Thinking of swapping your pickups? - A handy guide for new tone hunters!
Changing your guitar's pickups can prove to be a brilliantly cost effective way of transforming the sound of your guitar, and also a way of bringing out the best in your instrument. For so many it has been the first port of call in modifying their guitar and changing their sound. Perhaps you're planning on tweaking a more entry level Squier for example, chances are that you love how the guitar feels and plays but it's low quality pickups just don't quite do the job. This can sometimes even be the case with higher value instruments and it's existing pickups just simply don't fit the bill for you, be it personal tastes etc. I went through the same change with my own Custom Shop Strat, it had a high end well respected set of pickups already but they didn't quite suit my ear! Rather than throwing the towel in, getting the guitar straight on eBay and taking the cash down to your local store for a new squeeze, I would always recommend considering a pickup swap. The results are very rewarding!
If you're new to all this and it seems a bit daunting with so much information out there, whether that's tackling the swap itself or just choosing which set is right for you, then I hope this blog post will help guide you in the right direction.
So, What is a pickup?!
Let's go straight to the basics, what are pickups and what do they do?!
A passive pickup is a transducer which captures the vibrations of a string, converting it into an electronic signal which can be produced by your amplifier through the cable. A traditional passive pickup, let's use a Strat's single coil model as an example, consists of a row of alnico core magnets, wrapped precisely with a very fine copper wire. The face and back of the pickup is called the 'Bobbin' or flatwork, and is usually made of fibreboard. Then you have the 'hot' and ground wire from there which get wired to your switch and pots. Some pickups get dipped for a certain amount of time in wax to help curb squeal or unwanted micro-phonics too. These are referred to as potted, or wax potted.
As you can imagine, the quality of it's components and parts, the way it's wound, the type of copper wire used, the type of magnet and the overall design of the pickup can all greatly affect the tone your guitar produces. There are various types of pickup design, the most commonly used styles you'd recognise if you're new to all of is are the Single Coil and Humbucker. There are also 'active' pickups like the EMG models pictured below. Active pickups contain a battery powered pre-amp which is used to boost the pickup’s output. These are usually high outputs. Below this customer wanted to convert his guitar back to a passive pickup and wiring set, and the result was astonishingly different.
Which pickup style is right for me and my guitar?
There are some technical details to consider initially, then it's a matter of deciding a sound you're hoping to achieve from the pickup swap. So, which style of pickups are in my guitar? This is fairly easy to identify just by looking at your guitar, humbuckers traditionally are larger in size, often mounted to a rectangular plastic ring like on a Les Paul for example via two mounting screws. These screws are usually used to adjust the pickup height which we'll come to later as well. Single Coils are often housed inside a plastic pickup cover and are much thinner in shape than a humbucker. P90s, or Soapbars as they're nicknamed due to their visual similarity to a bar of soap! Are still single coil pickups in design, but with a wider coil meaning they are a little larger in size and their pole pieces are adjustable screws rather than a solid piece of alnico magnet. Then the Strat and Tele style single coils which we touched upon earlier. There are many variations of pickups seen by many manufacturers, but knowing and understanding these styles of pickup will put you in good stead for identifying the tones you're after easier. Each style will have their own characteristic, which have defined the instruments they're usually found in. A Tele wouldn't be a tele without it's twangy tone right?!
After identifying which type of pickup is in your guitar, you will now want to decide what kind of tone you're hoping to achieve. Perhaps you own a Strat and you love John Mayer's signature tone, well a single coil Stratocaster pickup set with a increased mid range like McNelly's 'Triple Scoop' Pickup set may be ideal for you. If you have a modern Les Paul but you love that classic vintage late 50s Gibson sound, then a 'PAF' Inspired Humbucker like the McNelly 'Cornucopia' would suit you well. This part of the process is all down to your personal tastes, the tone you love, the sound you're hoping to create or re-create and even what would suit the guitar best. As perhaps a hollow body archtop wouldn't respond well to a high output humbucker and you'd want a sweeter, lower output to get the best from the instrument. I would always recommend looking at the guitar itself, seeing what would suit that instrument and bring the best out in it and go from there! Mixing and matching can be a great way to achieve the tone you've been after, many players pair different models of pickup together to great results. So don't feel tied to a 'set', perhaps you'd love a classic PAF sounding humbucker in the bridge, but some nice P90 tones from the neck position, it's possible and can sound great. Any advice on this and which pickup models go well together, feel free to drop me a message here!
Above are a set of 1990s Gibson Humbuckers with plain gold covers, and below the McNelly Cornucopia with more unique Gold Foil covers. Both suit the guitar brilliantly, but both give the guitar a totally different aesthetic and shows how much fun can be had transforming the look, as well as the tone, with a set of pickups. This pickup swap came about because the Gibson humbuckers weren't very well balanced on this occasion. The bridge position was brash, bright and had a very high output, and the neck was woolly with a much lower output providing a unbalanced tone and volume within the set. So the owner wanted to bring out a better balance, and more of a classic 'PAF' Humbucker tone. The McNelly Cornucopia's captured that perfectly, and also the change in cover style completely transformed the visual of this Les Paul too!
Here's a demo of a 'PAF' kind of tone. The PAF is an iconic humbucker pickup made by Gibson and nicknamed the PAF due to the 'Patent Applied For' sticker which adorned the underside of the pickup on those early models. These are incredibly sort after, with original sets fetching huge sums of money when made available. But there are lots of great pickup makers producing their take on the PAF, some of which are truly superb. This is the McNelly take on the PAF, capturing that 50s magic with quality components and parts, as well as being skillfully wound. It is more of an inspired take on the PAF, rather than a reproduction.
So as I mentioned with the Les Paul above, changing to a nice gold foil covered humbucker totally changed the style of the guitar giving it a nice face lift! So if you fancy giving your guitar a new look as well as a new sound, then swapping your pickups can be the ideal solution. McNelly offer a wealth of cover options, as well as an incredible range of custom design covers that we can have made for you. The choice is almost endless! Below are some examples of some of the custom cover options available on top of all of the lovely 'standard' options available. So if you have something particular or unique in mind, feel free to get in touch and ask! But sometimes with such a lovely array of standard options available, it provides enough to get inspired by. Your pickups can certainly sound amazing, but they should look amazing too I think!
You will hear a lot and read a lot about pickup outputs, which are displayed as 7.5k for example. Outputs are an interesting thing, as although they can provide you with some idea of the kind of sound you'll be expecting, it can't be taken as the gospel. If you are after a high gain sort of tone, then you will want to look for a set with a higher output. But that output figure won't give you a taster of the 'tone' available from the pickup, what it will do is tell you that it's higher output will distort the amp more readily, which isn't a reflection in tone. I love the way Tim McNelly words this, and I haven't thought of a better way to describe this yet, so I'll loosely quote Tim here! 'Judging a pickup by it's output, is a little like judging a fine wine by it's alcohol content. Sure you know how strong it is, but it won't tell you how good it'll taste.' This right here is super important to remember, certainly note the output, but if it's a particular tone you're after, perhaps look at the parts of the pickup and equally it's design to see if they would achieve it or not.
Look for things that will show what kind of tone they will create, what magnet type is used, what wire it's wound with and the way it's wound. These details will give a really good insight into their tone produced. Then see if the output is suitable to you and the style you play, as judging a pickup by it's output alone can be misleading. Take this video as a brilliant example -
This guitar is a 'Hound Dog' made by the great Ambler Custom Guitars which is currently available through us, and it features a custom cover set of McNelly 'Autumn' Humbuckers. The Autumn humbuckers by McNelly are a low/medium based output humbucker, designed for creamy jazz esq single note work. But pushed with high gain (played amazingly well by Cameron Cooper I might add!) they still achieve those gritty sounds easily, so it goes to show you don't necessarily need huge 15k for example, output pickup set. You can still get those high gain sounds, but obtain a great deal more dynamic and clarity to the tone when clean. High output pickups through nature of their design, will want to drive the amp harder, all of the time. So outputs aren't everything, but it can have a negative effect if you're looking for nice clean tones and you buy a high powered pickup, it could lead to disappointment. This is very much all personal tastes, tone is subjective remember!
I've chosen & bought my set, now how the hell do I fit them?!
If the idea of fitting your new pickup set completely scares you to death, then having a qualified guitar tech do so is quite recommended. We know what we're doing and do so on a daily basis so it's second nature really, and getting your guitar back in action is what we love to do. But if you're keen to learn and have used a soldering iron a few times before, then a straight swap honestly isn't that scary. It can be rewarding too, so if you're feeling confident and have done your research, it is certainly a job you can do at home and I always feel it's good for guitarists to know a little more about how their guitar works. You have to point out what engine parts are what in your driving exam right? Why not know a little more about under the hood of your guitar too.
Guitar wiring diagrams are a great help and are easily found online. We even have a bunch of them available to use on the bottom of our website HERE. They are usually quite simple to follow and displayed clearly. I would recommend working alongside one, especially if you're intending on swapping pots etc also, but even if it's just a pickup swap and you get a little lost, it will easily help you get back on track.
So, what tools will you need to swap a pickup set?
A set of screwdrivers, for removing the pickguard if required, removing the pickups from their mounting and any covers etc. Wire cutters. Perhaps some small nose pliers to hold any fiddly wires. A soldering Iron, there is lots of info out there about which to use, but I always find my 40w is perfect for any guitar work. It is hot enough to do the job quickly, but not so hot that it cooks everything in it's path! Some 60/40 Tin/Lead mix Solder, this is the best (in my opinion and many others too) solder to use for guitar wiring. A soldering 'helping hand' is also useful, as you ALWAYS feel like you need an extra pair of hands whilst soldering. The helping hand can hold wires in position, whilst your old left and right can do the more involved work.
If it's just a direct pickup swap, a lot of the time the wiring will be the same for your new set as it was for the old. This may begin to get a little more complicated if you're using humbuckers, as they can be made with what's called '4 Conductor' wire and each pickup manufacturer uses different colour codes.
If a pickup is wired this way, it will be supplied with a colour code diagram which will explain which colour is which, and usually some tips on how to wire them. Again if you're really not sure after all that, speak with a tech and it'll save you frustration down the line and get you enjoying your new pickups quicker! There are some great handy references online too like this one below -
As you can see, Seymour Duncan's pickups have the black, north start wire as the main hot output and the green south start wire as the ground. The White and Red wires are your series link, if you're wiring in a conventional way these are soldered together and taped off. If you're planning on wiring split coil tapping etc, then you will require a diagram which shows how to wire this to a push/pull or mini switch perhaps.
Single coil pickups and some humbuckers usually have a single white and single black wire, one hot & one ground. Nice and simple!
But again, I will say that if you're unsure, to save yourself any worry or problems I'd recommend taking your guitar and new pickup set to a trusted guitar tech. It can be an enjoyable and simple task, following some of these simple guides and a good wiring diagram will very much help but it can certainly be daunting if you're not comfortable or familiar with it. If that's the case, take it to a trusted tech and sit back ready to enjoy your rejuvenated guitar on it's return! Certainly no shame in that!
Swapping your pickups truly is a rewarding task, choosing a set which captures the tone you've been hoping for is great! Whether it's a lower cost, import guitar or even a high end instrument, swapping pickups can transform the guitar entirely. I've done it to numerous guitars of my own since starting playing many years ago, and I still do to this day, especially because of working for McNelly Pickups! Tim's designs are truly special and have changed the way I look at pickups entirely. The dynamics, response and character available from any of the McNelly pickup range has made me really enjoy trying each and every model out. Seeing other players reactions when they hear them or hearing back from customs who have bought a set and loved their guitar because of it. That's what it's all about for me.
Tone is incredible subjective, everyone has their own opinion on what makes a guitar sound great. I still stand by the notion that so much is down to the player, the same rig in different hands can indeed sound different, there's no changing that. But for me, a beautifully designed and made pickup set can inspire you to play the instrument, inspire you to make music. That is the most important thing and the main reason we do it all! In my 20+ years of experience, McNelly pickups are the most inspiring. I hope this blog post has helped share some facts, tips and details about choosing and fitting pickups for a beginner to the world of tone hunting!
Have you made good use of some of the free resources here? Wired up your guitar or found useful info here along the way? Perhaps you might consider kindly supporting this free resource for guitarists via 'Buy me a coffee'! Thank you so much!