How to Change Your Pickups

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If you've ever wanted to change your guitar pickups but weren't sure how to do it, this video is for you! Go step-by-step with Paul as he takes you through swapping out single-coils and humbuckers.

Video Transcription

D. Paul Lampley II: Changing your pickups is a quick and easy way to improve your guitar tone, even if you've never soldered before. In most cases, it's just two solder joints per pickup. Everyone has their favorite sounds they're chasing. So choosing your pickups is an entirely personal taste thing. You have to try them to know what you like, so you can't be afraid to swap them out. The best part is, it's completely reversible. If you don't like one pickup, you can go back to what you had or move on to something else.

This strat has single coils, which are the simplest of all types of pickups. But swapping out pickups is the same idea whether you have humbuckers or P90s or whatever. You just need to identify your hot lead from your ground lead, which I'll show you how to do in a second.

Identifing hot and ground leads

Let's take off the pickguard and see what's going on under here.

Before doing anything at all to this circuit, I'm going to take a few photos just to reference later so I can replicate the original circuit because I'm just swapping out these pickups. I want to keep these components and keep this circuit the same. As I mentioned earlier, single coil pickups have two leads, a hot and a ground. Usually they look like this. White for hot, black for ground. But on this, it's an import guitar. Import guitars get a little weird sometimes, but that's okay. I'm going to show you how to identify that. No need to worry. So when we look at these, we see that we don't have a white or black wire. We have a bare wire and a red wire that are just in some plastic insulation here. And you see this middle one, it has blue insulation for some reason, could just be whatever the factory had on hand that day, or could be intentional, doesn't really matter.

So we can follow these leads and we can find that the bare wire is soldered to the pot casing. So that makes it the ground. And the red wire is here at this lug. That's our hot, on the switch. Here's how these hot and ground leads look on a wiring diagram, but I don't really need one here because I'm just looking at what's already wired up and keeping things exactly the same as I found them. Now you're definitely going to come across some pickups with more than two lead wires, like Humbuckers with four conductors, some P90s, modern tele neck pickups have three wires, but these single coils are simple, so they're really good for showing the universal concepts like de-soldering to get them out of the guitar and soldering to put new ones in.


[on-screen text reads: Solomon SL-30 Soldering Station -]

I'm giving my iron plenty of time to preheat. Using a soldering iron that's not hot enough makes soldering so much more difficult than it has to be. I want to keep my iron hot enough to make the solder flow nice and easy on a joint. When you're sitting there fiddling around too long, that's when you wreck parts. I'm using the Solomon Soldering Station because it's nice and controllable, super precise and gets to temp really fast. I know if you're a beginner, the soldering station seems like it's a bit overkill, "I don't know if I'm going to be good at this, so why would I put that much money into it?" But it's about the same price as one boutique pickup. So if you're swapping pickups, trying different tones, it's worth the investment. Soldering is not hard, it's just little tricks here and there, and if you have a good iron, it's going to help you get there.

Keep the tip clean by wiping it on a damp sponge. Touch solder to the tip so it flows nice and shiny [on-screen text reads: Kester Pocket Pak Solder -]. That's called tinning the iron. I've got the guitar protected with two layers of rags. I don't want any hot solder to touch the finish. Touch the tip to the lug and see the solder start to melt. When that happens, a light tug to the wire will release it.

So now I'm going to remove the pickup from the pickguard and then install a new one [on-screen text reads: Golden Age Alnico 5 Single Coil Pickups -]. I'm trimming the leads so they reach the components with just a little bit of slack. I don't want to shove a bunch of wire into the cavity. And I'm stripping the insulation back a little bit. This is push back wire, but I still like to strip back about a quarter of an inch. Just leaves a little bit cleaner of a job. Check your reference photo to make sure you know where to solder and make sure you're only heating each joint once. I'm adding a little bit of solder to reflow those previous joints. Once you see the solder flow on the joint, pull your solder away but leave your iron for a second longer. This allows the flux to cook out of the joint. Don't move the joint while it's hot. Don't blow on it. I'll do these same steps with the other two pickups and then solder the ground wires to the back of the pot.

Let's test this to see if it makes noise. I'm just tapping lightly with a screwdriver. If something doesn't work, you want to find out now instead of when you put the guitar back together.

Swapping humbuckers

All right, so now let's talk about humbuckers. There's a lot of humbuckers out there today with more than two wires. A single coil pickup, like the one I just replaced, is simply a coil of wire wrapped around a magnetic core. The pole pieces are magnetized and the two hot ground leads connect to the start and finish of a coil of thin copper wire. Sometimes you can see that thin copper wire. It's really delicate. A humbucker combines two coils side by side. Each of them has a start and finish wire. So that's four wires right there. On some humbuckers, the coils are connected like this, and just two wires come out of the pickup. The ground comes out as a braided metal wrap, and the hot is the lead on the inside.

But humbuckers can be wired in a few different ways. You can keep them standard in series. You can tap one coil by itself. You can even wire them out of phase. But that's a topic we can cover in the next video. Knowing which is ground and which is hot when you're swapping humbuckers is the same concept as swapping single coils. Take a picture of what you've got and recreate it when you wire in the new pickup leads. That's all it takes to swap out your pickups. If you find the perfect pickup first try, rare achievement unlocked. But if you're like most of us, you got to keep trying stuff until you find the one. Just keep swapping them, playing, swapping, playing. Eventually, you'll find something that works or you'll just never sleep, and then you'll think about it and think about it and think about it.



D. Paul Lampley II

StewMac Technical Advisor

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