A Brief Introduction to Swapping Guitar Pickups

Once you get the feel and format of any guitar or partscaster dialed in, the pickups constitute the single most important part of the tone-generating equation. A creation with the perfect neck profile for your hand and a tone that rings like a bell when unplugged can be killed with the wrong pickups for your style of music. Alternately, a ’caster that’s kind of a dog might still sound sublime with just the right coils installed.

But how do you identify and locate the best pickups for your build? That’s a tricky question with a multi-part answer. And even then, it isn’t always a straightforward quest. The thing to know from the outset is that no matter how many reviews you read or what you test drive in similar guitars, pickups are one of the biggest variables in the “game of infinite variables” that is partscaster creation.

In short, you just never know how things will sound until you get all the pieces bolted in there together, but here’s what you can do to increase your likelihood of success.

Narrow The Variables

You can go a long way toward narrowing the variables by thinking of any pickup as living in a range of categories suited to particular sonic ends. Align your own needs with the greatest number of checks in the right boxes for any particular pickup, and you stand the best chance of achieving satisfactory results.

With any luck, you’ll get things just right with the first set of pickups you try. But if you happen to need to try a few, or several, or get bitten by the pickup-swapping bug the way many do, you will soon find yourself building up a bank of experiential impressions of what different types of pickups do best.

Let’s note at the outset that I’m crafting these categories in a way so that they apply somewhat equally to humbuckers and single-coil pickups, whether the latter are Strat, Tele or P-90 style. Chances are you already have a good idea of what the main differences are and that you don’t want to reroute the body.

If you’re serious about understanding pickups, I would also suggest, at the risk of a little self-promotion, reading:

Pickups for Vintage Tones

Broadly speaking, if you’re looking to achieve the tones of the great recordings of the 1950s, ’60s or early ’70s, or of artists who still use vintage gear from those eras, something in the vintage-inspired camp might work for you.

Vintage-style pickups, when done right, are known for having lower output but greater clarity than “hotter” pickups, and also often offer excellent playing dynamics and, in the better examples, a rich, three-dimensional soundscape. Let’s take a look at some of the parameters.

Note that all of these readings are given in ohms, that they are approximate and that there likely is some overlap between categories.

Lollar Low Wind Imperial Humbucker

Lollar Low Wind Imperial Humbucker

True Vintage: For clarity, touch-sensitive dynamics, plenty of twang and jangle, firm lows and prominent but not overly-spiky highs, search for pickups described as “low wind” or “vintage wind,” made with alnico magnets.

Different categories might be listed with resistance readings in these ranges (in ohms):

  • Strat style: 5.6k – 6.2k neck and middle; 5.9k – 6.8k bridge
  • Tele style: 5.6k – 6.8k neck; 6.4k – 7.2k bridge
  • Humbucker: 6.8k – 8k neck; 7.4k – 8.6k bridge
  • P-90: 6.8k – 7.6k neck; 7.4k – 8.6k bridge

Hot Vintage: For generally “vintage” characteristics, but with a little more power to push your amp into breakup, consider pickups described as “hot vintage,” which are sometimes labeled as “blues,” “hot blues,” or the like. These also are made with alnico magnets.

Suhr Vintage 60's Pickup

Suhr Vintage 60's Single Coil

Hot vintage or vintage modified, pickups also can accurately represent the higher output levels of some original vintage pickups that simply got loaded with more wire in the winding process:

  • Strat style: 6.2k – 6.8k neck and middle; 7.2k – 8k bridge (or up to 10k with 43-gauge wire)
  • Tele style: 6.6k – 8k neck; 7.4k – 8.4k bridge (or up to 10k with 43-gauge wire for “Broadcaster style”)
  • Humbucker: 7.8k – 8.2k neck; 8.4k – 9.2k bridge
  • P-90: 7.4k – 8k neck; 8k – 9k bridge

Pickups for Modern Tones

Do you want a modern tone, whether high-gain or simply high-fidelity, as heard on many more contemporary recordings? Plenty of designs dispense with the vintage archetypes altogether, seeking to do something entirely new. Many of these will be made with ceramic magnets, which I’ll break into two categories: hot ceramic and high-fidelity ceramic.

Ceramic magnets are more powerful than alnico magnets and also more affordable, so they make an easy way to get more oomph out of any given pickup design. They are sometimes considered to sound harder, harsher and dirtier, but good pickup makers today know how to get all kinds of results out of ceramic magnets, and many can even disguise them in vintage-sounding designs.

Hot Ceramic: These are pickups for shred, heavy modern rock and most forms of contemporary metal. They offer optimum slamming power into your amp for producing maximum distortion and lots of sustain, but sometimes at the sacrifice of clarity, harmonic depth and playing dynamics. Note that resistance readings are less applicable to these types: makers will describe them with something like the above terms, and sell them on their punching power.

Many modern hot ceramic pickups do their jobs beautifully, but you shouldn’t feel you have to have a high-gain pickup, ceramic or otherwise, in order to achieve hot, high-gain tones. Check out “Picking Your Pickups – Hotter Is Not Always Better” for a closer look at the subject.

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Seymour Duncan Duckbucker

Seymour Duncan Duckbucker

High-Fidelity Ceramic: For a crisp, modern high-fidelity sound with optimum clarity. These may be for players who want their pickups to act as precise, accurate translators of their guitars’ sound, rather than adding any “special sauce” the way many other types do.

Though popular with many players, this is a somewhat more limited category, so it’s easier to refer you to some makers and models rather than listing types. For examples of high-fidelity ceramic pickups, check out:

Gibson P-94 Single Coil Pickup

Gibson P-94 Single Coil

Shapeshifters: Many pickups are designed to give you one type of performance in a format designed for something else. One popular shapeshifter is the single-coil-sized humbucker, designed to give you hum-cancelling performance and traditional or high-gain humbucker tones without routing wood from a body originally made for standard single-coil pickups. Popular types include dual-rails or stacked-humbucker designs shaped like a traditional Strat or Tele pickup, and there are several humbuckers made to fit P-90 mounting types, too.

On the flipside, some players want to achieve single-coil tones in guitars routed for humbuckers. To that end, makers offer P-90s made in humbucker-sized mountings, split-coil designs, and even Telecaster-style bridge pickups disguised in humbucker-sized mountings. Gibson’s own P-94s are among the better-known examples of these, but GFS, EMG, Lindy Fralin, Jason Lollar, Harmonic Design and many, many others now are making such pickups.

Pickup Installation

If you really plan to get into pickup installation, search the usual booksellers to find great guitar maintenance titles, or at least Google up some online instruction, which is plentiful these days.

Even without that kind of help, a basic swap of any current pickup with something new of the same format and mounting type is usually pretty easy, barring any awkward mounting configurations. After all, the how-to diagram is right there in front of you in the form of the guitar itself. Reverse-engineer your way into the project while taking detailed notes, making diagrams, and even snapping some quick pics to help you guide yourself back again. Then install the new unit just as you see the existing unit currently installed. Again, check available guides for soldering techniques if that’s a skill that’s new to you.

Installations on different types of guitars do have their different “tips and tricks” that ease the process, though. And, as with any of this stuff, a comprehensive guide would make a book in itself, so it’s best to do some studying on the particular project before you proceed.

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