The electric guitar is an animal all its own. While most instruments rely on vibrating surfaces to amplify sound, electric guitars use a magnetic field. Herein lies a great advantage of playing an electric guitar: simply swap the pickups, and you can completely change the sound and response of your instrument.
OK, we admit that last sentence was a little misleading. Swapping pickups can be a lot like a breakup—there’s a high risk of getting burned! But, with a little know-how, some tips and tricks, and a little independent research on your part, you’ll soon be well on your way to finding that sweet tone you’ve been dreaming about. Here’s a guide to help you get started on that elusive journey.
What Kind of Pickup is Best for My Guitar?
Before you choose a pickup, it’s really helpful to evaluate the tone of your instrument and decide what your current pickups are not offering you. Is it an EQ issue, like the instrument sounds too bright or too muddy? Does it hum at 60 cycles when you’re around fluorescent lights? Or maybe you just can’t seem to get the same tone as your favorite guitar player, no matter how you set your pickups, amp, and tone pots. These are all really great places to start because these observations will guide you to the right pickup choices.
While there’s a lot that goes into the tone production of a pickup, there are two elements that factor in more than others: the coil and the magnet, which, when combined, are responsible for converting string vibration into electrical impulses.
In general, more coils and thinner gauge wire will give you more signal output. There is a compromise, however—using pickups with more coils and/or thinner gauge wiring results in a drop-off in high frequencies. What comes out of your amp, while louder and more driven, becomes rounder and meatier in tone. If you’re looking for more clarity and shine to your sound, consider going in the opposite direction—a pickup with less coils, and/or thicker gauge wire.
The other major factor in a pickup’s tone is the magnet. There are generally two materials: ceramic or alnico. Ceramic pickups are composed of ferrous iron and rare earth elements. They are very strong, and have very high output. They are generally used for aggressive styles of music, like heavily distorted hard rock and metal. Alnico magnets are a combination of ferrous iron with aluminum, nickel, and cobalt, hence the name al-ni-co. Alnico magnets produce a sweeter, more musical tone, and are generally more touch-responsive than ceramic. They are typically used for less aggressive styles of music.
Try Different Pickups
Chances are, you won’t find the right pickup straightaway; you’ll want to try several different kinds until you find what you’re looking for. Swapping pickups, for some, can be a daunting task. If you don’t know how to use a soldering iron, it’s quite understandable to be hesitant about sticking red-hot metal anywhere near your beloved ax.
For this reason, we suggest the Liberator, a handy new product available from Seymour Duncan. The Liberator is to guitar tone what the sexual revolution was to dating—go wild, and don’t get burned!
Don’t let your research stop here—go on the Internet or visit a local library to learn more. The Seymour Duncan web forum is a great place to learn from professional tone geeks, and it’s completely open and encouraging to novices.
If you can put a pair of eyeglasses back together with a mini screwdriver, you can easily change your pickups. The Liberator, once installed in your guitar by a professional tech, allows you to swap out your pickups without a soldering iron—the color coded pickup leads are solidly clamped in place with mini screws.
Classic Stack Plus
The Stratocaster’s three single-coil pickup configuration is a favorite among guitarists, but, traditionally, this pickup design does not play well with 60-cycle hum from lights and electrical wiring. Seymour Duncan’s Classic Stack Plus keeps traditional Strat tone, but ditches the hum by stacking two single coils, one on top of the other. The Alnico 5 magnets, coupled with a large top coil, keep that classic chime.
The X2N is a noise-cancelling humbucker pickup that features a ceramic magnet for extra-high output. DiMarzio recommends this high-powered pickup be used in the bridge position, where there is less string excursion. It needs a little extra juice to balance the output with the middle and/or neck pickup.
Vintage T Series
Outside of the mainstream pickup options, like Fender, Seymour Duncan, or EMG, you can find a lot of independent boutique pickup builders, like Jason Lollar. His Vintage T Series gives you that bridge position Tele twang, and the alnico five magnets add considerable bite and brightness to the sound.