Upgrade Your Pickups for Very Little Money

I really like cheap guitars. I don't know if it's a product of my punk rock upbringing or just because they're the only guitars I've ever been able to afford, but either way, I definitely have a thing for econo-oriented axes.

In the couple of decades since my fascination with cheap guitars began, I've amassed a slew of them, and many, many more have passed through my hands. This accumulated experience with the bottom end of the guitar market has taught me a few things about how to make an unspectacular guitar into a great one. If a guitar has "good bones," it often will require only a few simple upgrades to make it into a serious rocker. For the majority of cheap guitars, the most dramatic upgrade that can be made is the pickups.

Despite all of the blathering about tonewoods, nitrocellulose finishes, and other guitar esoterica, the fact is that the pickups are the most crucial tone-generating element of an electric guitar's construction. Vintage Danelectro guitars, for example, were made of bloody Masonite and plywood of all things, and they sounded amazing. Why? The lipstick pickups. You could duct tape those pickups to a cereal box, and they'd still sound gorgeous. Thus, just about any decently made bargain guitar can be nearly instantly transformed into a tone machine via a simple pickup swap.

Of course, if you're a true cheap guitar devotee, you probably shudder at the thought of shelling out 80–100 dollars or more for a replacement pickup, which is about what a single pickup from the major manufacturers will cost you. Luckily, economy-minded guitarists have many alternatives to choose from these days. Here are a few of my favorite sources for upgrading pickups on the cheap.


Mighty Mite

Mighty Mite has a long and storied history in the guitar industry, and is a reputable source for Fender licensed bodies and necks, all kinds of hardware, and a wide selection of very affordable pickups. The company gained some fame in the ‘70s for supplying Eddie Van Halen with pickups for several of his homemade, hot-rodded frankenstrats, and for employing a young Seymour Duncan as a designer and winder.

Mighty Mite's current line of pickups and pre-wired pickguards is quite diverse, from vintage-style alnico Strat sets, to P-90s, bass pickups, active humbucker sets, and even acoustic pickups and preamplifiers. Perhaps its most famous pickup, though, is the Motherbucker, an appropriately named Alnico 5 beast that advertises a DC resistance of 21.8k for the bridge position model, delivering a relentless wallop to the amplifier and eliminating the need for much in the way of distortion pedals. Much beloved by budget-minded metal dudes, the Motherbucker can be purchased brand new for around 35 bucks.


Carvin

Most guitarists are familiar with Carvin, as the company has long been known for its neck-through and custom guitars and basses sold direct only via mail-order, and now, the Internet. What most don't know is that Carvin was founded in San Diego in 1946 (the same year as Fender, coincidentally) specifically to manufacture guitar pickups. By the ‘70s, it had become successful at building complete instruments as well, with hardware and pickups designed and manufactured entirely in-house.

The company currently offers a wide range of passive and active pickups, with its Classic Series and M Series humbuckers being especially excellent and affordable. These warm, articulate Alnico V pickups make use of an 11-pole piece-per-coil design, a clever innovation that eliminates the output drop-off that occurs when the string is bent and moves between the pole pieces of a standard six-pole piece design. They are offered in various outputs, from PAF-ish to hot-rodded, with direct prices starting at 45 bucks. Famous users of Carvin pickups (and guitars) include Allan Holdsworth, Frank Gambale, Jason Becker, and others.


GFS

GFS guitar pickups have attained a loyal following over the last few years for their high quality and low cost, as well as for the staggering diversity of pickups in the line, which includes not only standard Strat and Tele pickups, humbuckers, and P-90s, but also a wide array of less-orthodox models like Gold Foils, Filtertron-style models, lipsticks, mini-humbuckers, and Jazzmaster-style pickups.

These are reportedly manufactured by a variety of different Korean manufacturing houses to GFS's exacting specifications and standards, which accounts for the impressive cost-to-quality ratio. The GFS pickup line is a dream for the econo rocker who has a thing for oddball pickups, with prices for single pickups starting as low as 15 bucks, and averaging around 30 or 40. The company also produces good quality demo clips and videos of many of these pickups in action.


Tonerider

Tonerider is a U.K. company that has become known for producing boutique-quality pickups that are priced well under mass-produced models from the major manufacturers. The company has kept its costs of production low by building its own factory in China to make its vintage-voiced designs, which range from Strat and Tele sets, to PAF-style humbuckers, to several different flavors of P-90.

Tonerider is perhaps best known among cheap guitar enthusiasts for its line of scatter-wound vintage Strat pickups, which compete handily on tone with the finest artisan single-coils while selling for around 99 bucks American for a set. The company's Rocksong humbuckers and Rebel 90 humbucker-sized P-90s have also developed a passionate following in the serial pickup-swapper scene, and are priced similarly to the Strat sets.


Artec

Artec is the major Korean manufacturer of OEM pickups, producing an incredible volume of pickups and pickup parts for companies across the globe (including some of the previously mentioned GFS line). These pickups are sold under many different brand names, and are sold through numerous different internet outlets.

Besides the fact that Artec pickups are inexpensive and usually of excellent quality (no "for the money" qualifiers necessary), the other cool thing about them is the dizzying array of styles and options that are available. If you dig very affordable weirdo guitar pickups, Artec's vast catalog of products is not to be ignored.


The companies listed are just a few operating today that are known for producing high quality, low cost replacement guitar pickups. We're living in a true cheap guitar golden age, so if you're an economy-minded rocker, you won't have to look very hard to scrounge up an abundance of budget-friendly options for turning even the most bland sounding pawn shop misfit into a vibrantly-voiced wellspring of tone.

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