8 Common Guitar Pickup Rookie Mistakes!

Last Updated: May 14th, 2021

Lindy Fralin Pickups has been around for over 25 years, and in that time, we’ve seen all levels of guitar and bass player. From the bedroom hobbyist to the full-blown touring pro, we’ve all had to start somewhere. We’ve also seen all levels of guitar players make these simple mistakes, time and time again. This is our list of the 8 common “rookie mistakes” that can be easily avoided:


ROOKIE MISTAKE #1:

Choosing The Wrong Lead:

Not choosing the correct lead is one of the most common rookie mistakes, and it’s easy to avoid. Choosing the right lead when ordering your pickups will solve many headaches down the road. It will make your installation more manageable, and allow you to reverse the phase if need be.

We get a lot of emails with the subject line of “Help!”, and see a customer having a hard time installing a Gibson Lead in a Fender Tele. This lead won’t work for many reasons. The most common mistake we see: Buying a Single Pickup with an irreversible lead. An example would be buying a single P-90 for your Telecaster, with a Gibson Lead. Doing this will give you many headaches down the road – choose a 2-Conductor lead when ordering, and you’ll be set!

THE FIX:

Research the correct lead, and go for it. Here are some helpful rules of thumb:

  1. You Cannot Reverse Gibson Leads. Only get these when you’re buying a Set For A Gibson-style Instrument. These leads are designed to install in instruments where each pickup has its separate volume pot. Installing this lead in a Fender instrument will create all sorts of problems.
  2. 2-Conductor With Shield: The most overlooked, but essential lead. You can reverse the phase if need be, and since the lead is insulated, the shielding won’t short anything out in a cavity.
  3. 3 / 4 Conductor: For Humbuckers, these are super easy to install, and give you all sorts of options down the road. You can reverse the phase too!

ROOKIE MISTAKE #2:

CHOOSING THE WRONG POT VALUE

Rookie Mistakes - not choosing the correct pot value

Not choosing the correct pot value is one of the most common rookie mistakes we see. Your Volume and Tone pots are the second most important aspect of guitar electronics – and for a good reason. Putting a Humbucker through a 250K pot will most likely sound like your amp has a “mud blanket” on it. A Telecaster with low-output single coils will sound pretty awful through 500K pots, too. Knowing which pot value your pickup needs is the best way to solve this. Don’t be a rookie: check out our article here to become a pot-selecting wizard!

3.) Not Going To A Luthier When Times Get Tough

I get it. I’m a “do-it-yourself-er” too. I love getting my hands dirty and doing the work myself. However, sometimes, you have to quit before you start getting over your head. We answer a lot of questions from customers who are just way over their head with the soldering pencil in their hand. We always recommend going to the professional the same way you’d go to a mechanic for your car. Luthiers are better-equipped for the job, and most likely have the experience and specialized tools required to make your life easier!


4.) Killing Your Pickup Before You Install It

This one’s a heartbreaker: You just received your brand-new pickup. You unbox it, rip open your toolbox and start throwing the pickup into your guitar. You slip – and knick a coil wire.

Fralin Pickups - Broken Coil

Ouch. Your brand-new pickup is dead, and you’re left to purchase a new one. Pickups are super delicate and fragile. The coil is about as thin as a human hair and can easily be damaged. Even experienced luthiers have this happen from time-to-time, so be careful!

Furthermore, Guitars with an “extra fret” (where the fretboard hangs over the pickguard) require you to unbolt the neck before you can safely remove the pickguard and pickup.


5.) Choosing The Wrong Spacing

A guitar is like a bike. It’s intricate with a lot of adjustments that can really affect the way that it plays and behaves. Your pickups sound best when you take the time to choose the right spaced pickup. Checking your String Spacing is easy to do – all you need is a ruler. Click the image below for our article on how to do this.

Rookie Mistakes - not checking your string spacing

Most bridge pickups are going to have wider string spacing than neck pickups, due to the way the guitar’s strings taper towards the headstock. Knowing this will help you choose the correct pickup, and have all the strings sing at equal volume without dead notes!


6.) Getting Too Custom

Getting too custom? That’s one of the more popular rookie mistakes we see. We’re a custom shop, so we get the appeal of having a pickup or set no one else has. More often than not, our “super-custom-customers” wind up buying a popular calibrated set instead. Why? Because the electric guitar has been around since the 1930s, and we’ve overturned many, many rocks on the way to great tone since then. More often than not, the best-sounding pickup set is the one that stands the test of time!


7.) Not Checking Your Polarity

This one is as heartbreaking as #4. You get your new pickup in, and it’s out of phase with your other pickups. You didn’t check your polarity! Polarity is SO important. We’re not going to go into it here, but check out this post here to get the scoop. In essence, take your time to find out your pickup polarity, and get multiple leads if need be.


8.) Not Setting Your Pickup Height Correctly

Rookie Mistake #8: Not setting your pickup height correctly

To close it out, this one is a common problem we hear all the time. It’s so easy to fix – and to diagnose. If the pickups are too high, you’ll get all sorts of unwanted tones caused by the magnetic field of the pickup. If they are too low, you’ll have a weak and underwhelming tone.

Here’s how to measure and check your pickup height. For starters, you always want to use your ears. Start by pressing the low E string on the highest fret, and measure the bass side of the pickup to the bottom of the string. Ideal starting point height should be about 1/8″. Now, do the same thing on the treble side – it should be 1/16″.

Measuring your pickup height will make sure that your pickups are sounding – and working – at their best!


Well, that does it, for now! Take your time when selecting your options, and you’ll spare many headaches down the road!

44 Comments

  1. steve rhinefranksays

    hi. totai noob to guitar guts. looking to put a P90 in the neck and HB in bridge. 2V 2T, 3 way toggle. just want the two to sound good together. have a multi meter and polarity tester. looking to use two wire(hot, ground) pickups that i already have. comfortable with moving magnets and soldering. looking for the simplest way to get it right the first time… thanks, steve

  2. Hi, I recently got a 1991 Gibson Les Paul Studio Lite and was surprised by how very different it sounds compared to my father’s 1976 Les Paul Custom. The 1991 is significantly lighter as the body has chambers filled with balsa wood. It also has 496r and 500t pickups. Compared to the 1976, the sound is lifeless and very modern. My question is: how much does the body affect tone, would changing the pickups help make the guitar sound more like the 1976, and (off the wall) is there a pickup combo that would lend strat style warmth?

    1. Bradley Tuckersays

      The hardwood/bolsa body should be a plus for tone. Are the bridges the same? One of the biggest tone-suckers is the saddle material and bridge installation. If those are the same, then yes it must be the pickups. You may have ceramic magnets with high ohm resistance – not a good choice for tone freeks, but a fine choice if you are driving a long chain of effects. However, you may want to try out different brands of strings and string gages before you replace the pickups.

  3. I am making a Strat.
    Neck=9-90
    Middle =Fralin Split Rails Blues 500K
    Bridge =Humbucker

    What are the thoughts out here?? Any Help

    1. Terry Relph-Knightsays

      Using three very different pickups in a guitar can give odd results. Output levels can vary quite a bit and the in-between sounds on a Strat platform may, or may not, be pleasing. And you will have to look out for phase relationships – getting all the coils / magnet polarities right. The guitar wont sound like a Strat. After all the original Strats had three (as close as came from the winders) identical pickups. All this ‘calibrated’ (different pickups in each position) nonsense is a more modern invention of the after market pickup makers.

  4. Nethan Paulsays

    Nice article to know much more on guitar parts and their installation process. It helps me to gain some ideas about the vital parts and their role. I have to replace the wraparound bridge part of my guitar and I believe this content helps me a lot to do this. Thanks a lot.

  5. Hi there,
    I have a 70’s Stagg J Bass. I bought it about 25 years ago and it was a used bass guitar once I purchased it.
    I just wanna change the bridge pickup as it doesn’t sound very good and looks a kind of weird to be there as a bridge pickup. (I have noticed to that point recently !!!)
    My problem is I can not find the same “size” pickup as I have searched online. (mine is 70 mm x 15 mm)
    I wish I could send you a photo of my bass body and its already installed old pickups.
    could you please let me know what should I do?

    1. Tyler Delsack - Fralin Pickupssays

      Hey Shaun,

      You can contact [email protected] to get some assistance in finding a pickup for you.

  6. A quick noob question, is it possible to snap the wire on the end-side of eyelets and then reduce the turn for let say 700-600 turns before resoldering to get lower impedance?

    I have a set of duncan designed P90 in my tele, and wondering how to mod them to get as close as JM pickups tone, or well at least getting the similar vibe. I know the construction is slightly different between P90 and JM. I’m not the getting-too-custom person for sure, but yes sometimes i love getting my hands dirty and doing the work myself (love your quotes, lol.)

    Just curious, unconsciously..
    (Before getting to the “not going to a luthier when times get tough”-chapter.)

    You’re The Best.

    *English isn’t my first language, so please excuse any mistakes.

  7. I just put a set of matched humbuckers in my “Les Paul”.

    They hum pretty badly (as bad as my tele), when it’s just neck or bridge, but with both on, much quieter.

    Vintage braided wire. 50’s wiring. All cavities shielded with copper. Good ground continuity from tuners to Jack.

    I’m stumped. Any suggestions?

    1. Terry Relph-Knightsays

      Are the cables to the pickups braided on the outside with a single core or are they 4 wire with a screen?
      The 4 wire cable provide more opportunities for mistakes.
      If the neck and bridge hum on their own it would seem they are permanently in split (single coil) mode. Less hum with both selected might happen if you have one of the pickup wired in reverse phase to the other.
      You could perhaps try drawing out your wiring on a piece of paper while referring only to the guitar and the connections as you have wired them (without looking at any manufacturers guide diagram). Then compare your drawing with the manufacturers guide. Most pickup manufacturers provide a wiring guide.
      How are your soldering skills? Might you have burned through or shorted some conductors. Also check for possible shorts against the copper screening.

      1. They are braided shield, single wire so it’s not that. Soldering skills are good, but there’s always room for mistakes, 😉

        I’ll double check and get back to you.

        Thanks for the help!

  8. Neil Ounaissays

    Hi there,
    So I have bought P.A.F Gibson humbucker pickups for my guitar as I originally thought you could fit new humbuckers on any guitar already using some, however, I have done the very first mistake you explained in the #1 point, and have got pickups with a single lead while my guitar uses pickups with 3. Is there any way possible I could find how to change it to a 3 lead one, I can’t return them since I bought them online.
    Thanks for the help.

    1. Tyler Delsack - Fralin Pickupssays

      Hey Neil,

      If you have a guitar with multiple humbuckers, you may be able to simply reverse the lead on the existing humbuckers, if you are worried about being out of phase.

      If you are installing into a blade switch, or a Fender-style switch, you will have to use shrink tubing to seal off the braided shield around the lead to prevent the lead from shorting anything hot.

      We stopped taking in lead changes. They are way too time consuming and messy.

      Tyler

      1. Neil Ounaissays

        Hi Tyler,
        Thank you for responding so quickly,
        My guitar is an Ultra Max Hagstrom which is very close to a Gibson Les Paul in terms of design.
        Since my guitar does have multiple humbuckers it is then reversible, however what is the simplest way to do it?
        Can it be done at home or is it safer to go to professionals?
        Thanks a lot !

  9. Chrissays

    I’ve been playing teles but am considering a strat for the first time. I noticed that the strat’s middle pickup is right in the way of the pick. I saw Robbie Robertson moved his middle pickup to the bridge. Are there any other solutions you can suggest? It’s very uncomfortable, especially if you’re used to a tele.

  10. Dave Makowskisays

    I want to install a PAF humbucker in the bridge position of my Strat. I am going to install it “SLANTED” as I prefer that look. I bought a Fender “Stacked” 250K/500K Potentiometer so I could wire the PAF to the 500K and wire the (2) single coils to the 250K. Will this work? Also the tone capacitor in my Strat is .1 MFD. I bought a .05 MFD just in case I would need to wire it to the 500K potentiometer/PAF. Will I have to use a separate tone capacitor for the 500K/PAF and/or can I use a .05 MFD for the 500K potentiometer and PAF? So my Strat will have a “SLANTED” PAF in the Bridge position and a single coil in the middle position and a single coil in the neck position. I also purchased a 500K Fender “Tone Saver” (Volume Treble Bleed Mod) for the PAF and a 250K Fender “Tone Saver” for the Single Coils. Will wiring the 500K to the 500K lugs and the 250K to the 250K lugs work? Thank you.

    1. Kenneth L Kirklandsays

      I bought a strat…changed pickups to new texas specials..while pick guard is off guitar everything works as it should..when pickguard is on guitar neck pickup and neck /middle doesn’t work while middle..middle/bridge…and bridge ositions work fine

      1. Kenneth L Kirklandsays

        Nevermind..fixed it on my own…i put foil in all the cavities and the switch was grounding out…easy fix simply wrapped everything in electrical tape and put it back together..plays and sounds perfectly now

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