Pickup Mods

Things you need to know about Modifying a Pickup.

Ultimate Guitar

Pickup Mods

For those people who don't know what a pickup is, it's those plastic/metal things (with or without things protruding from them) that pick up the vibrations of your strings.

How A Pickup Works

A pickup literally picks up the vibrations of your strings. It then turns the vibrations into electrical waves, which are passed on to your cord/wireless system. Once the electrical waves get to your amp they are then turned into sound.

Types Of Pickups

  • Single Coil (passive) A single coil pickup is what you'll usually find on a Stratocaster or Stratocaster copy. As suggested by its name, it has one coil wrapped around the pole pieces and magnet. Single coil pickups are versatile; they are capable of producing lots of vintage tones ranging from Clapton to Cobain.
  • Humbucking (passive) A Humbucking pickup is best described as two single coil pickups with different polarities put together. A humbucking pickup produces more output than a single coil, and normally has a more edgy tone in comparison. Humbuckers having two coils may have a 4 conductor wiring, where in you can split the coils; splitting the coils allows you to turn off one coil, turning your humbucker into a single coil.
  • Active An active pickup is basically a pickup which uses a battery. It may be a single coil (e.g. Sustainiac Stealth/Stealth Plus) or a humbucker (e.g. EMG 81). An active pickup has lesser coils compared to a passive one. This is because it uses a battery to widen the pickup's magnetic/electrical field. Most people connote an active pickup to be brighter than a passive pickup. Unlike a passive humbucker, active ones need different parts (besides a double-pole double-throw/DPDT switch) to do a coil-split/tap or a phase switching. Using active electronics can also enable you to use on-board equalization/internal pre-amp.
  • Active/Passive Active/passive pickups are a cross between active and passive pickups. This means that you can switch between passive to active simply by flicking a switch or pressing a button.

    Parts Of A Pickup

  • Magnets Magnets are what produce the pickup's magnetic/electrical field, with or without the aid of active electronics. Magnets can be made of different kinds of materials (alnicos, ceramics, carbon, etc)... Each kind has different grades (e.g. alnico, alnico II, ceramic 8) [which may be used to partially determine the sound of the pickup (rephrase this part of the sentence)].
  • Coil The coil aids the magnet in making the electrical field and also helps produce different kinds of sounds. Like magnets, the wire used to make the coils can be made of different materials, the most common of which is copper. The sound a pickup produces mainly depends on the thickness of the wire used, and the number of coils wounded. Note: using a thick wire requires lesser coils than a thin wire to produce a certain sound.
  • Pole Pieces These can usually be seen on exposed pickups (e.g. DiMarzio Super distortion, Seymour Duncan JB model). These are used to direct a pickup's magnetic field, identify the magnet used on a certain pickup, and to increase a pickup's sensitivity (done by raising the pole pieces). I was told by a guitar tech that pickups using alnico magnets usually have pole pieces that look like screws on them.
  • Bobbins Bobbins are used to cover and keep the coils in shape (literally). This may also help insulate the pickup.
  • Wire This is the part you solder to the potentiometers and/or switches, and/or output. The quality of the wire used in this can affect the sound quality of your pickup.

    Modifying A Pickup

    You can modify a pickup by doing any or all of the following: Warning: Ask for the help of someone with experience in pickup mods! 01. Changing the magnet 02. Rewinding the coils (decreasing or increasing the number of coils) 03. Replacing the coils 04. Raising the pole pieces 05. Rewinding the coils (just rewinding them) 06. Replacing the bobbins 07. Replacing the pole pieces 08. Adding a magnet 09. Changing the polarity of the pickups 10. Lowering the pole pieces 11. Aligning the pole pieces (I suggest you align them based on your fret board) 12. Replacing the wire I strongly suggest after modding your pickups to dip them in paraffin wax. This will help seal the pickups and reduce microphonic noise. Edward Van Halen uses the kind that people use on surfboards (e.g. Roxy board wax). He melts it in a can and dips the pickups. Warning: if you're gonna be doing this to a DiMarzio be extra careful. They melt really, really quickly!

    Kinds Of Magnets

    These are the most commonly used magnets. I've put some of the factory descriptions and names of pickups that use them to help you decide. 01. Ceramic - you can easily get lots of bass, great for distortion pickups. DiMarzio Super Distortion, Seymour Duncan Duncan Distortion, DiMarzio Evolution. 02. Alnico - you can easily get an open midrange sound. Good for a semi-vintage sound, ideal for single coil pickups. Yamaha Pacifica single coils. 03. Alnico II - you can easily get lots of buttery mids and smooth bass - Great for emulating vintage pickups. Seymour Duncan Custom Custom, Gibson vintage 57' PAF. 04. Alnico V - you can easily get a glassy and twangy sound. Ideal for neck position humbuckers and single coil pickups- great for emulating vintage Stratocasters. Fender vintage Strat pickups, Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates II, DiMarzio PAF. 05. Ceramic 8 - you can easily get a clean distorted tone. Ideal for both single coil and humbucking. Fender Hot noiseless pickups. 06. Alnico III - you can easily get a punchy single coil tone or a chunky humbucking tone. Fender original vintage Tele pickups, Bill Lawrence 500SL.

    Crazy Stuff And Ideas

  • "Tribucker" A Tribucker is a humbucker with three coils. All coils can be split. Based on theory, the Tribucker will produce a clean, thin sound - ideal for the neck position. It's supposed to look like three single coil pickups put together.
  • "Quadbucker" A Quadbucker is a humbucker with four coils. Two cols can be split to create a traditional humbucking sound. In theory, the Quadbucker will produce a loud distorted sound with lots of midrange - ideal for the bridge position. It's supposed to look like two single coil-sized Humbuckers (e.g. DiMarzio Tone Zone S) put together.
  • EVH Pickup In the winter 1986 Positively Van Halen Guitar Player issue, Eddie tells us about how he made the pickup for one of his striped guitars. You will need the following: 01. Paraffin wax (Surfboard wax) 02. Can/pot 03. Soldering lead 04. Soldering iron 05. Gibson PAF pickup 06. DiMarzio pickup (I think it's a PAF either that or a Super distortion) 07. Screwdrivers 08. Long nose, pliers, cutter, scissor 09. Copper wire (size= ???, how much= ???) 10. Copper tape Eddie first took out the magnet of the Gibson PAF. He then rewound. The DiMarzio pickup (I honestly think that he added coils), and stuck the Gibson PAF magnet onto the DiMarzio. After that he dipped it into a coffee can with hot melted paraffin wax (a.k.a surfboard wax) to seal it (I'm not sure on how long though), and reduce microphonic noise, after the wax dries wrap the pickup in copper tape. Follow standard 1pu-1vol wiring if you want to make a replica.
  • For an exact replica buy a basswood body and 3pc maple neck with maple frets from Charvel, vintage fender tremolo, fender springs, bicycle paint, tape, paint brush, Grover mini-tuners, 500k potentiometer, and a Fender Jazz Bass knob. For the strings: Fender Standard 250's, boiled for 20 minutes, then sun dried. Email me if you want to know about the paint job. For more info please go to the following sites:
  • seymourduncan.com
  • dimarzio.com
  • fender.com
  • emginc.com
  • gibson.com
  • charvel.com
  • jacksonguitars.com
  • fernandesguitars.com
  • sustainiac.com
  • roxy.com (for info on the wax)
  • 78 comments sorted by best / new / date

      HOLY SHIT! I have just been smacked in the face with amazing article writing! All hail... all hail...
      please feel free to copy stuff off the article...after all i didi post this to help people.
      Please, lets all get along here...(thinks to himself) I wonder if thats possible...
      spacky, u Fuckin n00b ... none of that negative crap, you guys are gonna give me a friggin ulcer with all your bitchin
      im speechless, its absolutely brilliance, thank you so much, and my friend tried to mod some dimarzios, and really screwed them up, so ask someone with a brain.
      hello, cudos on the article. much enjoyed. i have some expierience with re-winding and over-winding pickups. i traded a Johnson $100 jazz bass that the electronics were held together with bubble gum(email me for that story) for a Harmony "Strat-O-Crapper" i then made some aesthetic changes.. mainly, sanding the neck raw, cutting off the lower horn and taking all the pain off and covering in Duct Tape. then i took all the electronics out and started on the pickups. with the bridge, i used the same size wire, and just overwound it. where there was just enough room to fit the wire in there.for the neck, i replaced all the wire with a much thicker grade(about the size of the wires in telephone cables).and in the middle, i didnt replace the wire, but i did wrap what was left of my thick wire around it.the results were much better than i thought. i originally thought i would just screw up and be without a guitar, but no. i love it.the bridge guitar has a TON of high end scream. although i did lose a little bass response (still not sure why) i could hit a note and sustain a false harmonic for days. the neck pickup was wonderful, possibly my favorite. the thicker wire gave it the "open" bass response and attack of an acoustic with the clarity i always wanted. and the middle pickup just increased in volume. i am in the process of buying a les paul jr. to re-wire or something, so i might have more for you later. email me with questions or comments of whatever.
      Companies say they have Alnico magnets simply because they don't want to confuse the people. Most people who buy lower end guitars aren't interested in aftermarket pickups, and thus aren't interested in what type of pickups came in their guitar. Thus, the company simplifies it by saying just "Alnico." ALL Alnico's are graded. You said that a tech told you that pickups with alnico magnets usually have screws for pole pieces. The type of magnet doesn't require a specific type of pole piece. Just because DiMarzio does it doesn't mean all companies do. The battery does NOT widen the magnetic field! I can't believe you could even stand by this! I've taken AP Physics and we learn about this stuff; the battery is there to run an internal preamp! Even EMG says this!!! Direct from the EMG website: What's an active pickup, and why would I use one? An active pickup is one that uses electronics to improve the sound and enhance its operation. There are a variety of ways to "Activate" a pickup. A simple "buffer" pre-amp will do the trick, but it will also amplify the hum and buzz the pickup produces. Just because a pickup is "active" doesn't guarantee you'll get great results. EMG pickups utilize an internal pre-amp (inside the pickup), which not only makes the pickup louder, it also reduces the noise! What are the advantages of an EMG pickup? The greatest is reduction in noise. No longer will the dimming of the house lighting system cause your guitar to buzz incessantly. You can use an extra long cable, or a wireless, and you'll get the same great tone every time. Why an internal pre-amp? It's the most efficient way to create an active pickup. All the coil connections are shielded , the pre-amp is shielded, and the output of the pickup cable is low-impedance, which makes it less susceptible to noise. Also, it avoids a spider web of wires and possible loose connections in your guitar and the installation is simple. All the benefits with none of the hassle.
      An alnico magnet is what you call a basic grade (or ungraded) alnico magnet. it's often used in stock pickups for entry-level guitars (i used to have a yamaha guitar catalog which said that they used "alnico" magnets for the single coil pickups on the EG112). i believe that what i said was: "some companies use different pole pieces to distinguish between the magnets used on a pickup" (e.g. DiMarzio- the ceramic magnets use allen screws, while the alnico grade ones use a combination). Yes a battery is used to widen an active pickup's effect. A perfect example would be Zakk Wylde's EMG pickups on his "bullseye" Les Paul (an EMG81 and 85)- there are no on-board equalizers on his guitar, just two volume pots and two tone pots. you are right with the numbers though; the numbers given to magnets are not used to determine the strength. but they are used to determine the grade- which has a whole lot to do with the sound it's capable of producing. once again: the descriptions are given by the companies- not me!!!
      I have swapped the bridge and middle position single coils round on my strat copy. I haven't yet tried it out, but the tonal variety it'll allow will be pretty cool. On another note. P90s, soapbars, Flatsingles, or jazzmaster pickups are all quite similar and, more to the point, they are just like Strat pickups but instead of the wire on the coil going vertically like down into the body to make it fat, thin and wide. this gives it a more humbucker tone, but still with the 60 cycle hum. However it is a good compromise between single and bucker.
      Adding magnets to single coils works really well. I was able to use the reverse polarity like on humbuckers and glued a row of neodymium magnets onto the ceramic magnets and it canceled out the hum, and sharpened the tone, not to mentions magnifying the sound by a lot. which is a bonus for me.
      Why? Because the longer the strings last, the seldomer you buy strings. That means less profit for the companies. But I dont like boiling. It does make strings look new, but they sound bad. IMO at least. Use a string cleaner, that helps.
      OH!OH! i reasearched it and found that boiling your strings helps string longevity! it makes the string stay "new" longer, you can also boil old strings, to make them "young" again. whicked cool!...but leads me to wonder: if this is so great, why doesnt Big Name string companies (ernie ball, D'Addario, ect.) sell them already boiled?...
      good article, but, one thing...how far should the pickups be from the strings...like 1/8 inch? i have no idea. thanx \,../
      if you guys have any questions, please post them here, and i'll make sure to email or send you a private message to answer back.
      tim_5150, what did the paint job look like on eddies guitar, i would like to recreat it for my "collection"
      so mr tim_5150 how long have u played/ been learning about the guitar
      ur rite bout the p 90 i like it cause u can get that greenday sound really good and guitars rock
      a P-90 soap bar pickup falls under humbuckers. sorry for not mentioning it.
      You know a hell of a lot. Wish I knew that much. Nice article, as informative as can be 5 stars.
      Nice try, but there's a lot of stuff wrong with this. Active pickups: They don't use a battery to widen the magnetic field. How on earth can a battery widen a magnetic field??? Active pickups do have fewer winds than passive pickups, and need a preamp to boost the signal. Without a preamp, the signal will get lost in the cable. The battery's there to power the preamp. The type of magnet has no affect on the pole pieces. Alnico, Ceramics, Neodymium, Samarium Cobalt can all have the same pole pieces. Pole pieces can either be metal studs or some time of screw. Most come with standard flat head screws, though some come with allen screws. Screws used as pole pieces is normally found on one bobbin of a humbucker. There's no such thing as an "Alnico" magnet. All alnico's have a number based on when they were invented. Contrary to popular belief, they do not have to do with the strength of the magnet, although Alnico II is less powerful than Alnico V. Alnico III is even less powerful than both of them.
      chri5: did anyone else realise that the "tribucker" would not produce a clean sound but bring back the single coil buzz? a single coil pickup has the wires wrapped one way. this gives off the buzzing sound, a humbucker is 2 single coil pickups wrapped in the opposite direction of the other (ones wrapped clockwise the other counter clockwise) this cancels the buzzing, by adding another single coil in there it makes one winding more dominant and brings the buzzing sound back.
      Not exactly... it's not that the opposite poles cancel out the buzz, if that were the case they wouldn't pick up any vibes at all. The single coil buzz has something to do with one coil taking in all the vibes at once thus overloading the poor little thing.
      wow....excellent stuff.....very infromative...thnx!!!....definitely 5 stars
      Tyler the Great
      for the magnets, why don't they use electromagnets? You could change the tone and distortion and whatever that way, right? That would be very cool.
      thanks very much this is the 1st i know about pickups and they are very important but i had no idea about them!!
      excellent, although i was hoping for info on what effect things such as rewinding the coils and stuff acutually have on the sound, rather than just "it changes the sound"
      DAMN! Can't think of anything funny to say ..... must've been a pretty good article
      i mean on 1984 on there first album it went like this "FRANKENSTEIN Eddie with Frankenstein This is the Strat shaped guitar, right and on the front cover of the album VHI, over the years through respraying and replacements through wear and tear it metamorphasised into the red, white and black axe pictured below (the bottom guitar) Frankenstein and Kramer The neck and body were originally made by Linn Ellsworth in 1975 (for $80 and $50), that Ed got from hanging round Wayne Charvel's workshop the trem is from a '58 Strat and the pickup is a Gibson P.A.F.. Over the years it was customised to the axe above by the addition of an original prototype Floyd Rose locking trem system and a succession of replacement necks finally ending up with Kramers. The single coil pickup in the neck position (above) is either a DiMarzio or Fender and is not infact engaged. This guitar was used on all the albums upto 1984. "