While journalists and YouTubers like to wax about how impactful different tone woods or stainless steel frets can be, the pickups are really supplying most of your guitar’s tone. Yes of course your playing style and technique will affect it, but when it comes to comparing guitars against each other, pickups are the major reason for any sonic differences. Likewise, when it comes to upgrading an affordable guitar, pickups are often the best place to start.
There’s more than a few misconceptions about aftermarket pickups and when you pair that with the sheer volume of options, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed.
More Money Doesn’t Equal More Tone
This advice rings true for almost any guitar-related topic. But just because Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio are more well known companies doesn’t mean they are the only options that should be considered upgrades. In fact, I’ve played a lot of pickups myself that were half the price and just as sweet sounding. So when you’re looking for the best way to improve your Squier Strat or Epiphone Les Paul, make sure you focus on what the pickup is built for, not who built it.
It’s important to also consider the whole equation, your guitar, pickups, amps, and pedals for example. Could swapping a single coil out for a humbucker, of equal or less quality/price do the trick? Your rig may only be missing that higher output, richer sound from a distorted humbucker. So before you spend hundreds on a top tier single coil, make sure a $50 humbucker isn’t what you’re actually missing. Likewise, playing through a super high quality amp can help improve the tone of almost any guitar.
So if you’re on a strict budget but have a great amp and pedal board setup, don’t feel you need boutique, handwound pickups to unlock your guitar’s best tone. You might just need a few more hours of practice and a crunch tube amp!
How Permanent Is Your Pickup Swap?
One thing that is important to consider is how frequently you plan to mod or upgrade your guitar. If you’re looking to build the ultimate gigging or recording guitar that is going to last you a lifetime, it may be better to invest more into the pickups. If you’re unsure what your go-to sound is, or into experimenting with different tones and wiring schemes, maybe go for quantity over quality? Grab some P90s and humbuckers or at least look for a wiring harness or pickup configuration that will be easy to swap out if/when you change your mind. It’s really unwise to invest a lot of money into a pickup set if you’re not even convinced you’ll hold onto that guitar or use it regularly in the future. Not to mention that guitars don’t typically gain value from modifications. Even if you put nice pickups in a Yamaha Pacifica, it’s not really going to raise the price of the guitar on the used market to the equivalent of what you spent on the guitar plus pickups.
What If Your Dream Pickups Cost More Than Your Guitar?
This is a unique case but one that I’ve actually seen pop up in a bunch of videos. What happens if you really want a set of $500 hand wound Strat pickups in a loaded, pre-wired pickguard but you play a $300 Squier?
Well, I think that most people would probably call you crazy for installing them in such an affordable guitar but really, it’s not a bad idea. Especially if you read the above paragraph and agreed that this guitar is going to be around for the long haul. Don’t feel that you can’t use a certain pickup set because it is too good for any guitar under x amount of dollars.
If that particular guitar feels great and has sentimental value, new pickups may be the only thing it needs to be your main instrument for the next decade. While social media has us thinking we constantly need the next, great new guitar, sometimes breathing life into a trusted one is a better idea, and usually more affordable.
Make Sure You Have The Appropriate Guitar Tech Skills
Pickup swaps can get as easy or as complicated as you make them. Many companies sell pre-wired harnesses or pre-loaded pickguards which can easily just be screwed into most guitars without any soldering. However, you do need to pay close attention to what tools and skills these upgrades will require.
If you buy just a set of pickups, you will need to solder them into the Strat or Les Paul wiring harness of your guitar. If you buy a pre-loaded Strat pickup for example, it may only require soldering in the input jack or a grounding wire, or maybe none at all. Just make sure that whatever option you choose you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. There's also the option between Active vs Passive Pickups, which can further complicate the installation process.
You may want to invest in a soldering iron, or a router if you really want to expand your pickup cavity to try new pickup sizes. While upgrading or swapping out pickups is one of my favorite things to do, make sure you are 100% prepared for what you’re doing or you may incur some extra costs on yourself.
But remember, guitar mods are meant to be fun and finding the right pickups is all about getting your real life sound closer to the one you hear in your head!
Check out our buying guide on the best budget pickup options on the market and let us know how we can help make that search for tonal perfection easier!
About the Author and Contributors
A journalist from southern Rhode Island who focuses on DIY guitar mods, gear reviews, and opinion articles and has been playing guitars since he was 14.
When he's not writing or installing P-90s into guitars, he's pursuing a graduate degree in chemical oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. Follow him on Twitter @MDunn_33.
Jason Horton - Editing and Illustrating.
Main/Top Image: All photographs by Matt Dunn © Copyright - All Rights Reserved and reproduced by Gearank.com with permission.