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Getting a new guitar is always exciting, but sometimes you might have a strange experience where things don’t sound like you expected them to.
It raises a pretty big question: Are stock guitar pickups good?
Most modern stock guitar pickups, even on inexpensive guitars, are quite good, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right fit for a particular musical genre. Many stock pickups have wide, relatively even frequency response, for example, which might be right for pop music, but wrong for metal or even hard rock.
Let’s look at what goes into a stock guitar pickup, why you might or might not want to upgrade your pickups, as well as what kind of aftermarket pickups are good choices.
Are Stock Guitar Pickups Good Or Bad?
As you can probably guess, there isn’t an easy answer to whether all stock guitar pickups are good or bad. As it happens, it isn’t even easy to divide things up into easy categories to determine what’s good and what’s bad.
Instead, whether a guitar pickup sounds good depends on its design, the materials used, its condition, and, possibly most important of all, what you’re using it for.
There is a tendency to think that less expensive guitars have worse pickups than more expensive ones, and there’s some evidence to back that up, but less than you might think. Some very cheap instruments still come with thin sounding pickups without much personality, but not many.
And some of the cheap guitars of the past, with pickups that were once totally dismissed, are now quite collectable exactly because of those pickups.
Two great examples are guitars that come with lipstick pickups and those with so-called “gold foil” pickups.
Originally developed by the Danelectro guitar company, lipstick pickups used a magnet wrapped with wire inside a metal tube, perhaps the simplest possible design. In their day they were often derided as thin or weak sounding, but now they are recognized for the distinctive tone they offer.
The same is true of gold foil pickups, which came on budget, and student model guitars that players were regularly told were fine for learning and practice, but wouldn’t be good enough for a real performance.
This video looks at the modern resurgence of gold foil pickups and attempts to explain why players find their sound appealing.
Part of the equation, obviously, is nostalgia for the sounds of the past, as well as a reaction to modern pickups that tend to sound good, if a bit generic.
Some of them use traditional alnico magnets while others use ceramic magnets, something that was once restricted to the very cheapest pickups. They do that in search of a vintage — or at least vintage like — sound that matches the basic tone of older gold foils while being substantially louder, and therefore more usable in a variety of settings.
The fact I noted above about modern pickups, that many sound quite similar, is a mixed blessing. It means that for the most part, any guitar you buy will have pickups that sound reasonably good.
It can also make guitars sound less distinctive overall, though, and that somewhat generic tone can make it harder for a player to develop a distinctive sound, something that is theirs alone.
With that said, though, in nearly every case, the stock pickups on a new guitar are going to be capable of doing just about anything most players will need, even if it isn’t necessarily specialized to match the sound of a particular genre.
Should You Replace Stock Guitar Pickups?
A lot of players, especially inexperienced players, figure they’ll buy a cheap guitar and upgrade the pickups as a way to get a better sound. And that certainly is a reasonable plan, at least for people with a bit of mechanical aptitude. But it isn’t necessarily the best way to handle things.
For one thing, the pickups are just one of many, many issues you might run into when picking up a cheap guitar, especially a used one.
Warped necks, broken truss rods, worn frets, improperly fitted nuts, and bad bridges are only some of the things you might encounter. All of them require time, expertise, and money to fix.
And then you might find you need to replace the pickups, after already spending twice as much money as you intended to on the repairs.
Instead, if you want to find an inexpensive guitar, the best method is to spend some time testing new and used guitars to see how they play and what they sound like.
Remember that nearly any guitar that’s been sitting on display in a music shop will need at least a little bit of setup work, but just playing a range of guitars will give you a sense of what playability factors matter most to you.
Do you prefer a thick or a thin neck? Wide frets or narrow ones?
Having a sense of those preferences and knowing what’s normal for a guitar will go a long way toward helping you pick the right instrument.
Then, you can spend some time listening to the sound and seeing if you want to upgrade.
What’s Wrong With Stock Pickups?
I’d say, see if you want to upgrade because you might be surprised at just how good your stock pickups sound.
Modern design and manufacturing have made it possible to duplicate pickups nearly exactly from one to the next, offering a much more consistent sound from guitar to guitar in the same range. As I noted above, that can make things sound somewhat generic, but the big advantage is that you have a much better idea of how one guitar will sound after hearing another that uses the same pickups.
Depending on the maker and the style of the instrument, that pickup might or might not be the sound you’re looking for, though.
Just look at the options out there for vintage-style Stratocaster pickups. They offer a range of specifications and sounds, which can make understanding exactly what you’re looking for difficult if you just say “vintage.”
The type of magnet, whether Alnico 3 or 5 or ceramic, as well as the gauge — the technical term for thickness — of wire, whether it’s plain or coated, and the number of wraps around the bobbin will all have a major impact on sound, and that’s just for new pickups.
When you’re dealing with used, and especially vintage, pickups, there is another set of factors that can change the sound, including how much strength the magnets have left, any corroded or broken connections between the pickup and the controls, and the condition of the coil wires, which can develop shorts. The severity of each of these problems will change how much of an impact they have on the sound, but the cumulative effect can be drastic.
One complaint about stock pickups is that they can sound thin. Usually, this doesn’t mean their actual volume as much as the way they’re transmitting frequencies and overtones.
That can be caused by a number of issues, from not enough wire windings in the pickup coil to the pickup being too far away from the strings. Pickup height should be part of any setup, so if your pickups still sound thin after that, there is probably an issue with the pickups themselves.
The final check to do before installing new pickups should be to test their output. Doing so can confirm the problem is the pickup and not the wiring in the guitar, such as the jack or tone and volume control.
This video shows how to test the output of a pickup using a multimeter.
Are Aftermarket Pickups Worth It?
If you’ve decided your stock pickups aren’t good enough, whether they’re broken or not, then the question becomes what to replace them with.
Companies like Fender offer a wide range of their own pickups, and Seymour Duncan became a household name in the music industry because of the huge variety of replacement pickups the company has created over the years, from widely produced models for consumers to custom winds for famous musicians.
Innumerable other companies, small and large, have done the same, and then there are also used and vintage pickups taken from guitars to consider.
So how can you decide what to replace your pickups with?
Your best bet is to start with some research. The internet has made it easier than ever to get an idea of what a particular pickup sounds like. Large and small makers alike often include video or audio with their product descriptions, so you can get a sense of the sound before you buy.
Research can also help you find the sounds of used pickups, at least in some cases, but don’t forget about the other factors I listed above. Older pickups could sound much different from example to example, based on how they’ve been cared for alone, not including other factors like the guitar they’re installed on and what they’re played through, including both effects and the amplifier.
You can also look at the kinds of pickups played by people you want to emulate and find analogous options available today. Again, though, you need to be aware that the pickup itself is far from the only contributor to the sound, so other parts of the signal chain are also important to consider.
This video, for example, gives samples of different kinds of pickups as a baseline to understand how they might sound on your guitar.
How To Replace Stock Guitar Pickups
Once you’ve decided to upgrade, you need to do some work.
First, there is some preparation to do. Take careful measurements of the pickup you want to install, including its length, width, and height, as well as the mounting method.
If the pickup is the same basic kind as the one it’s replacing, things should be close, but don’t be surprised if you need to make clearance or drill new holes — there can be a lot of variation from maker to maker.
If you’re doing something more ambitious, like replacing a single coil with a traditional humbucker or other larger pickup, you’ll probably have to do some routing into your guitar and will almost definitely have to make some modifications to your pickguard.
Neither of these is necessarily very difficult, but they do take some skill and some practice, so if you aren’t confident you should probably look at taking your guitar to a shop to have the work done. It will cost more money than doing it yourself but it will protect your investment in both your instrument and the new pickups.
There’s also the matter of soldering the new connections. You’ll need to have a good soldering iron and be comfortable reading basic wiring diagrams. If not, you might want to consider taking it to a technician for the same reasons as above.
This video goes over the basics of replacing a pickup, to help you decide if you’re up for it.
A guitar’s pickups are the basis of the signal chain, whether you’re going right into an amp or you have a whole pedalboard full of effects. It makes sense to want the best pickup possible for your particular sound.
While it might seem obvious that less expensive guitars come with worse pickups, as I noted early on, that isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, many inexpensive guitars today have pickups as good or better than some middle of the road guitars from 20 years ago.
So before you get too far down the pickup replacement road, take a moment and listen to what you have. If it doesn’t suit you, then upgrade, but you might be surprised at just how good stock pickups can sound, depending on the guitar.
I’ve been a musician, particularly a guitarist, for more than 25 years. I love writing about guitars, gear, recording, music in general and more.