When choosing pickups for your guitar, we're assuming this is for some kind of a modification or custom job. We'll start with the three most significant factors you need to consider - type of guitar, playing style, and budget.
Read more: Best guitar pickups and humbuckers overall
Based on the type of guitar you have: (H = humbucker and S = singe coil)
- Stratocaster: HSS or SSS
- Telecaster: HH, SS, or HSS
- Les Paul/SG/PRS: HH
- Ibanez/ESP LTD/Other: HH, HSS, SS
Based on your playing style and musical preferences
- Vintage/Classic Rock/Softer genres: Single coil pickups, lower output, Alnico magnets (especially Alnico 2 and 3)
- Rock/Metal/Heavier genres: Humbuckers, high output, active electronics, Ceramic and Alnico 5 magnets
- Blues/Heavy Funk/Pop/Moderate genres: Single coil or humbuckers, moderate output, Alnico and ceramic magnets
Based on your budget (estimates of typical cost)
- Humbucker sets (one for bridge and one for neck): Between $175 and $250
- Single humbuckers: Between $60 and $125
- Telecaster single coil sets: Between $100 and $200
- Stratocaster single coil sets: Between $125 and $225
Tips for Making Pickups Sound Better
Whether you've added a new set of pickups to your guitar or you're just trying to improve the tone of your existing configuration, this section covers how to get the most out of the pickups in your electric guitar.
Pickups are designed to magnetize the vibrations of your guitar strings or "pick them up" and transfer them as an electrical signal. If the strings above your pickups are old or worn out (or both), the quality and clarity of those vibrations are going to suffer as well. One of the simplest ways to make sure you're getting the most out of your pickups is to treat them to a new set of strings every so often.
Read more: How Often to Change Guitar Strings
Wiring and installing your pickups can be tricky, though there are quite a few wiring diagrams and resources you can use for making sure you get it done right. Installing correctly will guarantee the pickups are going to produce the best sound possible.
For old pickups, particularly humbuckers, you can lose sound quality because of dirt and dust. This can easily be solved by cleaning the pickups at regular intervals, depending on how often you play.
Are rusty pickups bad?
What about pickups that have accumulated rust? This can happen from moisture, water damage, or even sweat droplets from your hands. This isn't necessarily "bad" but it can damage the pickup and cause rust over time. You can refer to the same article I linked to above on pickup cleaning for help dealing with pole rust as well.
What about really cheap pickups?
All of the above suggestions could also apply to making really cheap pickups sound better. Though getting a good tone out of cheaper pickups, that usually come stock on a lot of mid to low-cost guitars, is a lot more difficult. Since pickups are one of the primary sources of tone, there isn't much you can do to improve their sound. If your pickups just don't sound good, and you've checked off all of the above recommendations, a pickup upgrade might be your best option.
Do pickups really make a difference?
As I mentioned in the above paragraph, an electric guitar's pickups are one of the original sources of your tone, which means it's hard to cover up a bad set that naturally doesn't sound good.
Thus, it stands to reason that pickups absolutely make a difference in your guitar's sound, perhaps more than any other part of your rig. This is why a cheap electric guitar can improve just as a result of upgraded pickups.
Squiers, mid-range Epiphones, and PRS SE electrics are all great pickup mod candidates.
Read more: Best pickups for PRS SE Custom 24
How long do guitar pickups last?
Pickups don't tend to lose their tone quality by age alone. They can be impacted by dirt, sweat, and rust which is why it's good to clean them once in awhile. But generally speaking they don't have a default lifespan, particularly the passive pickups that don't run off a battery. As long as they don't break or have a loose wire, they should last decades.
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