How electric guitars actually work is a fairly interesting topic especially after you’ve looked into the history and the science of it. The stories of George Beauchamp, Les Paul, Leo Fender, the origin of pickups, and how amplifiers and pickups work in conjunction with each other go back approximately one hundred years ago.
It’s an invention that had a colossal impact on the world’s music and culture. What’s equally fascinating is how the electric guitar manages to produce sound without actually being directly powered by an external source. This begs the question of whether the guitar or its strings are electrically conductive.
Guitar strings are conductive to electricity because they’re made out of steel core wire and wrapped with nickel-plated steel. Both steel and nickel are conductive, albeit less than copper, however, what makes nickel so useful for guitar strings is that it’s magnetized easily at room temperature.
According to Live Science, nickel, the 28th element on the periodic table, is a good conductor of electricity and it’s one of the few elements – in fact, there are only four of them – that are ferromagnetic, the scientific term that describes its ability to be magnetized easily at room temperature. Guitar players know that pickups actually have magnets inside of them, so the fact nickel is ferromagnetic makes it great for coating strings such as D’Addario’s 10-46 gauge strings from Amazon.
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Why Guitar Strings Have To Be Magnetically and Electrically Conductive
Pickups are just magnets that are wrapped hundreds of times with copper wire. Copper wire is the most conductive metal, so much so that it’s even the standard by which the conductivity of other metals is measured. Legend has it that German miners had actually confused nickel ore for copper ore, so they named it “kupfernickel” after a demon in German mythology.
“Kupfer” was eventually dropped by the name by the scientists who isolated it as an element. There are two different types of magnets that are used by guitar manufacturers, alnico, which is an alloy of aluminum, cobalt, and nickel combined together, and then there is ceramic, which are often used in P90 pickups like what can be seen on some Gibson Les Paul guitars.
P90s like Seymour Duncan’s Antiquity (on Amazon) are classics that used to be found all the time on guitars, especially on the legacy brands like Gibson, Fender, Grestch, and Rickenbacker. You can still find them everywhere, of course, but they’re not as popular as they used to be especially with the newer generation of guitar players.
Because of the process by which these magnets pick up on the vibrations from guitar strings, the guitar strings need to be somewhat magnetic, otherwise, there would be no interaction between the vibration of the strings and the magnets inside of the pickups.
In other words, electric guitars use a scientific process called electromagnetism, which is also called electromagnetic induction. According to Explain That Stuff, “electromagnetic induction” is the more precise term that is also more correct as well. Apparently, this is the same process by which a dynamo-powered light works – (the type of light that’s powered by the biker working the pedals). You can see what that looks like down below:
Fundamentally, a dynamo is a coil of wire that wraps around a magnet. When the coil rotates, it penetrates the magnetic field created by the magnet – the result of this is that electricity then travels through the coil. The coil is connected via wire to the lamp and the electrical current immediately begins to provide power to the light.
To explain everything simply – and also to get to the main point of the matter – the changing magnetic field as a result of the rotating coil is what makes the electricity. The more accurate term is “induced,” rather than “made.”
Any time you modify a magnetic field, you get voltage (electricity). Additionally, and this is an interesting point, the inverse is true. This means that if you change an electric field, you get magnetism. Put simply, if an electrical current travels through a coil of wire, it creates a magnetic field around itself. This is the process by which people control magnets via electricity; it’s called an electromagnet.
As I explained in more detail in my article on the magnetism of guitar strings, electricity and magnetism are both two parts of the same scientific principle: electromagnetism. So how this all relates to electric guitars has to do with the guitar strings – made out of steel core wire and plated with nickel – which acts a lot like the dynamos that I just mentioned. In fact, you’ll notice that I explained the dynamo so it sounded a lot like a guitar pick-up (a magnet wrapped in coil wire).
Whenever a player strikes the string and they vibrate, they make electricity which is then “picked up” by the pickups (makes sense why they call them that). The pickups, as I mentioned above, are just magnets with hundreds (or maybe thousands) of very thin wire wrapped around them.
The magnets in the pickups generate a magnetic field that passes up to the strings. Due to this magnetic field being passed through the strings, they become magnetized a bit, and when they vibrate, there is a small electrical current that flows into the wire pickup coils.
The pickups are then hooked up to an electrical device like an amplifier and cabinet combination such as Yamaha’s THR30II which can be found on ZZounds, and it then boosts the electrical current of the guitar and sends it through a massive speaker. As most guitarists know, this amplifier/speaker system combined is called a guitar amplifier and they come in many, many different shapes, sizes, models, and types.
How Electric Guitars, Magnets, and Guitar Strings Produce Sound
In the image you can see below, there are six different components or pieces to the puzzle. You have the bar magnet which is in the pickup, the magnetic field, the guitar strings, coil of thin wire, the amplifier, and then the loudspeaker. All of these work together in the following way to produce the sound that we all know is an electric guitar:
1) The magnet inside of the pickup produces a magnetic field that extends upward, downward, and all around. It’s an invisible effect that’s produced by the magnet.
2) The magnetic field that’s produced by the magnet lays the groundwork for the magnetized guitar strings.
3) The guitar strings which are just above the magnetized pickups also become magnetized due to being in proximity to the magnets. Whenever the player plucks the strings, there is a new magnetic field created.
4) As I mentioned above, the pickups are wrapped in hundreds or even thousands of coil wires, and these core wires pick up on the magnetic field and also create their own tiny electrical current that runs through the coil wires.
5) This electrical current is then sent through an amplifier which literally boosts or amplifies the electrical current enough so that it can actually push through a speaker.
As you can see by the steps laid out above, there is a point in the process where the strings actually have to be somewhat ferromagnetic and conductive, otherwise, there probably wouldn’t be any energy. The guitar strings have to be ferromagnetic because otherwise, they wouldn’t respond to being in the magnetic field produced by the coil wire wrapped around the magnets (the pickups).
This all begs the question as to how nylon string guitars like the Martin 000C12 from ZZounds work, more specifically, electric nylon string guitars that also use an amplifier. Regular acoustic guitars also use conductive materials for their strings like phosphor bronze and the same steel core wires, however, nylon string guitars are made out of nylon, a synthetic fabric, rather than steel. In other words, if magnetically charged pickups need ferromagnetic strings to operate, how do nylon electric guitars work?
How Nylon Acoustic Guitars Work With Piezo & B-Band Pickups
Like I already discussed in my other article, rather than use magnetic pickups that work via magnetic fields created by a coil wire and magnets, piezo pickups work as a result of pressure, electrical charges, and string vibrations. They’re necessary for nylon string guitars, because, as the name of them suggests, they’re made out of nylon which isn’t magnetic and won’t respond to the magnetic field created by the pickups.
Piezo pickups work by using piezoelectric crystals like quartz – the type of rock that can produce a voltage if pressure is applied to it. If you put a piezoelectric transducer underneath the bridge of a guitar, the strings’ vibrations actually cause a change in voltage which is then amplified. In other words, the transducer uses a compressed crystal to transform the vibrations into a signal which is translated and then pre-amped before finally being sent to the guitar’s output.
Just to wrap up all of these scientific concepts in a bow, regular pickups use electromagnetism and piezo pickups use crystals – it’s as simple as that. One thing that’s worth mentioning is that piezo pick-ups actually use much older technology than electromagnetic pickups. Piezoelectricity, founded by Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880, has supposedly been used in practical application for more years than the theory of electromagnetism, but this is disputed and changes depending on who you ask.
YouTube Video Tutorial
1) KNA NG-1 Piezo Pickup for Nylon String Guitar on Amazon.
2) Seymour Duncan’s Antiquity P90s also on Amazon
3) D’Addario 10-46 Guitar Strings again on Amazon
4) Yamaha’s THR30II on ZZounds
5) Martin’s 000C12-16E from ZZounds