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Turning knobs vs swapping pickups

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I choose electric guitars based on feel, and whether they stay in tune. And the latter can usually be fixed if I string them properly and make the nut smooth enough. Sound? Well, that's why they have knobs, why I have a blinking board with lots of knobs, and why if I'm using an amp, it also has a lot of knobs. Add those little screws alongside the pickups, and I figure eventually I can get the sounds I want. Of course if the guitar unplugged sounds kind of dead, or doesn't vibrate much, it might not. But that to me is part of "feel."

Once in a while though, I'll take the thing apart, warm up the soldering iron, and swap pickups. It really is a last-ditch thing, and I don't think I've ever kept a guitar after doing that. It's my "I cannot make this thing sound the way I want, so here goes..." and afterward I just realize that darned instrument has a built-in sonic thang happening - just the way that particular assembly of wood and wires is built - I won't ever get happy with.

Are ya'll swappers, or not? What makes you decide to switch pickups instead of twist knobs? I can see if you change guitars over a set it can be super helpful, so the overall tone and volume isn't radically different. Why else?

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If my guitars come with certain pickups in them I switch them out as soon as I can. I like an open sound a piano like ring to a note our chord. Some pickups just don’t get that for me and I no which ones they are!

I also like zebra pickups. Cosmetic, I know I just like them. 

I’ve done swaps for myself and others and install premium pot’s and caps and made a dud a stud! One of my favorite things is handing back a player their guitar after I’m done and they plug into THEIR amp (required) and see a slight grin bloom into an ear to ear smile!! Then I know I got it right!! (In combination with the pickup winder, they deserve a lot of credit too!!)

Edited by Dutchman
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I've had otherwise great guitars get better with the right pickup swap. My Junior was a fantastic, resonant beast with a mediocre stock Duncan P90. Murkat brewed up a replacement by which all others were judged, one that delivered all that resonant awesomeness to the input of the amp. Same with Josh's Cowpie Customs in my LP. I searched for 40 years for those pickups.

Your hands are tone, your pickups are translators, and your knobs are sugar.

 

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Only ones I keep original are the OEM Hamer Dimarzio paf's, as they are the greatest. But the Hamer Duncans I often swap, for other Duncans or something else. I don't like the 59/JB combo that much, for instance.

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10 minutes ago, Disturber said:

 I don't like the 59/JB combo that much, for instance.

I find it to be perfect.  To each his own. 

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I’m never after specific sounds when choosing new guitars. I simply buy based on them having something intrinsically interesting that’s caught my attention. Outside of necessary repairs, I rarely do any pickup/electronics swapping. I just buy more guitars and see what new sounds I can get out of them. I love the process of making a guitar work for me, even if the build, pickups or electronics are not to my current tastes. Often, I find they’ll give me sounds that at first blush may seem awful and unusable, but eventually become a wonderful color I didn’t know existed. As for those rare guitars that don’t seem to have anything to offer, well I’m sure they’ll eventually have something that catches my attention as my tastes change.

Edited by Keoghpjk
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Depends on what I'm chasing at a given time.  I've swapped humbuckers for phat cats.  I've changed pick ups with A5 magnets  to   A2 magnets and visa versa.   Overwound to underwound.  And back.   All part of my learning process.  

But at the moment I'm really happy with the pups in my T-51 and Ultimate #40.  

Edited by BubbaVO
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It’s all about the “feel” to me. The “feel” of an electric guitar to me, is the way the pickup hears the notes that I am playing.

The pickup is the first timbral shift you can experience in the chain from our hands all of the way down to the speaker’s output. This timbral shift should be the one that you desire and allows your playing style to come through as closely to your expectations as it possibly can.

The magnets + how they are charged + the type of wire used + how it is wound around the bobbins + the materials of the poles, baseplate & spacer ALL contribute to a pickup’s sound and most importantly how a pickup “feels”.

Our hands touching the strings is translated to millivolts of energy by the pickup... how the pickup translates your physical force into electrical energy means EVERYTHING.

All of this requires a set of ears to perceive and if one’s ears aren’t interested in discerning these nuances... they simply won’t be heard or even perceived. Ham fisted players that don’t vary their playing force won’t have a need for subtle changes in sound and timbre... not much need for the hair splitting that some pickup swaps provide in their case.

It’s also about what role the guitar will be playing in the mix and in the setting of a band. If the guitar is sort of a secondary instrument to a keyboard or electronic arrangement, there might not be a need for subtlety since all of that gets lost when the guitar isn’t front and center in the mix.

Let’s look at EVH. In his band, his guitar rarely if ever competes with any other element than DLR’s vocals... only one guitar and solos get no underlying rhythm guitar... EVH is naked, all eyes and ears are on his guitar track. Which makes the subtleties of his tone readily apparent. We can hear EVERYTHING. So his choice of pickups is fantastically and widely debated.

Plus there is the use of ambience and effects. Some guitar players wear sonic spandex bodysuits and some wear sonic trench coats. The more naked a guitar player’s tone... the more subtlety we can perceive as listeners.

Subtleties like pick attack and the quality of the attack, how it breathes and contracts, how the note blooms afterwards, the harmonic content of the pick attack and the texture of the attack are all incredibly important to some players and indeed some listeners. All of this sums up into the aggregate quality of tone... and could very well translate into the quality of a given song.

A lot of time, it just differs into vintage, medium and high output pickups. Even the least discernible players will react to a change in feel between these three output types. How each output hits the front end of an amplifier is another matter... certain pickups jive better with certain speakers + amp combinations but that equation is crossed with one’s playing style and pedalboard rig as well.

Besides all of that, certain genres of music were put on the map by players using a certain type of guitar loaded with a specific type of pickup. Attempting to emulate these styles using the wrong pickup can often translate into tonal inaccuracy. Rarely do metal players use vintage output single coils... and rarely do country players use high output humbuckers.

Lots to chew on here. Lemme know if I need to clarify or expand on anything.

 

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Things like guitar feel and taste can rule out anything. However, down to pickup swaps I made my experience with a MIK Hamer Standard Made from alder. For years I swapped pickups in and out since they didn’t make the guitar shine or whatever you want to call it. Ending up that both the PhatCats and single coils felt right.  Eventually, single coils made it for me and guitar remained unchanged since then as I have a Newport with PhatCats and didn’t want to duplicate. Lessons learned, I have swapped pickups in other guitars and were happy with the replacements, overall building a set of guitars for various purposes or sound areas. No need to trade them since they feel good, look nice and sound right.

 

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I think my sentiments echo much everyone else's above:  if the guitar itself doesn't have a liveliness and feel that makes me excited, then pickups won't fix it. 

But if a guitar is muddy, I've swapped pickups several times to get a clearer, more open tone out of humbucker guitars.  With my single coil guitars, I haven't, but I think they've got so much more of that thing to start with that I haven't felt the need to swap.

Also, we need tiny knobs for pickup height adjustment.  ;) 

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As with most things in life, the more I've learned about guitar-related items, the more I realize I really don't know shit about them.

Earlier on, in the vast chasm of my ignorance, I've actually gotten rid of otherwise perfectly good axes.... because I didn't like the pickups. Let that sink in. An O'Connor Cali Elite sold off because I didn't care for the stock OBLs when played through a POS Peavey solid state amp and an equally bad Metal Zone 2 pedal. SMH

Since then, 3 significant things happened to change this: I ditched solid state (and Peavey) amps, I learned how to solder and swap p'ups (as a result I've tried a lot of p'ups) and I discovered Fractal Axe FX 3. The Axe FX 3 can make up a good bit of ground lost to marginal or less than optimal p'ups IMO.

That said, when all is said a done, a guitar's most valuable attribute is it's playability. A combination of materials, ergonomics, control layout, finish and other minutia that determine if a guitar makes the grade. Pretty much everything else can be (and has been)  modded or upgraded to accommodate personal preferences. Including p'ups.

So, yeah, I'm swapper.

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24 minutes ago, diablo175 said:

discovered Fractal Axe FX 3. The Axe FX 3 can make up a good bit of ground lost to marginal or less than optimal p'ups IMO.

The day is coming where all you will need is a piezo, the "pickup" and pickup "location" will all be modeled. 

In the meantime, with 600 presets available you can add a variety of EQs in the beginning of your signal chain and can dramatically alter the tone the "amp" hears within the Axe Fx. 

You have copies of preset groups, 1-20 are for guitar A, 21-40 for guitar B, etc.  

Edited by Studio Custom
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For me, pickups are the #1 thing I focus on when plugging in an electric for the first time. If the sound is not there through my preferred amp platform (Marshall or any variation) then I would either pass on the guitar or change pickups to something I know I'll like (just about anything from Rio Grande or Duncan). IME no amount of knob adjustment on the guitar or amp can bring lame pickups to life.

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1 hour ago, MCChris said:

IME no amount of knob adjustment on the guitar or amp can bring lame pickups to life.

I’d 2nd that.

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3 hours ago, Studio Custom said:

The day is coming where all you will need is a piezo, the "pickup" and pickup "location" will all be modeled. 

In the meantime, with 600 presets available you can add a variety of EQs in the beginning of your signal chain and can dramatically alter the tone the "amp" hears within the Axe Fx. 

You have copies of preset groups, 1-20 are for guitar A, 21-40 for guitar B, etc.  

Soon you don't have to do anything. Just let the computers compose and play everything. Just put on your phones and VR glasses and even the guitar is virtual.

 

 

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Swapping pickups seems to be one of (if not THE) easiest means of achieving a sonic transformation in a guitar. Lately and despite all odds, I've taken a liking to the Gibson '57 Classic/'57 Classic Plus set. Prior to buying the Ibanez AS73 I picked up used from a local jazz cat, I'd NEVER have considered buying a set of these (new or used) to put in any guitar I own.  After rehearsing with that guitar and later, gigging it quite a bit at stage volume, I decided I liked the vibe of a low/medium-wind AlNiCo 2 pickup going through a small (18w) tube amp. Going back to a JB-equipped guitar feels like total dynamic overkill now, although I still like the overall mid-range emphasis of a JB for hard rock sounds. 

So smitten have I become with the AlNiCo II sound of the '57 Classics that I've purchased a barely-used set pulled from an SG, and  I have my eyes open on CL and Fb for used Duncan APH2 amd Pearly Gates sets. Down the rabbit hole, as they say.

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16 minutes ago, Biz Prof said:

Lately and despite all odds, I've taken a liking to the Gibson '57 Classic/'57 Classic Plus set.

Agree. Last guitar I bought came stock with those pickups and they are quite nice (although I still love me some high-output humbuckers).

1_Full_Straight_Front_NA-90aad1e6812c184

 

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All I've got nowadays is basically Tele-style guitars...a '14 Fender Ltd. Ed. Sandblasted Tele in Sapphire Blue (which is essentially an American Special Tele with an Ash body and American Standard PUs); two Partscasters, one with a Cavalier Fat Lion bridge PU and a Fat Lion King neck PU, and the other with a Benson T-Style 'Blues' PU set; and my 'Cabronita'-style Partscaster with a TysonTone P-90 in the neck and a Lollar P-90 in the bridge.   Other than the one with the Bensons (the PUs which I got on Ebay to replace the crummy no-name PUs it came with), the PUs came with the guitars when I bought them, and they suit me fine for each particular guitar, and each guitar has their own 'personality'.  My mindset is more in playing the individual guitars as they are, rather than moving pickups around.  I like the variety!  Next guitar I get, it'll probably be a Tele-style Partscaster with a different brand of pickups than what I already have.  :rolleyes: :lol:

BTW, when I bought my Sapphire Blue Sandblasted Tele, I changed the stock Fender Black pickguard to a stock White Fender one, to 'brighten' up the looks (IMO, it works great with that color too!)...but when I changed out the pickguard, I found that there was already an original Factory rout for a HB-sized PU in the body at the neck position.  I guess Fender did that as a concession for mod-crazy musicians...and no, those guitars didn't originally come with a HB already in the neck position, they came with the usual style Tele neck single coil.  I've never heard of Fender doing that before as a 'feature' on any of their Teles!  Anybody here ever heard of that being done by Fender before?

Edited by crunchee
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For me, personally, I think it’s a combination of guitar and pickups. If a guitar sounds dead unplugged, then no pickup is going to make it outstanding. However, a great guitar with shitty pickups won’t sound good either. 

I’ll take a fantastic guitar and swap pickups all day long to find the ones that fit the best to my ear. I was a huge Duncan fanboi for years and I tolerated a couple of other brands here and there. When I got my first set of Gravelin’s I knew that Josh could make any guitar sound better. I’m on my 3rd set and whenever I swap pickups in the future, he’s the one I’m gonna call first. @JGravelin has made a customer for life out of me. 

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Actually, what makes a pickup sound bad? It’s a coil, magnet and coil wire.

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While I have swapped pickups, it it the exception, not the rule. I swap out bridges more often than pickups. 

However, when I get a new guitar I often try several different types of strings until I find the best fit for the guitar. Different strings (brands and gauges) can make a guitar sound dramatically different, sometimes transforming my opinion from "meh" to "killer!" Changing strings is also much cheaper and easier than changing pickups. I'm sometimes surprised when a set of strings that I love on one guitar doesn't work at all on another. But I find many guitarists will stick with the same strings on all guitars and swap pickups without a second thought. 

Edited by jwhitcomb3
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Tele owners sometimes find that the neck pickup is 'weak' when compared to the bridge pickup, and automatically think they either need a different neck PU, or want to install a full-size HB in the neck position.  One of my Partscasters came to me like that, and it has the traditional way of mounting the neck PU under the pickguard, onto the body, instead of onto just the pickguard...so, I removed the pickguard and raised the neck PU height, so that the neck PU is now closer to the strings.  Problem solved!  It didn't take much adjustment to get the desired results either, a few fractions of an inch change in height made a noticeable difference.  I wonder how many Tele owners bother to do that, if they find they have to remove the pickguard first, and instead go whole hog with a new pickup and/or a router.

Edited by crunchee
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We all own a lot of electric guitars on this forum and other forums, regardless of the guitar brand that you favor. My experiences and outlook on what works for me:

Make sure that the electric guitar that I bought sounds good with my current effects & amps. Am I happy with the sound, neck shape, frets, tuning, action, and sound of the pickups? If not, adjust these items until I'm happy with the results. I have De Quervain's tenosynovitis (tendonitis of the thumb) so an electric guitar with low action & light gauge strings or .009 - .046 strings on my Archtop Sunburst & Artist Custom works for me. 

Pickups are a personal preference to everyone. We all have different touch, tone, techniques, and attack on the guitar. I like to adjust the pickup height or pole pieces, depending on what I'm trying to get out of the guitar. Sometimes I choose a pickup to voice the guitar differently than my other guitars or what it's lacking. Pick what works for you at the end of the day. 

  Amps: I'm a big fan of high gain, multi-channel amps coming from the guitar rack system set up (ADA Depot 3TM mod MP-1 preamp/ DMC System Mix Plus / Korg DL8000R digital delay / Mesa Boogie Strategy 400 & Mosvalve 500 power amps) and also a clean pedal platform type of amps (Reverend Goblin or Kingsnake with a Fractal Audio FX-8 connected to 4 cable method). I'll do my best to get the sound that I'm after on my current effects & amps that I own before buying & installing a guitar pickup on the guitar in question. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Guitar George

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I think pickups are one of the most critiqued item on an electric guitar.  Personally, if I don't get along with the pickups and the guitar is okay, I get rid of the guitar.  If I don't like the pickups and the guitar is great, I change the pickups.   

Also, one mans pickup trash is another's treasure.  I have learned in my years of experience to never ask for an opinion of a pickup.  (Especially on TGP, you could start a war)  

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