I know when I first started playing the electric guitar, I had no idea that guitar pickups started to deteriorate over time. The lifespan of a guitar pickup is one of the least talked about issues when it comes to how good your guitar sounds, but you shouldn’t overlook it.
In this article, I’ll go through exactly why and how guitar pickups age, what old pickups sound like, and how they change over time. I’ll also address how you can make your pickups last longer, and how to know it’s time to swap them out. So let’s get started.
The Quick Answer
Guitar pickups generally last around half a decade before the sound quality drops. Single coil pickups age slower than humbucker pickups. Active pickups have a higher output compared to passive pickups so tend to deteriorate the fastest. Old pickups usually sound much weaker, quieter and flatter.
A Brief Overview of Pickup Structure
Before we jump into the nitty gritty of how guitar pickups actually age, we need to be really clear about their structure. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re already pretty clued up on this topic.
Guitar pickups consist of magnets and coils. The core material (the magnet) exist as poles, that are held upright by a bobbin. These magnets are then wrapped in coils of wire. You then can have a pickup cover that’s usually made of metal or plastic, to hide the coils of wire.
How do Pickups Change Over Time?
Okay, so what happens to this pickup structure over time?
The first thing that can happen to your pickups, is that they lose their magnetism, as it becomes weaker. This often happens naturally, over the course of many years. Some people believe that this process is accelerated if you keep your guitar close to other magnets, e.g speakers, however this probably doesn’t make all that much difference.
The second thing that can happen, is bobbin deterioration. The bobbin holds the magnets upright, so if this starts to corrode and break down, then the magnets will shift. This causes the output to become weaker when you play certain strings. However, this is usually more of an issue with vintage guitars compared to modern guitars.
Most newer guitars are either potted with wax or shellac which prevents bobbin deterioration.
In some cases, the coils of wire can start to become brittle and corrode, causing your pickups to break completely.
What Do Old Pickups Sound Like?
Old and worn out pickups usually sound weaker and flatter. This is because they have a weaker output (power) causing them to sound quieter and not as punchy.
They also tend to sound flatter and more muffled. This is due to a weakened treble response. Treble frequencies are what makes something sound sharp and clear. So if you want clear note separation, you’ll need a lot of treble.
Unfortunately, aged pickups can start to lose some of this treble. This makes them sound flat and less crisp and clear than they used to.
Does the Pickup Type Matter?
Yes, the type of pickup matters when it comes to the lifespan. Single coil pickups tend to last the longest, followed by passive P90’s and humbuckers, and finally active pickups are usually the fastest to deteriorate.
Single coil pickups tend to age the best out of any type of pickup. This is because the magnets take longer to lose their magnetism. The magnetic poles are typically quite hard, meaning that they take longer to weaken and lose their treble and output.
Passive Humbuckers and P90’s
Humbuckers and P90’s generally use softer magnets, which causes them to weaken a bit more quickly than single coil pickups. However, they are generally pretty long lasting, especially in comparison to active pickups.
Active pickups have a very high output, but unfortunately, they lose a lot of this pretty quickly. This usually leads to a weaker sounding tone, and less treble, resulting in poorer note separation.
How Long Do Pickups Take to Age?
In most cases, your pickups will last many years before they start to deteriorate. In most cases, you won’t even notice this happening. However, if you’ve had your pickups for over 5 years, and you start to notice your tone becoming a bit weaker and flatter, then it could be worth taking your guitar to the store to get checked out.
Most single coil pickups take around 6 months to 1 year to sound at their best, then you may notice the tonal quality deteriorate after half a decade.
Passive humbuckers and P90’s are quicker to break in, and usually sound at their best after 6 months or so. They usually last around half a decade before starting to deteriorate as well.
Active pickups age the fastest. Usually, the output will have dramatically decreased, as well as the treble frequencies, after around 2 years of solid use.
How to Make Pickups Last Longer
So know you’re probably wondering how you can make your guitar pickups last longer, before the tonal quality starts to decline.
Generally, there isn’t a great deal you can do to slow down this aging process.
If you’re using common sense and keeping your pickups clean and free from dust and grime, then you’re doing everything right.
What is Pickup Re-Magnetising?
Another pretty common question guitarists ask, is can you revive your pickups? The answer is actually yes. You can re-magnetise your pickups to give them a new lease of life. This involves passing your pickup between two very strong magnets.
However, I really wouldn’t recommend doing this on your own. If you don’t know what you’re doing then you can damage both yourself and your guitar.
If you think your pickups need re-magnetising then take your guitar to a professional to have a look for you.
So there you go! That’s how long guitar pickups actually last! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful: