Are Expensive Pickups Really Worth It?


This is a common question when you want to upgrade your guitar. The answer is not simple. It depends on the guitar and amplifier, your skills as a player, and would you be able to get the most out of the pickups. There are quite a few things to consider when discussing this subject. 

So, are expensive pickups really worth it? Well, yes, in most cases, they are. For example, upgrading the pickups will most likely solve your problem if you own a nice guitar for around $300 and if you like how it plays or looks but do not like the sound. More expensive pickups are often better-quality pickups that provide better quality sound.

However, there are tons of pickups today with big price differences. So, in some cases, more expensive pickups do not provide the sound you need as they are special pickups for some tonal qualities. In this article, I’ll break down what to look out for when trying to figure out the worth of the pickups.

What Are The Differences Between Cheap And Expensive Pickups?

The pickups are one of the essential components that will shape your tone.

When we talk about cheap pickups, the company that created them won’t be a well-known world brand. Now I do not say this because of the brand name but because of the style of production and execution. They use cheaper materials, weaker magnets, lower quality plastic, copper winding won’t be as pure, and everything will be a little bit worse.

Low-budget generic pickups often use inferior ceramic magnets that lack certain frequencies and can sound harsh and ice picky in single-coil type and muddy and lack note definition in humbucker type. 

Now, on the other hand, there are more expensive pickups. They are from a well-known company, and that brand name works almost as a certificate that the pickups were built to the highest standard. If you get, for example, a DiMarzio pickup, you’ll be sure that the pickup was made in the USA, using only the best materials, and there were no cutting costs in creating ones.

Often those pickups are hand-wound, using premium materials with the best alnico magnets available, providing the sound to be well rounded, with glassy trebles and articulate basses.

This is why they’ll be the best option for the sound you are trying to get—now saying that the pickups are not the only sound component. The amplifiers play a major role in the sound of your bass or guitar. 

So if you have a low-budget bad guitar amp, don’t even waste your money on expensive pickups; they won’t do what they could; bad speakers from the amp just will not allow them. 

Why You Would Want To Upgrade Your Pickups?

If you have a cheaper guitar, the assumption is that it comes in stock with cheaper pickups. Cheap pickups can lack clarity, particularly with overdriven and distorted tones. Even if your hand technique is good and you play your best, the resulting sound may have a muddiness to an overall tone, and this is something you don’t want.

Cheap pickups often do not come equipped with a hollow bass response. But, more expensive pickups’ sonic performance is often focused and articulated while retaining clarity.

The sonic performances of better pickups are mostly rich in harmonic range, and the sound is more pleasant when playing rhythm and lead guitar partitions. With distorted tones, better pickups never get muddy and retain clarity and articulation.

So if your guitar is the right fit for you, but you just want it to sound better or even a little different, upgrading your pickup is a great investment. It can easily be reversed if you desire to do so. And don’t lose their value as much as the guitar or amps.

Why Do Cheap Pickups Sound Bad?

Some of the things I already mentioned in the article. The instrument’s sound is subjective, but some things can make a pickup set perform badly. Cheaper pickups are often wound inconsistently. This can cause a discrepancy in volume between them on instruments with two or more pickups.

They can act like microphones, too, causing squealing and unpleasant noise. This can be fixed by potting the pickup in wax. But on most of the budget pickups, this is not the case. Cheap pickups are, most of the time, overwound, making them sound muddy. Or they can be underwound, making them too quiet. Either way, those things affect the tone.

One more thing, most cheap pickups use ceramic magnets. That can cause to sound brittle or ice-picky, in contrast to the more expensive pickups that use more quality alnico magnets. 

Why Guitar Pickups Can Be So Expensive?

We already established that the pickup is an electric guitar component that picks up the signal. And from that, they have a big impact on any guitar’s tone. There are other things to discuss that are impacting the tone. Different types of wood or metal that guitars are made of.

But, we must agree that the pickups are one of the main components in shaping the tone. After all, this is the first spot where the vibration of the strings is converted into an electrical signal and where the sound begins. We can wonder whether these pieces of plastic, magnet, and wire are worth the price. These days you can find some individual boutique pickups costing hundreds of dollars.

But, there’s a lot of work put into making these. Every type of pickup needs to be voiced in a particular way. Whatever tone you’re aiming for, there’s always a way of how certain pickups should be constructed. Yes, there are always cheaper pickups, mostly stock ones with cheap and mid-priced guitars. But it’s a lot less work and thought put into their construction.

Then you must also remember that these wounds of wire around the pickup poles are long. We’re talking about thousands of wounds, even going up to 10,000 or more in some cases.

And keep in mind that copper wires with which pickups are made are pretty thin. Usually gage 43 or 42. And it’s very important that every single wound is done perfectly and that it sits in its place. It’s one of the most crucial things in making a great-sounding pickup. 

With that in mind, imagine how difficult it is to make a custom pickup. Some boutique manufacturers have even wound them without much help from machines. When wounding is done right, it can provide a very harmonically rich tone, a pleasant journey for your ears. 

Some companies want to make great pickups in big bulk. Machines or employees are needed. You have to produce high-quality pickups. 

These things are crucial. So pickups are a part of a huge instrument business.

That’s why we have to spend sometimes even over $100 or even more on an individual pickup. So they are not cheap, but I think it’s not that expensive either because good pickups can last you for a long time and make a great investment. 

Does Different Type Of Pickups Make A Difference?

The simple and short answer is yes. Of course, there are many different factors to consider. But the pickups are one of the essential components that will shape your tone. Professional, experienced guitar players spend a lot of time looking for their perfect pickup and a combination of pickups.

And it comes down to more things to consider, not just the basic choice between humbuckers and single-coils. Pickups can have different output levels using different materials, wounding, and other appointments. 

This is why some are referred to as hot pickups, which means they have more output power. Some are sharper in their sound, some are smoother, and some even respond differently to different pick techniques and playing attacks. 

So, we can say yes, having a different set of pickups will impact your overall tone, especially when you use overdrive or distortion in your sound. But that said, pickups alone won’t do the entire job. If you don’t have good components in your signal chain, it will diminish the job they are doing. So having good pickups is just one of the components if you want to improve your tone.

What Companies Make The Best Pickups?

Today in the world, quite a few companies are producing pickups. First are the ones doing it for their own needs because they are also making instruments. 

But some companies are specialized only in pickup production, or they’re the focus of their production. Best pickups are subjective. But through the years, some of them have established a reputation that is hard not to appreciate. So will take a look at some of the best.

Seymour Duncan

The company was founded way back in the ‘70s by pickup guru Seymour Duncan who said he helped shape the sound of a generation, which is very true. His company and the man itself revived the sound of classic Telecasters, Stratocasters, Les Pauls, and many more, allowing the generation of the eighties and nineties to rock, grunge, and roar.

In their catalog are models like the “Pearly Gates,” Billy Gibbon’s favorite, the “JB” model, the “’59”, and APH-2, Slash’s favorite, which he uses on all his Gibson Les Pauls. We can say they kept the rocking legacy intact. So, in my opinion, Seymour Duncan pickups are the first to consider buying. They certainly could do the trick for you if they are good enough for these guitar legends.

DiMarzio

Another company was founded in the early ’70s by Larry DiMarzio. Their  Super Distortion model is one of the favorites among guitar giants wanting to get a great distorted tone. 

We can say they built their legacy with distorted tones in mind. Their strat or tele replacements pickups are some of the best in the industry when overdriven tones are a key component of the sound. They have one of the biggest pickup catalogs on the market. So DiMarzio is a brand, we can say, that can push the sonic boundaries of any guitar. 

And guitar greats such as Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Al DiMeola, Pete Townshend, Frank Zappa, and Richie Sambora, that are using their pickups, are just a confirmation. 

EMG 

Yet another company started in the late ‘70s. The company rose with metal music of the ‘80s with the birth of their active humbucker pickup. Instead of pole pieces, the pickup uses a solid magnet and needs a battery to operate. And it truly was a game-changer for the metalhead, delivering pure tone and gain with a lot of punch. 

The second thing is that the construction of these pickups allows them to be noiseless. That means that they are free from the 60-cycle hum. One thing that is a big issue in single-coil pickups. This new invention embraced David Gilmour, shaping his iconic Pink Floyd sounds. 

Fishman 

A company that builds its legacy on acoustic piezo pickups. But in recent years, they have driven to create the best possible alternative to the vintage guitar pickups while being noiseless, attracting huge attention. Greg Koch is one of those players that pop out on hundreds of videos on Youtube, reviewing guitar gear for many retailers. He quickly accepted being the ambassador of these pickups. They are a key component in his Reverend signature guitars.

And the Fishman Fluence humbuckers are becoming favorites for the hard rockers and metalheads around. Doing things today what EMG was doing in the ‘80s. And that is to be a premium pickup for a metal music market. 

Fender and Gibson

To complete the list, we have to include these two industry giants. They are the largest manufacturers of instruments in the world. So with that in mind, they are the biggest in the pickup-making business.

Writing about their history would be too long in this article, but we have to mention Gibson’s 57’s classic humbucker. It’s considered one of the best humbucker pickups ever produced. And Fender’s Texas Special pickups, great-sounding, single-coil pickups, favorites of all those Texas Blues style players.

What Are The Best Pickups You Can Buy In 2022.?

In common opinion, there are two standard pickups that are hard to argue against.

In humbucker size that is a;

Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB Humbucker

Seymour Duncan SH4 JB Model Humbucker Pickup - (Zebra)
  • Guitar pickup.
  • Unique Humbucker construction with Alnico 2 pole caps.
  • Taggered pole pieces, for a strat sound in split mode.
  • Ideal for classic rock, jazz, blues, radio and country.

Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB Humbucker is one of the best-selling pickups of all time. It features bright highs, tight mids, moderately hot output, and a great bass response. It covers the frequency spectrum greatly, allowing it to be used for many different musical styles. 

The bridge pickups combined with the SB Jazz model in the neck are one of the most used and appreciated combinations in music history.

In single-coil size it’s a;

Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat Pickup

Fender Custom Shop Strat Texas Special Pickup Set
  • Enamel-coated magnet wire for warm vintage tone
  • Staggered pole pieces for balanced output
  • Alnico 5 magnets for more focus and enhanced dynamics
  • Reverse-wound middle pickup to eliminate hum

Fender Custom Shop Texas Special Strat Pickup is considered one of the best pickups you could have on a Strat. Using one of these pickup sets on a lower-end Strat-style guitar like a Harley Benton or Squier creates a huge sonic difference, allowing you to have a higher-end guitar sound on a lower-end one.

Each pickup sounds vintage-hot with enamel-coated magnet wire. This way, the pickup features extra windings for higher output and old-school heat for vintage tones. The pickups are perfect to use for the iconic Texas Blues sound.

But there are a few more pickups worth mentioning when talking of the best;

Conclusion

So we’ve learned what it takes for the production of great pickups. Maybe sometimes we don’t appreciate it enough. The years of testing when developing an individual pickup, are similar to other things like cars or mobile phones.

And paying 100$ – 150$  for a USA-made pickup, in my opinion, is a no-brainer. It’s an investment that a lot of us have benefited from. Whether making you sound more to your liking with a different set. Or upgrading your guitar with a better pickup set.

In conclusion, I believe that expensive pickups are really worth it.

If you found this article useful, you may want to save this pin below to your Guitar board.

Last update on 2022-11-13 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Jacob

I have been playing guitar since 2004. As long as I can remember I always had a huge passion for rock music and I extremely enjoy playing it. Helping people on their rock journey is what drives me to keep on playing. Read More About Me

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