There are a few things on a guitar that can wear out over time. The guitar strings, for example, can wear out fairly quickly and they make a huge difference in how the guitar sounds, feels and looks. Another thing that can wear out is the bridge which tends to get a disheveled look after a lot of playing.
The same thing is said for the finish, although, that depends on if it’s polyurethane or not. Some people also have the same question about other aspects of the guitars, particularly the electronics like the pickup which do a lot of work when it comes to the guitar’s primary function.
Guitar pick-ups typically don’t go bad because they’re made out of agents, wiring, and they’re often housed inside a plastic casing. However, some of the parts may deteriorate including the wiring, the plastic, or even the casing. that said, pick-ups are designed to last for decades.
It’s worth pointing out that adding or replacing pickups on your guitar, as I alluded to earlier, can make a fairly big difference in how your guitar sounds. I put EMG 81/85 on my Epiphone Les Paul Custom years ago and it turned my guitar into a beast.
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Why Guitar Pickups Don’t Really Go Bad
Here’s what a Fender employee, Brett Arney, had to say to me when I asked them whether or not a guitar’s pick-up can “go bad,” for lack of a better term.
“Pickups don’t go ‘bad’ per se, there are guitars from the 1940s and the 1950s where the pickup still functions perfectly. They can age and can go microphonic.
This happens when some shrinkage happens within the pick-up construction itself causing the pickup to function more like an actual microphone due to gaps between the magnets and the coil.
Some may lose some of their magnetic power over the years, but for the most part, they should hang in there, unless they suffer some type of trauma or other obvious damage.
Before jumping into all of the possible things that could destroy your guitar’s pick-ups, let’s talk about how they’re actually made.
How Guitar Pick-Ups Are Made
Guitar manufacturers usually begin the pick-up construction process with a piece of fibreboard or plastic (more on pickups in my other article).
The piece of plastic also called flatwork, has six round holes punched out of it which are meant to hold pole pieces, that are essentially cylindrical magnets, or slugs, which are ferrous metal cylinders, with a bar magnet underneath.
The magnets are properly placed apart from each other at the same distance as the guitar’s strings.
Usually, a magnet wire, that is insulated by a thin layer of varnish, is wound around the magnetic structure thousands of times by a machine that does the winding.
Smooth winds make the pickups sound much darker whereas a scatter wound coil creates more of a crisp sound.
Typically, the most common types of guitar pick-ups are the single coils, which are most commonly seen on the Fender Stratocaster.
Usually, pickup problems are a consequence of a few different things, including poor soldering and faulty wiring.
And while it’s not common for them to “break down,” within the span of a decade or so, sometimes they can deteriorate under different circumstances.
One tool that people commonly used to determine if they’re still “good,” is the multimeter, which can measure voltage, resistance, and electrical current.
For this, the technician has to remove the guitar’s strings, and on other models, remove the pick-guard as well. Most of the hardware on a guitar is removable with a simple Phillips-head screwdriver.
As I mentioned above, the parts of the pick-ups that deteriorate are usually replaceable on some level, including the copper wiring and the soldering.
The other parts of the pick-up, like the magnets, should last for many, many years. It’s one of the reasons why a guitar made from the 1950s is, in often cases, still completely playable.
One user on the Harmony Central forum stated that a guitar pick-up magnetism should be able to last hundreds of years, even upwards of up to 400 years.
According to First Four Magnets, their website states that on average, a neodymium magnet loses around 5% of its magnetism every 100 years.
Assuming the pick-up magnets are made out of neodymium, you certainly shouldn’t have to worry about the magnetic portion of it dying out anytime soon.
Potential Causes Of Pick-Up Destruction
1) Solder Joints Becoming Brittle Over Time and Degrading Insulation
Solder joints, over time, tend to become brittle and weak as well, in addition to the wire that winds them could have a kink within it that finally became compromised and wore out.
Moreover, a wire can become severed somehow.
Additionally, the insulation within the pick-up could break down at some point and short the coils, and therefore, kill the output.
Being wound improperly or having damage to the insulation surrounding the wire can cause more problems, especially in the case of moisture.
Another thing that can happen to a pick-up, specifically in the case of Fender-style single-coil pick-ups, is that in some cases, the insulation can chemically react with the rods over a long period of time and the pick-up subsequently shorts out.
2) Stray Pieces Of Metal Getting Lodged In The Coil
Another thing that could happen is a foreign object of some kind, or a piece of metal managed to get itself into the coil and sever it.
I imagine that this sort of thing isn’t nearly as common unless you’re playing guitar in a machine-shop or some other area where there are a lot of very small pieces of metal fibers.
As one user stated on the Seymour Duncan forums, the magnet wire could become deteriorated over time, especially over decades, and lead to breakage and a subsequent shorting of the coil.
In addition to the lacquer insulation on the magnet wire could flake off in a couple of spots and then touch another piece of metal and then short out.
However, a full or partial rewind could fix either of these problems. With that all said, nearly every component in the pick-ups should be able to perform their function for potentially a hundred years, perhaps even longer.
Another thing that’s worth mentioning is whether or not you ever use steel wool anywhere near your guitar, which is a common thing that people use when cleaning their frets, strings, or the fret-board, in general.
If you’re not careful, it’s possible that the steel wool pieces could manage to break off and get lodged inside of the pickup and subsequently cause a shorting out of some kind.
3) Exposing Pick-Ups To Powerful Magnets
Another thing that can happen is that if you put a super-powerful magnet directly in front of the pick-up, you can actually strip some of the power of the magnet from it.
This is another one of those problems that are likely quite rare, due to the fact that most people don’t have in their possession a magnet strong enough to cause this kind of issue.
4) Exposing Guitar To Moisture, Water, And Humidity
In an AC/DC documentary from a few years back, the technician responsible for Angus Young’s guitars stated that his guitars would need new pick-ups put in them every once in a while due to the fact he would sweat so much on them, and his sweat would get into the pick-up and short them out.
Moreover, I imagine that if you live in an incredibly humid environment, above 60%, and your guitar is always in that environment, it’s possible the metals, wires, and coils, etc, could be subjected to deterioration over time.
In this case, it would probably just mean that the pick-ups last just a little less long.
As I wrote about in my article on keeping strings from rusting, continuous humidity in conjunction with steel can actually cause corrosion through the process of oxidation.
This is what leads to rusting, whether it’s of your guitar strings, or on your car.
For that reason, it is possible for the magnets to become corroded, although, it probably wouldn’t happen for a very long time on account of the fact that you’re rarely actually touching the magnets themselves.
Do Active Pick-Ups “Go Bad?”
For this question, I reached out to EMG Pick-ups, and one of their people responded to me with the following message:
Pickups should never really “go bad”. Passive pickups are just coil wrapped around a wire, so aside from rust or physical damage, there isn’t really anything that would fail.
As for actives, those are a bit more complex, so the possibility goes up ever so slightly I guess, but they usually last forever as well. There are still EMGs being used that was built in the ’70s.
Most of the time, I have found that if a pickup is bad, it would either be like that out of the box due to a factory issue or very shortly after installation if one of the circuit board components is bad and gets burnt up or something like that.
But altogether, it is very unlikely that a working pickup would randomly stop working.
You Shouldn’t Have To Worry About Your Pick-Ups “Going Bad”
The vast majority of the parts of a pick-up can be replaced by a proper technician, so it’s not worth worrying about that much.
Another person on the same forum stated that Jerry Garcia once claimed he would run through a pair of pick-ups every year, however, it’s not entirely clear what Jerry Garcia was up to, so it’s hard to say exactly what he was doing to his guitars.
While there are many ways that a pick-up could theoretically go bad, most of them will never do so, at least not for many, many, many years.
Unless you’re Angus Young and you’re playing guitar on stage in front of hundreds of lights, sweating profusely, you shouldn’t have to worry about your pick-ups shorting out or anything like that.
Moreover, if you take proper care of your instrument, and aren’t in an extremely humid environment; spilling drinks on your instrument; or exposing your instrument to extremely powerful magnets, the pick-ups should work fine for many years.
In the case of faulty wiring or sodering, however, you may just have to take the instrument back to the place where you bought it and have them fix it.