Introduction to using Magnetic Pickups

A typical humbucker magnetic pickupIf you have been thinking about using a magnetic pickup in your next cigar box guitar build, but aren’t sure about how they are different from piezo pickups, then here is a quick overview for you. Magnetic pickups can be a nice addition to most any cigar box guitar, but they do require some different handling and some knowledge of their unique properties.

Be sure to check out magnetic pickups and other great gear (all at great prices) over at C. B. Gitty Crafter Supply!

  1. Magnetic pickups respond only to the vibration of the strings, not the acoustic vibration of the instrument body.
    • It is the interaction between the vibrating steel strings and the magnets in the pickup that cause slight voltage to be created, which is picked up by the amplifier and reproduced as recognizable sound.
    • With a piezo pickup, which responds to pressure changes from string/instrument vibration to create voltage. So while a piezo responds to the instrument’s vibration, and as such will pick up more of the acoustic properties, the magnetic pickup responds only to the strings.
    • This means that a magnetic pickup underneath the same strings should sound the same on a Les Paul electric guitar, a cigar box guitar, or a cinder block. The acoustic properties of the instrument itself do not come into play. This can be both a good and a bad thing – if you want a CBG that sounds like an electric guitar through an amp, then it is great. If you want a CBG that sounds like a CBG through an amp, then it is not so great.
  2. Magnetic pickups need to be mounted directly under the strings.
    • While a piezo can be mounted inside the box, a magnetic pickup cannot. It has to be mounted such that the poles are very close to the strings, so that the string vibration will excite the magnets.
    • The distance from the strings can vary, but it is generally in the range of 1/4″ to 1/2″ – usually, the closer they are the more sound you will get out of the guitar.
    • Personal preference comes into play here. Getting the magnetic pickup into the right position almost always means cutting an appropriately shaped hole in the top of the instrument so that it can extend through it. Mounting it fully inside the box is almost guaranteed to yield poor results.
  3. Magnetic pickups require strings that have some steel in them.
    • Magnets are only excited by “ferrous” metals – such as the steel in standard guitar strings. Non-ferrous metals, such as brass and bronze, and non-metallic substances like nylon, will not produce any sound through a magnetic pickup.
    • Standard acoustic guitar strings, even Phosphor Bronze and 80/20 Bronze, have steel cores and will work for magnetic pickups. There are also nickel-wound strings sold specifically as electric guitar strings.
    • Usually electric guitar string sets are somewhat lighter in gauge than acoustic sets — this is because acoustic guitars need to produce a lot more sound to be effective, and heavier strings under greater tension produce more sound. Since the only thing electric guitar strings need to do is excite the magnets, they can be lighter in gauge and still work great – keep in mind that the electric guitar has the amplifier to do all of the work of making the sound louder.
  4. There are many variations in how magnetic pickups can be combined and arranged in a build.
    • There are both single-coil and double-coil (humbucker) varieties of magnetic pickup, and they can be used singly or in matched pairs on a build. One popular configuration is to have one pickup close to the neck and one close to the bridge, with either a switch or some sort of fader potentiometer to either select between them, or blend their sounds together.
    • Some builders go even further and put both a piezo and a magnetic pickup in their build, with a switch or pot to select between them, so they get a blend of electric guitar and acoustic guitar sounds. When it comes to guitar electronics, the possibilities are pretty much wide open to experimentation.
    • There are very few hard-and-fast rules of what is right and wrong, so feel free to experiment and try new things!

We hope that this brief overview of magnetic pickups is helpful and answers some of the questions you might have in regards to using one in your build. There is a great deal of additional information out there, on sites such as, as well as a number of books published on the subject.

Happy building!

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7 thoughts on “Introduction to using Magnetic Pickups”

  1. I notice there are pickups with 3, 4 and 6 magnets but does it really matter? Meaning can you use a 6 magnet with a 3 string guitar? Or is that really not producing any better sound then using a 3 magnet with 3 strings? Also, are there any single magnet pickups for single string instruments?

    I have used piezos a lot but am wanting to experiment a bit but just wanted some basic info from people who know more then I do.

  2. Most of what you say is true but you are making one big mistake. The strings don’t excite the magnets in the pickup. The actual way the pickups work is that the magnets in the pickup cause the strings to become slightly magnetic. The copper windings then create a current from the movement of the strings that are now magnetic. You can prove this by taking a pickup and removing the magnet from it… you will get no sound, but with that same magnetless guitar hold the magnet over the top of the strings and then play them again and you will get sound because the strings are now being made magnetic. Remember the copper coils can only make a current if a magnetic field is moved near them. The magnet in the pickup doesn’t move only the strings move and they only cause a current in the windings because they have become magnetic. In theory you could remove the magnet from the pickup completely if you used strings that were made of a metal that was magnetized.

  3. Would a Rear Earth Bar Magnet still work if it was slightly wider than the coils used. I have a coil from a wall. I got from a second hand shop for a buck. I was wondering if the magnet would be any more effective if it was wider than the coils or do I have to use the button type magnets?

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