The ‘50s and the ‘60s were of great importance to the development of the electric guitar, with some basic standards being set and still used to this very day.
Most of the guitars you stumble upon have multiple pickups to choose from, giving players a great variety of tones. usually, adopting two or three humbuckers or single-coils.
Each of the pickups has its position – bridge, middle, or neck. Here, I will be taking a closer look at the issue and finding the main differences between a bridge and neck pickup. So let’s get into it with my short answer…
My Short Answer…
The main difference between neck and bridge pickup is the bridge sounds brighter, sharper and more piercing used for riffs, lead lines, rhythm, and solos. In Contrast, the neck pickup sounds warmer, thicker and darker usually used for lead solos and melodies.
This Video Explains all (Watch Below)
Of course, there are different variations involved here, depending on whether the guitar has single coils or humbuckers or a combination of these two.
Either way, I’ll shed some light on this topic and, hopefully, you’ll be familiar with some basic differences by the end of this article.
The Bridge Pickup Sound
The first and the most obvious difference, aside from their position, is in the tone. The bridge pickup has a sharper tone – more defined and with a bit more high-end frequencies in it.
A vast majority of those distorted heavy riffs you’ve heard are played through a bridge pickup, most likely a humbucker. The bridge pickups pick up the signal from the string vibration closer to the bridge, making the tone “tighter” and “punchier.”
The bridge position produces that “spanky” tone when played with no distortion, kind of what you would get if you played very close to the bridge on an acoustic guitar. It usually allows you to cut through the mix when playing with a band, giving you tighter and more defined tone.
The differences are pretty obvious and can be heard right away, giving you more options to play around with and have more tones. Now, as stated above, both bridge pickup and neck pickup have their own roles in songs.
While we’re at it, the tone of the bridge pickup really cuts through the mix on distortion or overdrive.
A vast majority of those chunky heavy riffs that you hear in most of the hard rock and heavy metal songs is played using a bridge pickup, usually a humbucker.
As opposed to the neck tone, the bridge pickup is a bit heavier on the treble side. In addition, the bridge pickups are usually played with the tone kob all the way up, using their maximum potential.
In some cases, you’ll have to turn the tone knob just a little bit down if you want to lose some of the excessive trebles in clean tones.
The Guitar Riff
The bridge pickup is often used for distorted riffs or rhythm parts, whereas the neck is used for some lead parts.
The funny part is that the labels at the switch usually say “rhythm” for the neck pickup, and “treble” for the bridge. This is an older concept, and with the development of rock music, the roles of pickups on different positions have changed.
But with this in mind, you are free to use them as you wish and whatever suits the music that you’re making or reinterpreting. At the end of the day, there are no strict rules to stick by when it comes to making your own music.
The Neck Pickup Sound
When it comes to the neck pickup, this one picks up the signal closer to the neck. The tension there is not as strong, the string vibrates with a bigger amplitude, and the tone coming from the pickup is more mellow, thicker, and rounder, sometimes even a bit “muddy.”
It is often used for some fingerpicking or clean rhythms, for solos on distortion or overdrive, or you can even hear it in some clean or slightly overdriven jazz or blues solos.
The neck pickup, as stated above, gives out the more mellow and “round” tone. The strings above the neck pickup are a bit looser and, as a result, the tone will have less attack to it. However, despite being more mellow, it does sound “bigger” compared to the bridge pickup.
There are more lower-end frequencies in there, making it sound muffled, yet somehow really warm and appealing.
Another word that could be used here is “tender,” especially if we’re talking about some clean tones on the neck pickup with the tone pot rolled down just a bit. This is how you get that classic warm, mellow, and “round” jazz tone.
If we’re talking about distorted guitar, then think about classic hard rock lead guitar parts. In a lot of cases, you can hear the famous rock guitar legends playing lead parts through the neck pickup.
Famous Neck Pickup Intro
One of the good examples that can be used here is “Sweet Child O’ Mine” intro and the first half of the song’s solo. In the second half of the solo, you can clearly hear that sharper tone of a bridge pickup that’s further enhanced by a wah pedal.
Another example is “Still Got The Blues” by Gary Moore. If you listen, the tone is a thick and creamy sounding Les Paul on the neck pickup. Used for that recognizable bluesy melody. The list could go on….
Using the neck pickup has its purpose in rock music. However, you won’t often hear it used for those chunky riffs. Playing power chords on the A and E strings through the neck pickup might make your tone too blurry.
Experiment With Both
Of course, this is sometimes the desired effect and you’re always free to experiment. But in most cases, it will be expected of you to not play the riffs using the neck pickup.
It’s better left for some clean parts, more mellow melodies on overdrive or softer distortion, or for high gain lead parts where you will mostly be playing single notes on the higher strings.
An important thing to mention here is that pickups are specially designed for both bridge and neck positions. The pickups for the bridge position usually have more output to compensate for the smaller string amplitude near the bridge.
And the opposite, the neck pickups usually have less output, thus giving a more even and balanced volume for both positions.
Difference Between a 3-Way and a 5-Way Selector Switch
You’ve definitely seen pickup selectors on electric guitars. This is one of the most important components, letting you choose between the pickups and different combinations of pickups. The two main types of these switches are a 3-way selector and a 5-way selector.
Now, the most standard two humbucker guitars will have a 3-way selector switch. Position 1 selects the bridge pickup, the middle position selects both humbuckers, giving you that “nasally” tone that’s not used that often, and the third position selects the neck pickup. These are found on guitars like Les Pauls, SGs, or any others that feature the two humbuckers or two single-coils.
As for the 5-way switch, these are usually found on Fender Stratocasters or any guitars that have three pickups. They select five different combinations: bridge, bridge and middle, middle, middle and neck, and neck positions.
These additional two combinations of two pickups on Strats give that sparkling clean bluesy tone or the twangy country tone.
In some cases, you’ll stumble upon guitars with two humbuckers that have a 5-way switch. These are pretty interesting as they “split” the humbuckers and use different combinations of the pickups’ individual coils.
This way, you can also get some of those sparkling single-coil combinations even though you don’t have single-coil pickups on your guitar.
Thanks For Reading
Ever wondered why some pickups appear slightly angled in some guitars? like the bridge pickup in a Stratocaster and Telecaster for example?
Then you should read my next post “Why Are Some Guitar Pickups Angled?” The reason and history of this modification will surprise you!