If you’re new to guitar maintenance, you’re probably wondering if the pickups on your guitar will ever wear out. You might’ve heard stories about touring guitarists changing their pickups at an alarming rate, or experienced issues with the pickups in a guitar you own.
So, do guitar pickups wear out? Guitar pickups do not ‘wear out’ in the traditional sense as they do not feature any moving parts. However, pickups can often become faulty (due to corrosion, improper installation, broken wires or a short circuit).
Keep reading for a full FAQ on common pickup faults:
What Causes Guitar Pickups To Become Faulty?
There are several factors that can cause a pickup to become faulty:
- Moisture (sweat): More often than not, moisture-associated damage comes from sweat. Sweat contains a high volume of salt, which can get into the coils and create a short circuit.
- Climate: Fluctuating climate conditions can cause the metal components of the pickup to expand and contract. Over time, this can damage the insulation and create a short circuit.
- Improper winding: If a pickup is wound improperly, kinks may appear in the wire. These will eventually cause the wire to break.
- Foreign objects: Foreign objects (notably steel wool or shards of metal) can come into contact with the pickup coils, causing significant damage.
- Demagnetization: Over time, pickups can lose magnetism (usually caused by vibration or fluctuations in temperature). Demagnetization can also occur when the pickups are exposed to a strong magnetic field. However, it’s worth noting that demagnetization is very rare and can often take several decades to occur.
- Improper wiring: If you’ve recently changed your pickups, it’s possible they may have been wired incorrectly. This can lead to something called ‘phase cancellation’ (which is caused by two pickups interfering with each other’s frequency response, thus reducing the overall output).
How Will I Know If A Pickup Is Faulty?
Once a pickup becomes faulty, it will usually display one (or several) of the following symptoms:
- Reduced output: You may find that the pickups are quieter than usual. This is usually a result of phase cancellation or (in rare cases) demagnetization.
- Sound cutting out: The sound may cut out for short periods of time, before suddenly returning to normal. This usually occurs when the wires become weakened or broken.
- Unwanted hum or buzz: There may be an unwanted humming or buzzing sound coming from the pickup. This is often caused by grounding or shielding issues.
- Total lack of output: Often, the pickup will have no output whatsoever. Unfortunately, this is the most commonly-occurring symptom of a faulty pickup. It’s generally the result of a short circuit.
How Do I Troubleshoot & Fix A Faulty Pickup?
Troubleshooting & fixing a faulty pickup will require you to remove the pickup from the body of the guitar for close examination. Here’s a quick guide on how to troubleshoot & fix a faulty pickup:
- If the output is reduced: Check for phase cancellation. Upon looking at a set of pickups with phase cancellation issues, you’ll most-likely find that the wiring on one of your pickups is backwards. If this is the case, swap the hot and ground leads. If the wiring is correct, the most likely cause is demagnetization. To check for demagnetization, tap the poles with a screwdriver and see if there’s any magnetic resistance. If there isn’t, the magnets will need to be recharged.
- If the sound is cutting out: Check for broken wires. If broken wires are found, they will need to be replaced.
- If there’s unwanted hum or buzz: If the pickup only hums when you touch the strings, this means you have a grounding problem. To fix this, check for loose wires or connections and re-connect them. If the pickup only hums when you aren’t touching the strings, this means you have a shielding issue. To fix this, try shielding both the guitar cavity and pickguard. I’d also strongly recommend replacing any standard wire with shielding wire, which can be purchased for next-to-nothing on Amazon.
- If there’s no output whatsoever: Check for short circuits. If short circuits are found, repair them.
Whilst more serious issues (such as demagnetization) will likely need to be fixed by a professional, I’d thoroughly recommend investing in a cheap soldering kit such as this one and learning to fix common pickup issues yourself. This will save you a significant amount of money and vastly expand your skillset as a guitarist.
How Can I Prevent Pickups From Becoming Faulty?
There are several things you can do to prevent pickups from becoming faulty:
- Store your guitar somewhere with a stable climate: If possible, you’ll want to avoid exposing the guitar to wild climate fluctuations. This can not only cause the pickups to become faulty, but also inflict significant damage on the rest of the instrument. As a general rule, if the climate is uncomfortable for you, it’s also uncomfortable for your guitar.
- Don’t be stingy: When producing cheap pickups, manufacturers often cut corners by using low-quality materials or executing a poor wiring job. If you’re getting pickups installed by someone else, ensure you get it done by someone who knows what they’re doing.
- Avoid playing when sweaty: Whilst this can be unavoidable at times, try not to play when you’re sweaty.
- Keep foreign objects away from the pickups: If you’re performing unrelated maintenance work on the guitar, try to keep foreign objects (such as shards of metal) away from the pickups.
- Do active pickups need batteries? Yes, active guitar pickups need a 9V battery in order to provide power to the preamp (which amplifies the signal and increases the overall output).
- Do humbuckers need shielding? No, humbuckers should not need additional shielding (due to the fact that the reversed coil and magnetic direction eliminates the humming or buzzing sound). Shielding is more applicable to single coil pickups.