Are expensive pickups worth it?

old wrench

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Whenever this topic comes up, it makes me think about the era I grew up in

There really weren't any aftermarket pickup outfits, and yet somehow, guitar players were creating what we now think of as iconic tones.

The magic was (is? ;)) in the hands and fingers



I was going to say that I don't have a dog in this fight - but, I don't know if that is really true - I do have an opinion though -



The most expensive pickups I ever bought was a n.o.s. set of Jim Wagner GoodWoods that I bought on a whim for $275 bucks - yes, they are a great-sounding set of PAF-type humbuckers and yes, they are put together with great attention to the details - but honestly, they aren't any better sounding than the Lover/Duncan SH-55 set I bought for $170 bucks -

I don't have a need to defend or justify a purchase of any $600 or $1000 pickups (thank Dog!), which human nature being as it is, I can surely understand - I do have to admit, my paying $275 bucks for that JW set was just pure extravagance on my part

I might be in the minority, but I believe there is only so much you can physically do with magnets and wire, and beyond that is where you get into superlatives and nonsense and stuff like replicating 1950's metallurgical and plastics technology and re-discovering "the secrets of the masters"

There are a few good conscientious winders out there who wind very good pickups and then sell them for a fair price - those are the folks that I like to buy from - I like to support their efforts

Recently, I've just been winding my own pickups - mainly because I'm naturally curious about how and why things work - I know they will never be known as "famous" pickups, but that's OK with me - I know what a good pickup sounds like (don't we all? ;)) and they certainly meet my standards - otherwise, I wouldn't use them in my own builds

The basic information is out there - construction methods, wire gauge, numbers of turns, magnet type, etc. - and there are some really helpful folks right here on this forum like Rob DiStefano for winding techniques and Antigua for technical measurements, just to thank a couple of you -

But, no secret sauce recipes - I wonder why? ;)

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oregomike

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The cool part is trying a guitar in which you have no idea what the pickups are, but they are amazing so you have to ask.
I “Discovered” Tom Holmes, Fralin, Throback, Arcane, and Bare Knuckle in precisely this manner. The 5-10 minutes spent playing those pickups were enough to convince me that there’s something there. Bardens, I knew of, but when I played them, I was sold.
I have also played (and purchased) other pickups that did not pull me in quite as much, but are fine and I would have no prob recommending them to anyone.
“Worth it” is up to you. Some people are inspired by Silvertone tube amps. For what I do it was wet cardboard useless. For Jack White or the Stooges? Pure fire.
Arcane passed by my IG account and started following him “just because”. Maybe one of these days Ill grab a set for my next build. Still happy with my Fralins though.
 

Vegetable Man

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Just like anything, they are worth what someone is willing to pay.

I don't care about mojo infused secret sauce or unobtainium magnet gimmicks and will not pay $1000 a pair for them.

Lollar and Fralin make excellent products and provide great customer service. I'm willing to pay a little extra for that.

Cheaper and more "elite" companes have ignored my emails. I'm not going to beg to be someone's customer, regardless of cost savings or quality.

That stated, I have some stock Gibson pickups that aren't going anywhere...
 

Vibroluxer

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If you do some easy research youll find that Lollar P90s and TV Jones Classic Filtertrons are generally rated pretty highly but are pricey, imo, and folks seem to like the Bootstraps made in Ohio. I think every strat set is $50. For the set! And I like them in my Strat.

I've never played Fralins but never heard anything but great comments about them.
 

Telenator

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For me its often about volume.
I find that Squier Strat pickups sound truly awesome at low volume, home levels. But they then become harsh, screeching ear killers at gig level volume. And the reverse goes for more expensive Strat pickups. To me, they sound flat and dull at home volume, but really come into their own when you give them volume to breathe on.
Try it out when you get a chance. Play a Squier Strat, (warn everyone around you) at high volume. Then play a Strat with high end pickups in it really loud. The difference is astounding.

Try the same with a cheap Epiphone Les Paul Jr. Then repeat with a Gibson. Worlds apart.
 

hopdybob

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We all know there are a ton of pickup winders these days, and pickups can be acquired at just about any price point.

But I never fully grasped how certain pickups command their price. I see some pickups priced at less than $50 (typically offshore produced), and most commonly we see pickups in the couple hundred dollar range, but then there's some sets out there fetching $500-$1000 for a set.

The latter, expensive category never fully made sense to me, all things considered equal. What sort of secret sauce do these winders have? What makes those pickups command their high price tag? What makes those pickups "better" than those in the mid-priced category that use the exact same materials??
somehow it is simple.
A Do you want to sound like some guitar hero, B ore do you have a sound in mind of your own?
A can be a long and winding road, you buy the hardware like your hero to find out that you just can't get it right but lost a lot of money, like i did to.
B you can pick from out of thousands of pickups and create your own sound, and that is were you end up anyway.

and i always keep in mind what the vision of Bill Lawrence was.
a pickup is part of a chain, from brain to speaker and all between.

and to keep it real.
some well known players played with Eddy van Halen's rig, so from guitar to speaker, and did not sound like him.
 

USian Pie

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It's just wire and magnets.

But some combinations of wire and magnets are hard to get. You can get a '58 PAF copy from pretty much everybody. Just about everybody has a take on a vintage Strat pickup.

Finding something that has the piano-like bass and clarity of a P90 with no hum is a bit more challenging. Something that produces the low-string thump and sweet treble of a good Filtertron while fitting in a hollow-body Gibson isn't in everyone's catalog.

TV Jones and Fralins have been worth it to me. Both of them offer unique qualities that I really, really like.

I've tried some of the low-cost P90-in-a-humbucker-housing pickups that are out there. You know the websites that offer "great value" parts for project guitars. The pickups translated string vibrations to the amplifier correctly. That's all I'll say.

I don't rotate through a lot of guitars. I usually build them from parts and hold on to them forever. Since a guitar I own is going to be played until I can't play anymore, I want to bring out its best characteristics.

I hate guitar douchebaggery. I play mostly solid state amps and my pedal setup isn't going to impress anyone. There are places where I find I have to pay to get the sound I want, though.
 

brookdalebill

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These Seymour Duncan CS Alnico V Staple pickups were $300-ish per pickup.
They sound great, and are absolutely worth their price, IMO.
My all time favorite pickups, TV Jones Supertron (n) and Coassic+ (b), at $150i-sh per pickup are half that price.
I don’t mind paying for things that are exactly what I want.
These certainly qualify, for me.
 

gb Custom Shop

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I might be in the minority, but I believe there is only so much you can physically do with magnets and wire, and beyond that is where you get into superlatives and nonsense and stuff like replicating 1950's metallurgical and plastics technology and re-discovering "the secrets of the masters"
This is what I'm getting at!
There are a few good conscientious winders out there who wind very good pickups and then sell them for a fair price - those are the folks that I like to buy from - I like to support their efforts
Completely agree with that
 

bgmacaw

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Try the same with a cheap Epiphone Les Paul Jr. Then repeat with a Gibson. Worlds apart.

I've used my '98 Epiphone LP Jr. with its stock P90 at gigs and such and it performed quite well, no harsh screeching. At jams, I've had other players ask if I had replaced the original pickup with a Gibson or something else. Maybe they were expecting screeching.
 

hemingway

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They are worth it up to a point. But diminishing marginal Returns will kick in after that point.

Personally I think it's worth paying for decent humbuckers as cheap ones sound awful. Cheaper single coils can be pretty good though
 

Cyberi4n

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Definitely worth what someone is willing to pay. I can understand from an economic point of view that independent low-output builders charge top dollar in order to make themselves financially viable, and to be honest I don’t begrudge them that. We all need to make a living. And ‘hand-wound’ ‘boutique’ is a marketing strategy that people suck-up. If you as the buyer are happy to pay the price, and the builder is happy to charge the price, then no harm is done. Does cognitive dissonance kick in? Absolutely.
 

Wallaby

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That's the point that's hiding in plain sight :)

IMO those "recipes" are the "non B.S." factors that distinguish similar pickups from each other. The basics that actually matter.

Even if a pickup's marketing is shrouded in mystic hand-waving woo-woo those factors exist underneath it all.

Whether the particular "recipe" lives up to its hype is subjective - you have to hear them to decide for yourself and recognize if you like it enough to pay for it.

I have more respect for makers that describe why you should try THEIR product in plain language, without resorting to B.S., astroturfing, or misinformation, and I'm more likely to respond to THEIR call to action. But even the ridiculous ones *might* have something going on worth hearing underneath it all.

Also the makers that go to additional lengths with physical construction - special bobbins, pole elevators, fabricating non-off-the-shelf parts, custom contract production of parts, etc. get a big nod from me. THAT takes dedication and investment, and not every hacker out there can wind one up on the weekend.

In the end makers are competing with each other for attention from a limited pool of potential consumers. Some will respond to the value, some will respond to the B.S., some will respond to the actual sound, and amazingly some will prefer the higher-priced option simply because it costs more.

But, no secret sauce recipes - I wonder why? ;)
 

CCK1

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It just depends on the guitar, the player, the amp, and very importantly, the expectations of the player. I replaced the stock 490R and 498T pickups in my SG with Jim Wagner's Crossroads pickup in the neck, and a Godwood in the bridge, they were about $350 shipped (I consider that expensive). My God what a difference! These pickups have harmonics like I'd never heard. The difference in sound was like playing with really old, dead strings, and replacing them with new ones, and removing that blanket off your speaker cabinet. I get pinch harmonics when I really didn't try. Let a chord hold too long for a song ending, and it will just "bloom" into musical feedback.

On my Esquire, I replaced the stock pickup with a Dragonfire hot Telecaster pickup (about $40), yeah, it was high output, but just didn't have what I was after. I replaced it with a Cavalier Humongous Lion, (about $65 at the time still inexpensive in my estimation). My Esquire now sounds exactly like I want it to. Through a half cranked Orange Tiny Terror, with the tone rolled off just a little, it sounds real close to a P-90.

So I think the difference is to be found not because a pickup is expensive, but because a pickup is made well, with high quality components, by someone that knows what they're doing. So it follows reason that more expensive pickups are made that way. The exception is Cavalier, I think he's just had a price increase, (hasn't everybody), but Rob's pickups are an amazing value.
 

jvin248

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...The latter, expensive category never fully made sense to me...What sort of secret sauce do these winders have? What makes those pickups command their high price tag?...

The high prices make them better. Many consumers equate high price with Quality and Performance, as a short hand solution to making a choice among dozens of seemingly identical products. Actually test products through the range and you'll find the value is not really there, but who has the time for that? So use price as a Proxy, then show off your spending skills to your buddies and they are impressed with the cost of that brand. There is a huge amount of psychology applied in pricing, and 'factory' marketing teams spend a lot of effort testing out where the optimal price points are at to maximize profits. In the olden days, Kmart used to price everything as $X.97 because they found more sell through with 7 at the end than 5, 6, 8, 9, or 0

mostinterestingpickupswapping.jpg

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StratDal

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I've been happy with all the Seymore Duncan pups I've had installed. The Quarter Pounder in my Esquire is good but not much different than the original one I replaced. Looking back, I wouldn't have changed it at least for a while.

Whatever they are, play 'em Loud and Proud!
 




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