Buying a pickup can be as easy as looking at a few videos, hearing a few sound clips, and getting a few recommendations from friends. But with pickup companies like Seymour Duncan making hundreds of different pickups, an educated consumer will be the happiest consumer. Sure, you get the 21 Day Exchange Policy if the pickup doesn’t sound the way you expect. But educating yourself before your purchase can help to get your tonal choices right the first time, so you can get on to the playing part of music rather than the reading about playing part of music. This article can help explain some considerations you might have in narrowing down the pickup choices when Upgrading Your Tone.
So you bought a guitar…
Many people buy guitars with the intention of swapping out the pickups, and that’s just fine. However, a it might be a good idea to use those pickups in the guitar for a few weeks to understand what you don’t like about them. Maybe they aren’t crunchy enough, or they make your amp sound like it is under a blanket: from these two characteristics we could assume we might want clearer, more powerful pickups. Approaching the buying process from knowing what you don’t like will help make the tonal path clearer towards what you will like. This will narrow the choices down to a handful of models and help you make an educated choice, or at least help you ask the right questions when seeking further help.
But what are the right questions? And who should I ask?
Before any questions are asked, it is important to know where we’re starting and where we eventually want to be. This means knowing such things as:
- Make/Model of guitar
- Type of wood for body/neck/fretboard
- Type of bridge
- What style of music you play (or want to play)
- Do you want this guitar for one specific sound or do you need it to get many sounds across many genres of music?
- What don’t you like about your current sound?
- What amp do you have?
- Do you want a particular color?
- Will it fit in your guitar?
- What effects do you use?
- Do I want a pickup with a cover?
- Which guitarists’ tones do I really like?
These will help anyone who’s going to be helping you. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, it is time to do some research! Most guitar makers list specs online, and if you can’t find your guitar you can probably take some pictures and send them to the people who are trying to help.
For pickup questions, I will usually try the Seymour Duncan User Group Forum’s Pickup Lounge first. Here you will find a bunch of real-world pickup swappers as well as an occasional Seymour Duncan employee that will be happy to help. Almost any tonal considerations have been worked through before, and you’ll find hundreds of years of experience guiding your way.
Of course you can always contact Seymour Duncan directly with this form. You can also call the factory directly, and be sure to have the answers to the questions above handy – you will probably get asked. You can also check out demo videos on Seymour Duncan’s YouTube.
If you’re looking for something special like a particular look or type of pickup that doesn’t come stock, it might be a shop floor custom or it might be time to contact the Custom Shop. The Custom Shop isn’t just for rock stars and pickup swapping veterans though. They can steer you to a stock pickup that might work, or build something custom-made just for you.
For the anti-social crowd, you can try the Tone Wizard, a sort of html-based guru where you plug in the style of music, and type of guitar, and it will give you some suggestions.
The Trouble with Tone
A long time ago, when the Earth cooled off and before it warmed up again, us music fans used to have to go to the record store to see and hear new releases by our favorite bands. Now, there are previews and videos of the music months before release, and in some cases, streamed for free so you can hear it all before you Buy It Now. The trouble with selecting a pickup is that you might not know how it sounds in your exact guitar, with your exact pedals and amp and with your hands and playing style. You still have to buy the pickup, install it, and use it for a few days to see if it works for you.
Even signature artist pickups used by the artist you love will not get you the exact same sound as the artist due to the variables above. It will get you closer than any other pickup, but you are not him, and he isn’t you. Tone is a combination of hands, heart, and gear. Good pickups can absolutely transform the sound of a guitar, but they are only part of the equation. The actual music created on that guitar is up to you.
As we get to be better players, we can custom-design our rig to our style. Part of that is finding pickups that work for you, rather than adapting to gear that doesn’t work for us. As we learn more about the effect of pickups on tone, we can make the best choices to achieve the sounds we have in our head. Communicating to others where we are, and where we want to be, are the best tools when researching which pickups to purchase.
For more info: Check out Scott’s description of pickup magnets, Orpheo’s favorite low-to-medium output pickups, and Stephen’s explanation of pickup types, which includes a cool picture of my Strat.
Do you select pickups for versatility or for a specific task? Which pickups have you bought that worked for you right away?