Hi, you're in the studio with Luke from GuitarIQ.com. Welcome to Guitar iQ&A, where you send in your burning guitar questions and I do my best to answer them! Today's question comes in from Taylor, who writes:
"I'm needing some help with upgrading my guitar pickups. I'd like some tips on what to look for. And could you help me decide between active and passive pickups?"
Hey Taylor, when it comes to upgrading your guitar pickups it can seem like there's an overwhelming world of options to choose from. Not only do you have your main types of pickups (e.g., single coil's, humbucker's, and P90's) but each of these families include so many different types and variations it can be hard to make sense of it all! While this won't be a comprehensive navigation guide to the rabbit hole that is after-market pickups, in this video I'll cover some key tips to point you in the right direction.
First, let's deal with the easiest part of your question: active vs passive pickups. Now, I'm not going to get bogged down in the technical difference between them. Let's face it, most guitar players really only care about how their pickups affect their tone. Most traditional types of electric guitars come standard with passive pickups (Strats, Teles, Les Paul's etc.). You just plugin and you're ready to go. Active pickups however, require a power source. This is usually a battery hidden behind your pickguard. The benefit of this, is that active pickups will give you a higher output. This means you'll usually get more gain, sustain, and natural compression from your amp. Compared to passive pickups, active pickups are also very low noise (no annoying hum!). And typically, you can expect a brighter, more articulate tone with a tighter low end. So you can see why these pickups are a favourite for many hard rock and metal players.
Having said that, active pickups are often criticised for being less dynamic and more clinical sounding compared to traditional pickups. You'll find that the reason some people love them is exactly why others really dislike them. Also, it's worth noting that active pickups can respond quite differently to the volume and tone controls on your guitar. This is something a lot of guitar players don't like. Lastly, if you're like me, I don't love the idea of depending on a battery to power my pickups. If you accidentally leave it plugged in and your battery goes flat your guitar will either sound terrible or won't work at all. Personally, I don't use active pickups but there's absolutely no right or wrong here. It comes down to personal preference of the genre you're playing in and the tones you like.
There’s a few things you should consider before you upgrade your pickups. Be sure to experiment with the simpler, less expensive things you can do to improve your tone. For example, changing the picks you use and your string gauge will have a very noticeable impact on your tone. In terms of setup, the distance of your guitar pickups from the strings and the tilt of your pickups will also make a dramatic difference on the output level and tone you're getting from the guitar. In my own experience, a while back I swapped out the pickups in a medium priced Ibanez 335-style guitar I used to own. I replaced the stock pickups with DiMarzio PAF type pickups. And I was really happy with the result. It got me a bit closer to the tone I had in my head. Did it make the guitar sound identical to the far more expensive Gibson 335? Probably not. Was it worth the money, probably.
So, if you're set on upgrading your pickups (because it can be expensive and there's some guess work involved—I mean you're not going to actually know what they sound like until they’re installed) I'd always recommend starting with a companies that have a great reputation for making good pickups. Notable brands like Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, EMG, and Fender (including some others you may not have heard of like Bare Knuckle and Suhr) will provide you with a massive range of quality options to choose from. While there are tons of variations, fortunately, most of these websites are a great source of information. And most offer pretty detailed search options where you can narrow things down by guitar, pickup type, musical genre, and tonal preferences among other things. In all of this the key question is this: Want do you want your pickups to do that they're not currently doing? If you can get a clear picture in your head of what you're looking for you'll find the process of narrowing this down much easier. For example, do you feel they need to be brighter, fatter, warmer, have more output, or less noise etc.? If you head over to GuitarIQ.com, I'll link to a bunch of the websites I mentioned in the transcription of this video. And If you're interested to learn more about the active vs passive pickup debate, I’ll also be sure to include a few links where you can delve a little deeper.
Well, that's it for this video me. If you found it helpful, as always please like and subscribe. I'm also keen to hear what pickups you guys use. Are they stock, after-market, active, or passive? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you'd like to check out my guitar books, be sure to head over to GutarIQ.com. And last of all, if you have a question that you'd like answered just leave it in the comments or head over to the Q&A tab on our website and you might find your question featured in a video like this. All the best in the practice room this week. Chat soon!