How an Electric Guitar Piezo Pickup Actually Works

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In recent times we have seen the release of some electric guitar models with piezo pickups from the likes of ESP Guitars with their LTD EC-1000 Piezo series and Duesenberg with their Starplayer TV Plus guitars. So the question had to be asked…

How does a piezo pickup work on an electric guitar? We’re here to answer that question…

The Basics

Most modern electric guitars have pickups that are magnetic. Whether they are passive like the Seymour Duncan JB Humbucker or active like so many in the EMG range, magnetic pickups work on the same principle. The makeup and workings of a pickup are that is has a magnet or a series of magnets that are wrapped in wire coil. The magnets generate a magnetic field around them that passes up through the strings that then become partially magnetized. So when the string on the electric guitar vibrates they make a very small electric current flow through to the wire pickup coils. This is very much the same principle as to how most microphones work, which is why mics and pickups are commonly known as transducers; translating acoustic energy into small electrical signals that are then amplified.

However a piezo pickup such as the Fishman Powerbridge models is very much different and at times you wouldn’t even know they were existed in an electric guitar because unlike magnetic pickups, which are placed in a cavity between the bridge and the neck, piezo pickups are typically located inside in the saddles of the bridge itself. There’s an individual pickup in each saddle on which the string rests, and these pick up the physical vibrations of the strings as well as the actual instrument. Each piezo pickup has an attached wire and these all have to be fed into the control cavity and are commonly connected to a single preamp, which boosts the level to a useable signal and also often allows for gain and EQ adjustment. It’s a completely different system from normal magnetic pickups.

So how does a Piezo Pickups Work?

Piezoelectric materials produce an electrical signal when a stress is applied. So when the parts of a guitar vibrate during a string being plucked, the piezo crystal mounted in the bridge is subject to those same vibrations. The crystal takes the push and pulls the stresses of those vibrations and the signal gets translated and preamplified before being sent to the guitar’s output. Piezo-electric pickups, to use their proper name, are actually an older technology than that of magnetic pickups. The more important thing to know as a musician is what to expect from them tone-wise.

How Do They Sound on Electric Guitars?

It may be said that a piezo pickup on an electric guitar should produce a more acoustic-like tone, but that’s not exactly accurate. The tone would obviously differ from an acoustic guitar because of its hollow body construction, whereas an electric guitar as in the majority of cases is a solid body. So the actual physical make-up of the guitars would make be the differential in the tonal characteristics during vibration. So what is being picked up with a piezo is the sound of the strings and the vibrations caused by the resonance of the wood and the hardware… in other words, the actual sound of the guitar. And this is where the thought is as it being more akin to that of an acoustic guitar tone in many ways compared to the tone of magnetic pickups. Piezo pickups are often brighter and less warm than magnetic pickups, allowing for a high degree of string articulation and clarity in your tone. While they may not automatically turn your electric into an acoustic guitar tone-wise, they indeed represent the actual acoustic energy from your electric guitar.

Another thing to be aware of is the dynamic response of piezo pickups. Often, the active circuitry of a piezo pickup system needs to include some kind of compression, because you’ll find that a piezo behaves much differently than a magnetic pickup in regard to how loud or quite it is versus how hard or soft your playing style is. One really nice thing about piezo pickups in regard to overall sound: you won’t have to worry about picking up electrical hum because there are no magnets involved.

So how does it actually sound, check it out for yourself in the video below featuring the ESP LTD EC-1000 Piezo model.

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