Pickups 201: Pickup Replacement

If you play mid-level guitars, one area where some manufacturers try to save money is in the quality of the pickups they install. Fortunately, replacing pickups in your guitar is an inexpensive upgrade option that can radically transform the tone of your instrument from something average or typical to something that really screams.

Even on higher-priced instruments that ship with premium pickups, some players still choose to replace pickups in order to achieve specific sonic results. It’s the easiest way to make an off-the-shelf instrument sound a little bit more personal. Plus, with specific changes to the wiring scheme, you can further customize an instrument’s output to suit your personal tastes.

My quest began the day I foolishly sold the one guitar I should have kept in my collection – an Ibanez JPM-100 P2, one of the John Petrucci signature models from his days as an Ibanez endorsee (he’s now playing Music Man). I went through an “I’m sick of dealing with a Floyd Rose Tremolo” phase as changing strings was such a royal time-consuming pain (you have to cut the balls off the strings on many Floyd Rose-style tremolos before locking the strings into the bridge).

The great things about the JPM-100, though, were: superb playability of the Wizard neck, gorgeous tone from the DiMarzio Air Norton and Steve’s Special pickups, and custom three-way wiring. Rather than using a typical five-way switch, the guitar featured a three-position toggle – neck, bridge, and in the middle position, it used the inner coils from each pickup in parallel to achieve a tone similar to the middle/bridge combination from a single-coil equipped strat.

My quest for a suitable replacement ended when I found the Ibanez RGT42DXFM guitar – a beautiful flamed top RG-series instrument that was somewhat similar to the JPM guitars – Wizard-series neck, a flat finish like the JPM-100 P4 (I had one of those too but the camouflage color didn’t suit me), and it also had some features I liked even better – neck thru-body construction, a mahogany body for that deep Les Paul kind of sound, and the updated Edge Pro II tremolo didn’t require cutting balls off the strings. Click here to read our in-depth review of this guitar.

As we noted in the review, this guitar only fell short of more-costly Prestige and Signature Ibanez guitars in the tone department, but it was the perfect base from which to begin our customization project.

My plan was to replace the stock pickups with a DiMarzio Air Norton in the neck position and a Steve’s Special pickup in the bridge, as well as to replace the five-way switch with the same custom three-way pickup wiring that I loved in the JPM-100. I didn’t expect to get the same exact sound – the mahogany body yields a different tone than the basswood body of a JPM. At the end of this workshop, I’ll let you know how the upgraded guitar sounds.

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