Introduction: Replacing the Pickups in Your Guitar

About: college student now

If you're anything like me, you started out with a basic beginner's guitar, and over time you realized that you were ready for something better. I had a Squier Telecaster(standard series) and I was ready for a change. I was set on a Les Paul of some sort, possibly a used LP Standard. I read tons of reviews, then I started reading some of the Epi Les Pauls(the nicer ones, $400-500).
Long story short, I realized that I wasn't going to be able to afford even the cheaper Epi guitar of my choice, and even if I could save up the money, it would have to go towards getting a vehicle, when I turn 16 in 7 months.

After some time on Google reading articles mentioning the good things that can come out of getting rid of the stock pickups on inexpensive guitars, I was set on trying to do this myself. I had never considered it before, I always thought that the insides of guitars were something only an elite group of individuals were allowed to mess with.

I was wrong. After finishing this pickup swap, I learned a ton about my guitar without messing ANYTHING up. And now I have a great sounding guitar, too.

If you're finally becoming good at guitar, or even if you have been playing for a while and want a change, swapping out the pickups is one of the best things you can do without shelling out hundreds for a new guitar.

I think that following this tutorial is pretty simple. You should be able to swap out your pickups with minimum to no hassle, but in case you screw up, don't blame me for it. If you do mess something up, I'll do my best to help you though.

Also, this tutorial is geared towards changing the bridge pickup to a SD Little '59 on a Telecaster, but the same technique should be able to be applied to other guitars as well.

Step 1: Choosing a Pickup

Choosing a pickup is important. Why?
-They're not cheap. Expect to spend $70-130(USD) on a good pickup.
-It'll change the way your guitar sounds. Look for video reviews with good quality audio to help determine what you need. Seymour Duncan also provides audio samples for their pickups.

Make sure you like the sound before you buy it. Don't go off of text reviews alone(although you should read those too). Everyone's opinion is different.

I chose the Little '59 because I wanted a humbucker(vague, I know...), and there were good reviews on it. Also, I was pleased with the way it sounds.

I recommend you buy your pickup new, and from a place that you trust. I am getting more and more unsatisfied with Musician's Friend(everything I order is backordered...) so after being informed that my pickup was going to be in stock three weeks from when I wanted it, I canceled the order, bought the same pickup at Guitar Center(online) and it came in by the end of the week.

Also, make sure you know where the pickup is supposed to go(not just what type of guitar it is supposed to go in). Don't screw up and buy a neck pickup and try to put it in the bridge.
That is, of course, if your guitar doesn't have interchangeable pickups. Like a Tele.

Step 2: Get Your Stuff

Technically you only need your hands, soldering stuff, and a screwdriver to add or remove a pickup.

But to be safe, I used these things:
-full set of screwdrivers
-towel(to lay the guitar on- no scratches!)
-pliers and hemostats(great for holding wires)
-Exacto knife(stripping the wires and doing other handy things)
-digital caliper(see my note below)
-soldering iron and solder
-electrical tape
-digital multimeter(I did without one, but it is better to check your connections first)
-small amp and cord to test the guitar before reassembling everything.
-camera(if you're not sure that you can reassemble it correctly)
-pad of paper to record connections and important stuff(don't skip this)
-new strings(you don't want to put the old strings back on, now do you?)

Also, if you have one on hand, I would also use a string winder to wind your strings. I made one out of wood before I started the project, it took me 15 minutes, and now I can replace strings in 10 minutes.

I think that's it, but I also had on hand a small steel rule, tweezers, and some other small things.

Calipers- I use the one I got from Home Depot a LOT. For this, you could use it to record the distance between the bridge block things and the end of the bridge, that way when you reassemble the guitar you don't have to reset the intonation. Doesn't have to be digital, but the digital ones are fun to use...

Step 3: Other Things to Consider

While I had my strings off, I went ahead and:
-Polished the frets(now they're like mirrors)
-Oiled the fretboard(some say don't do this...some say its ok. I did, and it really cleaned it up, and I haven't had a problem with it yet)
-Cleaned gunk from the fretboard
-Penciled in some graphite in the neck

Polishing the frets is a whole instructable by itself, but I definitely recommend that you do it at least once a year. It makes the guitar look nice, and it gets some of the oxides off the frets(not sure if it really helps anything, but it sounds helpful, right?). Also, the tape pulls out some of the junk in the open pores of the wood(if your fretboard is rosewood).

Oiling the fretboard is controversial. Some say it will ruin a fretboard, some say it's good for the fretboard. I went ahead and did it, and I haven't had a problem, it feels clean and smooth, and smells good on top of that. Just do a few frets at a time and use VERY little at a time. Wipe it off good when you finish.

Clean the gunk from your cells, dirt...grime...everything accumulates. Clean it. Clean it good.

Even if you're not having trouble with the strings staying in tune, while you have the strings off go ahead and use a pencil and "write" in some graphite to the nut. You'll have to have a sharp pencil to really get the grooves good, though.

Before you call it quits:
-Clean the entire guitar.
-Adjust intonation if needed(tutorials are all over the internet, google is your friend)
-Adjust action(single best thing I did to my guitar is lowering the action)
-Replace any problem components

Clean the guitar when you finish. It'll make it look even better with that fancy new pickup.

Adjust the intonation when you finish, for this you'll need a good tuner.

Adjust the action. This is the string height from the fretboard. You should be somewhere in the area where it feels right when you play, but you aren't getting a large amount of fret buzz.

Replace components. From plugging in and unplugging my guitar so much, the stock input jack lost its grab. So I had an extra Radioshack one lying around, and I soldered it in. Now all my cords are held tight. I also had a problem(common with Teles as I understand it) with my input jack "cup" coming out with wires and all. Once you take a look at how it's held in there, it's an easy fix.
If you have any bad pots you can clean them or just buy new ones.
Same with the switch.

A while back I also made my own straplocks, now would be the time to put some on(just a washer is usually fine, between the screw head and the peg).
Make sure you aren't losing too much length off the screw, if you are, find a longer one. Don't overtighten, you don't want to strip out the wood hole.

Step 4: Getting Started and Tips

Get your stuff together.
Did you lay down a towel? Do that. You don't want scratches on the back of your guitar.
Organize your stuff. Lay it out so everything is aligned. If you don't have OCD, find someone that does.

The reason for the organization is simple. You're working with a guitar that cost a lot of money. Mine was $250, not excessive but still something I don't want to trash. And your pickup cost $70+, a lot of money for most of us. You don't want to screw anything up.

Can you see? You also want as much light as you can get.

Are your hands clean? Clean them, grease isn't something that's desirable on guitars(except in peculiar fetishes in villages of faraway lands I suppose)

Heat up your soldering iron. You should also have some paper or similar to lay on the guitar while you're soldering.

-Write down things you think you don't need to write down. If you need those things later for unpredictable reasons, you'll be glad.
-Print out a standard wiring diagram for your guitar. If you are confused, you can use that to go back to stock.
-Study the wiring diagram before doing any soldering.
-Keep the towel free of wire clippings and clipped strings. When you move your guitar around, they'll put gouges in the back of it.
-Go slow and study how the guitar goes together as you take it apart. Take pictures in case you forget how something goes. Like which direction springs are facing(if they're conical). Little things like that.
-When you take screws out, lay them in the configuration that they were in before you took them out(second picture). Sure, they're all the same, but if you forget where they go that will help.
-When stripping the pickup's main wire to get at the ones on the inside, remember that you don't want to strip more than you have to; it's shielded wire, and it needs to stay that way.
-Put on some good music! If anything it's an inspiration to finish the project so that YOU can make music!
My preference is Zeppelin, but to each his own , right? If only they made Burstbuckers in single coil size. (FYI, my pickup is supposed to model a '59 PAF humbucker found on Les Pauls and the like at that time)

Ready? Next step!

Step 5: Remove the Strings

In order to remove the strings without scratching the guitar, you should pull one string through the body at a time.

Also, some people advise against taking all the strings off the guitar at a time, instead of taking off and replacing one string at a time. This keeps the tension of the neck constant.
That being said, you have to take all the strings off to change the pickup. If you're worried about neck tension, take them all off over the course of 15 minutes of so, that might help. Minimize the time that the strings are all off at once.

For me, I take all the strings off at once when I change strings. It lets me clean and oil the fretboard and do all those kinds of things I can't do if I only take one string off at a time.
I haven't had any problems.

So the basic procedeure is to loosen the tuning machines until you can unwrap the strings. A peg winder comes in handy(see the one I made in the pictures).
Remember to watch out for the tip of the wire, they're sharp and can poke you(or scratch the guitar).
If you're removing the strings from a Gibson style neck, remember to keep the sides balanced(don't have the E, A, and D strings on while the other three are off.)
When pulling the strings through the neck(if that's how your guitar is made) pull them through one at a time so that you don't accidentally scratch something.

Step 6: Unscrew Control Panel

This varies widely guitar to guitar, but on mine it comes off with two small screws on either end of the plate.
When you take it off, be gentle and don't force it. If it doesn't want to come off it might be because you're pulling on a wire.

Lay it right next to the cavity so that you can see the wires clearly.

Find the pickup wires. If you are working on a single coil one like this, you should have two wires per pickup. Somewhere in there you should also have a ground for the bridge plate. Mine was a separate black wire that came through the same hole that the pickup wires did.

Step 7: Remove Bridge Screws and Pickup Screws

On my guitar, the bridge plate is held on by five screws. Three on the back of the plate, two towards the neck on the front. You may need to remove the intonation block things.One or all. If you decide to take any off, use your calipers and measure from the front of them to the back of the bridge plate, so that you don't lose your intonation. Mark each saddle like in the picture.

Remove the screws for the bridge. Depending on the guitar, you may or may not need to remove the bridge plate in order to change the pickup.

Next, loosen the pickup screws. On mine there are three. DO IT EVENLY. Don't get the pickup in a bind. No more than a full turn per screw. Work clockwise around the pickup if it helps you get it straight in your head.

You should be careful with everything once you get it loose. Pick up the bridge plate and set it aside. DON'T LOSE THE SPRINGS OR SCREWS!

If you are removing a single coil like I am, you will see two wires coming from the pickup. Follow these to the control panel. Write down exactly where they were soldered. Desolder them.

Step 8: Putting in the New Pickup

Now that you have the bridge plate off, go ahead and put the pickup in. Watch out for the pickup, the magnets in it are strong.

For my pickup, I put the screws it came with into the bridge plate and slipped the rubber tubing isolator things over them. I then put the pickup in place, used a screwdriver to thread it into the holes in the pickup, and that's it.
Make sure you use the screws the pickup came with(if it came with screws).

Make sure you tighten the pickup screws evenly, just like when you took the stock one off. After investing in a new pickup, you don't want to mess up the threads.

Run the new pickup wires through the hole to the control panel.

Put the bridge back on with the screws you took off.

Step 9: Wiring Part One (preparation)

Start out by turning on the soldering iron. Get it hot so that you don't have to wait on it later.

Use the exacto knife to trim away part of the black insulation covering the internal bundle of wires. Your pickup might not have that.

Only do an inch or so, then read the wiring diagram to see how you have to wire it.

In my case, I had to wire three of the wires to the control panel. I guessed how much wire I would need, then I stripped that much of the outside insulation off the wire bundle.

Next, I stripped about a half inch of the insulation off each individual wire.

That's it for part one. Read over wiring diagrams and make sure you know where and why the wires go where they do.

Step 10: Wiring Part Two(Finding Out What to Solder)

Do you know where the wires should go? Find out if you don't know for sure.

Tin the pickup wires and add solder (if needed) to the parts that are going to be soldered. You need a good connection.

I had a problem with my wiring diagram. I think it might be because my guitar isn't a real Fender, and the wiring is different. I looked at the wiring diagram for the "Standard Tele" and it didn't match what I had.

So that was a problem. Instead of worrying about it, I settled on just wiring the new wires up like I had the old pickup.

If you are in doubt, just go with something that was close to what worked before.
You probably won't ruin the pickup if you don't get it right the first time.

Step 11: Wiring Part Three(Soldering)

This part is pretty much unique to the pickup and guitar.
Just solder the wires where they need to go. Make sure the connection is good by tugging on the wires. If you can't solder, there's a million instructables on doing it.
DRAW! Draw a picture of your wires and where they need to go. It really helps to get it straight in your head.

For my pickup, I had five wires:
Bare: Gets soldered onto the back of the volume pickup with the green wire. My guitar originally had the yellow wire on the tone pot, so that's where I put it.
Green: See above, it also went to the tone pot.
White: Gets wired and soldered to the red wire.
Red: Wired and soldered to the white wire.
Black: Goes to the pickup selector switch. My pickup selector didn't look like the one in the directions, and I wasn't sure what tabs on the switch went to what, so I just put it where the original black pickup wire was.

Make sure you tape up the red and white wires. Heatshrink if you have it. Impress the next guy to open your guitar.

Don't let the heat sit too long on the pots. It can't be good for them.

Now that everything is soldered securely, it's time to test it.

Step 12: Testing With Two Strings

This part can get pretty annoying if you don't have something right.

Put on two strings, say, the B string and the D string. Or G and A.
If you took off the 6 saddle things, you need to put those back on. The intonation isn't a big deal. Just put it on.

Thread the OLD strings through the body(if yours works like that). You only need two, and it's just to test it, so it's OK. The ends will be twisted, so getting it through body could be a challenge. Use a thin brass wire and pull the strings through.

Tighten them up, get them in tune(or close). Doesn't have to be perfect, it's just for a test.

Plug your guitar into that little practice amp you have and pluck the strings. Hear sound? No? Turn the volume on your guitar up. Same with tone. Now run both pots up and down while plucking to make sure they both still work like they should.
If your guitar has more than those two knobs, just deal with that like you should.

Change pickups and make sure the others still work.

Good? Congratulations. Restring the guitar. New strings please.
Wait! Do you remember step 3? Read that. Did you oil the fretboard? Clean it? Polish frets? You're doing all this work, so you might as well do some more while you're at it.

Step 13: Problems, Problems, Problems

I'm glad I tested it with only one string to take off.

I strung it up and the string was laying right on top of the pickup! And that was with the rubber part just snug. If I lowered it anymore the pickup would have been loose.

So I pulled the bridge plate off again, took the rubber POS-SOB's off of there(lol) and stuck the original springs back on. Good deal.

Don't forget to set the pickup height to whatever is recommended by the manufacturer.

ALSO, there is a HUGE difference between the neck pickup and the bridge. The neck pickup is so weak compared to the bridge one that you pretty much have to keep it on one or the other; switching requires you to change the volume of your amp in order to compensate.
Try to change out the neck pickup to a hotter one if you can afford it.

Step 14: Tune Up!

Tune it and PLAY!

You know you've been waiting for this moment ever since you bought that pickup.

Was it worth it?
If you actually did replace your pickup, I want to know how it went. Tell me in the comments, please.

Step 15: Oh No! Not Feedback!

Yes, feedback. And not the good kind, either. Microphonic feedback.

I turned mine on and it played fine. Then I put on distortion. All you hear when I'm not hitting the strings is a whine just like a microphone when it feeds back.

Crap. How do I fix that? I think it had to do with me changing back to springs instead of the rubber things. Its Seymour Duncan's fault, the rubber things weren't long enough. But I bet that's the problem. I'll fix it when I get my new strings in.

If yours has a problem like that, check how it's connected. Switching to rubber tubing might help.

Step 16: Conclusion

It's a good pickup, the clean channel could be better but I'm not complaining. It sounds great with some dirt. Very...Led Zeppelinish with some twang I guess. In my opinion, of course.

I need to fix the microphonic feedback problem, it's a big deal. And getting further away from the amp doesn't help much at all.

I'd recommend it if you want a new sound out of your Tele.

It was worth the work, in fact I think the work was half the fun. As usual.

Step 17: Audio and Video Samples

I don't have time to upload any samples now, but I will this weekend.

Art of Sound Contest

Participated in the
Art of Sound Contest