When I started working on my own guitars I wanted to learn as much as I could about every guitar component. I studied the different tonal characteristic of the various body and neck woods, I learned how different nut materials effect tone, and how changing potentiometer and tone capacitor values can shape my sound. It seemed like the more I knew the better, except when it came to pickups.
I thought that learning the details of pickup building would help me weed through the massive selection of pickups on the market and quickly find the perfect pickup. After spending countless hours reading about different magnet materials, coil wire gauges, winding patterns, and bobbin dimensions, I realized that I was just making the pickup buying process unnecessarily complex. Pickups are about the sum of all its pieces, which good pickup makers know how to combine to give desired results. Often, the results do not sound like what the “rule of thumb” characteristics are of the individual parts.
I found that the most important part of successfully finding the right pickup is defining a baseline to work from. If you buy a set of pickups that aren’t right for you, it isn’t necessarily a bad situation. You have now established a baseline to work from when contacting the pickup company. Pickup companies such as Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, and Lindy Fralin want you to be happy with their pickups and have set up an exchange policy to insure that you are. Being able to tell Seymour Duncan that the Alnico Pro II’s you put in your Strat have the correct output but sound too bright will help them to better serve you. They now know exactly what you have and what your issue is with them and can more accurately suggest a pickup that will be a better fit. Typically the exchange window is 20-30 days after the date of purchase giving you plenty of time to listen to them in a variety of situations and take plenty of notes.
When establishing a baseline it is usually a good idea to do as much research as you can before making your initial purchase. You might luck out and get it right the first time. When I am in the market for new pickups I read lots of reviews, pickup company literature, and talk to as many guitarist with similar taste in tone as I can. Often I get inspired by a tone I hear on a recording and end up researching what pickups the guitarist in the recording uses. This typically gets me in the ballpark, but the variables that guitarist have to deal with often results in me having to exchange pickups at least once. Variables such as string gauge, playing technique, amps, effects, speakers, and degree of hearing damage can make a pickup that sounds shimmery and clear to one guitarist sound thin and brittle to another.
If you have ever purchased a pickup that you didn’t like I urge you to research their exchange policy. There is no reason to feel like you are stuck with them, or worse get angry about it and start ripping on them. I have purchased pickups from many companies and have found that all of them are more than willing to work with me. Just be sure to read the exchange policy thoroughly, things like cutting the leads too short will void it and keep in mind that you will need to pay the difference if exchanging for something more expensive.
Here is a small list of what I thought were interesting pickup related reads.