Electric Pickup Installs
One of the simplest changes you can make to your electric guitar is to upgrade or swap out your pickups. For some this is DIY project and for some they think it's a DIY project. I have heard many people tell me "I wired up my guitar, everything is right but it doesn't work" more times than you can imagine. Whether you are proficient at soldering or not here are some thoughts on pickup installs.
Which pickup is right for me?
This is very much a personal decision and I urge you to see past the marketing hype. Different pickup manufacturers have lots of great information that isn't just hype of course. It can help you understand the differences between pickups and help you choose the right pickup. As a luthier I always try to understand what type of music the customer likes, what type of amplifier they use and what they're trying to achieve by making a change. Ultimately I can't hear things exactly they way they hear them so the whole process is imperfect.
Vintage - If someone says they love the sound of Derek and the Dominos, Allman Brothers or B.B. King I'm inclined the steer them towards pickup designs patterned after classics. Hand wound or scatter wound pickups give a subtlety and nuance that modern machine wound pickups do not. They tend to be responsive to many different types of playing styles or "attack". When you soften your attack on the string and playing subtle chords or notes, they are very lively. When you drive the strings hard they respond to that as well. They sound more dynamic (to me) than machine wound pickups. However, if the customer also tells me they're playing through a high gain Mesa Boogie or similar amp and turning it up loud, these pickups may very well disappoint. Scatter wound pickups can be more susceptible to feedback from high gain amplifiers but with lower gain amps the feedback can be sweetly controllable in a that note fades perfectly into feedback.
Modern - If someone tells me they can't get enough of Rage Against the Machine or Pantera my mind is immediately drawn to machine wound high output pickups. A higher output pickup is going to feed the amplifier a strong signal and drive it harder while at the same time be balanced throughout the frequencies with less microphonics that cause feedback. That is of course if it has been wax potted using modern vacuum potting techniques. When the "tone" you're after involves a lot of gain any subtle changes in playing attack on the strings can get lost in the distortion. Modern machine wound pickups will have a tight, punchy attack with a high gain amp.
By this point you might be wondering how my descriptions translate to the sound you're looking for. If so, you're beginning to see how challenging this process can be. If you're reading through the information and thinking to yourself that I'm completely wrong, you're also beginning to see how difficult this process can be. Ultimately trying to find the perfect pickup is nearly impossible and it is always a personal preference. It might be perfect for one style of music or one particular guitar design but not work well with others. That's part of the reason many guitar players have more than one guitar. You can never really have too many guitars can you?
What should you consider at the start?
The first thing I would recommend is whether or not the guitar has single coil or humbucking pickups and if you are be prepared to modify the guitar to change from one style to another. If you want a direct replacement at least this points you in a direction. There are humbucking pickups that fit in the position of a single coil and single coil pickups that fit where a humbucker was. This way you don't need to permanently modify an instrument to accommodate the change. There has never been a better time to find a replacement pickup because the options are nearly endless. Not only design differences and options within individual designs, but the variety of pickup manufacturers and hand wound pickup makers are everywhere.
We know there are lots of different pickup brands and designs and they all probably have a website so check them out and maybe they even have lots of sound samples. Spend some time doing your homework on what sounds good to your ears and try to resist an impulse purchase.
Upgrading the pickups can make an immediate impact on any guitar. If the guitar is all original and a vintage piece I strongly urge you not to make a change.
When swapping out just one pickup you run the risk of having phasing issues. It's too much to get detailed about here but just know that it's something to ask about before purchasing just one pickup for a guitar. It may or may not sound good when used with the other pickup.
Finally, align your expectations with reality. There's one variability at the core of "tone" and that is the player. You may idolize a particular player and they inspire you to pickup the guitar every day and learn but in the end, everyone is different. If you were handed the guitar and plugged into the amplifier your guitar hero used in the studio just moments after the song was recorded....you wouldn't sound like them. I know many musicians that can pickup up any guitar, plug into any amplifier available and they sound great. It's called mojo and it doesn't exist in a perfectly designed package for sale anywhere.