In this blog, guest-blogger Marc offers a step-by-step guide to swapping out the passive pickups of an electric guitar. Here, you’ll find out what tools you’ll need, why you would want to change the pickups in the first place, and discover that the whole process is actually much easier than you might think. In fact, anyone with the right tools and a little patience will be able to do this. So why not replace those knackered old pickups or treat your guitar to a sweet upgrade?

How To Replace Passive Electric Guitar Pickups

Why & When Should You Change Your Pickups?

There are two very good reasons for swapping out your pickups. The first is that they’re tired and old and you can only get a dead, ‘blurry’ sound out of them – that’s if they can still produce any sound at all. The second reason is that the sound of your guitar could do with an upgrade, or you want it to sound completely different. Of course, the sound you’re after is entirely personal. You might want exactly the same sound as your favourite band, or you might just want to try something out. Whatever the reason, changing the pickups is definitely something worth learning.

What Tools Do You Need?

Before you even think about unscrewing anything, you need to make sure you have all the right tools. Your tools don’t have to be expensive, they just need to be able to do the job. Here’s a list of the tools you’ll need:

  • Safety glasses, if desired (small parts can ping off at any given moment, and they usually aim for the eyes)
  • Soldering iron and solder
  • Screwdriver (small Phillips-head)
  • String winder
  • Pliers (the kind that can cut and strip wires as well as pull them loose)
  • Notebook or a phone with a camera
  • Multimeter

How To Replace Passive Electric Guitar Pickups


Before I start, I always make sure that I have a fresh pack of strings since the old ones will need to be removed. This is also why I added a string winder to the list of tools to make the whole process much quicker. Also, if your new pickups didn’t come with a wiring diagram, it’s a good idea to find the right one for the type of guitar you’ve got and the type of pickups you’re going to be installing. You can find these on the internet easily enough. Also, before I remove anything from the guitar, I make a note of the current distance between the strings and the pickups, so I have a good idea of the optimum pickup height once the new ones are installed. Then, once I’ve gone as far as unscrewing and removing anything, I always take a photo of how the current pickups are wired in, this way I can make sure to solder in the wires of the new pickups in exactly the same way.

Changing Your Pickups

After taking some clear photos of the current wiring, it’s time to de-solder the wires from the selector switch and pots. Do this by holding the soldering iron against the fixed solder until it begins to melt and become shiny. With older solder this can take a little while, but once melted, you can simply pull the wire-end away. Once all the wiring has been disconnected, you can remove the old pickups. At this point, since you’ve opened everything up it’s worth checking the pots and the new pickups with your multimeter. As long as everything is functioning properly, it’s time to route and solder the pickup wiring according to your diagram and the photo you took earlier. A good tip is to add a touch of solder to the bare ends of the new wires before soldering them in place. This will help them to make a more secure bond as you solder them to the switch and pots.

How To Replace Passive Electric Guitar Pickups How To Replace Passive Electric Guitar Pickups

Testing the Pickups

Before putting everything back together, I connect the guitar to an amplifier ( turn down the volume!) and gently tap the magnet poles of each of the pickups with a screwdriver. Flip the selector switch into the bridge position so you can check it in isolation, then do the same for the neck pickup and for the middle pickup if you have one. Can you hear the tapping through the amp each time? Great! Now you know that everything has been soldered in correctly, and get on with re-mounting any pickguards or covers and putting on the new strings. Once the strings are installed, use the measurement you took earlier to adjust the height of the pickups so that they sit at the optimum distance from the strings. Once you’re done, you can enjoy the new and improved sound of your upgraded guitar!

Different Models

With some guitars, the pickups are ‘naked’ (like with Les Paul models) and with other guitars (like Stratocaster models), they’re mounted under the pickguard so the pickguard will need to be removed. With different models, it’s worth taking note of the following points:

  • Stratocaster models: the entire pickguard needs to be removed. Once unscrewed, carefully flip the pickguard over to reveal the wiring, taking care not to damage the jack wiring.
  • Telecaster model: here, the pickguard also needs removing as well as the control plate so you can access the wiring of the pots and switch.
  • Les Paul models: to get to the pots and switch, the back-plate needs to be unscrewed and removed. The wiring of the pickups is actually routed through the body via drilled holes, which can be a little more fiddly than the wiring of a Strat or Tele-style model.

So how did it go? If you’ve swapped out the pickups of your guitar, let us know how it went and if we missed any steps. Also, what pickups did you go for and what are favourites?

See Also…

» Repair the Electronics of Your Electric Guitar Yourself? Really?!
» How to Replace the Tuners of Your Guitar
» Guitar Pickup Buyer’s Guide
» Set Up Your Electric Guitar
» How To String & Set Up a Floyd Rose Tremolo

» All Guitar Pickups
» Bass Guitar Pickups
» Guitar Parts & Tools
» Soldering Irons & Accessories
» String Winders

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