Everybody wants good tone, and many people want it on a budget. This is especially true in the bedroom recording age in which people put out pro quality tracks from home: they need good tone, and they have less money for guitars because they’re spending it on recording gear.

For good reason, pickups are one of the first things considered when trying to improve a budget rig. Guitarists still have nightmares of Ibanez’s old Infinity pickups (though luckily once replaced, they serve as fantastic fridge magnets).

How do stock pickups hold up these days? It’s a multifaceted question, with a lot of moving parts. Let’s dive in!

How important are pickups?

We can talk all day about variables that factor into tone. The fact of the matter is that in most rigs, the way you play will always have a large effect: you will always sound like yourself. Don’t believe me? Invite a friend over and have them play your guitar through your rig, and then do the same, notice how different it sounds?  This is less noticeable for high gain applications but you can definitely still tell a difference based on things like how hard someone picks, where they like to place their right hand for palm mutes, and of course…their vibrato.

Tonewood does matter. That is no longer a debate; it never was to begin with. Pickups are one of the deciding factors. I’d place them somewhere between the amp you’re using, and neck construction (bolt on vs. neck through for example) in level of importance.

There are situations in which pickups, and overall natural tone of the guitar, are going to matter less, though. Many modern players have such processed tone that pickups become almost a non-issue. It’s always good to have a guitar that sounds good on its own, but with digital modelers, overdrives, multiple gates and compressors, and ultimately post processing in a mix, the finished product is so sculpted and modified that the original tone of the guitar basically isn’t there. Even with a less intense modern metal sound, good mixing can often circumvent this. Check out some of Plini, Sithu Aye, and David Maxim Micic’s older releases (all considered modern classics of the DIY era of high quality independent release), which sound great, all with Ibanez stock pickups.  

It’s also important to point out that some guitars are constructed so poorly that a pickup swap won’t help. We’re talking bottom of the barrel $150 beginner guitars and non-reputable companies. Lacking build quality actually does affect things that even intense modeling and mixing can’t help. Horrible cheap cuts of wood will not resonate at all, and have no sustain. The routing will frequently be bad, or nuts will be incredibly low quality, making proper intonation very difficult, and bridges and tuners will betray your tuning stability. These are not simple EQ curve or clarity issues that can be mixed out. Meaning that you simply need to invest in a mid-tier guitar, (such as $400-$800 Ibanez) to get something useable. People often put Bare Knuckle Pickups in $150 guitars and it will not help.

How are stock pickups right now?

As I said earlier, I still prefer to have a guitar that sounds pretty good out of the box, without a lot of processing, so I think it’s important to consider how good stock pickups really are right now. Many brands have been releasing new pickups for their import lines, and I honestly think they’re much better. I think this is largely for two reasons. A lot of inexpensive pickups (even for guitars not made in South Korea) are made in South Korea, who have really stepped up its game lately. Higher quality guitars and parts are coming out of South Korea (and other mass production countries) than ever, due to increased experience, and large companies benefiting from economies of scale. Also, brands simply understood that players hated their old stock pickups. Just for a few examples, the Quantum pickups in the $400 Ibanez line right now are fantastic. The RGA32 for example, has them directed mounted, with offset dots, and a thick maple cap on mahogany. Killer specs for only $400, and when I play it, I actually don’t feel the need to replace the pickups at all. Ibanez have even started offering genuine USA-made and designed Dimarzios exclusive to them in their Iron Label guitars, which are some of my favorite pickups in recent memory. PRS S2 stock pickups (while not my first choice for metal) are made in Korea and put in USA made guitars! Not too many people would find them lacking at all. Some brands like Schecter are even putting brand name pickups in right from the start, with killer Seymour Duncans and EMGs being equipped straight from the factor, or even Sustainiacs!

So, do I need to replace pickups or not?

I can’t answer that for you. If you have the disposable income, and your guitar isn’t so cheap that it can’t be helped, guitars can always sound a little better. If you have a super specific tone in mind, it may benefit getting pickups that make that easy to achieve.

However, in many cases, pickups won’t matter as much as you’d think (under a lot of gain, in a mix situation, etc.) and even better, the stock ones offered by trustworthy brands such as Ibanez and PRS are very good right now! It’s definitely easier to get good tone and quality on a budget than ever. I personally think in many cases, it’s more worth it to buy better recording equipment, or even another mid-range guitar for more variety!  

Personally, picking a pickup is more of a feel thing to me than a sound thing, which sounds weird, but I find I can generally get a tone I’m happy with from most pickups, but to get the right feel, I can be a little picky!  By feel I mean how a pickup reacts to my playing. This is affected by things like compression, magnet type, etc…

If you’re looking to see some good options for inexpensive guitars that don’t need a pickup swap, we are authorized dealers for brands with great budget lines like Ibanez, PRS, and Schecter, and can get you a good deal on whatever you’d like!

This article was written by Kyle Karich, our editor located in Florida.


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