As a guitar teacher, I get asked this question a lot. Since pickups can radically change or expand the tonal options available from an electric guitar, would it be better to just change the pickups or save up for a whole new guitar? As a guitar tech, it’s tempting to always suggest new pickups, as I might be the one installing them (even though it’s an easy process). As a player, I usually give this advice: it depends. This article will focus on what it actually depends on, and how you might reach a conclusion that is right for you, your budget, and your expectations.
We Start with the Guitar
Chances are, you started playing on an inexpensive guitar. These days, inexpensive instruments are a lot better than they were back when I started. They play in tune (and stay in tune), use decent materials and are fairly easy to play. Back up about 30 or 40 years and that wasn’t the case. The cheaper guitars back then had no concept of intonation, and the pickups would squeal like a pig when plugged into a fuzz pedal. Guitars like this were built before the aftermarket pickup idea even was a thing, and what we had, we stayed with. The only cure for the inherent sonic problems here would be to look at more professional instruments. Today, inexpensive mass-produced instruments are available everywhere, as well as thousands of models of pickups. So, if you have a more modern guitar than I had, with standard-sized single coils or humbuckers, you can start by asking questions about the guitar itself :
Do I like my guitar?
Does it fit my body?
Is it too heavy?
Can I get to the controls quickly?
Does it make me look awesome?
Do I feel awesome?
Understand that a pickup change is never going to make a guitar’s shape look better to you, or make it lighter, or make the knobs and switches easier to get to. A new pickup will not help a guitar stay in tune, or make sure notes up and down the neck are in tune. It will not fix action problems or structural problems. A pickup will not make you look or feel less dorky. While we all love getting more guitars, do you like the one you have (regardless of price)? In other words, does the guitar, even unplugged, make you want to pick it up?
If you like your guitar…
This is great! To understand what a pickup change can do, we have to ask ourselves some more questions:
Do I hate the way my guitar sounds?
Do I wish I could get more sounds out of my guitar?
Do I have single coils and wish I had a humbucker?
Is my sound not crunchy enough?
Is my sound too crunchy?
Is my sound too bright/dark/muffled/piercing?
Does my guitar squeal with distortion or higher volumes?
The good news is that you’re in luck. Pickup changes can absolutely fix all of these problems and drastically alter the sound of your guitar. A great playing and structurally sound guitar (this includes modern inexpensive instruments) can certainly benefit from the sonic upgrade a pickup change provides. Got a Strat but it sounds too thin and twangy? Add a Hot Rails for Strat! Have a Flying V you love, but it makes all of your blues licks sound like a pile of mud? Add a Pearly Gates! Have a guitar that has two humbuckers, but want it to sound more like a Strat? Check out the Stag-Mag and use a switch to split it! Research is free, so spend some time looking at pickup descriptions and if it seems overwhelming, ask a question on the Seymour Duncan User Group Forum or on the Seymour Duncan Facebook wall. Describe your guitar, what you don’t like about the sound, and what you are looking for. Chances are that another forumite has faced the same dilemma, and would be happy to share his/her experiences. It will make it easier when narrowing several dozen pickup choices down to a few.
And in the End
While all of us would like to just go out and buy the guitar of our dreams, this isn’t always possible even for established artists. If you hate your guitar, no magic fairy dust will change your mind, and you should consider working toward a new instrument. If you like your guitar, it plays/stays in tune, and looks awesome, but you want something more or different out of it, just change the pickups. Even if the pickups you buy are not the right ones, Seymour Duncan offers a 21 day exchange policy. You will end up with the ones your guitar and music deserve.
What was your first guitar crush? What guitar did you end up with?