Why Should I Replace My Pickups, Anyway?

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The decision to replace pickups in your guitar is one only you can make. This article will attempt to describe some of the instances where it would make sense to replace these tone-producers. Some people are relentless tinkerers, and some are afraid of a soldering iron. Either way, we can’t deny that a pickup change can make a good-sounding guitar a great-sounding one, or one that will better suit your needs at this point in your musical journey. After talking to some of my guitarist friends, spending plenty of time on the Seymour Duncan User Group Forum, and analyzing my own needs, I came up with a few different scenarios.

Reason 1: My guitar squeals at higher volumes.

He is doing this because your pickups are howling.

He is doing this because your pickups are howling.

Inexpensive guitars are so much better than they were in, say, 1983. Widespread use of computer routing has made those parts fit better and those guitarsplay in tune better than the inexpensive ones of 30 years ago. The pickups that come on inexpensive guitars certainly work better than they used to. However, things like that irritating microphonic squeal can happen at higher volumes. Seymour Duncan pickups come with wax potting on most models to eliminate this problem – an extra step that a guitar manufacturer might not take if they want a guitar to come in under a certain price point. To read more about this process, check out Orpheo’s awesome blog about it.

Reason 2: Love the guitar, but hate the sound.

Because an electric guitar’s string sits right over the pickup, we can pretty much guess how much the pickup influences the sound of the guitar. If the guitar you bought was awesome for a few years, but then played some other ones that you really liked, it is easy to just say “well, then, just buy the new guitar you liked.” But what if you really love the way your guitar plays, and how every fret tells your story, and really has become an extension of your body? Just change the pickup!

black_winter_set

The Black Winter set will give you all the chug you can hope for.

When starting on this journey, it is best to decide what you don’t like about the way your guitar sounds. Does it sound muddy and not cut through a dense mix? Go for a pickup with more clarity in the high end. Does it sound too bright, with not enough chugga chugga? Look for one with a little less treble and more bass. Find yourself in a power trio with one guitar trying to fill most of the sonic space? Go for a pickup with more mids and bass.

Reason 3: You want more control over your treble and bass content from your guitar.

You just might want to figure out what this whole active pickup thing is about. With passive pickups (which come on most guitars), you can cut the treble with the tone control. With active pickups combined with active tone controls you can boost or cut treble and bass, much like you can on a mixer. Seymour Duncan’s Blackouts can also provide a pretty significant volume boost to really slam the input of your amp. Be aware that active pickups require a battery and different volume and tone pots, output jack and battery clip which are included when you purchase them.

Blackouts for Metal, if you dare.

Blackouts for Metal, if you dare.

Reason 4: You have an old guitar that you love, but the pickups don’t sound like they used to.

Old pickups? New Antiquities.

Old pickups? New Antiquities.

You are the reason Seymour Duncan makes Antiquities, which are made to look and sound like old pickups. These will match that patina of your old guitar, but sound better than new. Not only do they look old, they are made the old way too: on vintage winding machines, with slightly weaker magnets and carefully ‘aged’ by hand. It doesn’t look quite right to put a shiny new pickup in an older, worn guitar, and the Antiquities solve this problem. Each one is unique, just like each player and guitar. They are also made as single coils as well.

Reason 5: I used to play metal when I was 17, now I like Da Blooze.

Yes, you really can change the sound of your guitar with a pickup swap! Those crushing, over-wound, high output pickups were great for those Sabbath and Priest covers when you were 17, but are a little too compressed and mid-heavy for the music you are playing now. Blues and jazz require pickups that allow a bit more control over dynamics, and emphasize different frequencies than metal, and there are better choices to help you achieve that sound. Pickups like the Alnico II Pro and the Vintage Staggered SSL-1 will get you there in a hurry. If you like a different kind of music now, do a little research to figure out what kinds of guitars your favorite players are using- this can help you decide what you might choose for your new musical journey.

Reason 6: I bought this brand new expensive guitar and I love the way it plays, but I’m used to a certain sound.

This one is a funny one. Why buy an expensive guitar if you’re going to just change the pickups anyway? The answer is, who cares! If you’re used to a certain pickup but it isn’t offered in the guitar model you have, just swap it out. Keep the original in a box so if you ever sell the guitar you can return it back to the original state AND still have your favorite pickup for the next guitar. This answer gets a little murkier with pristine vintage pieces that have never had electronics changed, but those probably wouldn’t be one of your main players anyway, right? Your guitar and your tone is yours, and swaps are easy, so go for it.

But wait, what if I can’t find the right pickup? Nothing I heard sounds quite right…

Who in the world can make replacement pickups for my V2?

Who can make replacement pickups for the V2?

Well, that is easy. Your first stop is the Tone Wizard, which can suggest pickups based on style and other parameters. You might want to try the FAQ, which will answer lots of questions about technical terms and installation. If you still need something special, unique, or own a guitar with really weird-looking pickups that you need replaced or rewound, you would want to contact the Custom Shop. They can create pretty much any pickup, in any housing, for any number of strings, and you can also design and order your own pickup at the Custom Shop online store. You can also contact them to restore vintage pickups as well, or even book your rewind/repair online.

Why do you swap out pickups on your guitars? What are some of your most favorite replacement pickup models?

Dave Eichenberger

About Dave Eichenberger

Guitarist Dave Eichenberger composes ambient music using guitar technology and looping, yet still has time to record and perform with international jazzy soul artist Julie Black. Follow him @Zoobiedood on Twitter.
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  • http://thefreelance.tumblr.com/ Jeff A. Taylor

    Hmm. “Microphonic squeal” has been the least of my concerns in swapping PUPs in lower-end guitars. Even MID range guitars. The fact is that many OEM, non-branded PUPs are just weak and poorly built. Not gonna embarrass the make but “Duncan Designed” PUPs in this set-neck, mahogany semi-hollow body were tremendously dull and wooly. In fact, there seemed to be no difference between the bridge and neck PUPs. Enter a Pearly Gates in the neck and a Custom Custom in the bridge. Completely different guitar. The built-in “darkness” of guitar opened up into a bright, dynamic axe that was great for classic rock, blues, and jazz — that Pearly Gates in the neck KILLS overdriven runs. Guys with $1K guitars complement my $600 tone. Overall, my advice would be to look for guitars with build features you want — woods, necks, tops, tuners, pots — and understand that there is probably a SD PUP that will make that guitar 500% better.

  • nate

    Years ago, i was a strat man. Then i found the wonderful world of humbuckers and les pauls. been stuck on those ever since. i still love my strat though, it plays well and just feels good. i’ve constantly been in the hunt for a pup to make it sound beefy-er. I’ve done sets of pickups, and switched out individual pups, but i’m still on the hunt. the only issue is the price of pup experimentation. right now it has a dimarzio virtual lead in the bridge and the rest are fender hot noiseless. i’ve gotten the urge for another pup change. the pearly gates may be my next set.

    • yendor

      try a Gibson 57 and 57 plus. make a great combo with just the right amount of bite and a little of the revered 59 LP sound.

  • tarnum

    Here’s the story of my romance with Duncan pickups. I have a Gibson ’76 Re Explorer as my main gigging guitar. When I bought it, the stock pups were already replaced with stylish black and white zebra ’59 and El Diablo. The former was sweet and cool but the latter was just not my kind of thing (though it lived happily ever after in bridge position of my B.C.Rich Gunslinger).

    So I head on to experiments: tried JB, Custom 5 and Alternative 8 for the bridge position, tried to swap the entire set for Gibson BB Pro, 500T/496R (stock pups for exp), and Mustaine Livewires. Custom 5 was really organic and sweet, so was JB, just a bit muddy for me. Livewires were pretty cool but I finally found their sharp edge a bit unnatural for a guitar like exp. BB Pro were just little too weak in output for such an axe, and ta-da! I found 500T/496R to be the most awful!

    I ended up installing that very zebra ’59 which was there right from the start and Alternative 8 (which I tried somewhere in the middle of my search, and then it was returning over and over). Great pup, when you need massive tone with clarity and some organic vibe, really love it.

  • JonahPhoenix

    I agree with Jeff A. Taylor 100%. Duncan Designed HB-103s sound NOTHING like a real set of SD Distortions. You can hear the difference very easily, and this is surely to do with the materials used and the build quality. I understand the need to keep production costs down for guitar manufacturers, but if you want to have detailed, complex, 3 dimensional tone, you simply CANNOT skimp on pickups.