Part 4: This first step in finding the right pickup for your guitar is asking yourself this question: why do I want to change my pickup(s)?
There could be numerous answers to this question—some more legitimate than others. In order from most legitimate to least, these answers might include: my neck pickup is broken and no sound comes out; I can’t stand the 60 cycle hum and I need to do something about it or else I’m getting kicked out of my band; I bought a used guitar and the previous owner only played death metal and I’m in a straight-ahead jazz trio and the pickups are melting my face; I love Joe Pass and if I only played the same pickups as him, I’d immediately be imbued with his ability to play three lines simultaneously; and finally, I stopped doing drugs in the 80s and now I don’t know what to do with my money.
Whatever the reason you’re changing pickups, the first thing to do is look at your guitar and determine what kind of pickup(s) are already in it.
It’s far easier to change a single coil for a single coil or a humbucker for a humbucker. But it’s not a deal breaker. Plenty of pickup makers offer single coil-size pickups that sound like humbuckers and, humbucker-size pickups that sound like single coils—all allowing you to avoid permanently modifying your guitar. And if you or your guitar tech is not afraid of making permanent modifications to your guitar, there are lots and lots of options available and the world is your oyster.
Second, determine what it is about your current pickup setup that’s not working for you. For example, do you want more output? Do you want more high-end and presence? Do you want to eliminate hum?Does your guitar suffer from “ice pick syndrome” and you want to mellow it out a bit? Or, are you infatuated with the tone of [fill in the blank famous guitar god] and you want to play just like him or her? A little forethought up front will go a long way towards pointing you in the right direction as you embark upon your tone quest.
Generally speaking, if you want to warm up a bright guitar, you can use a higher DC resistance pickup with an alnico 2 magnet.
The higher DC resistance will equate with a lower resonant peak, taming the treble end, and the alnico 2 will soften the attack character of the note, resulting in a warmer tone to your ear. Conversely, if your guitar is too warm, you may want to brighten it up a bit with a lower DC resistance/higher resonant pickup that uses an alnico 5 or even a ceramic magnet if you want to also add power. Generally speaking, if you want more output from your pickups, it comes with a price: losing upper mid-range and treble clarity and presence. Also, keep this in mind; you can dirty-up a low-output clean pickup with your amp or a stompbox. It’s not as easy to get clarity out of a high-output pickup.
It can be tricky to know, with exactitude, what a new pickup is going to sound like in your guitar before you (or a professional guitar tech) drops it in.
One of the challenges is using language to describe tone. “Fat” for me might describe a warm tone with pronounced lower-mids and mid-range. For you, it might mean someone who needs to drop a few pounds. That’s one of the reasons players get so stuck on DC resistance—it’s an objective measurement. But it’s just a small part of the equation. Many of the bigger pickup makers have sound samples on their websites. These are a good way to get to know how a pickup is voiced, generally. But that’s not to say that that pickup is going to sound the same in your guitar played through your amp with your playing style. Sometimes a pickup company will offer a bass/mid-range/treble chart for a pickup. Sorry, those usually aren’t objective—they’re just someone’s opinion of the frequency response. Thankfully, some of the bigger pickup suppliers and some of the bigger musical instrument retailers offer a limited time period to try out the pickup in your guitar and determine if it’s the right one for you. If you’re not enthused with the new pickup, they’ll often let you exchange it for another one, which is like an insurance policy that ensures you’re not going to get stuck shelling out big bucks for a dud. Just don’t mangle the pickup or cut the lead wires super short or you could have problems exchanging it.
The Dirty Little Secret
If you’re still with me throughout this missive, I’ve alluded to the notion that some players think that if only they played a certain artist’s pickup, they could easily acquire his or her tone. I’ll probably get myself kicked out the Secret Guitar Tone Marketer’s Society (“SGTMS”) for saying this in public, but that’s really a bunch of hooey. If you think you can master the late-Wes Montgomery’s tone by using his pickups or Pat Metheny’s tone by using his pickups, keep in mind that both of those amazing players—whose styles are totally different—used the same basic type of pickup: the venerable Gibson P.A.F. or something similar (in Pat’s case, the Ibanez Silent 58). The big difference: Wes played with Wes’ ten fingers and his own sense of musicality; and Pat plays with his. I can imagine that if you put a Gibson L5 in Pat’s hands, he’d still have that telltale melodic chorus and fusion sensibility with outside notes and smooth legato; and an Ibanez PM200 model in Wes’ hands would still be Bumpin on Sunsetjust like Wes.
Yes, pickups are a big part of your tone. But so are your fingers. And your brain. And the rest of your gear.
If you’re lusting after the sound of a particular artist, and you’ve duplicated their entire rig, chances are you’re also emulating their playing style as well. Having their signature pickups in your signal chain will help you achieve their tone, for sure—but no more so than say, their guitar, their amp, or their stompboxes.
The Bottom Line
Changing out your guitar pickups is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to breathe new life into your guitar.
The best thing about it is that you’ll hear new tones out of your trusty axe and, hopefully, you’ll be inspired to new levels of creativity. When that happens, I’m proud to be part of an industry that supplies musicians with tools to find their voice and inspiration.
Evan Skopp is co-owner and co-founder of Inside Track International, a sales and marketing firm whose main client is D’Addario and whose pickup clients have included Lollar, Seymour Duncan, and Nukleus, a new start-up. Prior to forming Inside Track, Evan spent two decades as vice president of Seymour Duncan where, at various times, he headed the company’s marketing, sales, product development and artist relations departments.