What’s The Deal With Pickup Polarity?

If you’re reading this article, you probably were trying to order a single pickup. Trust us – it’s not too difficult to find your pickup polarity, and it’s well worth the effort. Please read this article so we can make your pickup custom to your guitar.

Imagine this scenario:

You just purchased a single Strat Bridge pickup for your guitar. You’re excited to throw it in and rock out. You get it installed. You plug it in. It sounds GREAT on its own, but when you select the Bridge with the Middle, it sounds like crap! It seems thin, hollow, and weak. What happened? Your Bridge is out of phase with the rest of your pickups.

Now you have to take the pickup out, send it back to us, and pay for shipping again to get the pickup back in phase with your other pickups. Not cool. At Fralin Pickups, we deal with polarity every day. What is Polarity? Why does it matter to you? Why does it matter to us?

Polarity:

Pickup polarity is the combination of Magnetic Direction and Coil Direction. Your Pickup can have either North or South pointing towards the strings, and the coil could be Clockwise or Counterclockwise (more on this later). Both the magnets and coil options equate to a 25% chance that your pickup will be in phase if you take a guess when ordering.

The ideal situation is to have your pickup In-Phase and Hum-Cancelling with other pickups. You’ve probably heard the term “Reverse Wound / Reverse Polarity” (RWRP) – well, that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about an In-Phase and Hum-Cancelling set or pair of pickups.


WHOA.

Are you saying there’s a 25% Chance your single-coil pickup will work correctly in my guitar? Yes. Absolutely. There are four important considerations when making a pickup. Let’s break them down:

  1. Magnetic Orientation: The top of the magnets could be South (South to Strings, in our jargon), or North.
  2. Coil Direction: Once again, there are two options: Counter-Clockwise and Clockwise).

Determining your Magnetic Orientation:

Your pickups either have North or South aimed at your strings. It’s easy to find out which one if you have a compass. It’s easy to do: hold the compass on top of your pickup, on its side. This will allow you to observe which way the compass pulls. If North pulls towards the pickup, your pickups are “South To Strings,” or “South Up” (Opposites attract). If South pulls towards your pickup, your pickup is North To Strings. 

It’s essential to know your magnetic orientation, as some pickups can have their coil direction reversed easily. For instance, a Steel Pole bobbin doesn’t have the wire touching directly on magnets, allowing you to reverse the coil direction easily. However, if you have a traditional Strat or Tele pickup, you’ll need to observe your coil direction as well:

Tricks to find Magnetic Direction:

  1. Use a compass! Opposites attract, so, if you hold a compass to the top of the pickup, it will pull the opposite towards it. You can get a cheap compass online or at a local hobby store.
  2. Use a Magnet marked North and South. Just like the compass, you’ll feel and see what orientation attracts your magnet.
Checking Magnet Direction With a Compass

We are checking Magnet Direction With a Compass. This pickup is South to Strings. 

This pickup’s magnetic orientation is checked by a Magnet marked North and South. This pickup is North to Strings.

 

 


Determining your Coil Direction:

String Polarity Diagram

Illustrated above is where the coil starts and ends. As you can see, the coil starts on the left on Bottom To Winder, and on the right with a Top to Winder pickup. The Start of the coil is always shown by our Black lead, and the last turn is denoted by our White lead. For a real-world example, see below:

Lindy Fralin Coil Direction

In the Above Image, the Strat Pickup on the Left has a Counter Clockwise coil direction, from Ground (Black) to Hot (White). A Counter-Clockwise coil direction is the same as Bottom to Winder, in our lingo. The Tele Bridge on the Right has a Clockwise coil direction, from Ground to Hot. In our lingo, the Clockwise coil direction is Top to Winder.

Tricks to find Coil Direction:

  1. Observe! The best thing to do here is to pull your pickup out and look at it. Use the diagram above to let us know before we wind it. That way, we will match your polarity.
  2. Send us a picture of the pickup out of the guitar. If we can see the leads, we can denote the coil direction.
  3. Check with your manufacturer, or do a quick search on the internet for your exact model. This is not always the best case because there is not a lot of consistency throughout the industry.

Putting it all together:

We all love the tone of a Strat®. With a 5-way switch, you can get Hum-Cancelling tones in positions 2 and 4. So, what’s going on under the hood? See the diagram below to see how reversing the Coil Direction, and Magnetic Orientation between pickups can give you hum-canceling tones that sound great:

Strat Polarity Diagram

 

By reversing both directions, magnetic and coil direction, we get hum-canceling tones in positions 2 & 4 of your 5-way switch, and your pickups are in phase with each other. The same applies for virtually any instrument that uses Single Coil pickups: Telecasters, Jazz Basses, Mustangs, and Jazzmasters…the list goes on.


Possible Situations:

Reversing only one “attribute” of a pickup will put the pickup out of phase with its neighbors. Only by reversing both Magnetic Direction and Coil Direction do we keep our pickup in phase, and hum-canceling. Keep reading for some common outcomes of out-of-phase guitar pickups:

Possible Problem #1: Both Coils are in the same direction, but the magnet direction is opposite between pickups.

  • These pickups are out of phase, and when used together, will sound weak, hollow, and thin. A lot of midrange is canceled out.

Possible Problem #2: Coils in different directions, but the pickups are magnetized the same.

  • These pickups are out of phase, and when used together, will sound weak, hollow, and thin. A lot of midrange is canceled out.

Possible Problem #3: Both Pickups are the same coil direction and magnetic orientation.

  • These pickups will be in phase, however, they will not be hum-cancelling.

Part 2: Hum-Cancelling pickups

Hum-cancelling pickups are a little easier to identify, as one part of the puzzle is already given to us. A Humbucker (this can be our Hum-Cancelling P-90’s, Hum-Cancelling Jazzmasters, Split Blades, etc.) has both magnetic directions already. So, you don’t need to worry about Magnetic Orientation. What you do need to know is Coil Direction. This is really easy – just order your pickup with Multiple Leads!

Fralin Pickups 2-Conductor Lead

This 2-Conductor Lead has a White, Black, and Chassis Ground (Shield / Bare). The shield goes to ground. White and Black can reverse if your pickup is out of phase.


As you can see, Polarity can be a little confusing. We hope this helps break it down. If you have questions, give us a call! We’ll do our best to help.

55 Comments

  1. A precision pickup has two separate coils, each with a different polarity and winding direction , what is the correct way to wire them together and which magnetic polarity coil is used for the E and A strings, this is in a PJ configuration the J pickup has a polarity north against the strings? Thanks

  2. Hi Lindy,

    So what’s the deal with basses? Specifically PJ basses? I have a Fender P in a PJ configuration but the J pick up is wrong for many reasons, which I won’t bother with here. But I want a vintage sound, rather than the offered PJ set here in your shop, plus I love the P pickup I already have. But P pickups are split singles, so does all of the above still apply? And how do you even tell if your pickups are out of phase?

    1. Hey Fred,

      That’s a good question about P/J basses. The deal here is that you usually have a Hum-Cancelling P-Bass pickup and a Single-Coil J-Bass pickup. If your pickups are out-of-phase, you can quickly remedy this by reversing the White and Black leads on the P-Bass pickup only.

      You can tell when your pickups are out of phase when you run both pickups simultaneously. If you experience a thin, hollow, nasally tone, you know your pickups are out of phase with each other.

  3. Hello, I have a 1953/54 Fender champion lap steel pickup for a lead position in a telecaster project. This old pickup is North up polarity. I need a rythm telecaster pickup but I am not sure what polarity is needeed ? Thanks a lot ! Alex

  4. I have a 1953 Epiphone Zenith archtop. I want to have a pickup – either single coil or humbucker – attached to the end of the fretboard. I’m not thinking about having a volume control or anything else attached to a pickguard (which I don’t have). I want the pickup connected to an endpin jack and control volume and tone with a pre-amp. Looking for an old DeArmond sound, or something similar to the old gold foil pickups that used to be on Harmony guitars. Any thoughts about what’s available that could come close to what I want?

  5. You write: “Pickup polarity is the combination of Magnetic Direction and Coil Direction. Your Pickup can have either North or South pointing towards the strings, and the coil could be Clockwise or Counterclockwise (more on this later). Both the magnets and coil options equate to a 25% chance that your pickup will be in phase if you take a guess when ordering.”

    Polarity in this context should refer just to the magnet – nothing else. Using it to refer to the combination gets too confusing – you then have to explain that the “polarity” in “RWRP” just means the magnets’ (relative) polarity. Since RWRP is so widely used, reserve polarity for how it is used there, for the magnet(s) only. Other manufacturers do that. So their material (and other published information) explains things in ways that contradict yours.

    And there is not a 25% chance that a pickup will be in-phase. Firstly a SINGLE pickup is neither in-phase NOR out-of-phase. Phase only relates to two pickups – and they are either in-phase or out-of-phase with EACH OTHER. So any pickup has a 50% chance of being in-phase (or out-of-phase) with any other pickup.

    Engineers will still understand the nuances without you confusing the average player.

    1. Hey AH,

      These are good points here, and we’d like to clarify our argument:
      1.) Lindy refers to Polarity as a combination of the Magnetic Polarity (he says orientation, but we understand that magnets have ‘poles’) as well as wind direction. He mainly thinks of polarity as a combination of the two. We understand where you are coming from! This could be a simpler way of describing it, or understanding it.

      2.) The 25% in this scenario refers to being both in-phase AND hum-cancelling, which is the best-case scenario. When you factor in two pickups, each with a magnetic orientation (polarity) and wind direction, at it’s simplest form, yes – there’s a 25% chance that you’ll achieve both hum-cancelling and being in phase.

      Hope that clears up our position!

  6. What if I were to go with HS, the single coil being RWRP and the humbucker being 4-Conductor, could I have Neck/Neck+Split Humbucker/Humbucker and still have the middle position be hum canceling?

  7. Hi! I have a 2 pickup jazzmaster with a Gibson burstbucker in bridge and the middle seems out of phase. Do I need a new pickup to get middle in phase or is it wired wrong? Thanks

    1. Hey Gary,

      Thanks for your question.

      Your pickups are out of phase with each other. If you have multiple leads on your Burstbucker, you can resolve this. You’ll need to reverse white and ground to change the coil direction. I’m not 100% familar with Gibson Burstbucker Wiring, however. Please note if you have Gibson Braided lead, you cannot reverse the humbucker. You may be able to reverse the leads of your neck pickup, but, you risk having ‘hot’ magnets.

  8. What about a situation in which the guitar has two four wire humbuckers connected to a coil splitting DPDT switch?
    The configuration is one volume, one tone, and a three way pickup selector (neck on, both on, bridge on). I bought this single cutaway solid body guitar because I love how it plays, but it has been “modded” with high output hum buckers and the coil split switch.

    The pickups have their screw sides facing opposite directions (neck side screws face neck, bridge side screws face bridge). In all switch positions, the pickups sound weak and thin like they are out of phase. Could it be that the hot wires need to be reversed on both pickups at the DPDT coil split switch, or could the direction the pickups face cause the problem (currently in opposite directions)?

  9. Hi, thank you for all the info! I find this article as well as so many others on this site amazing, so I appreciate it. This article cleared up a lot of questions for me about phase and polarity, but also made me question humbuckers even more than I was before.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but a humbucker is usually essentially two single coils that are in phase and hum-cancelling, so they are “Reverse Wound / Reverse Polarity” (RWRP), right?

    So how is this achieved if humbuckers only have one magnet? And how does this come into play when combining two humbuckers together? Are there any articles that go into detail about this that you can point me to?

    Thank you very much!

    1. Hey Nathan,

      You’re correct in your thinking that a Humbucker is two single coils that are in phase and hum-cancelling. You’re able to achieve two magnet orientation by using one bar magnet. One side of the Bar magnet (let’s say the Screw Side is North, the back of the magnet would magnetize the Slug Side South).

      I hope that clears it up!

    2. Hi,
      I have an American Tele with twisted Tele in neck and custom shop vintage in the bridge. I would like to put a P92 in neck position… will that work? do I need to change cap? polarity? Love the sound of P92
      Mike

  10. Hello,

    I am currently doing a Mustang build with a Seymour Duncan JB Jr in the bridge. I was looking at the Fralin Mustang Vintage pickup for the neck but after reading the polarity article have some concerns. What would you advise? Thanks!

    1. Hey Joe,

      Polarity should be no issue with these if you order your pickup with “3-Wire” configuration. The 3 Wire configuration allows you to reverse the phase. When you order 3-Wire Configuration, you’ll get a White, Black, and a Blue. The Blue is ‘chassis ground’, and should remain grounded. White is normally hot, and Black is normally ground. However, if you’re out of phase in the middle position, you can reverse this (white goes to ground, black is hot) and you’ll be in phase.

      Tyler

    1. Hey Cyrus,

      The only issue there is coil direction from your humbucker since humbuckers have both magnetic directions. That being said, if you have a humbucker where you can reverse the entire coil direction (2-Conductor with Shield, 3-Conductor With Shield, 4-Conductor with Shield), you’ll be good no matter what you choose to put in the Neck and Middle. Keep in mind that Gibson-lead humbuckers cannot be reversed.

      Hope that helps!

      Tyler

  11. Bit of a unique case here. I’m building a steel-string Kora, with 2 x sets of 8 strings 25mm apart from each other.
    If I use one pickup in the middle of these two sets of strings, one set of strings will be picked up by the South/Clockwise side of the pickup, and the other will be picked up on North/anticlockwise side. Any idea if this would work at all, and if so would it sound terrible?

    Thanks,
    Chris

    1. Hey Chris,

      This situation will work fine. It’s the same thing as a Strat or a Tele when in positions 2 (or 2 & 4 on a Strat). As long as the “hots” go to the output, and “blacks” go to ground, you’ll have traditional Parallel Wiring, and hum-canceling.

      Hope that helps.

      Tyler

  12. Interesting article, thank you. What about the “rule of thumb”? It indicates that pointing the thumb to north direction and doing the “hitchhiker” gesture the other four fingers would indicate the direction of the magnetic field and so the direction of the current inducted into the wire. Following that I’d think that the ideal winding direction of a north pickup would be counterclockwise and clockwise on a pickup pointing south. Do you consider that or doesn’t that make a difference?

    1. Hey Ralf,

      Yes, it is true that the “right-hand rule” is how a signal generates in the pickup. However, it doesn’t matter which coil direction or magnetic direction is combined – it still generates a signal either way. Also, in order to have a hum-canceling pair, you need one of each.

      Great question!

      Tyler

  13. Is it okay that I mixed a Fralin Stock Tele at the bridge, and a Fralin Steel Pole 43 at the neck on my telecaster? Nothing has sounded out of the ordinary since installing them a while back, but I just want to make sure.

  14. Hi, I was actually ordering some pickups off amazon and neither of these sets have multiple leads, and it doesn’t tell me what direction they were wound in. I’m building a three humbucker guitar from scratch, it’s my first guitar and quite a big project, so I was wondering how one might adapt if they were coiled opposite without multiple leads. (Double Coil humbucker set and a mini humbucker set)

    1. Hey Ryan,

      If it’s a traditional humbucker design, you can flip the magnet to reverse the phase of the pickup. If you were doing a Humbucker Set and a Mini Humbucker Middle, you’d have to flip both the Neck and Bridge magnets. This would reverse the phase of the entire pickup, putting it back in Phase with the other pickup.

      Hope this helps, let me know if you have any other questions.

      Tyler

  15. Hey Tyler,

    I have a beautiful American Deluxe Tele that I want to turn into a Nashville Tele. I pulled up the pick guard when installing a set of your Blues Special pups a few years back and found it was already routed for a middle pup. I wanted know if a middle position Blues Special Strat Pup will work with the Blues Special Tele Pups I have already installed. I typically play country lead guitar. Any other Fralin pup suggestions to go with my Blues Specials I would greatly appreciate. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hey Steve,

      Putting a pickup in between a set of Tele pickups is a little more complicated, polarity-wise. Right now, you have a RW / RP Neck pickup, compared to your bridge. Adding a Middle Pickup in between the two would require the Neck Pickup to be converted to the same polarity as your Bridge, reversing the coil direction and magnetic orientation. You would have to purchase a Reverse Wound Neck and a Strat Middle Pickup. Also, we’ve changed the way we do Telecaster Polarity since 2018. If this set is pre-Jan 1 2018, we would have to custom make a Middle Pickup as well. Feel free to call for more details.

      Tyler

  16. If I have 3 strat pick-ups and neck and bridge are south facing and middle is north facing and all lead hot wires are on same side, let’s say left when looking from bottom, all grounds on the right, can I just swap the middle hot and ground to achieve noise canceling and no weak signals?

    Thanks!

    1. Robbie,

      You should be able to – that’s the concept! However, if you have the chassis of the pickup grounded through the black lead, then you’ll want to try to reverse it. If you have a 2-Conductor lead, with a White, Black, and Shield (Bare), you will have no issue performing this.

      Tyler

      1. I found out more info and hooked them up on an old pick guard last night. They are all Fender pickups. The neck and bridge are pure vintage 65’s with a white and black wire. The middle is a RWRP Fat 60’s with a yellow and black wire. My buddy says he thinks the fat 60’s are wound opposite of most Fender pickups. Seems to be correct so far I just switched the hot for ground and visa versus on the middle and 2&4 are quiet. I will swap out into the guitar in the next few days as that will be the only true test. How will I know if phase is off? If that’s the correct terms. I read it will sound weak per your article?

        Thanks

  17. I have a P90 strat style guitar. It has 3 P90 pickups although they suck and the middle is out of phase. I would like to upgrade these to 3 new P90’s with the middle being reverse wound. Can you recommend a set? These are the normal P90’s that screw into the body from the two middle screws (Not dog ear).

    1. Hey Jenn,

      Sure thing – our P90 Set would work fine, and you would just need to order (2) Necks and (1) Bridge. In the “Notes” field on the checkout screen, you can say these are a 3-P90 Set, and we’ll get you straight!

  18. Hi all, I’ve been researching adding a Vintage Strat bridge pickup to my config now that has a Fat50’s neck and Squire pups in middle and bridge. When we installed the Fat 50s neck position I had to have the tech reverse polarity of them to get it right. Would I have to do that when adding your Vintage Strat bridge pup?

    PS Big fan of your work as I already have your pups in my Tele and other Strat with SSHB config.

    1. Hey David,

      It’s impossible to tell without more information. It could work, but there’s a 75% chance it won’t. I would recommend finding the magnetic polarity and coil direction, and we can make a pickup to match.

      Tyler

  19. Some noiseless bass pickups have 1 magnet by chords and 1 coil for 2 magnets and 1 coils in oposite direction for the 2 other magnets. Commected together it works as a single coil with hum cancellin function included. Great.
    But I see also this kinf od pickup for 5 string bass. How are they doing?
    Thank you

    1. We’ve only seen “stacked versions of the 5-String Jazz Bass pickups, which have never impressed us. That being said…we are working on a 5-String Split Blade for Jazz Bass, for this year!

      Tyler

  20. Hello,

    I have a circular compas. The needle has a green mark. But…the compass itself I can turn it 360 degrees. This means that when I hold N near the pick-up magnet and the needle is pulled towards the magnet, it does not tell me if it is north or south, because the needle is always attracted to the magnet,equal which letter of the compass is attracted by the magnet. also when I turn the body of the compass in equal which direction.IOW: when I hold the compass with the letter W close to the magnet , the needle shows E . This means that a North- South magnet is always correct. With a compass you first need to calibrate the compass to the north-pole of the earth, and after that moving the pick-up towards the compass.

  21. I have a “The Loar” archtop with a single P90 in the neck position. The pickup has 48mm pole spacing for some dumb ass reason. the Guitar in that spot has 52mm string spacing.
    So… I need a neck position, 52mm pole spacing P90. Can you do that? I can find lots of 52 mm but are all bridge wound pickups. Not sure what that would work like.

  22. Good evening, if I feel the magnet attracting to the pole piece, do i use that side to charge or the opposite side (retracting) to charge pickups? And vice versa, if I feel the magnet retracting (attracting away) do i use the opposite side of the magnet to charge?

    1. Hey Tony,

      If we’re talking about our Remag kit with the Neodymium Magnet, then you are 100% correct. Don’t let the magnets repel – that will demagnetize the pickup’s magnet. Make sure everything is attracting.

      Thanks for your question!

  23. I have about a dozen electric guitars with a whole host of different pickups that produce a great variety of sounds, but I don’t have or have I ever had a guitar with a P-90 pickup, a PAF pickup, a lipstick pickup, or any of several other different “off the beaten track” types of pups. I would like to put together some sort of hybrid electric that has perhaps three such pickups, starting from a body style “TBD” (I have a lot of Strat and Tele types, and want something different, maybe from Warmoth, AllParts, or the like, but don’t know what I want yet). Tentatively, I’m thinking P-90 (my only *definite* choice), probably in the bridge position – but the jury’s still out on the other two choices and their positions – and, of course, I’ll want to optimize my tonal prospects with those push-pull pots and/or switches. SO… what do you suggest I use in order to optimize my tonal variety?! I don’t care at all about conventions, and do want some eclecticism but without thinness – your suggestions?

  24. What is the proper high output noiseless or lower noise p90 dogear to replace the slug dogear in my gibson lp jr?

  25. I want to put a P.A.F. in the bridge position of my road worn fender stratocaster. It has fender custom shop 69 p/u’s in it now and I plan on leaving those in the neck and middle positions. I play mostly blues and hard rock stuff like SRV and AC/DC no metal or anything. Just looking for a little extra “beef” for lead work with the blues and some extra punch for the rock n roll… I want a nickel cover and it appears to me that people use neck pick ups for this mod? Please help so I can order the correct pick up. I like to measure twice and cut once. Thanks!

    1. Scott,

      It sounds like you want a 8.2K Pure P.A.F. bridge with 3-Conductor Lead. Make sure you get that lead as you won’t have any polarity problems if you do.

      Tyler

  26. My name is matt boren. I have an old kramer with the angled bridge humbucker and two single coils. I’m going to gut all of that out and order just a bridge position pure paf @ 8.2k. I’m going to also order a split shaft 500 k pot. I’m only going to run the bridge pickup, and i need a 52 mm pole spacing. In a single humbucker application do i need 3 or 4 lead? Also i have no idea what direction north or south or does it matter in a single pickup? Also i want it w black bobbins and no cover. My phone # is 843-729-5723

  27. Apologies. Now I need to retract my previous comment, because:
    The north pole of a compass needle is a magnetic north pole. It is attracted to the geographic North Pole, which is a magnetic south pole (opposite magnetic poles attract).

  28. No No No. Wrong.
    A compass north always points to the North Pole. So the compass North will point to the north polarity of any magnet.
    Basic physics. The compasses north pointy end (usually red) has been magnetised as a south polarity, otherwise it wouldn’t point north.

    1. The earth’s north pole is actually a magnetic south pole. A compass’ north pole is, in fact, a north magnetic pole.

  29. Excellent descriptions, Ty. And you used one of my favorite expressions, “pop the hood”! I just said it today!

  30. I got this site from my buddy who shared with me concerning this site
    and now this time I am browsing this web site and reading very informative articles or reviews at this
    time.

  31. Hi, I’m considering adding a dummy coil for hum cancelling to my rig. The wiring for this is apparently quite simple. My question is, I have an old pickup from a Mexican Strat that I want to use for the dummy coil. I have pulled off the bar magnets, and measured the resistance at 6.85 ohms. This appears to be a bit more than most vintage style pickups. I have a Callaham prewired pickguard assembly, with the H/SRV special wind Lindy Fralin pickups. Will this work, or will I need a lower resistance dummy coil? I have read that the dummy coil needs to be 50% to 80% of the pickups. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi, I have a Gibson ES-175 with two humbuckers. I want to replace just the neck pickup with one of your humbucker-sized P90s. Is polarity going to be an issue? Since the bridge humbucker will remain a noise-canceling pickup will I gain any noise canceling from the P90 when the selector switch is in the middle? To match the output volumes would an underwound or overwound P90 be preferable? Any other considerations? Thanks in advance.

      1. Hey Christopher,

        If you’re purchasing the Single Coil P90s, then yes – but, all you need to order is 2-Conductor With Shield lead for reversing the coil direction.

        You will notice a significant drop in single coil hum when in the middle position, but it won’t be 100% hum cancelling. I would probably go with the Stock output or a +5% Overwind just to be safe!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *