Why Are Guitar Pickups So Expensive? And Is Upgrading Pickups Worth it?

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Look, we all love to have great-sounding instruments, amps, and pedals. However, you’d most likely end up draining your life savings if you’d buy just the top-tier quality stuff. In some way, this high-end equipment is “reserved” for professionals. The same rule also applies to pickups.

But why are guitar pickups so expensive? Surely there must be a reason why these relatively small components can sometimes get so expensive.

Quick answer: Why Are Guitar Pickups So Expensive?

Materials itself are not that expensive. But pickups need to be carefully constructed with plastic, pole pieces, magnets, and wiring.  Wounds of wire around the pickup poles are really long. From thousands of wounds to up to 10,000 or more. Every single wound has to correctly sit in its place. Doing this in big bulks under quality control and with employers raise expenses and manufactures still have to make a profit. That’s why some pickups are pretty expensive.

Now we can dive a little bit deeper and go from pretty obvious to not so obvious.

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What Are Guitar Pickups?

So let’s get things straight first – what are guitar pickups?

Basically, they are transducers that pick up the signal from vibrating strings (thus the obvious name “pickups”), and then “translate” it into an electrical signal. This signal then goes through your guitar’s electronics, out of the instrument, and into an amplifier, which then reproduces it as sound through its speakers. In almost all cases, electric guitars use magnetic pickups.

There are also some electric guitars with piezo (aka piezoelectric) pickups, which are most often found on acoustic instruments. These piezo’s also find use in many other fields, even for some car components.

Standard magnetic pickups we see on electric guitars can be divided into two categories – single-coils and humbuckers. Both of these are based on the same principle, with magnetic poles picking up the metal string vibration, and have a very thorough wound of copper wires around them.

If you want more info about pickups, Wikipedia has a great article about them, check it out.

Single-coils vs Humbuckers.

Single-coils are the oldest types of pickups. They feature only one “line” of magnetic poles. Their tone is more spanky and has a stronger attack. These are the pickups you find on most of the Fender and Fender-inspired guitars.

Humbuckers, on the other hand, have two of these lines of magnetic poles, and they’re wound in opposite directions. This way, all the electric hum is canceled out. Their tone is a bit smoother, yet tighter. They’re the types of pickups you’d most often use for those tight-sounding distorted metal riffs.

Why Are Guitar Pickups So Expensive?

Photo showing humbucker pickups of reader

As already mentioned, the pickup is an electric guitar component that picks up the signal. Obviously, they have a strong impact on any guitar’s tone.

Yes, we could discuss the impact of different types of wood or other materials and how they shape the tone, which has been one of the longest-lasting discussions among guitar players. But the pickups are one of the main components that shape the tone. After all, this is the first spot where the vibration of the strings is converted into an electrical signal.

Now, one would wonder whether these lumps of plastic, magnet, and wire are worth the price. You’ll even find individual pickup costing hundreds of dollars.

However, there’s a lot of work put into making these. Every type of pickup needs to be voiced in its particular way. Whatever kind of tone you’re aiming for, there’s always a way of how they should be constructed.

Of course, there are always those cheaper pickups, mostly stock ones that come with cheap and mid-priced guitars. But there’s a lot less work and thought put into them.

What you also need to bear in mind that these wounds of wire around the pickup poles are really long. We’re talking about thousands of wounds, even going up to 10,000 or more.

Additionally, these copper wires are pretty thin, usually gage 43 or 42. And it’s extremely important that every single wound is done perfectly and that it sits in its place.

This is one of the most crucial issues in making a great-sounding pickup. So just imagine how difficult it is to make a custom pickup, some of which are even wound without much help from machines. When wounding is done right, it can provide a very harmonically rich tone.

And usually manufactures want to make great pickups in big bulks. This raises the expenses. Usually, machines or at least employees are needed. And you have to be able to produce high-quality pickups pretty fast and consistently. This adds up. Plus manufacturers need profits for themselves. Pickups are a part of a huge instrument business.

And that’s why we have to spend sometimes even over 100 dollars for a single pickup. It’s not cheap, but in my opinion, it’s not super expensive either, because good pickups last for a long time.

If you are interested in how DIY guitar pickups are made check this video(I think that after watching this you understand even better why pickups cost what they cost, even the serial produced ones):

YouTube video

Active pickups

Some pickups are also active, meaning they need an additional power source, like a 9-volt battery, this boosts the signal level. Active pickups create a very specific tone, often giving a stronger attack and more aggressive tone. What’s more, you can further boost and shape their tone without any additional devices. These require some electrical circuits and other components, making them more expensive.

Market value

In the end, we should also not forget the market value of certain pickups. The demand for a certain type of a pickup will most definitely impact its price, making the value much higher compared to the build cost.

Do Better Pickups Make A Difference?

Short and simple answer – yes. While there are many different factors to consider, pickups are one of the essential components that will shape your tone.

Looking at some experienced professional guitar players, they’ll spend a lot of time looking for their perfect pickup and a combination of pickups. And it comes down to more issues, not just the basic choice between single-coils and humbuckers.

Using different wounding, materials, and other methods, pickups can have a different output level. This is why some are referred to as “hot,” meaning they have more output power. Some are “smoother” in their sound, some are sharper, and some even respond differently to different pick attacks and playing techniques.

So yes, having a different set of pickups will make an impact on your tone. Especially when heavy distortion is used.

Of course, pickups on their own won’t do the entire job. If you have one good component in your signal chain, then there should be another one to support it and help you get the best out of it. So having great pickups is just one of the needed elements if you’re trying to improve your tone.

Pickups make a difference, but how big is that difference? Watch this video and make your own mind:

YouTube video

Is Upgrading Guitar Pickups Worth it?

Photo shows guitar pickups for readers

It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re a beginner guitar player who’s the basics at the moment, an entry-level guitar with stock pickups will do just fine. Most of the more affordable brands have pretty great standards for their price level. So for a novice player, they should do the trick, even for live shows.

In case you are already noticing differences between how pickups sound, then you should definitely try and swap them for something better in case you don’t feel like buying a new guitar. The most common reason for pickup swapping is when you’re looking for something that will fit your preferred genre.

Best Pickups for Electric Guitar

Best Humbucker Pickups – Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB

If you are after thick, warm, and full humbucker tones, Seymor Duncan’s SH-4 JB is a great choice. Many famous guitarists, such as Marty Friedman and Tom Morello use these pickups. Best for metal, blues, and rock.

[amazon box=”B0002D05TG” template=”horizontal”]

Best Single-Coil Pickups – Lindy Fralin Strat Vintage Hot Pickup

If you are after the iconic bright and hot Sinlge-Coil tones, Lindy Farlin Start Hot Pickups are a great option. One of the most popular Single-Coil pickups out there. Best for rock, funk, hard rock, and blues.

[amazon box=”B006G2DMEM” template=”horizontal”]

Best P-90 Pickups – Seymour Duncan SPH90-1 Phat Cat Nickel Set

If you are shooting somewhere middle of single-coil and humbucker tones, P-90’s are a good choice. And especially this Seymour Duncan SPH90-1 pickups set. These offer you both, bright and warm tones. Best for classic rock, country, rockabilly, and jazz.

[amazon box=”B00Z6STYZ8″ template=”horizontal”]

Is it Hard to Change Pickups on A Guitar?

Before setting out to make any changes to your instrument, it’s always advisable to first take it to a professional. If you’re trying to do anything by yourself, then you should do a lot of research and check how it’s done.

If we’re talking about a basic guitar setup with one volume and one or two tone knobs on the guitar, then swapping shouldn’t be that hard. You should be able to find schematics online. And, of course, you need good soldering skills and some patience.

With more complex setups, like two volume and two tone knobs, it could be a bit more difficult. Active pickups are also more complicated to install, and it takes more knowledge and experience for that. But again, schematics are available online, YouTube is your friend and this is far from an impossible task.

Conclusion

So these things affect the price of the pickups:

  • Materials
  • Labor
  • Skills required to build good pickups
  • Demand

That’s why some pickups are quite expensive. Expensive ones are usually built with better materials, more work and effort is evolved and the manufacturer has the higher skill and quality requirements.

To someone who’s either starting out or who’s just not that familiar with different types of pickups, it might feel that they’re too expensive. In many cases, you’ll find a pair of pickups that cost as much as half of a really good guitar. But knowing that they make such a big impact on your tone, this is something you’ll encounter sooner or later.

Getting new pickups to swap the old ones is not uncommon with guitar players. Yes, some prefer buying completely new guitars. But if you have an instrument that feels great and plays great, then a new set of pickups will do a great job in improving your tone.

I hope that this post was helpful. If you have any questions or feedback, leave a comment down below and feel free to share this post too.

I wish you all the best and keep rocking!

Teemu Suomala