How do you choose a guitar pickup

How do electric guitar pickups work?If you are a regular reader of Top Guitars then you know that I have started to build my own guitar kit.  Although the guitar kit comes complete with 3 single coil pickups I am thinking that when I get to putting the guitar together I might want to put some better pickups into the guitar.  So that has got me wondering about pickup selection and the difficult question of how do you choose a guitar pickup?

For an electric guitar the pickups are, in my humble opinion, the heart of the guitar.  Many a good guitar has been blighted by the use of cheaper pickups and conversely a very average guitar can be made to sound like a top of the range instrument by changing the pickups.  But if you are going to change the pickups on your guitar the main consideration is what do you change them for.  In researching this article I did a quick google search for guitar pickup manufacturers and was surprised by the number of companies.  From the main names like EMG, Di Marzio, Seymour Duncan and Bartolini to the smaller niche companies like Bare Knuckle Pickups based in Devon the choice is amazing.  But with so much choices available making a decision on what to buy can be very difficult.  Which brings me back to the original question how do you choose a guitar pickup?

The place where I always start is by asking myself three questions, what guitar do I have, what is it made from and what music do I want to play.  By asking these three questions you can get to a point where you can then start to refine your pickup selection.

What guitar do I have?

This is fairly simple and comes down to guitar style, i.e. Strat, Tele or Les Paul etc and what pickups are currently fitted.  For example if you have a strat style guitar and you want to fit it with humbucker pickups then there will be a little bit of re-construction work to do.  For example my first guitar was a Squier Strat and I wanted to fit it with a humbucker in the bridge position.  I didn’t know how to do it and so I asked the guitar technician at my local guitar shop.  His response was a rather tired sigh followed by it will cost you.  Unfortunately retro-fitting a humbucker into my guitar was not as easy as I had assumed as it needed a new scratch plate and a little bit of routing to the body.  His reaction suggests that he  had been asked this question many times before!!  He suggested that I was better off fitting a single coil that had been designed to sound like a humbucker.  Sadly at that time, as I was a student, I couldn’t afford to buy the pickups he recommended and so I stuck with what I had.  Some guitarists will modify the bodies of their guitars to fit certain pickup configurations but generally by correctly selecting the pickup you can achieve the same sound without any of the hard wood work.

What is my guitar made from?

Some pickup manufacturers design their pickups to work best with a particular wood.  For example Seymour Duncan on their website have a helpful pickup selection tool known as the Tone Wizard and one of the questions they ask is the materials that the guitar is constructed from.  Don’t ask me how it works but the claim is that certain pickups are configured to work in synergy with the particular wood that the guitar is constructed from.  Make the wrong selection and, it is claimed, the sound won’t be as good.

Finally what music do I want to play?

This for me is the key question.  If I want to play jazz and I want to achieve a crystal clear tone then there is no point me fitting an active, high output pickup that was designed for maximum distortion.  I just won’t achieve my end goal.  So do a bit of soul searching and decide what you will be playing and look for a pickup that will help you achieve that sound.

Once you have answered these questions you should have a good idea of what you want to look for in a pickup.  Then it is just simply a case of finding the pickup that best fits what you want.  Some pickup websites provide useful tools that help refine your choice.  As I have already mentioned Seymour Duncan have a Tone Wizard pickup selection tool which is pretty good and there is the DiMarzio Pickup Picker which is good as well.  Many sites also have sound files that allow you to hear what the pickup sounds like when fitted.

One final word of warning.  Before you attempt to change your pickups, if you don’t know what you are doing, seek advice.  Although not complicated you need to know what you are doing so if in doubt ask!

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