The subject of guitar/bass pickups is a hot topic in many guitarist circles but not a topic that most intermediate or amateur guitarists would even think about, let alone discuss. Upgrading pickups can be tricky if you are not equipped with the correct tools and don't have experience in electrical wiring. This leads to the following question:
Is it worth it to upgrade the pickups in a guitar or bass? Upgrading a pickup(s) can be worthwhile if you find that your pickup(s) is not optimized for your musical needs or if it's faulty. However, it's not strictly necessary, and, at times, it can be detrimental if you are not experienced, so it's best first to evaluate the risk/reward ratio.
In this article, we'll discuss ways to upgrade pickups, the risks of doing so, and the benefits of swapping pickups versus buying a completely new guitar or bass.
Ways To Upgrade Your Pickup. Pros And Cons
As disclosed earlier, the task of upgrading a pickup is a personal choice that should be undertaken upon understanding certain risks.
Nevertheless, the notion of “upgrading” a pickup needs further unpacking, as it's common to find pickups that are “better” on paper are actually subpar in the long run in fulfilling the player's needs.
The best way to illustrate what we just said is by comparing active pickups with passive pickups. Most electric guitars come with passive pickups on stock (although many electric basses carry active pickups by default). Thus, the “upgrading” prospect of installing active pickups may sound enticing. However, upon further evaluation, the performance of an active pickup, while excellent, may not be the most adequate for your sonic taste.
For more information on active and passive pickups, check out my article Are Active Guitar Pickups Or Passive Guitar Pickups Better?
The same can be said regarding the upgrade from single-coil pickups to humbuckers. Humbuckers were developed as a response to shortcomings present in single-coils when it comes to electromagnetic interference (EMI) and general noise. These benefits come at the expense of other drawbacks, such as the lack of dynamic range and overall nuance. Humbuckers were and still are highly successful, but many musicians still prefer the subtleties they can get with single-coil pickups.
On the flip side, there are also very good reasons to upgrade:
- Upgrading to active pickups will definitely boost your signal and your notes will sound much more powerful with little in the way of interference. This is, of course, due to the preamp included in the circuit (powered by a 9V battery) that filters and equalizes the signal before arriving at the output device.
- On the other hand, upgrading from single-coil pickups to P90s or humbuckers has its own share of benefits. On the one hand, you will have a relatively noiseless experience when compared to using single coils (especially in the case of dual-coil pickups), all the while enjoying a much cleaner and rounder tone. If you are a jazz or blues lover, you will definitely welcome the tonal shift, same with black metal and other similar genres that capitalize on darker sounds.
- Changing from ceramic pickups to alnico (and vice versa) can provide various advantages, depending on the type of sound you're looking for.
To learn more about the different magnets used in guitar pickups, check out my article Ceramic Guitar Pickups Vs. Alnico Guitar Pickups.
Another scenario we should not overlook concerns upgrading from a low-quality pickup to one that offers a better response. In this case, it's unquestionably worth it to make the jump, but only if you feel capable of doing so.
Finally, the budget factor is always at play when it comes to musical instruments and audio equipment. Any upgrade to your pickups should be considered a financial investment, whether as a cost of business (for professional players) or simply as a price for improved enjoyment of your music (for everybody).
The Risks Involved In Swapping Pickups
Changing components on your guitar always has a level of risk. Even basic tasks like restringing can be hazardous if the person performing them is not careful.
When dealing with pickup upgrades or replacements, we are handling electrical wiring that may easily get compromised or kinked, rendering the pickup damaged or even unusable. This alone should not automatically dissuade you from trying, but it's a consideration to keep in mind.
Besides, the wiring work can get a bit complex due to the number of connections that need to be memorized, so it's easy to get the wiring wrong. Although it's unlikely to cause electrocution due to the low voltage, it can still be a cumbersome issue to deal with.
It's wholly recommended that you photograph the wires before disassembling them to reference the proper setup further into the project.
Adding to what was just stated, you will additionally have to use a soldering iron (link to check prices on Amazon).
Even if you have enough experience handling these kinds of tools, there is always the danger of gaining too much confidence with them. Soldering irons work with very high temperatures and require a bit of precision. If not careful, not only could you irremediably damage the finish of your guitar or bass, but you can also cause serious injuries to your skin and beyond.
Solder can also “spit” and generate rosin fumes from flux, which is detrimental to your eyes and lungs.
The other relatively significant setback is the strings. Pickups can be installed without removing strings (though they'll need to be loosened). However, there is always the chance of kinking the strings in the process if, by accident, the neck falls over or you bend them too much. If you opt for removing the strings, you will likely need to replace them due to the impairments ensured from the first installation.
Modifying The Guitar Body
Pickups come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which is an important consideration when swapping between one size and another.
For example, a humbucker is unlikely to fit in a pickup slot designed for a single-coil. Conversely, a single-coil won't fill a slot designed for a humbucker. Furthermore, the slot may be too deep or too shallow for the height of the new pickup being installed.
In some instances, it may be necessary to modify the guitar's body to accommodate such issues. Altering the pickups slots and pickguards to fit new pickups can be a difficult task to do properly. Cutting away material from the guitar body can cause damage to the guitar that isn't easily repaired.
A New Pickup Or A New Guitar?
Sometimes the most feasible alternative is to buy a new guitar. This is not always the best course of action, but, ordinarily, pickups end up being more expensive.
Case in point, this Seymour Duncan JB and Jazz humbucker set (link to check the price on Amazon) can cost close to the amount asked for a decent humbucking guitar like the Ibanez GRX 6-string (link to check the price on Amazon).
Of course, you can find cheaper alternatives, but largely from unknown manufacturers, making them a risky buy. At least we can rest assured that the pickups included in Ibanez guitars are guaranteed, and you don't need to go through the hassle of doing tedious connection jobs.
Related article: Does Guitar Pickup Performance Improve With Age?