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A Comprehensive Guide to the Dizzying World of Electric Guitar Pickups

A Comprehensive Guide to the Dizzying World of Electric Guitar Pickups Two signature models from DiMarzio: Steve Vai Dark Matter 2 (left) and John Petrucci Sonic Ecstacy

Pickup covers protect the fragile wire coils from damage, but depending upon the material they’re made out of, they also can affect the pickup’s magnetic field and resonant peak. A cover that is made of ferrous material and/or plated with ferrous material (like nickel) will affect the pickup’s magnetic flux, but a plastic pickup cover won’t (which is why Strat players don’t remove the pickup covers).

When Seth Lover designed the original Gibson PAF humbucker, he experimented with a variety of different materials for pickup covers before making his final choice based on how it affected the guitar’s tone (part of the reason later Gibson humbuckers with chrome plating on the covers—instead of nickel—sound different). Removing the covers results in a different magnetic field that boosts output and treble frequencies slightly.

The size and shape of the pole pieces are critical features of pickup design that affect the size and shape of the pickup’s magnetic flux field. Generally speaking, wider pole pieces will produce a wider magnetic field that picks up a larger portion of the vibrating string, producing a more sonically complex tone, whereas the narrower focus of a narrower pole piece produces a more focused tone.

A focused magnetic field can be a good thing if you prefer bright, percussive twang, while a wider field generally delivers richer, full-bodied tone. Some single-coil pickups have staggered pole piece heights to compensate for the varying output of different strings, while others have the pole pieces all the same height (like Mitt Romney’s trees in Michigan). Height-adjustable pole pieces with screw or Allen heads allow players to customize the compensation, while blade-style pole pieces are a good choice for guitarists who struggle with decreased signal strength when they bend strings (as bending a string can move it out of a magnetic flux “peak” and into a weaker “valley”).

If you’ve already shopped for humbucking pickups, you may have noticed options for two- and four-conductor wiring. Two-conductor wiring means the pickup has only separate wires for the hot output and ground. Four-conductor wiring provides two separate wires for each of the pickup’s coils, identified as north start, north finish, south start and south finish, with north and south referring to the polarity of the separate coils.

Four-conductor wiring offers a multitude of output circuit configurations, including coil split/tapping (for single-coil tones), series, parallel and out-of-phase. The advantages of different wiring configurations are worthy of an entire article unto itself, but my quick recommendation is to choose four-conductor wiring if available as it can be wired like a two-conductor pickup but it also offers other options should you choose to explore those later.

The number of companies making replacement pickups today is truly staggering and impressive. Most of the major guitar companies like Dean, EVH, Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, PRS and more sell pickups individually, and the big specialists like DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan offer an incredible variety of choices as well as designs beyond traditional Gibson-style humbuckers and Strat/Tele single-coils.

Even most smaller boutique companies like Barden, Bare Knuckle, Curtis Novak, Kent Armstrong, Bill Lawrence, Lindy Fralin, Lollar, Mojotone, RailHammer, Rio Grande, Suhr, TV Jones, Van Zandt and Wilkinson offer an impressive variety of models to choose from, as do bigger parts-oriented companies like Allparts and WD. Active pickup specialists include Bartolini, Bill Lawrence, Duncan and EMG, while modern, revolutionary designs are available from Fishman, Lace and Q-Tuner.

Bare Knuckle Cobra pickup

Just like guitar models, an abundance of signature model pickups is available, and these pickups are a good place to start if your goal is to sound similar to your favorite guitar hero. Even if your favorite players don’t have signature models, it can be worth the effort to find out what pickups they play as that can eliminate some of the guesswork about a pickup’s overall tonal personality. If you choose to go on your own path, don’t be afraid to experiment and make a few changes as you go along.

Pickups are a relatively inexpensive investment and as long as the pickups you are swapping are the same size as the ones already in your guitar the modification is easily reversible.

Choosing the right pickups for your guitar often can be better than getting an entirely new guitar, especially if you’re already comfortable with the playability of your ax. If you’ve struggled with less than stellar tone for years, and no new amp or pedal has been able to fix it, changing pickups is the best solution, and more often than not the results exceed a player’s expectations. So get out there and melt some solder, burn some fingertips and find the tone you’ve always dreamed of.

I don’t mean to put your local guitar repair tech out of work, but the skills required for replacing pickups are so simple that there is no reason you shouldn’t consider doing this job yourself. For the labor cost of one pickup replacement job, you could buy all the tools you’ll ever need to replace pickups for a lifetime, and for a few bucks more you can do the job with ease and speed.

The most important tool for pickup installation is a good soldering iron or station. The main consideration here is that the iron has ample power to melt solder quickly both on potentiometer lugs and bigger surfaces like the back of a pot, tremolo claw or other surfaces used for grounding. A 40-watt soldering iron is sufficient for most jobs (and inexpensive), but even better is an iron or soldering station with variable power or temperature.

The Weller WES51 is an inexpensive 50-watt soldering station that is variable from 350 to 850 degrees F and costs less than $100. Higher wattage produces higher temperatures that can quickly heat up braided shielding and the back of a potentiometer enough to ensure a solid solder joint without damaging the pot’s internal resistive strip. Another reason to use a high-power soldering iron or station is that many new guitars use lead-free solder, which can only be removed at temperatures higher than 425 degrees.

You’ll also need two tips for the iron—a pencil-style tip with a sharp point for precision work at lower wattage (such as soldering a wire to a pot lug) and a chisel tip with a wide, flat edge to distribute heat quickly across larger surfaces (such as the back of a pot). If you opt for just a soldering iron, you’ll also need a stand (soldering stations usually have built-in stands).

Other essential items include 60/40 (tin/lead) solder with rosin-core flux (do NOT use acid-core flux) or lead-free rosin-core solder (only if your soldering iron is powerful enough) and a good set of wire cutter/strippers that can remove insulation on wire between 10 to 20AWG. Solder wick or a solder sucker is helpful for removing old solder (and keeping it from damaging your guitar’s finish). A curved-jaw locking hemostat or a device called a “third hand” can be very helpful for holding wire and components securely while freeing your hands for the soldering iron and solder.


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