Upgrade Your Guitar Pickups...

Courtesy of Matthew Wendler

Have you ever considered changing out your pickups? Bassists and guitarists have plenty of options – and sometimes it may seem like too many. Buying a new pickup and soldering it into your guitar is just half the battle, after all. It takes a bit of know-how to put the right equipment in your instrument for the sound you need.

Finding the right pickup for your instrument isn't terribly daunting once you do a bit of research, and soldering it in can be easy with the right materials and some practice. The being said, there are a few things you first need to understand about the two basic types of pickups before switching one out.

Passive pickups

Passive pickups are primarily composed of a magnet wrapped in wiring that conducts electrical signals from your strings. The more wire wrapped around the magnet, the more powerful and potentially louder the pickup is.

Passive pickups are what you may call "regular" pickups – they come standard on almost all electric guitars and basses. They are noted for being simple and organic in sound.

Active pickups

Active pickups are essentially passive pickups which are connected to a preamp built into your instrument. The preamp usually needs to run on a battery. Although active pickups are typically lower in output than many passive pickups, the preamp gives them higher power levels. The low output combined with the power of the preamp means that active pickups are able to handle higher levels of volume and gain from an amplifier without distorting it. For this reason, they're suitable for many bassists. However, active pickups are easily capable of breaking up an amp, and they're noted for retaining their clear sound under distortion.

Do your best to try out both active and passive to see which is right for your instrument.

How to change out your pickups

If you've ever heard that changing out pickups is a bit of a hassle, you were correctly informed. Anyone who tells you that it's easy was either lying or somewhat skilled with a soldering gun. It doesn't take much skill to solder a pickup, but it's definitely something that you should work on a bit before you try to make an improvement on your precious instrument. I used this detailed article on the Sonicbids blog by Aaron Staniulis to improve my sloppy soldering technique.

Step 1: Get a wiring diagram

A wiring diagram is essential in changing pickups. If you can't find one, you should probably let a professional take care of the soldering. Any wiring diagram you may need is likely on your guitar manufacturer's website. Additionally, most after-market pickup brands have guides on their sites. Seymour Duncan's is a particularly good example.

All guitars have different procedures for pickup exchange, some more complicated than others. The diagram will show you exactly what you need to remove, and how to replace it again. Now, onto the pickups themselves.

Step 2: Gather your tools

Photo by Matthew Wendler

The photos you're viewing are of an Ibanez RG570 from 1997 with a rather heinous paint job. I removed my passive bridge pickup, then soldered it back in for demonstration's sake.

In the photo above, you can see everything you'll need. Most importantly, a nice, flat surface covered with something soft. I used a towel. You'll also need an Allen screwdriver for large screws and a set of precision screwdrivers for smaller, difficult-to-reach screws. A multimeter is also handy so that you can check the electrical current in the pickups. Most importantly, you'll need a soldering iron, along with solder.

Step 3: Remove your strings and the pickup

ibanez pickup 
Photo by Matthew Wendler

Removing the strings is simple enough, and for me, removing the pickup was, too. I simply needed to unscrew the pickups with a precision screwdriver to get it out. Other guitar brands have different procedures. (For instance, you must remove the entire pick guard on a Stratocaster because the pickups are built into it.) Once I unscrewed the pickup, I flipped the guitar over to access the rest of the electronics.

Step 3: Remove the old pickup's wiring

Photo by Matthew Wendler

To remove the pickup, you're going to need to break the wire at the point where it's soldered to the guitar without harming the guitar itself, and without removing the wrong pickups. This is where the wiring diagram is essential; I used it to identify the wires I needed to remove. I found a fingernail trimmer to be the best tool for this job.

My pickup had three wires bundled together. They were connected at two points to the guitar and also at a grounding wire. Most guitars are built with a similar setup, though the grounding wire's location can vary.

Step 3: Remove your old pickup and replace it

Photo by Matthew Wendler

Once you've removed the pickup, you can slide the new pickup's wire through the body and solder it where appropriate. I needed to solder the red and white wires to specific points on the board near my thumb. I also had to solder the grounding wire to the grounding point. To reiterate, the only way to be sure you're correctly soldering the first time is to follow the correct wiring diagram.

Once the wires are soldered in place, all you need to do is to screw your pickup back in again and test out your guitar. If all went well, you should be playing again with a new sound. If you don't like the new sound, there's nothing to worry about – just use the same procedure to replace the original pickups.

Learning to swap out your pickups is a great step towards crafting a signature sound, which can be vital to distinguishing yourself as a musician.

Matthew Wendler is a blogger and multi-instrumentalist from New Jersey. He specializes in guitar, bass guitar, and bagpipes, and is passionate about writing both professionally and for enjoyment.


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