When players desire to upgrade their guitar, the first protocol is to swap out their guitar’s pickups. This makes sense as pickups contribute a large portion to your guitar’s tone.
However, is it worth upgrading your guitar’s pickups, or are they just an overrated upgrade?
Here’s a short answer to this question…
It is worth upgrading your pickups to replace stock pickups with an average sound or go for a different type of pickup for a different tone. For example, swapping a single-coil to a humbucker (or vice versa) will drastically change the tone. It is also worth upgrading to experiment with different tones with your guitar.
Upgrading Guitar Pickups Video (Before & After)
As you can see, pickups can be a worthy upgrade depending on your current setup.
On the other hand, if you are unsure whether they are still worth upgrading for your guitar? Here are my top reasons why upgrading may not be a bad idea…
Reasons to Upgrade Your Guitar’s Pickups
1. Replace a Muddy Set of Stock Pickups
The main reason to upgrade your pickups is to replace sub-standard pickups that came with your guitar. This is typically budget guitars that come with stock pickups.
The majority of budget guitars priced $200 – $400 do not always have optimal pickups installed. The brand that manufactured the guitar will nowadays have the company’s in-house pickups installed.
For example, Epiphone will have a set of Epiphone designed humbuckers instead of a classic set of Seymore Duncan pickups. Obviously, this is to save overall costs and increase mark-up on each guitar.
Depending on the guitar in question, the pickups that came with the guitar can sound great and satisfy enough players to agree they are not worthy of an upgrade.
However, you could certainly squeeze more improvements on tone if you upgraded from average stock pickups. So what kind of tonal improvements can you expect?
What to Expect Replacing Average Pickups
On replacing average stock pickups, players commonly say their tone has more definition, clarity, and focus, which is very noticeable for clean tones.
Furthermore, players say they can hear notes better, and the guitar’s wood becomes more audible and prevalent.
Depending on the pickups you replace, new pickups can breathe new life into a guitar and level-up your tone. Players have argued that their guitar sound like a brand new guitar, which is certainly a worthy upgrade.
It also depends on how well trained your ear is. If you are a beginner, then you may notice less tonal improvements.
However, If you are an experienced player with a better-trained ear, you can notice an improvement in tonal response.
Furthermore, it depends if you like how the guitar plays and feel it is worth investing and improving your guitar’s tone.
2. Upgrade to Suit your Style and Genre
Keep in mind, upgrading your guitar pickups does NOT mean throwing a bunch of money at it!
An upgrade can simply change your guitar pickups to suit your playing style and your musical genre.
For example, if you want your Stratocaster with single-coil pickups to handle heavier genres such as hard rock. Well, why not install a budget set of humbuckers or Noiseless Pickups?
There’s no need to break the bank here with a fancy or expensive set pickup.
Or you want to upgrade a Les Paul humbucker guitar to a silent EMG active pickups, ideal for saturated high gain metal tones, just install a standard set of EMG pickups to get more oomph from your guitar.
As a side note, my detailed post explains all about EMG pickups. Including how they sound and what genres they are best suited for. You can view this post here!
An upgrade can simply mean upgrading your guitar to suit your playing style, genre, and typical tones you want from your guitar. Not buy the most expensive pickups you can afford.
3. Achieve a New Guitar Sound (Without Buying a New Guitar)
Another reason to upgrade your pickups is to go for a new radical sound and flavor from your guitar.
Let’s say you love how your current guitar plays and feels, but you want a completely different sound. Furthermore, you also don’t want to shell out for another guitar with your desired pickups.
The solution is to simply upgrade your pickups to either a single-coil, humbucker, or P90. If your guitar is compatible with these pickups.
Let’s say you have a Telecaster with single-coils, swapping a single-coil to a different single-coil, well, you are still going to the foundational sound of a single-coil being thin, bright, and spanky.
On the other hand, if you swapped your pickups to a humbucker, this will obviously give your guitar a wholly reformed tone. This gives the guitar a fat, thick, and warm guitar tone with better noise and hum canceling ability.
Your preferred genre and style influences what type of pickup will most suit your style and genre. Furthermore, your tastes, tone preferences, and your ear will influence your decision.
The point is, you can upgrade your pickups to change your guitar tone instead of buying another guitar.
4. Experiment With Different Brands & Sounds
As a guitar player, I always recommend experimenting with different gear. Pickups are no exception.
Let’s face it, guitar pickups are not a vastly expensive upgrade (more on cost later in this post)
The point is, you should upgrade your pickups to experiment with different sounds and configurations. The reason is you may stumble upon a brand and sound that is the perfect match for you.
Personally, I was always a humbucker guy, but when I experimented with the P90s. I was surprised by how much I like the difference in tone and flavor. You can view my awesome post all about P90 pickups here!
Therefore, If you are serious about getting your perfect guitar tone, experimenting is an essential part of being a guitar player on an integral aspect of your quest for tone.
Probably the most important external factor that determines your tone is the type of amp you have, as well as your pedals.
However, if we speak about the guitar in itself, the two main factors are the tonewood, body mass, and…you guessed it, the pickups.
Upgrading your guitar pickups can considerably change your tone. Improving tone depends on how well you understand what the new set of pickups will do.
It may be that you are looking for a fatter sound for heavy riffs, or a tone with more mid-range for soloing. Knowing what you want can help you pick the right new set of pickups.
Will New Pickups Improve Your Guitar Tone?
The degree of that improvement will depend on your initial pickups’ quality and the type of pickups you want.
For example, changing pickups from single-coil to humbuckers can drastically change your tone.
On the other hand, changing from a Seymore Duncan humbucker to a different DiMarzio humbucker will have a lesser impact on the sound (although a potential improvement is still possible depending on your tastes).
There are pickups designed to increase volume, make your tone brighter, or change the configuration from single-coil to humbucker or P90.
Some pickups are better suited for clean tones, and some pickups react better to distortion.
You also have to take into account the genre you will be leaning towards. Some pickups are better suited for bluesy stuff or classic rock, while others are more modern sounding or favor styles like jazz or bossa-nova.
Regardless of what their purpose is, in my opinion, upgrading your pickups is a good investment.
This holds even truer with stock pickups, as they usually lack clarity and may not blend well with higher gain and/or distortion.
Luckily for us, there are all types of different pickups out there and almost all of them have a tonal description and demos on the brand’s website. Always check the tonal description of each pickup to know what kind of flavor you desire.
Expensive Pickups in a Cheap Guitar?
Upgrading the pickups on a cheap guitar is a common thing intermediate players do. It can allow you to improve your “average” guitar without having to break the bank.
Most entry-level guitars will not have the best pickups and might end up impeding an overall improvement of your tonal quality.
This is where upgrading to higher-end pickups can undoubtedly improve your guitar’s clarity and definition.
Budget guitars are prevalent nowadays with brands such as Squier, Epiphone, Ibanez, etc pumping out some tremendous entry-level guitars for less experienced players.
If your entry-level guitar plays and feels great, but the pickups are lacking, then upgrading the pickups is an excellent option to improve your guitar’s tone.
However, some affordable guitars have a solid combination of tonewood and electronics that make them good-quality guitars.
If that is the case, an upgrade might serve you best in other aspects (such as other pedals or a better amp).
Ultimately, the first thing you should do is get comfortable with your instrument to a point where you feel you are truly getting the best out of it.
At that point, you can make a better-informed decision on whether an improvement suits your need or if you’d instead get a new guitar in the future.
Are Expensive Guitar Pickups Worth It?
This is the million-dollar question, are they worth it? Or is it better to upgrade other aspects of your tonal components?
Some guitar players feel expensive pickups ($400+) are not worth it. The main reason is they only ever so slightly change the tone of your instrument.
This is truer when your guitar is constructed from quality wood and electronics.
On the other hand, guitar players who get very involved in the search for tonal improvements believe in the power of an expensive guitar pickup upgrade.
Whereas the majority of players believe super expensive pickups are overrated and not worth it.
When improvements are more obvious (cheap pickups to super high-quality ones), the answer will lean towards a yes.
You also have to consider the build quality of top brands such as DiMarzio, EMG, or Seymour Duncan.
These companies have designed thousands of pickups over many decades, and their reputation supports their quality.
The best advice is to do your research to decide whether an expensive upgrade is worth it for you based on your current setup.
How Much Does It Cost to Upgrade Your Pickups?
The price for changing pickups varies from store to store, usually revolving around $60 plus the pickup cost. It also depends on how many pickups you are replacing.
This price is per pickup, and some stores offer lower pricing for any additional pickup change. Some stores will even throw in a set of free strings (not all the time though).
You can potentially change the pickups yourself if you know how to handle a solder.
There are many benefits of changing the pickups on your own, plus you get to save some money.
Here’s a video below on the basics of how to change your guitar pickups.
How to Change Your Guitar Pickups
On the other hand, having a guitar tech upgrade your pickups ensures you’ll get the result you are looking for. It will also be easier to make any adjustments needed.
I would recommend you have a professional do it the first time if you lack experience or have none at all.
You can ask the guitar tech to show you how to change them for future endeavors.
Do Guitar Pickups Get Better With Age?
When talks of vintage guitars occur, there is always a debate on whether guitars get better with age and why.
In reality, what can potentially improve in a guitar over time is its wood. This is mostly when the guitar is made out of solid wood, rather than laminated (a combination of several kinds of wood).
Speaking specifically of guitar pickups, no evidence suggests that guitar pickups improve over time. There are talks of the pickup’s coil wires aging and making the pickup’s tone more mellow and smooth.
In reality, guitar pickups degrade quite slowly, and it is very difficult for a pickup to considerably change its tone due to aging.
If this were to happen, and the pickups were to age to a point where it’s tone is affected, it will most likely degrade it, rather than improve the overall sound.
Do Guitar Pickups Wear Out Over Time?
In theory, yes, guitar pickups will wear out over time. However, that process takes very long and should not be a problem for you.
Guitar pickups use magnets and copper wire, and both can corrode. The thing you would probably have to look out for most is sweat, as it can increase corrosion speed.
Nevertheless, pickups usually use permanent magnets such as AlNiCo.
These magnets take several hundreds of years to decay, and you should not consider this an issue.
With proper care, you can avoid corrosion on your pickups. You would only have to make sure to clean them after a practice session (especially if you sweat a lot).
Apart from this, there are some cases where the magnets on your pickups get weaker. This, in turn, will cause the overall output of the pickup to decrease in volume and intensity.
If this were to happen, you could always take your pickups to be re-magnetized without any risk of tonal change or pickup wear.
Upgrading Guitar Pickups – Closing Thoughts
Upgrading your guitar pickups is an excellent way to improve the overall quality of your guitar. Doing so can also be a better option than getting a new guitar, especially if your guitar is already of good quality. On the other hand, there might be other investments that impact your tone more directly. Getting improved pedals or a better amp might be a better use of your money.
Before You Go
If you liked this post, take a look at my next article explaining why some guitar pickups are angled! Including the single-coil pickup on a Stratocaster and Telecaster for example. You can check out this post here!