Are expensive pickups worth it?

bgmacaw

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Thinking about some of the guitar players that gained fame back in the earlier days and are still with us today, like Beck, Page, Santana, Richards, etc., just to name a few.

The list could be enlarged by adding players that have recently passed - King, Berry, etc.

Guitar players who were there not only in the days before the after-market pickup craze, but who also continued to play after the craze took hold

Rewinding existing pickups or having a custom pickup made wasn't well known to the general guitar playing public back then. But, was kind a secret, insider, thing that some pros used. A lot of the guitarists you mentioned were early customers of the guitar techs who eventually formed full fledged companies.

For example, did You know that Seymour Duncan rewound pickups for Jeff Beck (the JB pickup) and other rock stars. That's how he got started.

Larry DiMarzio got popular in the NYC rock scene by doing rewound pickups before he started selling his Super Distortion in 1971 to guitarists looking for more, like Ace Frehley.

Bill Lawrence and Kent Armstrong also were doing the same in the mid to late 60's although they didn't quite have the business savvy as Duncan and DiMarzio.
 

Swirling Snow

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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??
Okay, let's get a baseline of your values, here. Does a Ferrari make sense to you? A two caret diamond? A 70 year old bottle of wine? These are all luxury items, and despite their individual virtues, their primary value is the message, "I can afford this, and you can't!".

If, after reading the above paragraph, you're not sitting there trying to bluster some apology, "But the sublime motion of a Ferrari with all four wheels sliding sideways is worth..." then no, $600 pickups are not for you. Which is okay. Rich people can easily afford them, and the pickup maker will just keep raising his prices until he can afford to eat despite selling so few.

Myself, no... I'm not spending $600 on pickups because someone thinks they are special. If they said, "I scatterwound 20 pickups and this is the best one.", then I might consider it.
 

drumtime

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When the bridge pickup on my 75 Strat died, I sent it to Lindy Fralin to be rewound to spec. Because it's an old Strat, and worth some money. Cost about $100. Sounds just right.

When the bridge on my CV50s died, I replaced it with a Artec, which sounds every bit as good, if not better, than the original - supposedly a Tonerider? Cost $20-25.

No matter what anybody says, price is way down on the list of what makes a good pickup.

I love the idea of tinkering and tweaking, but the reality is I'm far too lazy these days to actually do much of it. For my whole adult life, I fixed everything myself, built my own houses, etc, etc. Trying to retire from all of that and just enjoy what passes for playing my guitars.
 

cyclopean

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Yeah and it seems like those early replacements were more about higher output than actual tone changes.

(not that output does not affect tone, of course)
That’s all about tone change. More saturated is a different tone and trying to get those chugs to work without enough oomph is no fun.
 

Addnine

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I have never been let down by a Seymour Duncan p/u (I probably have a dozen of them). I have never bought a DiMarzio and kept it. I like low-output p/u's, and often quite cheap low-ohm pickups (w/ alnico) are quite good. I bought a pair of phony s/c goldfoils from Guitar Fetish, and they are wonderful. I guess I won't ever buy a premium p/u again unless it is an SD. I think they really listen to their designs; others, I suspect are spec and feature driven, neither of which are actually audible.
 

teletail

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Okay, let's get a baseline of your values, here. Does a Ferrari make sense to you? A two caret diamond? A 70 year old bottle of wine? These are all luxury items, and despite their individual virtues, their primary value is the message, "I can afford this, and you can't!".
Sorry, but that’s just nonsense. Some of us just worked hard, are enjoying the fruits of our labor and don’t spend one second worrying about what other people are thinking.
 

ndcaster

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I’ve spent boutique money on pickups, I’ve spent dollar store money on pickups. I could definitely tell the difference. However, the best bang for my buck has always been DiMarzio. They’re well made, insanely consistent, you could buy ten of the same model built years apart and not be able to tell any real difference between them, and they’re priced very fairly. Not to mention they make a model for pretty much everyone, and every conceivable style and sound. If they truly don’t have anything that would make you happy, which I’d have a really hard time believing, they’ll be happy to make it just for you.

So I guess my cutoff, if I’m replacing pickups, is whatever they’re charging for whatever I need. That’s if I change pickups. Most of the time I’m happy with whatever came in the guitar. But I also buy quality guitars. I’m way over the whole “let’s buy a $300 guitar and spend $400 on parts” stage of my life.

Most US made, name brand instruments these days come with pickups that are just dandy. I have to believe if I can’t get a useable sound out of them, the problem is probably not the guitar.
anecdotal, but I bought the DiMarzio neck "Humbucker from Hell" (low-wind) to pair with a Lawrence/Wilde bridge stack and lucked out: they pair beautifully

lots of clarity and treble in the neck, and a classic tele middle position -- to my ears anyway

DiMarzio's wire colors took some research to sort out, but not insurmountable

the no-hum thing is a plus
 

brookdalebill

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I don’t begrudge custom builders/winders their compensation.
What they do is a labor of love.
I’m not a cork-sniffer, I’m a working player.
My sound is important, if only to me.
I’m old enough to remember the players, and the gear they used, that inspired so many of us.
I’ll pay a little more for the stuff that satisfies my ears.
Though I don’t hear particularly well, I do think I can hear the differences in pickup types.
Luckily, all my pickups choices are perfect, for me.
 

old wrench

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Rewinding existing pickups or having a custom pickup made wasn't well known to the general guitar playing public back then. But, was kind a secret, insider, thing that some pros used. A lot of the guitarists you mentioned were early customers of the guitar techs who eventually formed full fledged companies.

For example, did You know that Seymour Duncan rewound pickups for Jeff Beck (the JB pickup) and other rock stars. That's how he got started.

Larry DiMarzio got popular in the NYC rock scene by doing rewound pickups before he started selling his Super Distortion in 1971 to guitarists looking for more, like Ace Frehley.

Bill Lawrence and Kent Armstrong also were doing the same in the mid to late 60's although they didn't quite have the business savvy as Duncan and DiMarzio.


Sure, I'm aware of the instances you mention, and in my full post I mentioned there that there were always exceptions.

But regardless, a lot of the iconic tones that players still try to copy today came out of stock pickups

Didn't the after-market pickup craze really begin, for the most part anyhow, with over-wound "hot" versions of existing winds? - I remember when Dimarzio's "Super Distortion" came out.

And then for quite awhile (and speaking in general terms), the standard after-market pickups were just "hotter" versions of stock pickups.

It's only more recently (relatively) that after-market winders have been offering winds that claim to recapture the sound of the old stock pickups - the whole "PAF" thing - same with the "Bakersfield" tone and others

Today you can buy any kind of after-market pickup you can imagine - as well as some that you can't or wouldn't want to imagine - the variety is really incredible

Extra Mojo is available, but it will cost you! :)

Advertising is a serious business - perception is king! 👑

.
 

Recalcitrant

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I’ve spent boutique money on pickups, I’ve spent dollar store money on pickups. I could definitely tell the difference. However, the best bang for my buck has always been DiMarzio.
Agree, DiMarzio has the highest batting average for me as well.

It’s been said: the closer to either end of the signal chain, the higher importance the component.
Pickups are pretty close to the end, but not as close to the ends as speakers or fingers. Or the air in the room.

As George Jones once said, “Ah har what you’re harrin’ but they won’t har it in those beer joints.”
 

11 Gauge

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When I first started playing, “upgrades” never occurred to me. Parts only got changed on guitars amongst the players I knew if something broke.

You might need a new nut. You might need new saddles because the old ones were totally grooved out and breaking strings. Every once in a while a pickup, or, pot, or switch died and had to be replaced. That’s just how it was with working guys in the bars and dance halls. But I don’t recall one person ever back in those days buying a guitar and changing out the pickups.

When your guitar stopped tuning well and the tech said you needed new tuners, everyone just got another set of whatever was OEM. If it wasn’t available you got either Schallers or Grovers, depending on what the music store in that town was a dealer for.

We didn’t obsess over trem springs, and tone caps, and nitro or poly, or anything else. We just bought a guitar that we liked the feel and sound of and went to work. Nobody had dozens of guitars, or even a half dozen. Most of the working players I knew had a main and a backup. Most of them only owned one amp.

I was considered to have quite the gear collection as a teen because I filled a lot of different roles. I had two electric guitars, an acoustic, a bass, a bass amp, a guitar amp, a few pedals, and a small PA. Had I never left rural west Texas, and had there been no internet, I’d probably still be happily playing every piece of it.

We also didn’t have any idea we were supposed to bias our amps, or have them re-capped. Or match impedence with speaker cabs. We just got tubes and stuck em in there. If an amp really broke and wouldn’t work at all, or was blowing fuses like crazy, we took it to somebody who could fix amps. Usually it was the guy who ran the TV and VCR repair shop in town. We never asked what was done, we were just happy it worked again and paid the guy his $20-$30.

Sometimes I think that was a better way to do things.

Right now I have two main electric guitars, and two main basses. I have four working guitar amps and one bass amp. This is my main gigging stuff. Every piece of it is stock outside of some replaced tubes, and caps were done about eight or nine years ago in my 30 year old Marshall.

Stock pickups, stock hardware, stock speakers in my cabs and combos, stock everything. And you know what? I’m so much happier than I ever was when I was constantly screwing with everything in search of some kind of perfection that we all know doesn’t even exist.
This all made me think back to how I upgraded stuff with guitars over the years.

I didn't start to really play a lot until the 80's. Remembering back to that time, I honestly didn't upgrade much of anything on those guitars. I do remember putting a SD Hot Rails in a Strat clone, but that wasn't as an upgrade - it was a way to get a humbucker-like sound out of a Strat w/o having to actually rout it for a humbucker.

By the 90's, most of the guitars that I got came to me incomplete, so it wasn't a matter of upgrading anything - I had to make a choice with what electronics and hardware I was going use. Oftentimes, I'd just get bridges either made by the manufacturer, or maybe something by AllParts. And even after hearing about like Fralin in the 90's, I still almost always ended up getting pickups from SD, DiMarzio, or Fender.

In the 00's, really the only thing that changed for me was finding out about Guitarfetish, so again it really wasn't for upgrading anything - they were just a cheaper alternative than SD, DiMarzio, or Fender (or AllParts or Stew Mac, if we're talking about hardware and such).

There has been something else that I've personally experienced - I tend to actually favor guitars in the $300 - $700 range. I can typically find stuff that's built well and tends to feel comfortable, with the one exception being the pickups and electronics. This is especially true with humbucker guitars IME - they tend to wind the pickups way too hot. Also, a lot of cheaper Fender'ish 3-way or 5-way pickup selector switches simply feel flimsy. Anyway, I never find myself dumping $400+ in upgrades on these guitars - the upper limit might be $200 or so, if I put SD or DiMarzio pickups in them. More often than not, I'm happy with the Toneriders or Bootstraps that I choose instead.

Anyway, my exact thoughts on expensive pickups being worth it are that I think more stuff has to be taken into consideration. If it's just a Tele or Strat pickup, or just something like a basic PAF, or a stock-ish P90, IMO I can find lots of stuff that's not expensive that sound every bit as good as I could hope to expect, so it wouldn't be worth it to spend more on the expensive stuff. If it's something less common, I could see the potential for the more expensive thing to sound better. Since I don't use Filtertrons or anything like that, I can't really answer this question. I can get every sound I personally need from Strat/Tele/PAF/P90 pickups.
 

loopfinding

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A 50 dollar set can sound as good as a 300 dollar set, if you get the right pickups for your needs. It’s a dice roll.

I think dudes like Lollar and Fralin have thought about it hard enough and consistently delivered long enough that the pricing is on their side. They’re also low run and the price reflects that, not just “quality.”

But charging more than around 300? That’s just snake oil at that point. Just trying to milk old men “tone hounds” with disposable income.
 
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Hodgo88

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I've had hit or miss experiences with factory pups. I've had hit or miss experiences with aftermarket stuff too. Duncan is the exception here. Still don't know what the fuss is about with GFS, mine certainly weren't anything to write home about.

Knock on wood, I haven't had a miss from a custom shop who took the time to discuss what I was after before they went and built it. Did I pay more for that level of customer service? Yep. Did the pickups meet my expectations and then some? Yep.
 

Pixies2005

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I’ve just stuck Lace pickups in my cheap Artist Strat copy and yes, they were well worth the cost.

Neck = Lace Purple (P90 ish)
Middle = Lace Silver ( Middle Strat )
Bridge = Lace Blue ( PAF )

I now have my Bob Mould / Sugar / Cobain Strat bridge sound.

The Breeders and a whole host of Strat sounds in the middle.

It’s my grunge machine. But what’s surprised me is the range and clarity of the cleans too.

This has been an experiment that has definitely worked out. I’ve had experiences in the past where adding expensive pups to cheaper guitars has not worked out so well.

It’s all a bit of a gamble really.

While I think installing a set of Lollars or SDs or Fralins will usually make a guitar sound better - it’s not guaranteed to make that guitar outstanding or a keeper.
 
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Zepfan

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There's the Ferrari with Ferrari price.
There's the Ferrari shaped body on a Corvette for less.
There's the Ferrari shaped body on a VW Bug for cheap.
There's always an exception to the rule.

Have to do some research and maybe some testing to find what you want. Just make sure you know what you want before hand.
Before buying new pickups, always try different pickup height adjustments on your own pickups and try different value pots, caps and different wiring schemes.
 

fjfinamore

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Of course, there is not an objective answer to the question, as the perception of "tone" is too subjective.

Is there a difference between a cheap Chinese-made Epiphone humbucker and a humbucker from Tom Holmes or Throbak or Rewind, etc.? Most likely in the quality of the components, but essentially they are constructed around the same principles as the Gibson humbucker from the 1950s.

But the cost of materials does not account for the astronomical price differences. Far-Eastern made products are more than likely made with automation and are pre-progammed to spit out a specific product with the least amount of time and effort to a specific price-point cost-wise. The better quality American-made pickups probably have more human interaction in the manufacturing process.

But evidently, even the increased cost of manufacturing the product in the United States or Western Europe alone cannot account for the wide price discrepancy. As you go up the price-ladder of pickups what essentially are you paying for?

Essentially the expertise and reputation of the winder or company. Seymour Duncan, Larry DiMarzio, Lindy Fralin, and Jason Lollar have all built companies that through several decades have become the standard benchmark for what quality pickups should be. Once you get past them into the realm of "boutique" pickups, it becomes a little more hazy, what are you paying for? Perhaps, increased customer service, pickups more tailored to you.

But more often, it is PR-induced "magic". For example, Ron Ellis pickups are essentially unobtainable without a long wait-list. He has many celebrity clients who swear by his pickups, which increases buzz. This is a case of demand outstripping supply. I presume his pickups are great, but most of us will never have the opportunity to try them especially with a price tag of around $500-1000 per set online.

Is there a qualitative difference between Throbak humbuckers that run about $600-$700 a set vs. Lollar Imperial humbuckers that cost $360 a set? At this point the differences have to be purely subjective, in the ear of the beholder. Not having ever played a set of Throbak pickups, I would assume there is less of a difference between the Lollar and Throbaks, than between Lollar humbuckers and Epiphone humbuckers (even though the newer Epiphones have been widely praised). But again that is purely subjective conjecture.
 
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JIMMY JAZZMAN

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If $$$$ were no object, wait a minute, I'd just buy the guitar I wanted, with the pickups, I wanted.
Do most players go with stock pickups? I wonder.
 

CalebAaron666

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I always come back to TV Jones.
I’ve tried several cheaper, or “more affordable” options, and they don’t compare.
Filtertrons are his specialty, but his Tele pickups are incredible. His P90s sound great, and I’d bet green money that his “PAF” style humbuckers rock, though, I haven’t heard or tried those.
Are his pickups worth the price? To me, they are. I wish they weren’t so expensive, but once the money is spent and they’re in my guitar, I don’t think about it anymore.
 




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