There are few instances of electrical devices getting better with age. In the musical world, some guitarists may contend that guitars (particularly their pickups) get better sound as they age. But is that really the case?
Does guitar pickup performance improve with age? A pickup doesn't improve with age, although it doesn't degrade significantly either under optimal conditions. Hollow-bodied guitars enhance their sound because the wood progressively gets drier. Magnetic pickups, however, don't operate the same way. What may change is the guitar's “feel” over time.
In this article, we'll discuss the specific factors may lead to the belief that pickups sound better with age, which other elements may be involved in improving the guitar's sound over prolonged periods and whether or not pickups degrade with age.
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The Relationship Between Guitar Pickup Age And Performance
As stated before, a pickup does not technically improve its performance with time. There is an element of perception on the part of the guitar's owner that the tone has been refined, but this could be mostly due to increasing playing comfort, as the guitar's entire framework and build generally conform to the playing style they're consistently subjected to.
There is ample discussion in several internet forums touching on this topic. Some guitarists relate that the pickup loses its magnetic force with time, producing a dimmer output but, at the same time, a better sustain. However, this is not sufficiently proven.
Nevertheless, guitar pickups, when placed in good storage conditions and under constant maintenance, will not change dramatically for better or for worse.
What usually changes is the perception on the part of the player with regards to a guitar they have owned for a long time. Since no two guitars are the same, guitarists generally stick to their old gear, under the premise that they won't be getting the returns they're accustomed to.
Moreover, when a pickup's output ability worsens – due to various factors such as corrosion or damage due to mistreatment – it creates a kind of tone that may entice players, particularly those fond of more “vintage” musical styles. This fact could prompt subjective takes on the quality of an old pickup vs. a new pickup.
On the other hand, vintage guitars with well-preserved pickups are customarily more expensive than modern options. This might lend credence to the belief that the justification behind such a price difference rests in their quality, and not just because old guitars are not as easily found or due to their legacy status.
Note that, with most vintage musical and audio gear, it's largely the longevity of the design that maintains or increases the price/performance. While most gear wears out over time, the well-known vintage options have been built to withstand the tests of time, making them highly sought after.
Strangely enough, there may be some truth to the idea that there is an improvement beyond mere subjective perception. The reason, though, has only a tangential relation with electronics. It has more to do with the non-electrical components of the guitar, notably the wood.
In the case of classical/acoustic guitars, there is a large market for vintage wood. The main culprit, ironically, is ageing and wear.
Commonly, guitars, regardless of whether they are hollow-bodied or solid-bodied, are made of lacquered wood. Frequent manipulation and the action of corrosive agents, causes the lacquer to enfeeble, revealing the dry wood beneath.
Furthermore, as wood gets older, it loses some of its natural properties and becomes dryer and more resounding with time.
Naturally, classical and acoustic guitars benefit greatly from this apparent “degradation” since dry and light wood has subjectively better acoustic properties than lacquered wood. Of course, it should be stressed that antique musical stores keep their old guitars in great shape and, in this scenario, “degradation” is not a result of mistreatment.
In the case of electric guitars, while wood is not the primary agent responsible for their sound, there is a case to be made for wood affecting a guitar's tone. It makes sense when we consider that the strings' vibration generates vibrational energy that is transferred through the nut and bridge, impacting eventually on the wooden body.
Following this train of thought, the resonance produced by the interaction of the wood and the strings will also make its way into the pickup's magnetic field. You will expect to find different tonal characteristics with heavier woods such as rosewood, as opposed to alder, to give just one example.
For more information on rosewood and alder tonewoods, more specifically, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
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• Is Alder A Good Guitar Tonewood? Electric, Acoustic & Bass
Besides, the wood present in the neck and fretboard could change in feel, enhancing playability and the possibility of rendering far better tones with little buzzing. This is often not factored in when analyzing the quality of the output, but one should not undermine how correct fretting typically aids in tone clarity and sustain.
This is also why many manufacturers insist on advertising their electric guitars by also emphasizing the wood they're made of. It's not just a fancy gimmick or a superficial selling point. Needless to say, some sellers do habitually overplay the importance of the wood, which does not make it any less relevant.
To learn more about guitar tonewoods, check out My New Microphone's tonewoods category page.
Can Pickups Become Faulty?
We affirmed earlier that pickups don't improve or degrade. Most magnetic pickups don't sport moving parts, meaning that wear is not a primary concern.
Nonetheless, pickups can still fall victim to corrosive agents and mismanagement. Variables such as weather and storage conditions can take a heavy toll on the pickup's integrity if the necessary measures are not implemented to prevent environmental damage.
As pickups are made with mostly iron-based and polymer materials, they can be impacted by heat and humidity. The copper wires contained in a coil and the magnet poles can develop rust spots, which consequently weaken their performance. Likewise, temperature fluctuations will invariably produce negative effects on the insulation covering the wires, exposing them to interference and direct contact with acidic chemicals.
Lastly, the magnet poles can demagnetize if they fall accidentally near a reversed magnetic field or under extreme heat conditions (such as those produced by soldering tools).