If you ever need (or want) to change your guitar's pickup, you'll be faced with a dilemma: what to do with the strings. By removing a set of strings, you might need to attach an entirely new set due to the damages caused during the initial installation. This could discourage many modding enthusiasts from even approaching the idea of a pickup replacement.
Can guitar pickups be changed without removing strings? Guitar pickups can be swapped without removing strings, but this is sub-optimal. If the stings can be slackened enough, the pickups and pickguard can be removed and installed within the space between the body and strings. Otherwise, the neck or bridge may need removing to avoid removing strings.
Throughout this article, we'll discuss useful methods to replace your pickup without going through the hassle of having to attach new strings to your guitar, why it's not recommended to reattach removed strings, how long a pickup lasts and whether you are obliged to change your pickups periodically.
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Methods For Changing Guitar Pickups Without Removing Strings
Changing a guitar's pickup requires a bit of effort and time, as well as knowledge. The process is much more complicated than the restringing process since it usually involves the use of soldering tools that demand a certain dexterity to avoid injuries or permanent damages to your guitar's finish. It also obliges you to memorize how the wiring is assembled.
This difficulty only increases when you have the strings attached. It's still doable but, with little wiggle room to operate, you will not be able to perform most tasks unless you make some prior adjustments.
Thankfully, a nice feature of most electric guitars is their modular construction, as a great portion of their build is assembled by means of screws. This means that you can find workarounds to get to their innermost parts without compromising key components.
With that said, before proceeding with the pickup replacement, you could try the following:
Slacken The Strings
Slacken the strings and place a capo or a couple of rubber bands across the neck to freely lift the strings without moving them too much in the nut area or accidentally causing slippage on the tuning posts.
If you can manage enough slack, the string should be able to be lifted enough to slide the pickups in and out of their housing. This will be easier with the neck pickup than with the bridge pickup.
Note that the strings will still likely be an annoyance as they'll have to be worked up, especially when it comes to soldering.
Removing The Neck
You could remove the neck to avoid moving the strings. With the capo on and the strings slackened, remove the neck by loosening the screws at the back (if possible). Be careful where you place the neck and avoid moving it too abruptly or placing it at the surface's edge to prevent falling damage or accidental kinks.
Removing The Bridge
If your guitar has a floating bridge, try unmounting the bridge instead of the neck. Most fixed bridges will have the strings pass through slots in the body, making it impossible to extract the bridge without removing the strings.
Removing The Strings After All
Keep in mind that, despite the above, it will still be much more difficult to handle all the tasks with the strings attached, in contrast to performing the pickup swap on a stringless guitar. It's therefore best to remove the strings when replacing pickups.
You'll also need to be extra careful when performing tasks such as soldering. In case you find it too burdensome to work while lifting the strings or constantly changing their position, you can try removing the neck or bridge either way (regardless of whether your guitar has a pickguard or not).
Lastly, if you need to access the wiring harness (especially if you are upgrading or changing the pickup type), you may want to work on it before unscrewing the old device. That way, you'll avoid accidentally banging the strings or the guitar with a loosened pickup.
Related article: Can I Store My Guitar Safely Without Strings?
Why Not Simply Remove And Reattach The Same Strings?
Theoretically speaking, it's not recommended to reattach old strings or strings that were already attached once. The main reason is that strings experience permanent damage upon installation as they develop weak points and kinks on the main anchor points. Consequently, you will end up with shorter or weaker strings because it won't be possible to match the exact same position they held before removal.
For example, if your guitar has a fixed bridge allocated, you would need to clip your string at the spot where it was being pressed. If you attempt to press it again, you will eventually cause breakage or a serious weak spot. This will effectively render the string useless.
The only other option is to attach new strings. But, despite the fact that string sets are relatively cheap compared to other guitar accessories, this might pose an additional burden on people.
How Long Does A Pickup Last?
The subject of pickup care can merit a standalone article but some aspects are worth pointing out for the purposes of this writing, particularly for readers who might worry that their pickups are way beyond their lifespan and merit an arduous replacement job.
Fortunately, changing a pickup is not strictly necessary. Suppose you take good care of it and protect your guitar from dust and humidity. In that case, the pickup could easily last decades before it starts to drop in quality (in which case you're probably better off purchasing a new guitar altogether).
Some experts point out that pickups customarily start to deteriorate in quality after half a decade and that the bigger the output they're able to produce, the fastest their quality drops. Still, this quality decrease may only be noticeable to the strictest audiophiles.
Notwithstanding, for the average guitar player, pickups can endure a very long time with sufficient care (which is the norm for the remaining components, perhaps with the exception of strings).
Additionally, considering that there are no moving parts on a passive magnetic pickup, it's not expected to show any discernible sign of wear over a long span of time. Active pickups also last a very long time, though especially their 9V batteries will drain relatively quickly during regular use.
For more information on active and passive guitar pickups, check out my article Are Active Guitar Pickups Or Passive Guitar Pickups Better?
Be mindful that some magnets can lose their magnetic properties over time (ceramic or alnico ones in particular), but, thankfully, it's a fairly slow process and nothing to be particularly worried about.
To learn more about pickup magnet types, check out my article Ceramic Guitar Pickups Vs. Alnico Guitar Pickups.