How to Change Guitar Pickups: Step by Step with Tips
Changing your guitar’s pickups is an easy way to get a better tone and create an instrument more suited to your needs. While you can pay somebody to replace your guitar’s pickups, it’s a good skill to learn. If you have a soldering iron, you might be surprised with how easy a job this is.
In this guide, we will look at step-by-step instructions on how to change your pickups safely. I’ll share some useful tips along the way to avoid headaches and keep your guitar safe.
Why Change Your Guitar’s Pickups?
The pickups in your electric guitar are the most important aspect to your guitar’s tone. While there’s plenty of debate among guitarists over how a guitar’s wood, strings, and hardware affects tone, there’s no debate over pickups. A good quality pickup can give a cheap guitar a great tone. Here’s how to decide whether you should change your pickups depending on the type of guitar you have:
High-end guitars usually come with excellent quality pickups. The chances are, if you have a $3000 guitar, you’ll be happy with the quality of the pickups. The only time a guitarist with a high-end guitar might consider changing pickups is to achieve a different type of tone. Your tone preferences may change over time and the type of pickup voicing you need might need to change.
If you love the feel and looks of your guitar, but don’t quite like the tone, changing pickups is worth considering.
The pickups in mid-range guitars can be hit or miss, depending on the manufacturer. Some brands put most of the money for mid-range guitars into the quality of the wood and build quality. That means they cut corners with pickups. With mid-range guitars, you’re likely to see something like “Duncan Designed” pickups. These pickups make use the Duncan brand name but are outsourced to a foreign manufacturer. They’ll sound better than no-name stock pickups, but they’re not quite the “real deal”. Think of it as comparing a Fender to a Squier, they may look the same, but there’s a big difference in quality.
If your guitar is in the mid-range, you’re likely to notice a serious improvement in tone when you upgrade your pickups.
There’s nothing wrong with playing a low-end guitar. Not everybody can afford a $3000+ guitar. A lot of guitarists start off as beginners with low-end guitars. As you develop your ears, you will start to crave a better tone. Low-end guitars use the cheapest possible pickups. Changing your pickups will give your guitar a serious improvement in tone.
The real question you need to consider is whether you want to upgrade your guitar or upgrade to a better guitar. For most low-end guitars, you’re likely to be far better off putting the money towards a new guitar.
On the other hand, if you want to keep your old beginner guitar for sentimental reasons (I still have mine), changing your pickups can greatly improve the enjoyment you get out of playing it.
Choosing Pickups For Your Upgrade
There are countless pickups available to choose from. The challenge with changing your pickups is that you can’t hear what they sound like in your guitar until you actually put one in. It’s not like a pedal where you can try it out at the shop and know what to expect.
What type of tone do you want?
This is a good starting point when figuring out what pickups to upgrade to. Thinking about what you want from the pickups is a better approach than looking at what is popular. Don’t let pickup advertisements make your decisions for you. First, think about what type of tone you want, then look for pickups that match that tone.
An easy way to do this is to think about the music you listen to and the tone those guitarists use. You can then look at what pickups those guitarists use and whether those pickups meet your needs.
Reviews and popularity
Pickup advertisements always try to push their latest pickups as the best they’ve ever made. Then everybody buys them at full price on release, instead of buying the half-price pickups on sale from a few years ago. Keep this in mind when you do your research – the pickup brands want you to buy the latest pickups.
The problem with buying the newest pickups is that they haven’t yet stood the test of time. There have been a lot of times when a new pickup has been hyped up, only to be forgotten about a few years later. Instead of getting swept up by hype, look into reviews of pickups that have been out for at least a year. Are people still happy with them and talk about them as much as they did on release? Or have people moved on to something else?
There are some pickups that are still popular after 5-10 years. Buying one of those pickups would be a good choice as they have a proven track record. Buying a brand new pickup on release is a gamble. You might get a gem, or it might be just another pickup that will be forgotten in a few years.
Active or passive pickups
In most cases, you will probably want to stick to the type of pickups already installed in your guitar. The below step-by-step instructions are on how to install passive pickups.
If you have active pickups in your guitar or you want to change to active pickups, you will need to follow a different process to upgrade your pickups.
Find out everything you would want to know about active pickups in this guide to see how they compare to passive pickups and whether changing to active pickups suits you.
Tools To Upgrade Your Pickups
Changing your guitar’s pickups is a pretty simple job that doesn’t require many tools. You might already have everything you need.
Here are the tools you need to change your pickups:
- Soldering iron and solder
- Philips Head Screwdriver
- X-acto knife or any sharp blade
- Wire cutters
- A large cloth or rag (to protect the guitar when needed)
The soldering iron is probably the only tool most people don’t have. If you don’t have one, they’re cheap and handy to have (check out this soldering iron kit).
Step 1: Find a good workspace
You’re going to be accessing both sides of your guitar, so you want to find an area where you can work on it without banging it around. A clear table or desk will work fine. I chose to work on my guitar on a carpeted floor to remove the chance of scratching the body.
Collect all your tools and have them ready to access. Here are the tools I used to change my pickups:
You might notice a small potentiometer in the above photo. While upgrading my pickups, I also changed my guitar’s push-pull pot to a push-push pot, which I will cover in a future guide.
Step 2: Take photos and make notes
While the chances are you will be happy with your new pickups, it’s a good idea to know how to change your guitar back to how it is now. In the future, you might want to sell your guitar with the stock pickups, or you might want to change back to the original pickups for other reasons.
I recommend taking a photo so you can see the current height of your pickups as shown below:
The height of the pickups play an important part of your tone, so taking a photo and measuring the distance is a good idea.
Remove the back plate on your guitar to access the wiring:
If this is your first time dealing with wiring, it might look at bit intimidating when you see all the wires:
Don’t stress – as you will see, it’s an easy job. Take photos of the wiring from a few angles so you have a record of the current wiring.
It’s also a good idea to write out a quick diagram of the wiring. If anything goes wrong in your upgrade, you can easily refer to your diagram to undo what you’ve done or to figure out what’s wrong. Depending on what you’re upgrading to, you might be able to use this diagram to change the pickups.
Drawing a diagram also helps you understand what everything is connected to. It’s a lot easier to make changes to your wiring if you understand what everything is connected to. Here’s the diagram I scribbled out of my guitar’s current wiring:
It’s not pretty, but it covers everything I need to know if I get stuck or want to change back to the original pickups. Make sure you mention the colors of each wire and where each wire came from (eg: neck or bridge pickups).
Once you’re happy that you have enough photos and notes on your current setup, you can move on to the next step.
Step 3: Remove strings
I used the Roadie 2 automatic tuner’s unwind function to unwind the strings, but you can easily unwind them by hand until they’re slack, then cut them with wire-cutters.
I decided to keep these strings as I wanted to test the new pickups with the exact same strings as I used with the old pickups. But in general, changing pickups is a good opportunity to switch to a new set of strings.
Depending on your bridge, you might want to remove any saddles if they’re likely to move around and cause damage.
Step 4: Clean your guitar
With the strings removed, you have a good opportunity to clean your guitar’s fretboard and body. Remove any grime and dirt buildup on your fretboard, clean the bridge and headstock, and polish your frets.
Polishing your frets and cleaning your fretboard can make a big difference to playability. If you have dull looking frets, give them a good clean until you get a mirror-like finish. You’ll be surprised with how much easier it will be to play bends and vibrato with polished frets.
Step 5: De-solder pickup wiring
Flip your guitar over and find the points where the pickup wires are connected to. Heat up your soldering iron and press it against any point where you want to remove the wire. After a few seconds, you should notice the solder turn to liquid. You can then pull the wire and remove it from the solder.
I highly recommend using a rag or anything else appropriate and place it over the guitar’s body. The last thing you want is to slip and have a hot soldering iron make a mark on your guitar.
Step 6: Remove the pickups
Once all of the pickup wires are completely free, you can flip the guitar back over to remove the pickups. In most cases, you’ll need to remove a couple of screws holding the pickups in place. My guitar has mounting rings around the pickups, so I needed to first remove those four screws.
After you remove the mounting screws, you can carefully pull the lead through the body to completely remove the pickups.
Step 7: Mount the new pickups
If you have pickup rings like my guitar, first mount the new pickups in the rings. Hopefully, they’ll be a perfect fit. Mine were not. The mounting holes on my new pickups were wider than the original pickups, which not only meant the mounting screws barely fit, but the pickups didn’t fit in the body’s cavity. I had to file the edge of the picking mounting plate down so they would fit in. Hopefully this doesn’t happen to you, but it’s a good example of why you should do some research before buying replacement pickups.
After mounting the pickups in the rings, feed the pickup’s wire through the hole towards the back cavity:
Carefully pull the wire from the back as you place the pickup into position. Replace the mounting screws to hold the pickups in position.
A good tip when dealing with screws on your guitar is to protect yourself against slippage. One little slip and you’ll give your guitar a nice scratch. Holding the end of the screwdriver like I’m doing in the above photo ensures that you’re not going to slip.
Step 8: Figure out the wiring
There are a lot of different ways you can wire up your guitar. Different setups require different wiring, so a Les Paul style guitar will need a very different wiring setup when compared to a strat style guitar. There are also different ways you can wire your pickups to access different tone options. If you use humbuckers, you can ‘split’ the coils to access single-coil tones, you can run them in parallel, or in series. Have a think about what you want from your pickups and it will help you narrow down the wiring diagrams to find the one that works for you.
Pickup wire color codes
In many cases, all you will need to do is copy your diagram and you’ll be good to go. But sadly, every pickup manufacturer seems to use a different set of color codes for their wires. Here are four examples of different color codes:
As you can see, it can get confusing. I recommend searching on Google to find the color codes for the pickups you want to install. The pickups I’m installing are DiMarzio, so the above diagram shows the colors are:
- Red: ‘North start’. This is the ‘hot’ output or positive (+)
- Black: ‘North finish’. This is the end of the north pickup wiring (-)
- White: ‘South finish’. This is the end of the south pickup wiring (-)
- Green: ‘South start’. This is the start of the south pickup wiring and the ground
- Bare wire: Ground
In all pickups, the bare wire is always ground. This bare wire should be connected to the colored ground wire – in this example, I needed to connect the green wire to the bare wire as shown below:
Most wiring setups will also ask you to connect the ‘North finish’ and ‘South finish’ wires together. In this example, I needed to connect the white and black wires together as shown above.
If you’re not changing anything in your setup apart from the pickups, you should be able to copy the diagram you made of your previous wiring in step 2. All you need to do is figure out which colors match up to the old pickups colors.
Take a look at the diagram for my old pickup wiring and see if you can figure out the pickup wire colors (eg: positive, negative, ground):
It might look confusing at first, but if you can learn to understand this diagram, you’ll find it much easier to work on your own guitar.
The big grey and black blocks with ‘neck’ and ‘bridge’ are the wires coming from the pickups. Take a look at the four wires coming out of each pickup and try to figure out what each wire is.
You might notice that I labeled the black wires ‘GND’ for ground. I immediately knew these were ground for two reasons: (1) the black wire was connected with the bare wire, (2) the black wire was connected to the back of the components as shown below:
The highlighted blobs of solder on the back of the volume pot, pickup selector, and tone pot (not shown), are all connected together. This is what we call the ‘ground loop’. Connecting the ground wires to the back of these components help reduce noise, so it’s important to get this right. I talk about this in my guide on dealing with guitar hum, buzz and noise issues. All of the components are wired together in a ground loop including the bridge and strings (there’s a thin wire the connects to this loop from the bridge). This is why when you touch your strings or any metal volume knobs, you will hear the hum reduce.
So the black wires from my old pickups are ground wires (or south start), but what about the other three wires?
You might notice that the green and white wires connect to the same point. This is called a ‘series link’ as shown in the earlier diagram. This means the green and white wires are the North and South finish wires. That leaves the red wire as the ‘North start’ wire or hot output.
See if you can figure out what your old pickup wire colors are (without checking a diagram). Once you know what each wire is for, it’s much easier to change over to the new pickups.
In this example, because I know what each wire does, I can easily match up my new pickup’s wires to the correct positions. If you want to keep the same setup as you have now, you can do the same.
If you want to change your pickup configuration (eg: you want to add coil-splitting), you’ll need to search for the correct wiring diagram for what you want to change to. Here’s Seymour Duncan’s wiring diagrams page where you can search for different setups. Here are DiMarzio’s wiring diagrams. Each pickup manufacturer should have diagrams on their website, so have a quick search to find the right diagram for you. Even if you can’t find the right diagram for your brand of pickups, you can easily use any other brand’s diagram as long as you know how the color codes for your pickups compare.
Step 9: Connect the new wires
This is a crucial step to get right, so take your time. A poorly soldered connection can create tone issues. The last thing you want is for an internal wire to break loose during a gig and your guitar signal completely cuts off. Learning how to properly solder will ensure you get the best results out of your new pickups.
The below video gives a quick explanation and demonstration of good soldering technique:
If you run into any issues or need something a bit more thorough, the below video contains some excellent information. For example, if you find that the solder isn’t sticking to the wires, this video explains why.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when soldering:
- Keep your guitar safe. Protect your guitar’s body from the soldering iron with a cloth or rag.
- Remove tone/volume pots if you can’t reach them. If you can’t reach the lugs on the pots without melting other wires on your soldering iron, you might be better off taking the pots out. I did this with my tone knob and soldering the wires to the pot was much easier.
- Don’t breathe the fumes in. Work in a well-ventilated area and avoid breathing in while soldering.
- Use a stand for the soldering iron. You want to be able to put the soldering iron down somewhere safe where it’s not going to fall over or burn a hole in something.
- Practice if you need to. If you’re not used to soldering, try practicing with some spare wire before you try it on your guitar.
Soldering isn’t hard, but it’s important to get right. So take your time, watch a few tutorial videos, and don’t stress if you don’t get it right the first time. You can always undo what you’ve done and start again if you need to.
Step 10: Test your guitar
The first time I rewired one of my guitars I replaced the backplate, restrung the guitar, and tuned it up. Then when I plugged it in and started playing, I realized I had wired the pickup selector the wrong way around. Test your guitar before you replace the strings or close the cavity.
You don’t need to restring your guitar to test the wiring. All you need is your screwdriver.
Connect your guitar to your amp, then lightly touch the pickup screws/poles with the screwdriver. You should hear a light ‘thud’ on the inactive pickup and a louder ‘thud’ on the active pickup. It will be obvious which pickup is active.
Go through all of your pickup settings to make sure everything is wired up properly. Test the volume and tone knobs and anything else such as coil splitting. Listen for any unusually loud buzzing, hum, or noise that you didn’t hear before.
If there’s something wrong, flip your guitar over and carefully compare your wiring to your diagram. Check each soldering point and make sure everything is connected properly.
Step 11: Restring your guitar
If you’re confident that you’ve wired your guitar correctly, you can now close the cavity and restring your guitar. Adjust the pickup height to match what you started with, then you can decide after playing it whether you need to change it or not.
If this is your first time upgrading your pickups, you might be shocked with how much of an improvement you hear in your tone. While I was happy with the existing pickups in my guitar, there was a clear improvement as soon as I heard the new pickups.
Now that you know how to upgrade your pickups, you have access to more tones than ever before. Enjoy your new pickups and hold on to your old pickups. While you might think of selling them, I recommend keeping them. If in the future you decide to sell your guitar, you can put the stock pickups back in and keep your more expensive pickups.
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