Choosing and installing new pickups in your guitar

Seymour Duncan HumbuckerThe phrase “Swapping out pickups” makes it sound pretty easy doesn’t it? Maybe you don’t like the sound of your guitar – or maybe the pickups it came with were less than ideal due to your budget when you bought the guitar, and you’d just like to improve the sound, or eliminate noise and hum.

But then once you make the choice to do a little pickup swap – suddenly there are dozens of questions. What pickups will work with your guitar? What kind of sound are you shooting for? Who is going to do the work? Can you do it? How much will it cost? Do you have to solder? Will it hurt if you poke yourself in the finger with the soldering iron? What about beer?

We thought it would be good to try to pull all those answers (and more) together for you in one place – and who better to help us out than the amazing folks over at Seymour Duncan? They know pickups better than anyone else out there, and they’re always willing to help – you can tell by their excellent customer service – as well as the volume of materials they’ve provided online to help you choose, purchase, and get those puppies into your guitar.

So without further delay, lets dive in and paddle around the pickup pool with the best lifeguards around – Seymour Duncan.

What reasons would you have to change out pickups? The main reasons folks change out their pickups obviously is sound. This could encompass a really terrible sounding pickup or wanting a completely different sound – for instance, if you like the sound of a Les Paul, but the feeling of a Stratocaster. Have you had any customers come up with any more interesting or creative needs?

The pickup of a guitar is the first element that captures the sound and serves as a major component of the voice of an instrument. Having the right pickups can make a guitar sound exactly
as you want, whether it be a Strat with some Tele twang, an Ibanez with more scorching distortion or a Les Paul with that dreamy vintage tone.

The pickups affect everything about the tone, that is why when people find the right pickup and plug in their guitar, it’s a pretty amazing experience. We love that aspect of it.

As for customers with creative needs, we create a whole host of pickups everyday in our Custom Shop to meet specific needs. Whether it be different bobbins, magnets, prescribed levels of output or cosmetic. Rarely a week goes by that we don’t get asked to do something that really requires us to put our engineering caps and create something truly unique.

As an example, Billy Gibbons wanted a Charlie Christian (the large mounted pickup used in the old Gibsons) in a regular humbucker size that was also hum-cancelling. Seymour and MJ can pretty much do anything.

What considerations are there from a physical / electrical perspective? Obviously the biggest concern is the pickup type – and the routing layout of the guitar and the pickguard in some cases. Are there any electrical concerns you have to address? Do you ever have to change out pots, or resistors (due to a different type of pickup)? Anything else?

If you are taking an active guitar to passive, occasionally a guitar may require reaming of the potentiometer holes to account for 250K or 500K pots. We always recommend a bridge ground connection. If you change from active to passive you will need to change to 250K or 500K pots. If you are changing to active, the pots come with our Blackouts. Just changing from one single-coil to another or one humbucker to another shouldn’t present any issues unless you want to change the pots to smoothen or brighten the sound.

How hard is it to put active pups in a passive guitar?

Passive pickups are generally more dynamic than actives, while actives can have a certain ‘hi-fi’ feel. Changing them isn’t as hard as you might think. There are some videos below that will talk you through changing from passive to active, or from active to passive pickups.

How hard is it to change out pickups yourself?

Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy and not much more than just learning to solder. Changing out a passive pickup can be like changing a set of strings as far as how long it takes once you got the hang of it. We actually have a ton of resources to walk people through the entire process, including one of the largest collections of wiring diagrams anywhere. Here are some videos that show each step of the process:

Active to Active:

Passive to Passive:

 

Active to Passive:

Passive to Active:

 

Any precautionary issues? Could you mess up your guitar? Could you make an electrical mistake? 

Remember that a soldering iron will burn your guitar’s finish and any insulating wire it comes into contact with, so try to keep stray wires out of the way and give yourself plenty of room to work.

Make sure everything is properly grounded or you risk unacceptable levels of hum as well as potential shocks from microphones on stage.

Additionally to the question above – anything you should always do while you’re in there?

Any time you’re working inside the guitar is a good time to check for loose connections, dry solder joints or potential shorts – wires that may inadvertently come into contact with one that they’re not supposed to. It’s a good idea to make sure pots and jacks are secured firmly too.

What products does Seymour Duncan provide (besides just pickups) that can help?

Liberator Volume PotOur Liberator is a solderless change system for those folks who like to change pickups often. Once installed, you will be able to change a set of pickups in just a couple minutes and with only a screwdriver.

We also have pickguards for Strat that come pre-loaded with pickups perfect for particular genres (metal, rock, vintage), or are pre-loaded with our Liberator and you can choose the pickups. We have other accessories to help you get the most of our your guitar like our Triple Shot Mounting Rings which allows you to access series, parallel and split wirings with a standard humbucker. We also manufacturer high-quality potentiometers and have a line of acoustic products like the Mama Bear that allow you to emulate a whole host of really amazing and expensive acoustic guitars.

What tools do you need?

A soldering iron (not a soldering gun), some solder and a screwdriver, things like tweezers can come in handy and cutters.

Do you need to know how to solder?

If you are changing active to active or already have a Liberator in your guitar, you do not. Otherwise, there are many helpful and simple tutorials on YouTube that can show you how to do it.

What products from Seymour Duncan’s line would you recommend for some of the more common pickup swapping scenarios?

AHB-1 Seymour Duncan Seymour Duncan Hot Rails Seymour Duncan JB-Jazz

 (Images: AHB-1, Hot Rails, JB Jazz – Click to enlarge)

For Metal, Our Duncan Distortion or Invader (Passive) or for active our AHB-1 or EMTY Blackouts all can give a pulverizing distortion with a lot of character.

On a Strat, we have Hot Rails, which have a scorching tone or our Blackouts for Strat which gives you the output of active pickups in your Strat.

Our JB/Jazz or JB/’59 combo is a classic that is widely versatile in giving great tone for many musical styles.

Seymour Duncan STL-1B Seymour Duncan JB/59 Seymour Duncan Joe Bonamassa Pickup

(Images: STL-1b Broadcaster, JB-59, Bonamassa - Click to enlarge)

For Tele, our STL-1b Broadcaster sounds great. The Hot Rails for Tele will turn a Tele into a fire breathing beast.

For Les Paul, the JB/’59 are a great combo, and the Alnico II Pro sounds great in a LP. If you want that truly vintage tone and look, the Antiquity (and the Joe Bonamassa) are great.

How about a less expensive Ibanez with stock Ibanez pickups?

The Jazz in the neck and Distortion in the bridge is a popular combination in an Ibanez, or a ’59 in the neck and JB in the bridge (in with the SSL-1 Vintage Staggered single coil in the middle in each case. )

Do people often swap out their American Strat pickups? What do they use?

A popular mod is the SSL-5 in the bridge position for high-output Texas blues rock, classic rock and heavy rock tones, or the YJM Fury set.

How about Les Pauls?

The ’59 or Seth Lover sets can bring a Les Paul’s tone more in line with vintage models, while the Alternative 8 or JB can really add some muscle to the bridge.

What reasons would you have for doing the above?

Regardless of you are upgrading a cheaper guitar or a more expensive one, the desire is the same – to make the instrument sound as you truly intend it too.

Ultimately, you don’t know what your guitar is going to sound like with any new pickups until you finally get them installed. Is there any way to get an idea beforehand? (resources, demos, etc.)

The best resource is online unless you have a friend that already has them – you can find a demo for almost any pickup on YouTube, including on our YouTube channel, and our Soundcloud page.

What basics do you need to know about pickups and how they are built before you go shopping for the right pickups?

First thing you want to make sure you are getting the right pickups for your guitar. That starts with the size, whether single-coil, humbucker, P-90. Secondly, you need to know what kind of sound you want to achieve, once you know that, listen around online and find the sound that is close to what you want.

Lastly, you might want to take into account how the pickups would sound in your guitar based on the woods used, you can read this article to get an idea of how the wood might somewhat affect the tonality.

If you really want to understand pickups, you should research the different grades of magnets, resonant peak and D.C. Resistance. Of course you could always just email us and tell us what you have and what you want and skip the education part, whatever gets you the tone you want is fine with us. We also have a tone wizard that can help narrow it down.

What can you learn from listening to various guitars with various pickups that will help in choosing the right pickup?

Key things to listen to are the attack of the note, how smooth or grainy the treble is, and the voicing of the middle frequencies. A pickup can sound very different if placed in another guitar, but there’s usually something consistent within the sound that you can anchor your ear to as a reference.

Does a guitar with a tone control sound different than a guitar with only a volume knob?

Yes. Even if a tone control is kept all the way up, it has a slight effect on the sound, most noticeably in the treble frequencies. Some players prefer this sound and might feel a little bit thrown when they play a guitar with only a volume knob, even if they don’t actually use the tone knob at all.

How high should my pickups be?

A good guide is to use your ears. Passive pickups can pull on the string and affect its vibration if they’re too high, but if they’re too low the sound can be weak. Some pickups can sound very different when they’re close compared to when they’re backed off a bit, and as long a high pickup is not affecting your note attack or sustain, use whatever height works for you.

What is a Trembucker?

A Trembucker is a pickup with pole pieces spaced at the correct string widths for Fender-style or Floyd Rose-style guitars. If your guitar needs a Trembucker pickup in the bridge, it will still use a standard sized pickup in the neck position, because the string spacing narrows between the bridge and the nut.

Wrap Up

So changing out pickups isn’t nearly as painful as we thought; it just takes a little bit of planning and doesn’t hinge on a lot of technical know-how.

Do you have specific questions on anything discussed?  Perhaps you have a more specific concern.  Regardless of what your inquiry is you can leave a comment below, or you could take the more direct approach and contact the folks at Seymour Duncan with your question.

Or maybe you’re an autodidact.  If that’s the case then the links for additional information sprinkled through this article and the decorative YouTube videos will get the wheels turning more effectively in your journey of tonal discovery.

Thanks much to Scott over at Seymour Duncan for taking the time to talk with us and answer these questions!

Tim Monaghan (129 Articles)

Tim has been playing guitar & bass since he was 12 years old and has been in Jazz, funk, rock & metal bands. Influences include Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke, Doug Stegmeyer, Baden Powell, Steve Vai, and pretty much anyone else who has a unique style that expresses their individuality. One of Tim’s many hobbies is building, tweaking, and repairing basses and guitars.