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What differentiates expensive pickups from cheap ones?

Timtam

Member
Messages
2,168
Until we insist on full pickup specifications from manufacturers (like from microphone and speaker manufacturers), and educate ourselves as to what those numbers mean to our ears, we'll never be able to answer this question reliably. At the moment it's largely enthusiastic amatuers analysing both cheap and expensive pickups and finding where the (limited) differences exist between similar design types.

As others have said, the components are relatively cheap and readily available, the skill minimal, and the recipes widely known (layout, construction, magnet size/type/strength/position, wire type/gauge, wind count, potting, DCR, and the resulting inductance, resonant peak, etc). Basically anyone with a few hundred dollars startup money can set themselves up as pickup maker. Certainly some makers cut costs on some materials that have a (negative) sonic consequence, but there are some that don't and still produce cheap pickups that are similar in spec to those costing many times more. Some understand the physics deeply and some don't (fortunately or unfortunately you can make pickups without that knowledge).

The most difficult element to quantify is 'mojo'. Does it matter to you if your expensive guitar has $200 US-made pickups or sonically identical (in blinded tests) $30 Chinese made ones ? The big manufacturers would like you to think that the latter don't exist. But they do (although finding them takes a bit of work).
 

Surfreak

Member
Messages
2,142
Generalizing a little, I group pickups into three main buckets:

- cheap mass-produced pickups, typically made in China with low cost parts like generic ceramic magnets etc., which usually cost less than $50.

- production pickups by major brands, like DiMarzio, Fender, Gibson, Seymour Duncan etc.
These are quality pickups, made with quality materials, with serious R&D behind, that are relatively affordable as they fall in the $75 - $150 range.

- “boutique” pickups made by small specialized companies or individual winders. Typically these cost $150 and up.
In my experience, having tried a few of these, mainly PAF recreations, in the past, I simply cannot find the value in the price.
The materials are not more expensive, the R&D behind cannot compete with the firepower, collective expertise and longevity of the big names, and I am not willing to pay to cover the high overheads of a small business.

A “boutique” pickup makes sense to me only if it offers features which are not available through major brands, say, gold foil pickups, lipstick single coils, hex pickups etc.
 

Pewtershmit

Member
Messages
685
interesting thoughts. I would be inclined to say such a simple thing with minimal parts wouldn’t need to be expensive, but since it’s such a simple thing, even seemingly insignificant differences change things drastically. Like when they start to look at what kind of plastic its made of, or the exact type of paper to use. Wild.

Ive been a dimarzio only guy for long time. Not necessarily because of the tones (though I’ve never been let down), but because once I was in the ”eco system” it was easier to make decisions based on their benchmarks. Like if you want a PAF Pro with more mids it’s a Fred, etc.
 

Ron Kirn

Platinum Supporting Member
Messages
6,813
"What differentiates expensive pickups from cheap ones?"

Money... that's it... there are plenty of guys around that love the sound of some very inexpensive pickups.. and plenty around that hate the sound of some very costly pickups...

It's not how much ya spend.. it's how much ya like what you're hearing...

r
 

David Garner

Platinum Supporting Member
Messages
5,848
I presently have 3 sets of pickups from the Duncan Custom Shop in my 3 main guitars. So "expensive" and at least arguably boutique. 2 are the same set (Custom Shop Pearly Gates). The reason I use those particular sets is they give me something not found in the wild. Yes, I can get the regular Pearly Gates set. They are wound slightly different, but I probably could work to set them up exactly the way I like them and tell very little difference. The Custom Shop set is unpotted. I could order the regular version unpotted as a shop floor custom for a little more money, but still less than the Custom Shop set. The Custom Shop set has nicely aged covers. That adds expense if I want to replicate that (and I do). So between the shop floor custom fee and buying aged covers, I'm above retail as it is.

The Custom Shop set has double creme bobbins. You aren't getting that as a shop floor custom. That was only a factor on one of my two guitars, but it was something I was willing to pay for and I'm glad I did even though I have them covered right now. They look great with the covers off.



Of course, they look great with them on, too.......



What's that look worth? I guess it depends on the buyer. It was worth about $90 for the set for me, along with not being potted. So figure, what, $70 or $80 for the set?

The other set I have is the Psychedelic Strat Set, and here I could have just gone with the Fender 69s. Problem was, I couldn't find a set of 69s used, and these popped up for not much more than a new set of 69s, so I sprung for them based on my absolute and utter satisfaction with the other pickups I had at the time that were wound by MJ. I knew I was getting a great set. I was not disappointed. In fact, in many ways, they still amaze me. So you can get the 69s if you prefer, and versus the new price I probably would, but I found these used for a great price and decided to try them out. Seymour Duncan does not make a regular line equivalent of these -- you can only get them in the Custom Shop. There are no cosmetic factors at play here -- I have the covers that came on my original EJ pickups on these right now.

So the reality is you can get pickups a lot cheaper that will do the same job. They aren't going to sound exactly the same, but they may sound better to some people. I had a JB/59 set in one of my LPs until I got the 2nd set of Pearly Gates. They sounded great too, just not quite what I was after. I thought about putting a set of Seth Lovers in there, but I knew I loved the Pearlies, so I sprung for a 2nd set. For me, buying them in the order I did (CS Pearlies for the aging and double creme look in an unpotted PAF type pickup, then the Psychedelic set because I got them used at a good price when I couldn't find 69s used, then the 2nd set of CS Pearlies because they were a known commodity), this was far and away the best way to go. I'm happy with them. I have tried a whole lot of other pickups I was not happy with, and some I was happy with that just didn't quite get me where I wanted to go. Flipping pickups is expensive too.
 
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Messages
3,927
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...

View attachment 303480

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.

View attachment 303482
That’s also how I approach it with one exception, my Wildkat, which has one-off hand-wound pickups that Tim—Buddha Pickups—did for me. The stock Wildkat/Casino P90s we’re absurdly hot and are odd dimensions, so regular dog ears aren’t ideal.

And I’ve now used Duncan and DiMarzio, and been very pleased every time.
 

TL;DR

Member
Messages
1,397
I’m not sure. The difference in price between “cheap” and “good” is around $40. The difference in price between “good” and “boutique” is around $70 (talking humbuckers). In the scheme of things, that’s not enough difference for a durable piece of gear for me to not use at least “good” pickups. Would I pay $500 for a humbucker? Prolly not. But that’s just my finances talking
 

Paul Conway

Member
Messages
5,026
Find it interesting that Duke Robillard liked the ceramic stock pickups in modern strats back in the 80's/90's...tool for the job...

I have a set of Zexcoils that are exactly what I wanted in terms of noiseless pickups, but for 'noisy' pickups I'd be entirely happy with Dimarzio or similar.

Still, am entirely comfortable with wealthy folks supporting pickup makers by buying expensive pickups.
 

Ron Kirn

Platinum Supporting Member
Messages
6,813
remember all you have to gauge one against the other by is sound... that is entirely subjective... there is NO better sounding pickup.. there are only the pickups one prefers over others... IF there did exist a universally better sounding pickup, you would find them on more professional's guitars by far, but NoOOOooOOo, despite the level of the professional, you will still find an eclectic collection of different brand pickups used by them.

r
 
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David Garner

Platinum Supporting Member
Messages
5,848
Find it interesting that Duke Robillard liked the ceramic stock pickups in modern strats back in the 80's/90's...tool for the job...

I have a set of Zexcoils that are exactly what I wanted in terms of noiseless pickups, but for 'noisy' pickups I'd be entirely happy with Dimarzio or similar.

Still, am entirely comfortable with wealthy folks supporting pickup makers by buying expensive pickups.
For the record, I'm pretty far from "wealthy."
 

MikeMcK

Gold Supporting Member
Messages
4,939
The actual material cost in pickups is way less than you'd think, on the order of a couple of bucks. At one time, if you suspected a pickup problem and sent your guitar back to Gibson for the repair, the first step was to throw out the pickup and put a new one in. It sounds wasteful but was actually cheaper than having employees spend time to debug the problem.
 

Ron Kirn

Platinum Supporting Member
Messages
6,813
The actual material cost in pickups is way less than you'd think, on the order of a couple of bucks.
This is the substance of a conversation a few other makers and guitarists and I had with Bill Lawrence a few years before his passing.. he had just debuted the MicroCoils at the Summer NAAM in '09, and had made a passing comment regarding his frustration with the less than stellar sales of his pickups except within the genera of Session musicians..

I believe it was Arlo West that suggested the problem was perception of "getting what ya pay for".. Despite the fact that his pups were stunning when compared against most, the low cost suggested they were “less than” some others costing twice as much..

Bill Mentioned he, in good conscience could not charge 80, 90 bux a pup when the cost of the materials when purchased in the volume necessary to keep a larger maker supplied was literally pennies a pickup.. Becky, today, continues that tradition.

He was somewhat perturbed that a maker, of one of the costliest available was charging 150 bux a shot for a design Bill created in the 70’s and gave the maker who’s name the pickups wore, his permission to use that design, particularly when it was Bill that had trained him when he worked for him.

That guy is still selling them today for 150 a pop. Bill said he knew exactly what they cost and the price being asked was criminal. Becky today has Bill's originals available for under 70 bux..

I just checked MoJotone, the “Stuff” necessary to make one Tele Bridge pup would cost the amateur about 22 bux… if you’re buying around 10 sets… buy a few hundred and that 22 bux becomes a few dollars for the professional. (this is assuming ya already have a drill converted into a winder, and figured out how to use kitchen utensils to pot the thing without screwing "her domain" too badly) :p )

Guys. $$$ does Not necessarily equal superior anything over $. All ya gotta do is roll back a few decades and listen to the greats and know they were playing on the stock pickups available to everyone of the day… a few decades before that the they were banging out hit after hit on whatever the guitars of the day were supplied with. Those pickups were basically off the shelf magnets stuck through cardboard bobbins with whatever the finest wire available could be found.. nothing too esoteric.

It is NOT the gear, it will NEVER BE the gear, it will forever be 100% what YOU can do with the gear at hand



Rock on..



R
 

johnny q

Member
Messages
1,073
This is a great question. Like many of you, I have the more expensive Boutique pickups in some of my guitars and the mass produced stuff in other guitars. I have wondered the same - is the higher price tag worth it?

Like anything hand made i.e. not mass produced, you are going to pay a higher price - that's a fact of life. The idea is you are getting something that is hand made, crafted better and supposedly sounds better. That last comment is highly subjective, but many claim the boutique designs offer better clarity, double tones, harmonic swirl etc. So in those instances, when I can actually hear that (or THOUGHT I heard it) I was more than happy to shell out the extra bucks. Typically, $100 more than the off the shelf stuff. Any more than that is highway robbery - sorry. $500 and beyond for PAF style pickups? Give me a break. I don't care who's machine you wound them on.

Now with all that said, I watched some YouTube videos yesterday so I could compare the Fender Pure Vintage 59s ($140) against a famous boutique winders "59s" ($240) and they sounded damn near the same. So when it comes time to spring for new Strat pickups, I am saving myself $100.
 

BEACHBUM

Member
Messages
3,059
These days? Other than pick ups and hardware not all that much difference at all. They're all made on computer controlled CNC machines and the notion of wood species effecting the tone of a solid body guitar is nothing more than a matter of marketing hype, wishful thinking and outright cork sniffery.
 
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singlecutarmy

Member
Messages
1,539
What others have said, you pay a lot to be able to purchase a pickup you can trust will sound exactly like all the demos and the ones used by pros on stage when you buy the same name from the same builder.

You can get that exact same pickup from another brand for less but you won't really know if it's the same or sounds alike without an A/B test.

One of the best sounding pickups I've had was a hot A5 off a Korean BC Rich Mk5 mockingbird. I replaced a bareknuckle with it. Whatever sauce went into making that pickup just worked.

The ceramic bridge humbucker in my old MIM HSS strat was fantastic as well.

But when I'm ordering a new pickup, if I want to be able to really KNOW what I'm buying, I need to go with a brand that has extensive demos available online or a noteworth customer service experience where I can ask questions and get competent answers on which pickup will sound like what I want, and that all comes with a premium.
 




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