One question that always comes up with students and advanced players I know is, “is a good idea to install better quality (or more expensive) pickups in my cheap guitar?” My answer is a resounding YES! ...with just a few exceptions.
Cheaper entry-level guitars are a full working package for less money. Nearly everything is reduced in quality. You might not see it in the finish or even feel it right away in how it plays, but an experienced ear always hears the difference between poor and better pickups. Cheaper electric guitars always have cheap pickups. They work - clean tone or dirty - but they lack the finesse and refinement of better pickups. Cheaper pickups don't have the warmth and sweet tones of better pickups. They often sound 'tinny' or metallic, and just lack the depth and full frequency sweetness with overtones that better premium guitar pickups are bound to have (or wound to have, haha). It's really noticeable with overdrive and distortion! So let's unpack why it's a great idea to upgrade and when not to.
Brand new high-end pickups really aren't that expensive when you consider what you're getting. This is why it usually makes sense to upgrade. Nearly all of the sound of an electric guitar comes from the pickup. Some say that tonewood affects the sound, and this is a separate debate for a different day, but we can all agree that tonewood affects the sound much more on an acoustic than an electric guitar. Impact on electric guitar tone is possible, but without question it's much less of an impact as an acoustic derives all of its tone from wood. So the pickup in your electric guitar is by far what shapes the tone. I have personally worked as a guitar tech on hundreds of guitars, and done many pickup installations. I can absolutely attest that a better pickup drastically improves the sound of any electric guitar, even a cheap one. That's why I recommend it.
Cost of Upgrading Guitar Pickups
Better pickups start at around $79, and some of these are considered favorites in the guitar world. For example, the Seymour Duncan JB is one of the most versatile pickups in the world and often mounted in the bridge position. It's great for clean tone, distortion, rock, pop, metal, country – you name it. Yet to buy a guitar with a Duncan JB already installed you're usually over $500-600 price-point. This is because of higher quality in the guitar as a whole. The labor installation really isn't that expensive to switch your pickups. If you're just swapping out the bridge pickup, it's less than one hour's labor and most guitar shops will do this for $50-75. If you're handy with any electronics or soldering experience, you might carefully do it yourself. There's plenty of YouTube how-to videos.
So does installing a Duncan JB in a $200 Strat or Ibanez RG make it sound like a $600 guitar? In my opinion, it absolutely does, and I've personally done it. The sound is warm and complex, and in my view unaffected by the cheaper tonewood of these guitars. Some other candidates are Jackson Dinky and Soloist, there are many cheap versions of these guitar that are going to sound great with upgraded pickups, I put a Duncan Designed pickup into one of these guitars and even that was a large upgrade. There are many other pickup choices, excellent units from DiMarzio and EMG also (you'll pay more for EMG, especially their active pickups which require batteries and more of a complicated install but they sound amazing).
How about making that cheap Fender Squire sound like an expensive American Strat? Again, the answer is yes with better Fender pickups. Another cool option is the Seymour Duncan Hot Rails and Cool Rails which give you a variety of options of popular humbucking pickups that fit right into the Stratocaster singlecoil slot. Some people keep the singlecoil in the neck and middle position and only mod the bridge position with a Hot Rails for a modern rockin' humbucker sound without having to modify the guitar body.
Lastly how can we leave out Les Paul? You can buy premium Burstbucker or Burstbucker Pro pickups from Gibson and drop them in your Epiphone. Seymour Duncan also has an entire line of upgrade options including nickel and gold finishes to mod our your Epiphone or Gibson to retain the stock look but upgrade the sound. It's a great way to make your cheaper guitar pro-level sound without the USA Les Paul price tag.
When You Shouldn't Upgrade Your Pickups
If your guitar has mechanical issues, electronics problems, body or neck cracks, fret problems, or a warped neck, it may not be a good idea to upgrade your pickups. These issues take away from resale value, and could get worse to the point the guitar becomes unplayable or just plain junk. Fixing these issues is often costly and dumping money into a guitar that already has problems might not be worth it (if you have a guitar you love but has longterm cracks that are stable and doesn't affect playability, an upgrade might make sense for you. Just realize a cracked guitar has little resale value).
The other scenario is how well your inexpensive guitar plays now. Does it feel good? Is it comfortable to hold sitting and standing, and is the neck and fretwork good? If you answered NO to any of these questions, maybe this isn't the guitar to be upgrading because it isn't going to feel any better. Playability is everything! These again are issues that can't be easily fixed, so upgrading this guitar is probably not worth it. There are many cheap guitars under $200 that feel and play great. It would be better to get one of these (even used) and then mod it out with a new pickup for $80, and you'll sound like you're playing a $600 new guitar.
So that wraps this one up, I'm a big fan of getting better pickups. And speaking of pickups, please consider picking up one of our amazing Player's Kits guitar polish set. We take guitar polishing and scratch removal to a whole new level. Thanks for reading! Jason - GSR Staff