So you've made the big decision to change your electric guitar's pickups, but after all your research and investigation nothing really makes a sound that inspires you.
Or perhaps you just don't feel like dropping several hundred dollars on what may end up as nothing more than a failed experiment in sonic adventure. What's the curious guitarist to do?
Despite the complicated role they play in defining any electric rig, pickups really are simple objects on their own. At its core, a pickup is really nothing more than exposed wire surrounding a set of magnets, the steel guitar strings breaking the magnetic field and thus creating the signal to be sent to the amplifier; in short, it's not just a noisemaker but a controlled electromagnet.
What's more, thanks to this simplicity, crafting a pickup from scratch is literally as easy as gluing and winding some very inexpensive, readily available materials to each other.
What You'll Need
1. Magnets - two (2) per string on your guitar (for this guide we'll assume you have a six-string, but a seven-, eight- or twelve-string would follow the same process). The exact sizes you can use depend on your specific guitar body, but most models can use 3/16" tall x 1/4" diameter magnets. Keep in mind that a stronger magnet (i.e. higher Gauss rating) will create a "hotter" signal and thus create a stronger signal at the high end of the output spectrum, but may also result in greater distortion at the source.
2. One (1) spool of solder-friendly copper wire - either 42 or 43 gauge.
3. Frame for the new pickup assembly - this should be a pair of identical objects, both thin and non-metallic, preferably made of wood or some other surface that won't resist glue. Popsicle sticks are a common choice.
4. Industrial-strength glue
5. Marker or pen
6. Wax - no ideal ratio of paraffin to beeswax exists, but the higher the concentration of beeswax, the higher the temperature your new pickup can withstand later.
7. Kitchen Pot to melt wax in
8. Kitchen Tongs
First up, with your guitar still intact and fully strung, take your frame of choice and line it up perpendicular to the neck just over the pickup. Mark where each string crosses over the frame; these will be where your magnets end up, and by marking them now you can ensure your new pickup will capture at least as much string vibration as your old one.
Now take six of those magnets and glue them to the marked spots on your frame, one at a time, all facing the same direction (either negative or positive side up). While the glue is drying, your magnets may attract each other and disrupt their setting. You can counteract this by either gluing one magnet down at a time, or by placing another magnet on the opposite side of the frame to hold it in place through attraction. With the first set of magnets set, place one magnet atop each of those already in place and glue your other frame to those newly-applied magnets.
Now comes the hard part.
Leaving a generous amount of slack (which you'll need to use as the lead connecting your new pickup to your guitar's electronics), begin winding the copper wire around the magnets. The precise number of windings necessary will be extraordinarily high; eight, ten, maybe even twelve thousand times around. You'll know you're done when your new pickup fits flush inside the casing from your old pickup.
With your wiring wound, you'll now need to brace the whole assembly in place, which is where the wax comes in. Using either a double boiler (or a really old pot you're willing to either scrub or throw away), melt the wax mixture and dip your pickup assembly into the liquid using standard kitchen tongs or, if none are available, a ladle with a grated bottom. With the pickup covered, remove it from the wax and rotate the pickup in the tongs to let the excess wax run off back into the pot or boiler. Allow a few minutes for the wax to harden, then cut off the lower ends of the frame and remove the top end entirely. The wiring in place and magnets exposed, your pickup is now ready to rock.
The final step is to simply drop your new pickup in the spot vacated by the old one, and to attached the lead you left to the wire that originally connected your guitar's controls to its former pickup. With the new pickup in place, re-attach its external bracket (or pickguard, or both; methods for holding the pickup down will vary by make and model), plug in to the nearest amp and marvel at your rock and roll creation.