Is It Worth Upgrading Pickups on a Cheap Guitar? [Pro Tips]

When you play your guitar you feel that its tone is not quite right there…

We all have been there.

You feel like there’s room for improvement somewhere, but you can’t actually pinpoint where.

There’s not much you can do about your fingers, so there’s got to be something to do with your guitar. You start to wonder what you could do to improve the way your instrument sounds. 

The obvious upgrade that might come to your head is swapping its pickups. And it’s something logical. Affordable guitars tend to have not-so-good pickups installed to cut down costs.

But, how much would a pickup upgrade on an affordable guitar improve your tone? Is it worth it?

If you want a quick answer, here it is:

It is worth upgrading pickups on a cheap guitar to a certain extent. If you go for mid-range pickups it will be a great improvement in tone. Stay away from more expensive boutique alternatives since the limitations of an affordable instrument would surely outweigh the benefits of higher-quality pickups.

If you want to stick around with me for a bit longer, in this article we will go in-depth about if is it worth it upgrading the pickups on a beginner guitar.

I will give you my reasons to upgrade, and my reasons not to upgrade. Then we will go into specifics about the whole ordeal.

At the end of this article, you will have a clear idea about what’s best for you and your precious instrument.

Are you ready to get started?

Let’s go

5 reasons to upgrade the pickups on your beginner guitar

If you’re considering swapping the stock pickups that came with your guitar, here are a few reasons that will motivate you to pull the trigger on the upgrade:

1. New pickups will breathe new life into your guitar

If you have had your guitar for years and you really like it, but you feel in the need of something new, a new set of pickups might give it the new sound you hear in your head.

The tone of a guitar is defined by many aspects, but surely pickups play a big role in shaping it.

A nice upgrade might bring back your enthusiasm for the instrument, and even inspire you to write new songs with it.

2. With new pickups, you could tailor your guitar’s tone to your taste

When I bought my first guitar I didn’t have a clue about what different guitars sound like. I was a young metalhead and I got a Squier Strat. Single coils really weren’t what I should be shopping for, but I didn’t know better.

What I’m trying to say here, is that with a few months or years under your belt in the guitar world, you might have now a clearer idea about how to get the tone you want.

Perhaps it’s as radical as getting a different kind of pickup or maybe is a matter of higher or lower output in the same format. Whatever it could be, it could get you closer to the tone you know and like.

3. You can use the upgraded pickups in your future next guitar 

If you’re in love with a pickup set that costs almost the same as your guitar does, take into account that an upgrade is not forever.

You can use these pickups in your cheap guitar now, and maybe, if you get an overall better instrument some time from now, you can donate them to it and revert your first guitar to its stock ones.

4. Cheap guitars are great platforms to experiment

You will make bad choices that you will regret in a few years. It’s impossible not to mess up, especially if you are a new player.

The good news is that it’s completely fine. We all have been there, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

It’s better to make errors now, with an affordable guitar, than to destroy a $3000 instrument while still searching for your tone.

5. Practice swapping pickups

Maybe you’re someone who’s hands-on with its gear and would like to do the modding yourself.

If you know the basics of soldering, you will be just fine.

But related to the last reason I mentioned, it’s better to practice the pickup swap in a cheap guitar before taking risks with a better one.

5 reasons NOT to upgrade the pickups on your beginner guitar

reasons not to upgrade your pickups

Of course, you have to get all the perspectives about this, and if you were pretty much decided to go ahead with the mod, maybe one of these reasons might make you think twice about it.

1. The enhancement of the guitar’s tone might be limited by other problems

Affordable guitars usually have some problems. It’s not that they are bad, but to cut costs the manufacturers, of course, use cheaper parts and woods.

Maybe the problem with your instrument is beyond the scope of what a pickup upgrade might do for it.

From the tuners to the bridge, the nut, the electronics, the frets, strings, or even the setup, everything and anything on your guitar might be a bigger problem than the pickups.

These are things that you could upgrade, but there are other such as the kind of woods used and the construction quality, where there’s nothing to do.

2. Guitar mods usually don’t increase resell value

If you are about to get an expensive new pickup set for your guitar, take into consideration that if in the future, you are planning on selling this guitar, you will have a hard time “defending” its value.

Especially if your pickup choice is genre-specific or you have done irreversible modding on the instrument, it will be harder to find a buyer willing to pay full price for the upgrades.

3. In some cases, the upgrade would be irreversible

As I mentioned before, if, for instance, you go from single-coil pickups to humbuckers, you will have to get the bigger routing done for these to fit the guitar.

This means getting wood removed from the instrument’s body, and that’s something that couldn’t be done backward. Once you take wood out it’s out.

So if you’re not happy with the new tone of your guitar after the upgrade, you will be stuck with it.

4. Maybe the pickups are not what you don’t like about your guitar

Besides the limitations that a cheap guitar could have, as I mentioned earlier if you have just started playing a few months ago, maybe you can’t define clearly what it is that you don’t like about the instrument.

Perhaps what you blame on your pickups is just something else.

Woods and construction have an important role in tone. Maybe you don’t like the interaction of the tonewoods of your instrument, perhaps you don’t like the tone of its neck construction, or maybe it has a solid body and you prefer semi-hollows.

Don’t rush into mods, try to get all the info about what you like and what you don’t.

5. You might regret your new pickup choice in the future

We all have made mistakes, especially when we were beginners, so this is not a big deal really.

But take into consideration that maybe what you like today you might hate a few years down the line.

Those extreme amp-melting high gain pickups that you drool over now, might be your worst nightmare in 3 years when you get a gig in a Taylor Swift tribute band.

How much would better pickups improve your tone?

How much would better pickups improve your tone

It depends on where you are standing now.

Let’s say you have a cheap guitar, that was your first instrument when you were still deciding if you really enjoyed playing it.

Any kind of decent aftermarket pickups would improve the tone of a cheap guitar. The stock pickups in affordable guitars are usually of lower quality and even noisier. The secret is in finding the sweet spot in the price to quality ratio since there are diminishing returns with this kind of upgrade.

If we are talking about swapping the pickups of a mid-range guitar for a set of Seymour Duncans or DiMarzios, the answer would be not that clear.

The upgrade in tone starts getting objectively subtler each step you take up the pricing ladder.

What would be stronger is the subjective aspect of the mod.

If you, for instance, have a Stratocaster with acceptable single-coil pickups, but you decide that you need more gain and a sharper sound and get a set of Hot Rails (single-coil sized humbuckers) it might be a subjectively amazing upgrade for you.

For me, it surely will be subjectively a downgrade. I prefer vintage single-coils.

But that’s a matter of taste.

Tone is taste, actually, past the crappy objectively horrible entry-level gear sound.

However, even that might be an aesthetic. Hey, the lofi genre is very popular nowadays, and punk rock was shaped with 2 chords and not a single thought on gear. 

Are expensive pickups worth it on a cheap guitar?

Expensive pickups are really not worth it on a cheap guitar since they will be limited by other problems such as playability-related ones. The best option for a cheap guitar would be mid-range aftermarket pickups. The improvement in tone would be noticeable but on pair with the instrument.

Mid-range pickups will be better known in the market if you need to sell your instrument in the future, and also would suit another guitar if you want to swap them again.

Getting a set of expensive pickups is not crazy, though. You can enjoy them on your more affordable guitar for now, and then use them on your next instrument when you go for a full upgrade.

Best guitar pickups for an upgrade

My recommendation is to go for the industry’s standard when making an upgrade to a beginner guitar.

Seymour Duncan and DiMarzio both have a great variety of pickups at affordable prices.

Take into account that even at this range, guitar pickups are not cheap.

Stay away from more boutique brands for now, if you don’t really have a clear understanding of what you need to achieve your dream tone. There will be chances in the future to go there.

Also, if you go for one of the most popular models in the catalog of the brands I mentioned, the would surely be easier to resell if you want to change them or make another upgrade in the future.

Should I swap the pickups myself? Is it hard?

Swapping pickups is not particularly hard, depending on your guitar’s construction. Fender-like front-loaded instruments have the pickups set up on their pickguards so they might need a bigger disassembly job.

If you know how to solder, the work needed is not hard at all. I encourage you to give it a try if you are someone who enjoys manual jobs.

There are many tutorials on YouTube that would guide you step by step.

Here’s a good one from StewMac:

How much would it cost me to get my pickups replaced?

The average cost of a pickup replacement job is around $40 to $60 without including the price of the new pickup. Usually, you will get better rates when swapping multiple pickups at once. Any special wiring or switching configurations will increase the cost.

Considering the price of pickups, it is not a bad idea to let an expert do the work for you. Particularly if you’re not interested in learning how to do it yourself.

It’s ok, you don’t need to be a guitar tech.

Should I replace all the pickups on my guitar or just one?

This is a very personal choice, but I will try to navigate through different situations that come to my mind.

Do you spend most of the time on a specific pickup position? Why is that? Do you like that position better or is it that you don’t like how the other pickups sound?

In that case, maybe replacing only the ones that you don’t like would be a good alternative.

I would recommend you trying them, at least in another guitar, before pulling the trigger though.

Another problem that might come with not swapping the full set of pickups is output mismatch. You might install a new pickup with a noticeable higher or lower output than the others.

This will force you to adjust the volume of your guitar every time you switch pickup positions, especially if your instrument only has a master volume and not individual pickup controls.

Finally, there is the option of doing a Van Halen, upgrading only the bridge pickup and taking the rest out of the guitar completely. There’s an argument that single pickup guitars sound better.

Single pickup guitars

Upgrade pickups or get a better guitar?

How cheap is your guitar and how much are you willing to invest in pickups?

What can you get for the value of your guitar plus the new pickups?

If you are happy with how your guitar plays and looks, I would see no real reason to replace it. As I said earlier, a good set of pickups will be reusable in your next purchase a few years for now.

On the other side, if you find yourself fighting your guitar more often than playing it. If it doesn’t stay in tune, the frets buzz, it has no sustain and it looks ugly… Well, maybe the pickups are not the problem.

Sell it, save the upgrade money and get a higher quality stock instrument. Maybe have an expert set up it for you. Then you can start saving for a better set of pickups in a few months if you still want them.

Upgrade pickups or get a better amp?

Most of the time a better amp would be a greatly better investment in tone than a new set of pickups or even a better guitar. We guitar players usually focus excessively on our instrument when most of the time it’s not the problem and a better amp or pedalboard will improve our tone further.

That’s the rational answer, however, I know that upgrading your guitar feels more rewarding somehow. I have been there.

But if you want to get the optimal bang for your buck, the rule of thumb is that an amazing amp would sound great with a cheap guitar, while an amazing guitar would sound like crap with a cheap amp.

That’s the sad truth.

Should I also upgrade the electronics of my cheap guitar?

You should upgrade the electronics of your cheap guitar, especially if you are planning on getting better pickups. They are not as expensive and could further improve your instrument’s tone and reliability. A treble bleed circuit will be a nice upgrade that will enable more versatility in your guitar.

This kind of circuit allows for the high end of your guitar sound to pass through the volume circuit even when it’s turned down. This allows you to just reduce the output of your instrument when controlling the volume without affecting its tone.

Reducing the output of your guitar will let you hit the amp lighter and clean up your tone if you are using an overdriven or distorted sound.

What should I do with my old guitar pickups?

You should by all means keep your old guitar pickups. You can revert back your guitar to them if you don’t like the upgrade or if you want to use the better pickups for another project. Also, entry-level pickups don’t have that much market demand and are not worth selling.

Having a backup set of pickups is always a good idea. Pickups rarely fail, but you never know.

What other kinds of upgrades are worth it for a cheap guitar?

Since you’re interested in improving your guitar, and without making this post any longer, I will just give you some ideas of other upgrades that you might consider for further mods.

Here are some nice upgrades for a cheap guitar:

  • Higher quality tuners
  • Locking tuners
  • Better nut
  • Swapping frets
  • Filing frets
  • Electronics
  • Added switching (as coil tap)
  • Nicer bridge
  • Adding a tremolo system
  • String quality
  • Swapping string gauge
  • A professional setup