Why Change or Upgrade Your Guitar Pickups?

Most guitar players will probably never feel the need to change pickups, and this is fine. However an experienced player who is looking for specific tones will certainly find it worthwhile. A guitarist’s tone is largely the result of what their fingers are doing and how they physically play their instrument. However, pickup choices do have some bearing, as do the amplifier and the guitar itself. Pickup manufacturers normally provide a description of each pickup in their catalog, and most now have recorded samples online.

What are Guitar Pickups?

Guitar pickups are essentially a microphone which responds to the vibration of strings by converting the acoustic energy they create into an electrical signal, which is then sent to an amplifier. On any electric guitar the pickup is mounted under the strings, between the bridge and the start of the fretboard.

Types of Guitar Pickups

The two main kinds of electric guitar pickup you’ll encounter are the single coil and the humbucker. There are numerous guitar pickup manufacturers out there and literally hundreds of pickups on the market – all of which are based upon these two designs. Much could be said about the differences between them, such as the magnetic materials used, the wiring, number of windings and spacing, but for simplicity we’ll focus on the practical differences to be aware of. One major difference is that single coil pickups create electrical noise, because they act like a small antenna and are susceptible to mains interference and radio. A humbucking design avoids this problem, hence the term hum-bucker. The main defining features of each guitar pickup are listed in the table below:

Guitar Pickups: Single Coil vs Humbucker

Guitar Pickup Configurations

Electric guitars can come with a mix of humbuckers and single coils or simply one type. This is called the pickup configuration. Famous guitars such as the Fender Stratocaster (shown below) come with 3 single coil pickups as standard (S-S-S). The Gibson Les Paul comes with two humbuckers (H-H).

strat guitar pickups

Dozens of modern guitars are based upon a ‘Superstrat’ design, which often uses an S-S-H configuration. This means a single coil for the neck and middle, and a humbucker in the bridge. The Blade RH-4 by Gary Levinson uses ‘stacked coil’ pickups for the neck and middle (these are humbucking designs but look and sound more like a single coil), and a humbucker for the bridge. An S-S-H configuration allows for a combination of traditional stratocaster sounds and modern distorted tones on the same guitar. The Ibanez RG and JEM series (as shown below) mostly use a H-S-H configuration, giving two fat humbucker tones for the neck and bridge sound, while also allowing for a single coil middle-pickup tone, ideal for rhythm playing.

ibanez guitar pickups

In Conclusion

So why would someone want to upgrade a pickup? One reason is that cheaper pickups (e.g., stock pickups in cheaper instruments) can lack clarity, particularly with distorted tones. Even if your technique is good, the resulting sound may have a certain muddiness to it. Cheaper pickups also sometimes have a “woolly,” or hollow bass response, while better ones tend to be focused and retain clarity. Better pickups will often emphasize harmonics more, and give a pleasant, even sound to chords and lead playing. Many pickups are popular because of the qualities they possess, including the Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro, EMG-81, and DiMarzio PAF-Pro. You may already have a great guitar with humbuckers but would prefer a single coil tone, or perhaps want to upgrade a humbucker to one that has a brighter tone. Or maybe the style of music you play could benefit from higher-output pickups? You could also be searching for a “sound” or trying to emulate the tone of your favorite artist. Finding out what pickups they use and switching over is one step you can take. The possibilites are endless.

Popular pickup manufacturers include Seymour Duncan, EMG, DiMarzio, Lace, Bill Lawrence, Lindy Fralin, Bartolini, Kinman, Joe Barden, Bareknuckle, Lollar, Fender and Gibson. Check them out if you have opportunity – a world of tone awaits you!


A stock Fender Telecaster guitar (left) and the same instrument with modified pickups added (right).

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