*WARNING: When changing pickups, always be safe and if you’re under 18, make sure you’re supervised by an adult. We do not accept responsibility for any permanent mistakes instruments or personal injuries to oneself/others.*
Guitar pickups may stop working due to a bad connection, or from damage. When this happens, your electric guitar will stop working. At this point you’ll have to replace the pickups. If you choose to do this yourself you’ll need to know a few things.
First, you’ll need these:
- Soldering iron with solder
- Screw driver
- Wire cutter/stripper
- Wet Sponge
Practice First with the Soldering Iron
A soldering iron is an iron used to melt solder, which is a metal used to fuse, in this case, the wire threads of a guitar’s electronics. Solder usually can be found in hardware stores as solder string. The material is flexible and light, making it very easy to handle.
Some quick soldering tips:
- Be careful!
- The soldering iron can get extremely hot when plugged in so be really careful when handling a hot iron! Also, use a wet sponge as a cleaning surface to wipe off extra solder from the iron.
- Tin the iron first!
- Before soldering anything, make sure you “tin” the iron first. This means melting some solder onto the tip of the soldering iron. Having a coat of melted solder on the iron helps with conductivity and makes soldering a bit easier. Tinning the tip also prolongs the life of it.
- Watch your surroundings!
- When soldering, you want to hold the solder string with one hand and then touch the string to the tip of the iron. The iron, if it’s hot enough, will melt the solder. When the solder is melted, it becomes almost like liquid, so be careful and make sure it doesn’t drip onto you or something else.
- Use pliers!
- When soldering anything, you may also want to use pliers to hold whatever you’re soldering. As the metal of a wire warms up, heat will travel along the length of the metal and this can end up burning you, so be careful not to keep the iron on the same joint for too long! Doing this will also cause the solder to get dirty which is bad for conductivity and will suck some of the tone away from your pickups!
- Practice first!
- If you have never used a soldering iron before, you may want to practice soldering something easy first, like two pieces of stray wire for example. Remember, good soldering points should look shiny.
How to Remove the Old Pickups
For the sake of this tutorial, we’ll focus on single coil pickups for a Stratocaster style guitar.
1. Take off the strings, and then unscrew the pickguard.
Be careful not to pull the pickguard too far from the body, since there will still be wires connected to the input jack.
2. Take the entire pickguard and flip it around so that the electronics are facing the ceiling.
You may place the pickguard on top of the guitar’s body cavity, but make sure you have a cloth or something soft between the guitar’s body and the pickguard itself. This ensures that the electronics don’t scratch up that precious finish!
3. Take a photo.
Okay, once the pickguard is off and the electronics are exposed, take a photo. A photo is a great reference in case you need to remember which wires go where.
Alright, time to use that hot soldering iron! Each single coil pickup will have two wires coming out of it. One is usually colored, and the other is black. The black wires are the ground wires and these are to be soldered to the back of the volume pot. The pots are connected to the tone and volume knobs of your guitar. The pots are the circular parts as you can see in the above image.
The colored wire is the wire that will connect to your pickup selector. Simply follow the wire from the pickup to the connection point. Each wire will be connected to a specific lug on the pickup switch, make note of this because you’ll have to connect your new pickups to the same spots.
4. Heat the joint and remove the wire.
In order to detach the pickup wires from their connected points, you want to heat up your soldering iron. Once the iron is hot enough, and is properly tinned, touch the tip to the joint and you’ll see that the solder will melt. At this time you may remove the connection.
The guitar pickups will most likely have their wires wrapped around a soldering joint, so once you melt the solder, it may take some fiddling with before you can pull it off completely.
Removing the wires from the back of the volume pot may be more difficult. The solder joint on the back of the pot may be thicker and will require some time to melt. Take your time and be patient, you don’t want to mess any of this up or else you may end up with broken parts, or a nasty burn.
5. Unscrew the pickups from the pickguard.
Once you remove the wires from the pickup, you’ll have to unscrew the pickups from the pickguard if you haven’t already done this. Pickups are held in the pickguard by two screws and usually a small rubber tube or springs. Keep all the screws and extra bits in a safe place so you can put them back easily.
Repeat the steps for each pickup and you should be left with an empty pickguard now.
Installing the new pickups
Guitar pickups can be fragile so handle them with care when installing them because the copper wire is very fine and can easily break.
1. Cut the wires to length
Screw the new pickups into the pickguard and then you want to think about cutting the length of the wires so that there isn’t a lot of excess wire after you’ve finished the job. Make sure to snip the wires so that they’re just long enough to reach their connection points. If your wires are too long, they could bunch up and not fit inside the body cavity.
To install the new pickups, you reverse what you did for each of the old pickups, that is, connect the colored wires to the lugs of the pickup selector and then solder the ground wire to the volume pot. This is a great time to talk about how to solder the guitar pickup wires onto a joint or connection point.
2. Heat the lugs on the pickup selector and coat it with solder
Pickup selectors have lugs, which have holes in them as you can see above. You want to heat the lugs first and then melt just a little bit of solder onto them. In a way, it’s like tinning the lugs for better conductivity and easier fusion to the wires later.
3. Strip the end of the pickup wire and feed the wire through the lug.
Next, grab your pickup, and strip a little bit of the rubber off of the end. This will reveal the metal wires, and you should twist them together so they’re a single thread. Stick the wires through the hole and wrap it around the lug.
As we stated before, make sure the tip of your iron is hot and has been tinned, or coated with solder before doing anything.
4. Add solder to the joint.
When soldering the wire to the pickup selector, you want to first heat the lug. Use your other hand to grab the solder, and feed it onto the heated lug. The solder should melt onto the lug and bond to the wires.
Once you have each pickup wired to the pickup selector, it’s now time to solder all of the ground wires, or the black wires onto the volume pot.
5. Twist the ends of the ground wires together.
Ground wires are soldered directly onto the volume pot, there are no lugs. Grab all of the ground wires and cut the rubber shielding from the tips, exposing the metal filaments. Since all the ground wires are going to the exact same place, twist all the tips together.
Melt some solder onto the twisted tip and fuse all three wires together.
6. Solder the fused wires onto the pot.
Melt some fresh solder onto where the old joint was and then carefully push the wires into it.
Pots sometimes have a coating on them so it may be difficult to get solder to stick. In this case, use sandpaper or a razer blade to scratch the surface of the pot. The scratch marks will hold the solder better.
You’re officially done soldering once you’ve connected the ground wires to the volume pot. Congrats! You’ve just soldered new pickups onto your guitar.
- Test the Pickups
Make sure your connections are strong by tugging lightly on each of the wires. Sometimes the solder on the pots don’t hold so make sure to test it with a little pull.
Before you screw the pickguard, test if the pickups work.
Plug your guitar into the amp and turn it on. Try not to touch any of the electronics. Use a screwdriver and simply tap the pole pieces at the top of the pickup. It should make some noise. If it makes noise, that’s how you know it works. Flip through all of your pickups with the pickup selector and test each pickup like this.
Once you’ve tested the pickups and they all work, put everything back together. Put the pickguard on, screw everything in, and then restring your guitar. If you did everything correctly, you should be able to simply plug the guitar in and now you’ll be able to play!
That’s it! Swapping pickups can be difficult but with some patience and smart planning, anyone can do it if you have the tools. Have you changed your pickups before? Let us know in the comments!
CLICK HERE to see Sam Ash Music’s wide array of guitar pickups!
Billy Saefong is the Community Support Specialist for Guitartricks.com and 30DayPiano.com. GuitarTricks.com as over 11,000 lessons covering everything a beginner guitar needs to know to get started, as well as more complicated techniques like tapping, sweeping, scales, and more.