So, you like your guitar, but you’re wondering if you should change pickups (pups) to beef up its sound and performance or give it a more aggressive profile. Maybe it is an entry-level beginner’s guitar, and you are leary about spending money to get a new one. Perhaps the guitar has sentimental value, and you just can’t part with it.
But is it worth your time and hard-earned cash to do a pickup upgrade on a cheap guitar? The short answer is yes, most of the time, but it depends on many factors. Keep on reading! I’ll explain what I mean and give you some additional info to help you make up your mind.
You can use the table of contents below to take you to the area that interests you. Click on the little box to open it, and then click on the section of the article you want to read, or you can read from start to finish if you want the full guitar pickup experience!
How Much Is Your Guitar Worth?
This is one of the first questions to ask and answer, right? If you paid less than $200 for the guitar, the rule of thumb is that it’s probably not worth it. Ultimately, it’s your baby, so it’s your call.
I spent a lot of money over the years on modifying guitars, especially as a kid. It was fun but not always very cost-effective or worthwhile from a performance point of view. In retrospect, it doesn’t really matter. I have such fond memories of it all!
What Are You Looking To Improve?
What will new pickups do for the guitar and your playing? Here are some of the reasons players change pickups.
- Single-coil pickups are too noisy
- Tone is not ideal (too mellow, “tinny,” trebly)
- Does not push the amp hard enough (usually single-coil pups)
- Time for something new, just to check it out
Answering this question will help you choose the replacement pickups you need to correct the problem (if there is one).
Also, is the improvement you’re looking to achieve truly necessary, or is there a workaround that will suffice? For example, will a noise gate or overdrive pedal solve your problem?
Are Your Old Pickups Properly Adjusted?
Before you change your pickups, have you tried to adjust your old one(s)? Most likely, you have, but maybe it’s worthwhile to try it again. Pickups have a “sweet spot,” where they sound and perform their best. This can depend on the guitar and the player’s ear.
If the pickups are set too close to the strings, the magnetic string pull can cause intonation problems and make string bending difficult. If they are too far from the strings, they can sound weak and have a poor tone.
I find that most players that decide to get new pickups have the pickups jammed up as close to the strings as possible.
Give this method a try. With the guitar plugged into your amp and in the proper playing position, lower each pickup down level with the guitar’s body and slowly bring up the height of each side until you find the place where it sounds best. Aha, you just found its sweet spot!
Advantages Of Changing Pickups
Here are some of the compelling reasons to change pickups
- Saves money on buying a new guitar
- Provides a unique fix to a problem (e.g., pickup broken or malfunctions intermittently)
- Nails the genre of music you play
- Gives you the sound you’re after when your guitar amp and effect pedals will not
Do You Need To Replace All Your Pickups?
If your guitar has more than one pickup, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to replace the entire set. Perhaps you just need a hotter bridge pickup for soloing.
If you have a single-coil bridge pickup, the easiest way to replace it would be with a vertically stacked double-coil (humbucking) pup that fits in the cavity, like a Seymour Duncan Hot Rails. If you want to go for a traditional horizontally-stacked humbucker, you will likely have to route the hole to make it fit properly.
Remember, you don’t want to end up spending more money than your guitar is worth!
However, on the other side of that coin, if you don’t replace the entire pickup set, you run the risk that the new pickup will not sound good in combination with the others. It’s just something to think about, but most of the time, it works out ok.
Can You Change Pickups Yourself?
Are you comfortable with correctly removing the old pickups and installing the new ones? This is usually pretty straightforward, but I’ve seen some impressive wiring mess-ups over the years I worked in a guitar repair shop. Usually, nothing that can’t be fixed.
If you’re changing pickups on a more expensive guitar, make sure you have the proper tools and experience, so you don’t cause permanent damage to the wood or finish.
Most replacement pickups come with wiring diagrams, but it can get complicated, especially if you’re adding coil taps, phasing switches, or changing to active pickups. It’s usually not a great idea to spring for active pickups on a cheap guitar.
If you aren’t planning on doing it yourself, there’s also the cost of the guitar tech to consider. The labor alone can run you $40 to $60 per pickup!
Checklist To Change Pickups
Here is what you will need to change your pickup(s).
- A proper work area or workbench
- Good lighting
- Padded work surface to prevent scratching guitar finish
- A wiring diagram for the new pickup(s)
- The proper tools
- Wire cutter
- Wire stripper
- Soldering iron (60 to 80 Watt)
- Solder (Tin-Lead Alloy, Rosin Core) for electronics
- Small screwdrivers (straight edge and Philip’s head)
- Pliers (needle-nose and traditional)
- Electrical tape and masking or painter’s tape
Here is an excellent video from Seymour Duncan on how to change guitar pickups!
What To Do With The Old Pickups
We assume that the guitar is not expensive, so you can always give them away to another guitar player or sell them on places like eBay or Craig’s list.
However, if the guitar is valuable, save the old pickups in case you want to reinstall them or sell the instrument.
If all the old pickups look the same, label them with a piece of masking tape (e.g., neck, middle, bridge) so you know where they belong, in case you decide to reinstall them.
Disadvantages Of Changing Pickups
There are definitely some disadvantages to changing your pickups, even on a cheap guitar.
- You might not like the sound of the new pickups
- Can be an expensive proposition
- It probably won’t increase the guitar’s resale value and might even lower it
- Upgrading the guitar can prevent you from trading it in for something you might really love
When Not To Change Pickups
Here are some things to check on your guitar before deciding to do a pickup change.
- Hardware problems (tuners, bridge, input jack)
- Neck problems (truss rod/warped neck, nut, fret wear)
- Body cracks or neck attachment problem
- Electronics issues (pickup selector switch, volume and tone pots)
Also, is that “cheap” hand-me-down guitar actually valuable? If unsure, do some research or take it to a reputable dealer for an honest appraisal. Expensive Vintage guitars will lose significant resale value if you change out the pickups, even if you keep the old ones!
Every once in a while, someone gives away (or modifies) an “old guitar in the attic” that’s worth a fortune!
Which Pickups Are Good For A Cheap Guitar?
It’s usually a good idea to avoid “boutique” pickups since a set can easily cost $300 or more.
Fender, DiMarzio, and Seymour Duncan all have affordable lines of pickups at reasonable prices.
A more expensive set might make sense If you think you’ll love the sound and can install the pickups yourself.
By the way, if you’re looking for a great set of single-coil pickups, check out my buyer’s guide on Fender Custom Shop Stratocaster Pickups – Which Set Is Best? You can always sell the other two if you only need to replace the bridge pickup.
Do You Need A Better Amplifier Instead?
If you’re playing through a cheap amplifier, try plugging into a better one to see if it improves your guitar’s sound. Bring your guitar to your favorite music store and audition some amps that suit your fancy.
If you’re looking for a better tone, try something like a Fender amp. If your guitar needs a more aggressive profile, try some high-gain amps, like a Marshall or Blackstar.
Changing amps is almost always a more expensive deal, but if your amp is really the problem, upgrading your pickups won’t be the right way to go!
A graphic equalizer, overdrive, or distortion pedal might offer a cheaper solution, depending on the sound in your head that you’re chasing.
Maybe It’s Time For A New Guitar?
If your guitar is in generally poor condition, maybe it just doesn’t make sense to do a pickup upgrade, even if that is the problem.
It might be easier on your budget than you think to take the plunge. Many online music stores offer an interest-free payment plan. Sweetwater Sound has up to 48-month payment programs on certain guitars during a promotional event.
Anyway, it’s something to consider.
Beware Of “Pickup Envy”
Yes, you read it right, pickup envy!
If you like reading guitar magazines, you’ll see lots of ads for pickups and interviews with your favorite players detailing which pickups they prefer.
Changing pickups won’t necessarily make your guitar sound like someone else’s, let alone your favorite guitar hero. They might have a different model guitar or plug it into a different amp than you use. Maybe it has something to do with the sound of an effect pedal.
When I was in high school, I could not get Tony Iommi’s guitar tone out of a Gibson SG guitar, even after I had the opportunity to plug one into a Laney, his amplifier of choice. I finally discovered he was getting that attack out of his humbucker bridge pickup by using a Ringmaster treble booster.
Finally, let’s not forget that various players can make the same pickups sound different! Technique and playing style can be critical determinants of a guitar’s sound.
Are You Qualified To Make Guitar Adjustments Or Modifications?
It’s great to work on your guitars, especially if you have a lot of them, but you should always be aware of your limitations.
Adjusting things like an electric guitar’s string height (action) or pickup height can be straightforward. Still, some adjustments require the proper training and experience, like adjusting a guitar’s truss rod.
When you doubt your ability to adjust, repair, or modify your guitar, it’s always best to bring it to a competent guitar technician or luthier (guitar designer & builder). You can permanently damage your guitar, and it might never play and sound right again!
Making modifications to your guitar can void its manufacturer’s warranty and cause permanent damage to the instrument. Certain modifications are irreversible, so you may be stuck with them, even if you desperately want to restore the guitar to its original condition!
I learned that the hard way over the years until I did a three-year apprenticeship in a guitar repair shop. Now I have my own home workshop with the proper training and equipment to safely maintain and repair all my instruments.
Remember: “When In Doubt, Send It Out!”
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the questions I get asked about guitar pickups.
If your question does not appear here, please put it in the comments, and I will get right back to you with an answer.
Do Guitar Pickups Really Matter?
Yes, they can be the most crucial determinant of your sound because they initiate the audio signal from your guitar.
Does Changing Guitar Pickups Make A Difference?
Changing guitar pickups will make a difference in your guitar’s sound. However, it may not be the solution to the sound you are looking for.
Is It Worth Setting Up A Cheap Guitar?
Setting up even a cheap guitar will usually make it play and sound better, especially if it has a problem. Some guitar shops offer discounts on guitar setups, especially if you are a regular customer. Alternately, you can learn to do the simple things on a guitar setup yourself.
Can You Turn A Cheap Guitar Into A Good Guitar?
It is possible to turn a cheap guitar into a good one, but it’s easy to reach a point where your return on investment is unfavorable. Cheap guitar brands or models have a limited resale value, no matter how much you upgrade them. You may be better off selling the guitar and buying a better one.
Are More Pickups On A Guitar Better?
No, not necessarily. For example, Stratocasters have three pickups, and Telecasters only have two, but they are both excellent guitars. It really depends on the sound you are trying to achieve.
Three pickups give you more combinations and tones than a guitar with 1 or 2 pickups, but the guitar’s overall sound is the most crucial consideration.
Do Pickups Sound Better With Age?
Not necessarily, although opinions differ. It depends on the pickups and how the guitar is cared for.
Do Guitar Pickups Wear Out?
As pickups age, their magnets weaken, which can actually make them sound worse.
When Should I Get New Pickups?
That’s ultimately up to you, but hopefully, the information in this article will help you make that decision.
Are Humbucker Pickups Better Than Single Coil Pickups?
No, not really. Humbuckers are usually louder and push an amp into overdrive easier than single-coil pickups, but they both have their own unique sound. Splitting the coils on a humbucker won’t precisely duplicate the single-soil sound, which is tighter with a more cutting high-end.
Can You Put Any Pickups In Any Guitar?
Yes, but some pickups will fit your guitar correctly, while others will require modifications to the body. This usually involves routing the pickup cavity to make room for a wider pickup, for example, replacing a single-coil pickup with a humbucker.
How Do I Know If Pickups Will Fit My Guitar?
The best thing to do is take measurements or ask the pickup manufacturer. Single-coil pickups usually fit single-coil guitar cavities, and humbucking pickups will typically fit inside those size cavities.
Can You mix Guitar Pickup Brands?
Yes, you can definitely mix pickup brands, but be aware that you may end up with a volume or tone discrepancy.
Are Active Pickups Better Than Passive Pickups?
Not necessarily. It depends on the type of sound you are looking for. Active pickups do give you additional tone options with more volume, but they may not be able to duplicate the sound of a passive pickup.
Are Active Pickups Better For Metal?
Active pickups can give you a more aggressive and “scooped out” sound that you may find preferable for playing metal, but a high-gain passive pickup can also sound excellent with the right guitar, amp, and effects.
So, is it worth it to change pickups in your cheap guitar? That is a question that only you can ultimately answer, but I hope this article has helped you decide.
The first thing to consider is how much your guitar is worth in dollars or to you in sentimental value.
Next, define the problem with your sound, and if there is a pickup(s) that will provide a cost-effective solution. You may not need to change all your pickups.
Boutique pickups are usually too costly for a cheap guitar. Fender, DiMarzio, and Seymour Duncan make excellent quality and reasonably priced pickups. You can save some money if you can install the pickups yourself.
With a cheap guitar, it’s ok to give away or sell the old pickups. If the guitar has some value, keep the old pickups in case you want to reinstall them or sell the instrument.
Always consider the possibility that the problem with your sound could be the amplifier you are using. You may be able to correct the problem with an effects pedal such as a noise gate, overdrive, or distortion box.
Sometimes the easiest solution is to trade in your cheap guitar for a better model, especially if you have moved on from a beginner to a more advanced player.
Beware of “pickup envy.” Better pickups are just one way to improve your sound. Your playing style and technique can make the most difference in the sound coming from your guitar.
Tell Me What You Think
Please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this article, have any questions about when to change pickups, or want to give your point of view. I will be happy to help you.
- What brand pickup would you put in a “cheap” guitar?
- Have you ever done a pickup change? Did you do it yourself? What was the outcome?
- After reading this article, did it convince you to replace your guitar’s pickup(s)?
- What else is on your mind?