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Old 01-12-2005, 03:14 PM
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Replacing Pickups for Dummies

This is something that I've meant to do since I too these pics almost 2 years ago but I've always gotten sidetracked or just plain forgotten about it, but, it seems that as time goes on there's no shortage of people who want to know how to replace a pickup. So without further ado... here's the official Ponyone pictoral guide on how to replace your own pickups.

Q: how do you gain street cred among other guitarists for having a killer sounding guitar without selling your car or pimping your Mrs. to afford a Custom Shop Goldtop Les Paul?
A: start replacing crap on the guitar you have now.

Q: how do you actually improve the tone of your pawn shop special while not spending enough money to buy a guitar that sounds good out of the box?
A: start replacing crap on theat guitar.

Q: so you buy a nice, respectable guitar that sounds sweet but it just feels like it's not being all it can be. you know, like there's tone being restricted by it somewhere. how do you open it up?
A: start replacing crap on it.

The main reason it seems people want to change pickups is because they heard or read that [insert famous guitarist] uses said pickup or brand of pickups. So the guitar's stock pickups don't sound too hot, and you decide a pickup is the only route. Don't mistake me; new pickups usually help. But there are a few things to consider.

What type of guitar are you replacing the pickups on?
Before you pick up a pencil to make a drawing you need paper, and if you're planning to show it to everyone you know as an example of your artistic genius, it's probably better to go to an art store and buy some Bristol paper than to just scrawl it in your lined notebook. The same applies for your guitar; the guitar itself is the paper, and the electronics are the pencil. you can slap the best pickups and knobs in the world in your guitar but if it's a crap guitar then why bother?
If the guitar has an enormous amount of sentimental value, like it was your first electric, then it can be tempting to go ahead and do this. My first electric was a bolt-neck Epiphone SG Special that was made like crap. I put a Seymour Duncan in there in a bid to make it sound better and, well, it didn't work.
You need to look at the situation obectively; is the guitar really worth the effort? will it really matter if you put in a new, super-sweet pickup? Is it really necessary? Would it make more sense to buy a better guitar to start with?

Why do you want to put a new pickup in the guitar?
Again, a lot of people seem to have gone through Guitar World and discovered that Steve Vai uses DiMarzios, and maybe then they went to the DiMarzio webpage and discovered he has his own signature pickups available for purchase. Or they went online trying to figure out how their favorite guitarist gets that awesome tone out of his guitar on some of those live tracks, and found a webpage that states that s/he exclusively uses Seymour Duncan's.
One thing to keep in mind is that while the pickups are equally as important to the sound of an artist as the guitar itself, the guitar is equally as important as the effects it goes through and the amp all that goes to and first and foremost the guitarist playing it. Putting in a new pickup is not a solution to fixing all your tone woes, and the vast, vast bulk of the people we listen to on CD are running a $1500+ guitar through a $1500+ amp into a $10,000+ studio effects rig. So unless you have limitless cash to play with don't expect to nail it dead on.
You shouldn't be looking for other peoples' tone anyway, you tosser. You should be after your own.
Anyway, keep in mind that a lot of professional musicians use custom made instruments that only physically resemble their mass-made equivilant. These custom guitars have custom pickups that were handmade for that player to exacting standards; they probably went through five or six prototypes, too. the ones you end up buying yourself are only made to sound like that handmade custom pickup, and so they will not nail the tone head on, even if you end up using the "same" guitar and "same" amp and "same" effects. Again, what other artists use is awesome as a guide, but it's not a bible.

How does the guitar sound right now?
Sometimes part of the reason a guitar sounds so great is that it was made to nail a specific sound; artist models, custom shop instruments, etc. The pickups were used in conjunction with certain resistance pots and certain types of wood and construction to get a certain tone, and replacing the pickups could be the equivilant of throwing a wrench into a bike wheel. If you are already satisfied with the sound of your guitar it may be better to leave it alone.
Worst comes to worst, you'll get a pickup you won't like it, you can re-repalce it; say you've got this totally sweet custom shop Fender '52 Reissue Telecaster, and you decide that since you use it for mostly bluesy licks, it'll be a good idea to drop in a Rio Grande Tallboy into the bridge because they have a killer tone from all that you've read. You buy one, drop it in, and hit a few strings before gonig "this sounds like crap." Well, just take the pickup out and put the old one in and you're good as new. Find out what the return policy on the pickup is before you get it; or, if you liked the tone, you just wanted that particular Tele to sound the way it did... hold onto the pickup and get it installed in a different Tele.

anyway, here we go...


Wire cutters (needlesnose is best), a new pack of strings, Phillips head screwdriver, soldering iron (far left), solder. If you plan on being an electric guitarist for a long time it's a good idea to keep a soldering iron somewhere in your home. I got that one for $3.99 at Radio Shack. Most of the electronic repairs you'll ever need to do will require one. A tube of solder costs about two bucks; I've only needed to buy one tube for every six guitars I've done.

A desoldering bulb is a nice thing to have too, but not 100% necessary.

Keep the pickup you're dropping by handy at all times to, for reference.

2. UNSCREW BACKPLATE AND PICKUP or, if you're replacing it on a Strat, Tele or similar guitar, REMOVE PICKUP.

First, destring the guitar; it's near impossible to do this with your strings on (though to my credit, once I replaced all the pots on a Strat without destringing it first... but... it was a royal arse-pain). If you're doing a rear-routed guitar like a Gibson, PRS, most Ibanez, Epiphone, etc then you want to remove the big plastic plate on the back. If you're doing a top mounted guitar like a Strat, Tele, or any other guitar where the pickups are mounted in the pickguard, then remove the entire pickguard. Make sure to keep all the screws separate according to where they came from; screws from pickup in one pile, screws to backplate in another, etc.
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