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What differentiates expensive pickups from cheap ones?

dreamspace

Member
Messages
963
As far as the materials go?

With other parts on the guitar - say a bridge, you know that the metal is better. The milling is better. etc.
With a guitar body, you know that a body on a $4k guitar is better than on a $400. It's been treated, probably hand selected, and there's just higher standards.
And of course, there's the labor and expertise itself - there's obviously a huge difference between someone spending 50 hours on a guitar, versus 2 hours in an assembly line.

So for the sake of discussion, let's define value as the sum of part/material cost, and sum of labor costs.

But when it comes to pickups, what are the differences in fundamental value between a $50 pickup, and a $250 pickup? I'm not sure how long it takes to wind a pickup, with assuming same tools, I can't imagine there being that much difference.

But I'm more interested in the materials.

(I guess this discussion could be had for pedals, too)
 

Stig Ø

Member
Messages
756
As far as the materials go?

With other parts on the guitar - say a bridge, you know that the metal is better. The milling is better. etc.
With a guitar body, you know that a body on a $4k guitar is better than on a $400. It's been treated, probably hand selected, and there's just higher standards.
And of course, there's the labor and expertise itself - there's obviously a huge difference between someone spending 50 hours on a guitar, versus 2 hours in an assembly line.

So for the sake of discussion, let's define value as the sum of part/material cost, and sum of labor costs.

But when it comes to pickups, what are the differences in fundamental value between a $50 pickup, and a $250 pickup? I'm not sure how long it takes to wind a pickup, with assuming same tools, I can't imagine there being that much difference.

But I'm more interested in the materials.

(I guess this discussion could be had for pedals, too)
I’ve no idea about the cost of materials, but I think its a huge mistake to disregard the work that actually went into designing the thing, along with what I assume is countless hours of experimentation to be able to fine tune everything to the extent that it is pleasing and reproducible. Reducing anything to the cost of parts is basically pointless, IMO. The cost of the chips and switches in a Strymon El Capstan is probably not that much, but the IP, design, and actually honing it to the point that it’s usable and good sounding for pros and amateurs alike, is where the real value lies.
 

dazco

Member
Messages
14,160
In some cases, only the profit margin. In some the research and development of the winder, not to mention his ears and inginuity. Some just copy proven formulas. Others research the finest details that can (tho not always) be the difference between a 8 and a 10. For example, theres at least one winder (i forget who) that has a metallurgist (?) examine the exact composition of vintage magnets to recreate the exact magnets used in certain pickups that were considered holy grails. Very few winders go to those sorta lengths, but the ones that do often produce pickups that become highly regarded like ron ellis or such. Then there are the really low end junky pickups that use the cheapest materials available and those generally go from totally useless to barely acceptable. (GFS comes to mind, at least with the ones i have tried) But among winders who use good materials and try to make the best pickups they can, the vast majority i think are in the same ballpark with those few that go the extra length often offer pickups that are above average, maybe or maybe not enough to be worth the extra $ to you.

Thats my take anyways. But one last thing, and this is definitely one mans opinion....fender pickups i feel are on par with most anything assuming you pick the right one for you and your guitar. Because i really feel that when you have far more resources and money to back up your R&D not to mention decades of experience, no matter how good small winders are that puts them at a serious disadvantage. Take fenders new cunife WRHB for example. What small winder would have the resourses to have cunife made for them? Personally, the few boutique pickups i have tried (probably a dozen or so) over the years have never ended up being a regular part of my rig like many dimarzios and fenders have. Many in fact while quite expensive i felt sounded mediocre. Can't help think there's a lot or at least some internet buzz and consequentially lemming effect going on there. There are a few tho who are unanimously regarded very highly that i have not tried.
 

Mpcoluv

Member
Messages
3,248
Some winders have bobbins, magnets and base plates made to their spec. This runs the cost to produce up quite a bit. Other s find rolls of wire actually made in the fifties, and this cost exponentially more also.
Does these special Components make a superior pickup? Your ears have to decide.
IMHO, you as a player have to determine what you are looking for. I have used import pickups, Duncan’s and DiMarzios and high end hand wounds.
Generally the imports are never special.
Duncan’s an DiMarzios are great values and can be fantastic. Boutique can be hit and miss. Especially with PAF types. PAFs varied so much as to make the term PAF useless. I have abandoned the PAF rabbit hole and gone back to Duncan’s.
 
Messages
836
Limiting to materials as per OP.

Some basic recipes are now widely known, and can be reproduced by essentially any sufficiently motivated party. The transformer wire, bobbins, polepieces, magnets, etc. are cheap and effectively standardised. There is little design required, the design happened forty, fifty, sixty years ago. If you like the sound of those recipes, the price is orthogonal, you can reliably buy that sound for $20 or $200. (A relatively recent phenomenon, say the last decade or so?)

Some people are doing new designs, or making parts themselves, or using more expensive materials, or materials formerly widespread but now near unobtainable. Clearly it costs more to deviate from standard recipes / readily available materials.
 

surfco

Member
Messages
194
HYPE.
The "best" sounding vintage instruments were made with pickups with ZERO consistency.
The player and his brain/fingers are the main tone generators.
Check out BOOTSTRAP PICKUPS. No hype, affordable prices, good quality pickups wound in the U.S.A.
 

Gclef

Member
Messages
2,518
As far as the materials go?

With other parts on the guitar - say a bridge, you know that the metal is better. The milling is better. etc.
With a guitar body, you know that a body on a $4k guitar is better than on a $400. It's been treated, probably hand selected, and there's just higher standards.
And of course, there's the labor and expertise itself - there's obviously a huge difference between someone spending 50 hours on a guitar, versus 2 hours in an assembly line.

So for the sake of discussion, let's define value as the sum of part/material cost, and sum of labor costs.

But when it comes to pickups, what are the differences in fundamental value between a $50 pickup, and a $250 pickup? I'm not sure how long it takes to wind a pickup, with assuming same tools, I can't imagine there being that much difference.

But I'm more interested in the materials.

(I guess this discussion could be had for pedals, too)
The difference is in the specs.

The price reflection is pure marketing.

Your welcome.

Seriously though, A5 is A5. A2 is A2. Wire is wire.

If the specs are the same, you are paying for the name and marketing
 

Tony Done

Member
Messages
5,935
One concrete difference is pickup covers. Brass is a tone killer, nickel silver isn't. - Look up Antigua Tele's frequency analyses in TDPRI. Apart from that, I'm very skeptical about functional differences, provided the paper specs are more or less the same.
 

dreamspace

Member
Messages
963
Thanks

Obviously, certain designs are new - so there's both R&D involved, as well as more parts (think zexcoil, fishaman fluence, etc.)

But then you have the "just-another-PAF" pickups which are basically carbon copies of something made 60 years ago, both on design and materials, probably with minor tweaks.
 

Sweetfinger

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
12,303
For old, established designs:
The big difference is labor cost, as in a USA made pickup vs. Mexico, Chinese or Korean. You can make the same pickup with the same materials to the same specs. The one made in China will cost less than the one made in the USA, even if the process is almost entirely automated.

Another is marketing/hype/cachet. You can have lil' junior winder make his third "hand wound" pickup with kit parts, that sounds completely different than his other two pickups, and he can advertise and market them for more than a Seymour Duncan, using proprietary materials and parts, wound very consistently to a high level of quality. You can have ol' Senior winder, who has been hand winding small numbers of pickups with a sensitivity to the materials, for decades, who can charge a lot, because the demand is there due to the name and goodwill they have established.
A newer winder may have consistency, a good product, but not enough of a "name", that in order to sell at volume, must price the product lower than mass produced competitors products.
It can be difficult on the face, to know which of the above scenarios you are getting. There are quality bargains to be had, and overpriced beginner creations, all on the same search results page.

The above comparisons are for fairly basic, old designs. If a pickup design is newer and/or had some extensive development involved, possibly including modern production and machining processes, custom parts and alloys, tooling and molding, that will add to the cost.
A Fender Strat pickup is literally, one of the most basic, easy designs. That is part of its beauty, and the materials cost is quite low, like a couple bucks.
If your pickup design is a dual coil humbucker with a blade and Dearmond Dynasonic coil, utilizing a molded one piece bobbin, designed to fit in a Filtertron outline with a metal surround, You'll have spent 50 thousand bucks on tooling, before making one pickup.
 

Jarick

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
8,053
Cost of materials, cost of labor, other operating expenses, profit, dealer markup, etc.

There’s good pickups at all kinds of prices. Depends on what you’re after.

personally I’m not interested in the super cheap Chinese pickups with brass base plates and crappy lead wires. I’d rather pay a few more bucks for Dimarzio or Duncan for starters.
 

gunslinger

Member
Messages
3,104
Some of the cheaper pickups aren't adjustable. Also alnico magnets are more expensive because the price of cobalt has gone up. And there's the windings. More windings may cost more money. And maybe a more uniform winding process will sound better. And all of the parts may sound better if they're machined or manufactured to optimum tolerances. I want to add though. You can sometimes get no name pickups that sound great.
 
Messages
3,670
Good winders care about their product & pups made in China are subject to the specs of cheaper materials & labor. Sound is subjective & so is your wallet. Buy what you can afford & leave the rest to the market.
 

Steadfastly

Member
Messages
2,284
HYPE.
The "best" sounding vintage instruments were made with pickups with ZERO consistency.
The player and his brain/fingers are the main tone generators.
Check out BOOTSTRAP PICKUPS. No hype, affordable prices, good quality pickups wound in the U.S.A.
Yes, HYPE. Look as most ads today. They hype how it will make you feel, not how the product works. There are lots of misleading statements, half truths and out and out lies. Add some ignorance to this and you have pretty much the whole picture. Just get a clean amp and buy some pedals or a good FX unit and stop worrying about the small stuff. Play and practice more. That's where the secret is.
 

Tone_Terrific

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
32,157
They are not all the same.
Being able to buy one made with features, esp updated design, and a tonal target, that you can trust, is worth something.
OTOH, OK to good pups exist at many price points.
Sorting the wheat from the chaff is a lifetime job.
Take your wallet with you.
 

BigDoug1053

Silver Supporting Member
Messages
3,847
I would imagine there's not a lot of difference between materials for different manufacturers for similar pickup types, eg. a PAF style humbucker, or a P90. I will qualify by saying I doubt that a blind listening test by TGP members would show that the more expensive pickups have a superior tone, or that different pickups could be correctly identified.

Because I do not have a discriminating or overly picky ear, I have adopted a "good enough, don't drive yourself crazy" approach. If I have a low end import, I will try out the GFS pickups as replacements - like I did with my Steinberger Spirit GT Pro by dropping in Dream 90s and a TrueTube. It doesn't make sense buying replacement pickups that cost more than the guitar. The GFS pickups sound great compared to the stock import Steinberger Spirit humbuckers. Here's the Spirit with the GFS pickups...

SteinbergerSpirit001.jpg

For another fancier guitar, then Seymour Duncan pickups are likely good enough as an upgrade choice. You might prefer DiMarzio and I would not argue with you. DiMarzios are "good enough," too. When I wanted to try out a Freeway Ultra 6-way toggle switch on an LP Standard DC, I had to replace the Gibson pickups with 4-conductor pickups, so I went with a Duncan JB/Jazz set.

GibsonLPStdDC-001.jpg
 




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