It’s always great to hear a players opinions regarding new guitar pickups on our guitars because it keeps planning in the right direction. Here are some excerpts of an article I wrote about finding your sound. Guitarists sometimes see greener grass when it could be its already green enough. They love to customize their guitars. The first thing they want to change are the pickups. Having never built one or tested a guitar pickup most players will forge ahead anyway and make the BIG CHANGE to new guitar pickups . I have to ask….Why? Have you tested yours first? Are they at the max height for best sound? Are they broken? If the pickup picking up sound it’s doing the job.
A guitar pickup is very much like a microphone-find your Sweet Spot!
It basically mirrors back the sound. It simply hears the sound signal and transfers it to the amp speaker. Furthemore, when singing what do you notice about your voice quality when backing off the mike. Same with singing very close? Does your volume drop? If you get closer does it get louder? Is there a “sweet spot” where its perfect? Probably, yes. Same goes for guitar pickups. There are a few factors you may want to test before you go to the trouble and expense of adding new guitar pickups.
After all, I use all kinds, all brands and styles in the custom guitars I build guitars for players and still find it difficult to determine if there is much difference between most. They are magnets and copper wire.
All pickups have the basically the same ingredients; Copper wire and magnets are always there.
Before you buy a new car do you ask the mechanic his opinion or the car salesman?
Pickup companies are trying to sell you on their brand, new guitar pickups but no wire view of single coil pickup for guitar mechanics will give you the facts. Salesman will give you the bull. So….. try the least expensive methods first before going nuclear.
First: test the strings and if necessary try a string change to a different set of strings. Newer strings are generally stiffer and fresher thus a cleaner tone. Also, try a heavier gauge string to give you more body in the sound.
The second test for you will be more subtle, but it will be very effective. It involves distance and signal strength. The pickups have elevator screws that are there to raise and lower them closer or farther from the strings. You’ll just need a Philips head screw driver and turn until you see the pickups move either up or down where you want them and repeat the process until the pickups are within the range where they will hear the strings close up and personal. We’ll call this the “sweet spot”.
Then begin your testing. Play,…. then lower the pickups incrementally between testing sessions so as to try several different levels of signal strength. Only in this way can you hear the differences. Remember, clarity and sound quality have more to do with “Your” ear than what other players hear.
A clean sound for some players may find the pickup sound they prefer dropping the pickups very low under the strings. A clean sound for other players may find the pickups snugged as close to the strings as physics will allow. Distortions can occur on the extremes of this spectrum.
The next test is to check the amp you are playing from. For this test you need a clean control. Be sure there are no obstructions or ways in which players like to process or in some cases “over process” themselves to impeded the pure sound of what the pickup hears. This means plug the guitar directly into the amp with no pedals, stomp boxes or effect in between to change the tone.
Your results will be much better. Some players make the mistake of testing each guitar on the same setting in their search for the ideal sound in a guitar when the result will simply be just testing how different guitars sound on the same setting.
This test will produce results–but maybe not the results you’re looking for. Remember, every guitar is set up differently. The strings are generally different ages or brands. So for the perfect empirical evidence needed everything must remain the same.
Flatten The EQ
So, to make sure you’re getting the sound you want to hear from your pickups try different EQ settings on the amp. Be sure that if there are two volume controls turn the channel volume low and the master way up. Start with flat EQ setting the introduce more or less high and low frequencies to get the sound best for your ear and the music that you are playing.
Keep in mind a change to new guitar pickups should be one of the last resorts in finding your sound and not the first.
Always thoroughly investigate what you have before you change to new guitar pickups.
There are so many brands of new guitar pickups how do you know where to start? With some 100 plus pickup manufacturers just in the USA if you decide on a brand then the next problem is which pickup does that brand have that will do the job? At $150 average price for a set of 2 pickups just for a Telecaster how long can you afford to keep making changes in your search for the Holy Grail? If after these free tests you should decide a pickup change is warranted be sure to take an experienced tech with you to the pickup store.
The specs you’ll need to be aware of are output and magnet strength. Output, measured in Ohms has nothing to do with tone or clarity just resistance. The magnet strength is important because a larger heavier magnet will cause the strings to be pulled out of tune and thwart sustain so be very careful here so as not to equate magnet strength or Ohms with “better quality”. The least expensive fixes are often the most effective. If done properly and methodically you’ll be surprised a what you’ll find and how many different tones are already in your pickups if you peek inside.
Richard R Mariner CEO
Haywire Custom Guitars Inc.
Haywire Custom Shop