Readers familiar with guitars may know that strings need replacement once every few months or playing hours. Restringings are very frequent, especially with metal strings. Conversely, other components, such as pickups, seem to last forever. But is that really the case?
Do guitar pickups wear out, and if so, how? Guitar pickups don't wear out since they have virtually no moving parts. Active pickups require 9V batteries that drain over time, but these are easy to replace. However, some factors may lead to diminished pickup performance over time, including rusting, demagnetization and repeated trauma.
However, guitar pickups can still break, become faulty or “go bad”. In this article, we'll discuss the factors that can shorten a pickup's lifespan and how to preserve and lengthen the life cycle of guitar pickups.
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Do Guitar Pickups Wear Out, And If So, How?
As stated earlier, guitar pickups, technically speaking, don't wear out due to the lack of moving parts, and, at most, the batteries present in active pickups will run out. This doesn't mean that the pickup may not lose performance or won't run into issues.
A pickup is composed of magnets and other metal components prone to corrode or rust. Likewise, mistreatment or mismanagement of the different parts that make up the pickup can cause it to break and require replacement, either partial or total.
These are some of the most common factors that can cause a pickup to become faulty over time:
Moisture or humidity is one of the most important factors involved in the corrosion process of metals and other materials.
The pickup's magnets are made of either alnico, neodymium, or ceramic (also called ferrite magnets). These are all metals that are susceptible to rust damage. Furthermore, the wires comprising a coil are made out of copper, another metal that is very easy to corrode.
To learn more about alnico, neodymium and ceramic pickups, check out my article Ceramic Guitar Pickups Vs. Alnico Guitar Pickups.
There are various types of corrosion, depending on the corroding agent and the impacted surface. Of them, rust is one of the most common types of corrosion that affects only iron and steel alloys.
Rust, also known as oxidization, is the chemical process by which iron particles react with oxygen and water, dissolving due to water's acidic electrolytes and turning into iron oxide (evidenced by an orange or brownish appearance). This happens mostly when water is in permanent contact with the metal surface.
In humid environments, it's very easy to end up with rusty magnets. This might weaken the magnetic field and, consequently, the output signal. But, more importantly, moisture can find its way into the copper wiring resting under the bobbin and oxidize it, causing damage to the pickup in a more substantial way.
Seaspray is another corrosive agent that can affect guitar pickups in beach areas or towns, especially as the oceanic particles are highly acidic and can corrode up to five times faster than normal humidity.
For more information on pickups and rust, check out my article Top 5 Tips To Prevent Guitar & Bass Pickups From Rusting.
Sweat or perspiration is a salty liquid body waste produced by glands located in the skin in order to aid the body in cooling itself when heated up by movement or outside temperatures.
Depending on the person's metabolism, environmental heat, or pathological conditions, sweat can be triggered at greater or lesser degrees. This sweat will invariably get to the strings' surface and the pickup (although the latter to a lesser extent).
The salt contained in sweat is also a corrosive agent in itself. Apart from other toxins, the salt components present in the sweat we produce can contact the coil and the wires, with the potential of creating a short circuit.
Climate Fluctuations And Heat
Metals and several polymers expand with heat. In extremely fluctuating environments, the elements present in the pickup will expand and contract along with the insulation material (normally made of nylon or various types of polyester).
As these parts contract and expand often, the insulations and wiring can get compromised, exposing your pickup to a short circuit.
It may occur that we don't wind the wires correctly around the magnet poles or that we subject them to very uncomfortable positions during the pickup's installation. This could cause kinks or weak spots to appear in them, breaking more easily under the conditions outlined above.
It can also happen that the pickups were wired incorrectly, causing interference or phase cancellation. This will cause the pickup to render a much dimmer output.
Related article: Are Guitar Pickups Supposed To Move Once Installed?
The magnets embedded in a pickup are prone to losing their magnetic properties over time due to temperature shifts and constant vibration or when they're under the exposure of a strong magnetic field.
This process, however, usually takes a very long time. You might not be able to notice remarkable differences from a decades-old alnico 5 magnet in contrast to a new one. Nonetheless, exposure to extreme heat will also cause structural changes to the magnets, and, consequently, they will demagnetize.
In this section, we'll be outlining some of the most efficient measures to prevent your pickup from suffering corrosion damage. Many of these tips are likewise applicable to other components such as tuning pegs, saddles, and strings.
Keep your guitar in a dry and cool environment, avoiding damp and hot cellars or underground basements. Spaces with ample access to natural light are preferred, albeit it's best to try not to leave the guitar (and its pickup) exposed to direct sunlight for prolonged periods.
If you live in irremediably hot and humid areas, you might find yourself with a particular handicap. Needless to say, in these situations, you should routinely cover your guitar with protective straps around the strings and pickup or stow it in a case or bag. That way, you'll be protecting your pickup and all other components from the effects of the elements present in the air.
You should make it a habit to clean your strings and pickup regularly. You may do that by wiping them with a fibre cloth and, additionally, swabbing your magnet poles with a soft cotton swab (avoid strong detergents).
If your pickup starts showing signs of rust on the magnets, you can try preparing solutions with lemon and salt to rub on the surface of the poles carefully, using a Q-tip and masking tape to cover the surrounding area. Alternatively, you can use penetrating oil.
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