Guitars can have a variety of sounds, but you may find that your guitar doesn’t sound like your favorite musician’s recordings. You can try many options, including adjustments and new products that can help your electric guitar pickups work better.
Here are 14 ways to make electric guitar pickups sound better:
- Use thick or heavy strings.
- Look to replace the strings.
- Modify the gain.
- Find the right pickup height.
- Change the pickup magnets.
- Change from single to humbucker coils.
- Try potted or unpotted coils.
- Go for a low output pickup.
- Hand wind the pickup.
- Check the wiring of the guitar.
- Adjust tone on guitar.
- Use a brass pickup cover.
- Get your guitar set-up.
- Practice, practice, practice.
I’ll go over these methods and options for making your guitar pickups sound better in full detail below. Read on to find out more about how to make your guitar sound so much more unforgettable!
1. Use Thick or Heavy Strings
Pickups operate by a sensor detecting the vibration of the string. Ensuring you have the correct string will give off the best signal for the guitar’s electric pickups.
Strings come in three categories:
Heavy strings give a more substantial and deeper tone, meaning your pickups are more likely to capture the vibrations and sound waves.
However, light strings can be easier to manipulate, meaning certain playing styles benefit from lighter or thin strings over their heavier cousins. If you’re finding that the heavy strings are too hard to use, it may be worth compromising to play pieces easier even if the sound suffers.
2. Look To Replace the Strings
If you can’t remember the last time you changed your strings, it’s worth a close inspection of your current strings to see how they’re holding up. The strings are what the pickups use to generate sound, so if they’re in bad shape, your guitar will sound wrong.
Old strings will sound lifeless and dull, and the thinner strings on the guitar are likely to be in worse shape than their thicker neighbors.
A visual inspection should reveal an even coloring throughout the strings, with any rust, corrosion, or discoloration getting extra attention.
Cleaning your guitar strings is an option, but you can’t just use any cleaning products. This GHS Strings Fast Fret (available on Amazon.com) is an easy-to-use guitar string cleaner that can be applied directly to the strings of your guitar while they’re connected.
Even if your strings don’t need a clean, Fast Fret also helps lubricate the fretboard and the back of the neck, This allows your fingers to glide all over the guitar with ease.
Be sure to cover the pickups with a small piece of towel or paper to protect them from getting any cleaners or liquids in.
Use Stainless Steel Cores
Strings are made out of various metals that’ll affect the tone of the guitar sound. Stainless steel is one of the best choices as it’s balanced and gives a nice and clear, bright tone.
Stainless steel strings are also resistant to corrosion from the naturally occurring acid on your hands. The D’Addario EPS510 ProSteels Guitar Strings (available on Amazon.com) have a regular gauge that maximizes the string’s vibrations while still being flexible enough to play.
The tensile strength and design of stainless steel strings also lend them to having a long life.
Use Nickel Plated Steel Cores
If stainless steel doesn’t have the sound you like, nickel-plated steel strings will also provide a warm, balanced tone for the pickups to interact with.
Nickel-plated steel strings have more flex in them, allowing you to do bends without easily breaking the string. As nickel is a softer metal, nickel may be a better choice if you find your fingers hurt after using harder strings like the stainless steel versions.
These Fender Hendrix NPS 10-38 Guitar Strings (available on Amazon.com) are perfect for any guitar that takes bullet end strings.
3. Modify the Gain
Controlling your gain and ensuring your sound levels are compatible with your amplifier can help you get the most out of your pickups.
To control your gain without using a pedal, follow these steps:
- Turn your volume up to full-on your guitar.
- Put your amplifier to medium gain.
- Lower the guitar volume slowly to level out the output.
- Some guitars allow you to use separate controls for each pickup, and you can use these as alternatives when you want to dial back the gain in stages.
4. Find the Right Pickup Height
Pickups will output a louder sound the closer they are to the strings. However, if you’ve ever heard someone talk into a microphone when it’s too close to their mouth, you know that being closer or louder doesn’t always mean better.
Improperly placed pickups will suffer from echo, distortion, feedback, and all other kinds of issues.
Pickups function via different mechanisms, and so you must research what will work best for your particular setup.
To calibrate your pickups, you should first measure the distances by following these guidelines:
- Set your guitar down so that you’re looking at the notes in order from left to right as Low E, A, D, G, B, and E.
- Hold the Low E String down by pressing down at the highest fret.
- While holding it, measure the distance from the string’s surface to the top of the pickup directly below it.
A typical setup will involve the Low E being one-eighth of an inch (3 millimeters) above the pole, whereas the slant of the pickup will see the other end being one-sixteenth of an inch (1.5 millimeters) above.
The height will be a personal choice and will depend on how you want your guitar to sound, the style and size of pickups, and the gauge of the strings.
You can carry out some tests to determine if your pickup is in a good spot. Hold the Low E string at a high fret and strum it. A warbling or oscillating sound is likely a sign of the magnets in the pickups having interference with the string.
Back the string away by lowering the pickup position until this sound subsides.
Too low of a pickup position will change the sound and tonality of your guitar quite significantly. This isn’t always a bad thing and can help thin out the overall feel of your guitar, particularly on the bass and treble sounds.
If you’re finding your strings are creating too heavy of a tone, which is typical if you’re using heavy strings, lowering the pickups can dilute this sound.
If you have several pickups, the neck pickups will always sound louder for a given height. This is due to the strings vibrating more readily than at the bridge. Have the pairs of pickups set at different heights or control them via the controls on the guitar if available.
5. Change the Pickup Magnets
Guitar pickups use magnets to detect the frequency of the vibrating string. Other less common types use optical technology or are pressure-based (piezoelectric).
These are the two most common types of magnets:
- Alnico. Alnico magnets differ by their alloy composition, with Roman numerals used to denote the various types. Alnico II tends to be one of the weakest versions, producing a softer sound
- Ceramic. Ceramic or ferrite magnets are very magnetic despite their small size and tend to be found on pre-built guitars as ceramic magnets are cheaper to produce. Combined with the habit of heavily winding coils on the pickups, ceramic magnets in a pickup can produce heavier sounds. Sometimes referred to as high-output pickups, these are the distinctive sounds of the 1970s.
Some more expensive options include rare earth magnets such as neodymium or samarium-cobalt. These magnets are significantly more powerful, thought to suit acoustic guitars better than electric guitars. However, they help boost high-fidelity frequency responses, which the iconic Fender guitars use for some models.
6. Change From Single to Humbucker Coils
Single coils are commonly found on older guitars and can cause an annoying buzzing sound, whereas humbucker coils will reduce this sound significantly, allowing you to hear the pickups.
Up until 1955, every electric guitar had its pickups in a single-coil design. Copper wire is wrapped around a magnet, causing it to create a voltage when the guitar strings vibrate.
However, early pioneers in the electric guitar industry eventually came to adopt the technology of double coils or humbucker coils. These instead use two coils of wire to achieve opposite polarity. The reverse-phase relationship acts like a noise-canceling device.
The signature electrical humming sound you hear when a guitar is plugged in but no strings have been plucked is what humbucker coils attempt to soften.
If you want to revive the dirtier, loud tones of the single coil, it’s a relatively simple process to swap between the two.
The following guide from Fender will walk you through how to change single coils to humbucker coils which you can carry out with a moderate level of skill:
7. Try Potted or Unpotted Coils
Potting refers to covering the coils with a wax or paraffin solution.
Potted coils deal well with a high preamp gain and loud volume, whereas unpotted coils are generally much cleaner sounds with high touch sensitivity to the pickup.
Research has shown that unpotted pickups will tend to produce a bold harmonic, with long sustain times on both the tone and sound of the guitar.
Potted coils will also tend to have very weak harmonics on the lowest end of the frequency scale.
The wax coating on the coils prevents them from moving as much, with pickup manufacturers carefully measuring the amount of substance that goes in to produce the exact sounds they’re looking for.
8. Go for a Low Output Pickup
Some pickups that have been rewound or are overwound will sound great for certain styles of music or playing methods but let you down for others.
Lower output pickups are based on using weaker magnets. As these magnets affect the string’s vibrations, high output pickups will cause more muddying of the sound.
If the string can vibrate unaffected by strong magnets, this allows you to increase the sustain of the notes. Complex chords are also able to be separated so that you can hear the individual sounds.
Lower output pickups also give you room to use overdrive rather than distortion. Overdrive refers to putting your amplifier at maximum to drive up the saturation, a popular trend that you can hear on tracks spanning the 1950’s, particularly in blues and rock.
As this phenomenon relied on vacuum tubes in the amplifier, modern guitarists will use effects pedals instead to recreate this same effect.
9. Hand Wind the Pickup
The coils of copper wire inside a pickup can be hand-wound to produce an open sound, stemming from the irregular hand-winding of a pickup coil. Professionally built pickups will have carefully wound pickups that can sound too generic.
While a subtle difference, hand winding tends not to be uniform which reduces capacitance, giving a very airy, biting tone.
Hand-winding also has the great advantage of producing a one-of-a-kind tone and sound that is unique to your guitar.
10. Check the Wiring of the Guitar
The wiring and internal electronics transfer the sound from the pickups to the amplifier or other output.
Without high-quality wiring or quality components, you can expect a wide variety of poor-quality sound issues from your guitar, no matter how expensive a set of strings you use or the cost of the amplifier.
The main culprits tend to be the volume and tone knobs and the associated wiring with the pickups, capacitors, and other inputs.
You can look for replacement kits that you can easily install yourself. Try the Vbestlife Guitar Wiring Harness (available on Amazon.com) if your current wiring is ancient or looks to be in bad shape.
Connecting electronics often require soldering, but specific premade kits like the Vbestlife version only require minimal soldering of the pickups to the switch and then grounding them to the volume pot.
11. Adjust Tone on Guitar
Apart from the gain knob on a guitar, the other knob is used to finetune the tone and access an instant low-pass filter. It’s easily one of the most criminally underutilized guitar functions but can add a great dimension and sound to your guitar.
A low-pass filter will mean that any frequency values beyond the frequency cutoff point will be blocked. As the frequency is filtered, the gain is also reduced due to the shortening of the waveform.
12. Use a Brass Pickup Cover
The pickup cover is one of the essential aspects when considering the sound of your guitar. A pickup cover gives a guitar a warmer yet darker sound, reducing high-end frequencies.
Open-coil pickups instead unleash these high frequencies. However, there’s often some associated noise and humming due to the absence of the pickup covers.
Pickup covers can also prevent unwanted signals messing with your guitar, such as nearby radio waves.
Brass is one of the best materials for encouraging a bright, Jazz-style fat sound. This KAISH Brass Humbucker Guitar Pickup (available on Amazon.com) will fit on almost any guitar with matching pole spacing pickups of 1.96 inches (50 millimeters).
You can always try removing your pickup covers to see if the change in sound is what you want before investing in a different pickup cover.
If you find that the change away from a brass pickup has given you the sound you want, but you still want the protective qualities of a pickup cover, consider a silver or nickel pickup cover. These covers won’t affect sound quality when you’re playing but will still give protection.
13. Get Your Guitar Set-Up
Guitars, especially second-hand ones, are likely to have some issues with alignment, pickup height, fretboard distance, and a whole host of other problems from being carried around, banged in transit or otherwise from use.
A professional guitar technician can perform the proper measurements or “set up” a guitar and make adjustments to sound new. This is particularly effective for eliminating fretboard buzz, unnecessary vibrations, and consistent intonation along the neck.
If you notice that your guitar tends to go flat or sharp at one end of the neck but not the other, you could be affected by an intonation misalignment. This is sometimes referred to as the guitar sounding sour, commonly when the strings are too high off the neck or fretboard.
14. Practice, Practice, Practice
It’s essential to recognize that a fantastic guitar player will sound good on almost any piece of equipment. Once you’ve eliminated common issues such as fretboard buzz, the ability of your pickups to capture that perfect strum or chord will likely be more dependent on your skill.
Switching to acoustic guitar can help develop specific skills that are either less prominent or important with electric guitars.
Guitar resources are always going to try and sell you products to try and overcome any shortcomings in your playing, but this isn’t always the solution. It’s worth trying out other guitars to see if specific brands or styles fit you better.