Guitar pickups are a vital part of any electric guitar; without them, the vibration from the strings can’t be transformed into an electrical signal and transported to the amplifier. In essence, without a pickup, your electric guitar won’t work. So, if you are experiencing technical difficulties such as hum, buzz, or even no sound, you might wonder how to check if your pickup is working.
The easiest and most accurate way to check whether your guitar pickup works is to test it with a multimeter. Multimeters can read the resistance your pickup is giving out, indicating whether the pickup is faulty or in good working condition.
It can be frustrating when you want to jam and your guitar has pickup issues—but there are several ways to determine the cause of the problem. This article will discuss the different ways to test if your pickup is working and share some handy information on pickups, so if you are experiencing some issues with your pickup, please read on!
1. Test Your Installed Guitar Pickup With a Multimeter
Multimeters are handy tools. They are affordable and can be used to test an array of different electronics, not just your guitar pickup. When using a multimeter, you can accurately read your pickup’s resistance.
Multimeters are also widely available, so if you don’t already have one, you can run to your local electrical shop or even purchase one online.
This process might sound complicated if you have never used a multimeter before, but let me assure you, they are super easy to use. Once you get the hang of it, testing your pickup will be easy and fast.
What Is Guitar Pickup Resistance?
The resistance of a guitar pickup is a measure of the electrical current that runs through the wire coils.
The more copper wire wound around the magnets—the higher the resistance. The wire is not the only factor that comes into play; the material of the pickup magnet also plays a big part in determining your pickup’s resistance.
To check if your pickup is working, you want to see if the electricity is moving from the hot wire to the ground wire.
How To Test a Pickup Using a Multimeter
Whether the tone of your guitar sounds off or your guitar has suddenly stopped working, testing your pickup with a multimeter will give you a clear indication of its health.
If the pickup you want to test is on your guitar, you can test it from the guitar’s output jack.
Follow these steps to test your pickup with a multimeter:
- Set the multimeter to 20K ohm – Ω. You will have this option, so turn the dial.
- Plug your amp cable into your guitar, but do not plug it into your amp. It would be best to locate the cable’s free end to test the resistance.
- Turn the tone and volume on your guitar to the highest possible setting. If you have mistakenly turned the volume setting down, the test will not give accurate results.
- Select the pickup you want to test if you have more than one pickup on your guitar. You should test both or all three pickups on your guitar.
- Connect the multimeter probes to the cable you plugged into your guitar. One multimeter probe goes on the cable’s sleeve—the other on the cable’s tip.
- The multimeter will give you a reading. This measurement is your pickup’s resistance.
When measuring resistance, ensure you select the correct range on your multimeter. The usual range is 20K ohm, but you get a wide variety of different multimeters, so check your manual to ensure the correct range is for the multimeter you have. If you select the wrong range, you will get an incorrect reading.
Suppose you don’t own a multimeter but would like to invest in one. In that case, you can get this AstroAI Multimeter and Ohm Volt Amp Tester (available on Amazon.com).
It is a high-speed digital multimeter with a built-in backlight LCD. This multimeter is easy to use and will help you accurately determine your pickup’s resistance. It is also super safe as it has a double ceramic fuse which protects it from overloading, and the silicone cover protects against electric shock.
You can also use an analog multimeter or, as some people know it, a needle meter. Analog multimeters work perfectly to test your guitar pickup’s resistance but remember to always set it to zero before using it, or you will not get an accurate reading.
You can get this super cool Gardner Bender GMT-319 Multimeter Tester (available on Amazon.com) to ensure your pickup’s resistance is in the correct range. The Gardner Bender offers replaceable test leads for your convenience, a color-coded analog display, so it is easy to read, and a manual range selection. With fuse overload protection circuitry incorporated, you can feel safe while using it and be sure to get a correct resistance reading.
2. Test Your Uninstalled Pickup From the Lead Wires
If you bought a new pickup or have one lying around, you can test it from the lead wires without installing it on your guitar.
You will use a multimeter, but instead of attaching it to your guitar cable, you will test the pickup directly. The concept remains the same, but you will connect the multimeter’s probes to different wires.
Testing an uninstalled pickup with a multimeter is easy and will give you a good indicator of the pickup’s health. The reading will likely be more accurate than testing an already installed pickup, as there will be no interference.
How to test non-splittable humbuckers and single-coil pickups:
- Set your multimeter to ohm Ω.
- Attach the red probe to one wire and the black probe to the other wire.
Testing a 4-conductor humbucker with five wires:
- Set your multimeter to ohm Ω.
- Connect the white and red wires. You can use a connector and electrical tape so that the connection is not permanent like it would be if soldered together.
- Connect the green and bare wires.
- Connect the multimeter’s black probe to the white and red wire.
- Connect the multimeter’s red probe to the green and bare wire.
Your pickup is healthy if the resistance reading is in the correct range. If the reading shows a problem, you can test each coil separately to figure out where the problem is.
To do this, you will keep your multimeter on the ohm setting and separately test the fixed-lug north and adjustable south coils. The resistance of each pickup coil should be half of the pickup’s desired resistance.
What Your Resistance Reading Means
So, now you have tested your pickup and have a reading, what does that mean?
The resistance of pickups varies from make and model, so it is best to run a search for your specific pickup to see what its desired resistance range is. The resistance can range anywhere from 3K to 40K. However, 3k is extremely low, and 40K is extremely high and rare.
If you have a pickup with very high resistance, it will most likely produce a louder and warmer sound. Humbuckers usually have a much higher resistance than other pickups.
Below you can see the general resistance range of some of the most popular pickups:
- Fender Stratocaster – 6K
- Seymour Duncan CS Psychedelic Strat – 5.85K
- Gibson P.A.F Humbucker – 8.4K
- Bare Knuckle The Sinner Single Coil – 21.5K
- Fender Telecaster Lead – 6.4K
- Seymour Duncan Antiquity P90 – 7.8K
- Gibson Melody Maker – 7.4K
- Fender Precision Bass – 10.6K
- Seymour Duncan Hot P90 – 15K
- Gibson P-90 – 8.6K
- Fender Broadcaster Lead – 7.6K
- Seymour Duncan Jupiter Rails – 8.02K
- Gibson Mini Humbucker – 6.8K
So, now you have tested your pickup and have a reading—what does that mean?
- If the multimeter displays 0. L indicates there is a problem with the wiring. One of the wires in your pickup might be bent, or the soldering may have come loose.
- A reading of 0 means there is a short. The short is most likely between the hot wire and ground connection. It is best to check all your wires and electrical components, as something as simple as a hot wire touching a metal component can lead to a short.
- A reading close to your pickup’s supposed resistance means that the pickup is working well. If you are experiencing sound issues with your guitar, it is not coming from your pickup.
Always ensure your multimeter’s probe wires are in good working condition, or you might not get an accurate reading. If your wires are worn or bent, it is best to replace them. You can get this KAIWEETS Electrician Test Leads Kit (available on Amazon.com) to replace your multimeter wires.
The kit includes alligator clips, mini-hooks, needle probes, and small caps, so you will have everything you need to check the resistance of your guitar pickup. The test leads are compatible with most multimeters and made from double-insulated silicone, making them durable and flexible.
How To Check What Pickups You Have Installed on Your Guitar
There are many reasons why you might want to know which pickups you have on your guitar. Maybe you tested them and got a poor resistance rating, or perhaps you are just curious. Whatever the reason, you have a few different ways to determine which pickups are on your guitar.
There is an enormous variety of pickups available on the market, but they will fall into one of three categories, namely:
- Single-coil pickups
- P90 pickups
Humbuckers are the widest pickups, single-coil pickups are the smallest and thinnest, and P90 pickups are wider than a single-coil but thinner than a humbucker.
It is possible to figure out what pickup you have on your guitar by looking at it and comparing it to pictures. If you want to be sure, you can uninstall the pickup and look for the make and model on the back.
Here is an interesting video showing you what single coil pickups, humbuckers, and P90s look like, what they sound like, and some fascinating facts about them.
3. Testing Your Pickup Using a Screwdriver
The best way to test a pickup is with a multimeter, but you can try this easy technique when in a pinch. It won’t be as accurate, but it will indicate which one of your pickups is causing the problem.
Follow these easy steps to determine which pickup is faulty:
- Plug your guitar into an amp.
- Set your balance and volume to max.
- Take a screwdriver and tap each pickup softly.
Since the pickup has an electromagnetic field surrounding it, tapping it with a screwdriver while plugged into an amplifier should result in a loud clicking noise. If both or all three pickups make a loud noise, they are working fine; if one of them is silent, you have found the faulty pickup.
If you have an uninstalled pickup on your guitar, you can connect a cable that has a jack plug on the one side directly from your amp to your pickup. You can tap the pickup with a screwdriver to see if it makes a sound.
Ways To Tell if a Pickup Is Faulty and Needs To Be Tested
Knowing how to test your pickup is essential—but knowing when and why is also necessary.
Here are a few indicators that something might be wrong with your pickup and that you should test it:
- If there is no sound output at all.
- If the volume goes away when turning the tone control down.
- If you have exposed your guitar to high humidity for an extended period.
- If there is rust visible on your pickup
Reasons Why a Pickup Might Be Faulty
So now that you know how to test your pickup—you might be wondering how it got damaged or broken in the first place. Pickups are made from magnets, wires, and electrical components, meaning they are sensitive to humidity, and you need to take care of them.
Some reasons why your pickup might be damaged or broken include:
- Bad wiring – If you didn’t install your pickup correctly, there could be bent wires or loose connections. This wiring issue will usually cause your amp to buzz.
- Incorrect installation – If you incorrectly installed your pickup—it will result in pickup malfunction.
- Loose solder joints – With wear and tear, solder joints can come loose and cause your pickup to stop working.
- High humidity – If you expose your pickup to high humidity, it can cause the coils and magnets to corrode.
- Loose components – You should ensure that you tighten and fit all parts securely.
- Incorrect or damaged pots – If you don’t have the correct pots or your pots are damaged, you will run into some issues.
- Degraded insulation – Wear and tear and high or low humidity can cause the insulation inside your pickup to degrade, leading to shorts.
- Powerful magnetic fields – If you expose your guitar to a powerful magnet for some reason, your pickup may be affected. A strong enough magnetic field can cause your pickup to lose some of its power.
Is It Time To Check the Pots on Your Guitar Pickup?
If you are having sound issues, you might automatically think one or all of your pickups are the problem, but that is not always true. Volume and tone posts can cause many issues if you are not using the correct ones for your pickup.
It is time to check the pots on your guitar pickup when you experience tone and sound problems with your guitar. Pots have different resistance ratings and may affect the sound and tone of your guitar if paired with the wrong pickup.
Manufacturers often print their pots rating on the pot, but if you cannot find it, your multimeter will come in handy again. Switch the device to ohm and attach a probe to the left and suitable lugs.
Other Electrical Testers and Methods To Test a Pickup
A multimeter is an easy and practical way to test a pickup. However, there are some other machines and methods that you can use, although most guitarists won’t own or use them.
These machines are much more expensive and complicated to use than a multimeter. So, a multimeter is probably the best way to go unless you already have one of these.
For interest’s sake, and in case you might own one of these machines, here they are.
Voltmeter and Wheatstone Bridge
You can use a voltmeter and Wheatstone bridge to determine the DC resistance of your pickup. This method is a more complicated way of testing a pickup, but it is possible. A Wheatstone bridge is an electrical circuit used to measure electrical resistance. This method will give you highly accurate results; however, it won’t be easy.
Oscilloscope and Signal Generator
It is also possible to measure your pickup’s impedance using an Oscilloscope and signal generator. These machines are super expensive, so unless you have access to one, I suggest investing in a good-quality multimeter.