choice is huge! (Pickups | W-Music Distribution (warwick.de) From a single pickup to a complete set for a specific type of guitar. Even specialties, such as small humbuckers in the housing of a single coil pickup exist.
Nowadays, acoustic guitars are usually offered with a piezo pickup and an onboard preamp. But here, too, there is the possibility of exchanging or supplementing existing systems, or retrofitting guitars without a pickup. Adding piezo pickups to the bridge of an electric guitar, can offer new possibilities as well. It allows you, to integrate an acoustic guitar sound into your electric guitar. The possibilities are almost endless! A selection of high-quality piezo pickups can be found here: Acoustic | Pickups | W-Music Distribution (warwick.de)
But not only for guitarists there is a large selection. Bass players have discovered the potential of replacement pickups as well! (E - Bass | Pickups | W-Music Distribution (warwick.de) Replacing the passive pickups with active ones, is a popular modification among bassists. This offers more dynamics and a "modern" high frequency response. While the classic Precision Bass pickup (in the models from 1957) is already a so-called split coil pickup, which cleverly eliminates the hum with two offset coils, a jazz bass with an individually used bridge or neck pickup hums significantly. Pickups with "dummy coils", which only serve to eliminate the hum, can help here. There are also direct exchange pickups for instruments with MusicMan style, or modern "soap bar" pickups, which do not require any changes to the wooden construction of the instrument for installation.
Musicians like to discuss what the best pickups are. Everyone has their own personal taste and individual opinion. Whether you look for a technical improvement, you search for the perfect tone, or you simply enjoy experimenting. W-Music Distribution offers you a large selection of well-known and high-quality products: Pickups | W-Music Distribution (warwick.de)