Introduction: Guitar Pickups - Swapping or Replacing Humbuckers

About: I'm just a compulsive DIYer that plays guitar and tries to fix just about everything around the house and garage. Sometimes I even succeed!

Swapping out pickups is one of the easiest ways to drastically change the sound of your guitar. All of my main guitars have different pickups than the stock ones.

Why? Because the stock ones always seem lackluster or just don't sound right to me. And based on the number of aftermarket pickups available, a lot of people seem to agree.

The guitar I am using for this Instructable is a brand new Hamer Sunburst Q/T (Indonesia) that had "Duncan Designed" HB103B. These pickups are supposed to be similar to Seymour Duncan SH-6 Distortion. The guitar itself is a very nice instrument - but the sound with the stock pickups really didn't do anything for me.

After a little soul-searching, I remembered I had an ESP with the Seymour Duncan SH-1 (JB) and SH-2 (Jazz) that sounded outstanding. I would have kept the ESP except it had jumbo frets and that doesn't fit with my style of playing.

So this instructable will be a simple swap of similar humbucking pickups. No modifications to the existing wiring - no coil taps, etc.

This is a very simple job. The only real skills required are the ability to solder. But the soldering is so basic, it's probably a good project to learn on.

Step 1: Safety, Materials and Tools

Not a lot of things needed for this Instructable:

Safety:  You will be soldering some wires, so be sure to wear safety glasses while soldering - solder can "spit" and molten metal in your eye is not a good thing. 

  • Pickups

  • Padded work surface
  • Philips head screwdriver
  • Wire cutter
  • Wire stripper
  • Soldering iron, solder and soldering stand (optional)
  • Pliers or wrenches to remove potentiometer nuts

Step 2: Let's Go Inside...

The first thing you want to do is to remove the strings.  For most guitars with the tune-o-matic bridge and the stop tailpiece, you should remove those as well.  The ones on this guitar were on very snug and they stayed in place the entire time...  But always be careful, these can just as easily fall right off when you remove the strings.  No need to scratch up the surface.

Then we will open up the back and start looking at the wiring.

Step 3: The Original Pickup Wires

There will be two thicker sets of wires - each set will be sheathed in rubber, paper, wire mesh or whatever.  One thing that will be different between manufactures is the color and number of wires that come in from the pickups.  So we will look at the wire bundles and get a handle on what we will be working with.

You can cut the original wires - but do it near the pots to leave as much wire on the old pickups as possible.  I would recommend you leave a little of the old wire on the pot until you are ready to solder the new ones.  This might be a handy reference.  The pots have three soldering lugs and you don't want to put the new wire on the wrong lug.

The goal here is to understand what you already have and how it's wired..  So we seem to have 4 wires - white, red, green and black.  The white and red were connected together, the green went to the soldering lug on the pot and the black was soldered to the back of the pot.

Step 4: The New Pickup Wires

Now will we start on the new pickup wires.  These were rubber wrapped and I used a simple wire stripper to take off this outer sheath.  Just be really careful about taking off the sheath - you do not want to damage the insulation of the wires in the bundle.  You can use small manicuring scissors, wire cutters, razor blades, etc. - just don't cut the wires inside (or your fingers).

The goal is to get enough wire exposed to work with.

The new pickups will come with wiring instructions.  If you are working with used pickups, you can find wiring diagrams for them easy enough on line.

As you will note in the last picture of this step, things aren't always as they seem...

Step 5: Out With the Old, in With the New

Now the simple task of mounting the pickups.  Or so it would seem.  The screw flanges on the new pickups were a hair larger than the originals... I was able to use tin snips to trim off a little bit of each end to make things fit.

I do one pickup at a time to make sure I put the bridge pickup in the bridge position, etc.  Plus I run the wires and label them as I do each pickup.

Note on plastic trim rings:  These are made to sit in a specific place (neck or bridge) and in a specific direction (one side is slightly higher than the other).  Make sure you pay attention to how rings are orientated before you take them off!

Step 6: The New Wires - Coil Tap Wires First.

You don't have to do the coil tap wires first.  That's just the order I did things.

Refer to the new wiring instructions - The green and black on the new pickups are opposite of the originals.    That struck me as rather odd because they are both Duncans.

Step 7: The New Wires - Main Lines to the Pots

This is much easier to do on most guitars if you take the pots out first.  Again, use the solder stand to hold your work.

I de-solder the old green wire on the pot lug and then solder on the new black wire.

Then I snip the old black wire that on the back of the pot and solder on the new green a bare ground wire.

Step 8: Put Everything Back Together

Once you have all the pots soldered and re-installed, you can tuck the wires in neatly and put the back cover on.

But before you restring, I suggest you do one more reality check and verify you have the correct pickups in the correct position - I use a guitar cable and multi-meter.  Before you yell at me about using the guitar cable - just keep in mind I'm not doing critical measurements on the pickups, I'm just making sure each one is in the correct spot.

I just got this new multi-meter at Harbor Freight for $3.64.  You get what you pay for - note how far off my measurements are.  I think I'll be looking for a nicer meter.

Step 9: String It Up and Final Thoughts.

String it up with your favorite strings, set the pickup height according to the instructions... You can do it by ear also - but that can get iffy.

I personally like the open coil look of the new pickups.  The originals were chrome - but for some reason those just didn't look as nice on this guitar.  That's just my opinion - feel free to disagree :-)

And... the sound????

Outstanding!  These have similar specs as the originals, but Jeez, these things suddenly turn flaccid into Flambe'!   This set is supposedly Seymour's personal favorite - I have to agree with on that.