Choosing the right pickups for your guitar

When looking for the right pickups for your guitar(s), it’s important to know some details about what you are looking for sound wise, and what parts go into different pickup designs. A little knowledge can go a long way when choosing pickups to upgrade your favorite axe.  I’m specifically speaking of passive pickups and not active pickups as passive pickups are what I do.

Why you might need new pickups:

With virtually every popular brand of guitar being mass produced, the pickups and electronics have suffered both tonally and in overall quality. They are being made cheaper than ever and most are machine wound, and made with lesser priced materials. Higher priced guitars generally have better sounding pickups, but even guitars well over $1,000 can have average sounding pickups, and be missing something tonally. If you have a guitar that plays great, new pickups and electronics can make it sound like it’s worth far more, and achieve some of the tones you have been after. Many players look for better amps, pedals, cables, or guitars, to get that elusive tone they are after. Each of them has an impact on the overall tone, but pickups are what translates everything you are playing into the signal that goes through all that other gear. Starting with a more effective foundation of custom made pickups can make everything else work well with each other.

Know your guitar woods/design/finish:

This might seem like an obvious one, but knowing the woods, design, and finish on your guitar can help you make a better decision when buying pickups. Certain woods on the guitar body, neck, and fretboard can greatly contribute to the guitars overall tone. For example, an all mahogany guitar is normally darker tonally than an alder guitar with a maple neck. Additionally, a the same guitar with maple fretboard will sound brighter than one with a rosewood board, and a semi-hollow or hollowbody guitar will have it’s own tonal characteristics. On top of wood and guitar design, the guitars finish can have an impact on the tone. There’s much debate about the old Nitro finishes vs. the newer Poly finishes and their impact on letting the wood breathe. I do feel there is a tonal difference in the old Nitro finishes and the newer ones, but it still can be overcome by the right pickups for the guitar.

Pickup Types and Design:

Each of the main pickup designs contributes to it’s unique tones. We all know that Strats, Les Pauls, and Tele’s have their own unique sound and the main reason for this is the pickups are different in their size and design. Start with what pickup type you have, and look for models from pickup companies that have descriptions that fit your style. Many times you can find a pickup at each position that does what you need them to do.

Pickup Materials and Magnets:

Some of the other big factors in the tone of pickups are the materials and magnets. Different wire types and sizes have different tonal qualities. How the wire is wrapped around the coil and the tension of the wire also effects the overall sound of the pickup. Each pickup magnet(s) capture the sound differently depending on the type of magnet(s) and location in the pickup. Do some research or read manufactures descriptions of different models and pay attention to the magnets used in each. Many pickups are made with similar materials and specs as the old ones, so chances are if you want a certain era or type of pickup, you can get something close to it.

What to do before you buy:

Know what you are after both sound and style wise. Most pickup makers either offer a model that will work for you, or can create one that will make your guitar come alive. Give them information about your guitar they are going in, your setup, and music styles you play. If they are a larger company, you may not be able to talk tone with them, so make sure you read up on the descriptions of the pickups and what they work best for.

Good luck in your search for better tone!

Brian Porter

Porter Pickups

Brian Porter is the owner of Porter Pickups. His company specializes in hand wound pickups for electric guitars. They have several models of replacement pickups such as Strat, Tele, Humbuckers and P-90’s. You can visit their website at

Filed Under: Porter Cable Deals


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