While most inexpensive pickups use ceramic magnets that give you a distinct bright tone, advancements in winding and construction technology have made it possible to find inexpensive pickups using Alnico magnets, as well, giving you a lot of tonal options even when you’re constrained by your budget. With these considerations in mind, we present the 5 best cheap guitar pickups on the market.
Fender Vintage Reissue ‘62
Designed to go on Telecasters and other single-coil pickup guitars, the Vintage ’62 pickup from Fender gives you that classic Fender sound in an affordable package. It uses an Alnico III magnet and enamel-coated wire just like the original Telecaster pickups, giving them a true vintage sound with all the familiar twang. Made in versions for both the neck and the bridge, the Vintage Reissue ’62 has a smooth, warm sound that’s exceptionally versatile across styles, from classic rock to light jazz, and sounds equally good played clean or on overdrive.
Tonerider TRT2 Hot Classic
Available in either a neck or bridge pickup, the Tonerider Hot Classic uses Alnico III magnets with a higher wind to give more edge to your tone, perfect for blues and rock guitarists. The neck version uses a nickel silver cover that gives you a transparent tone with excellent definition on the attack; the bridge version has a grounded copper plated base to give a feel similar to vintage Broadcaster pickups. Both versions offer a thick, rich bass tone with a strong midrange presence. This pickup is designed for Telecasters and will fit any guitar with that size of single-coil pickup.
The DiMarzio DP110 is a single-coil pickup that can be used on Stratocasters and other similarly-routed pickup wirings. It’s one of the loudest single-coil pickups on the market, with a smooth but fat sound throughout the range that helps tone down the brightness of traditional Strat pickups. This model works best in the bridge position, giving you a balanced vintage-style tone with extra power in the mid and low range. It can also work in the neck or middle position for a slightly brighter edge. It’s the most affordable pickup on the market to use an Alnico V magnet, delivering a clean, clear tone across dynamic levels. Therefore, it’s also likely the best cheap guitar pickup you can buy.
Bill Lawrence L500R
Bill Lawrence humbuckers are best-loved in the bridge position, and is designed as a high-output pickup. Previous similar models from the company used ceramic magnets, but with the L500 they switched to Alnico V magnets, the end result being a pickup that gives the same powerful output without sacrificing clarity or musicality. These pickups are loud enough that they don’t tend to blend well with other brands or styles in the neck position. If you only want to switch up your bridge pup, you may want to go with something less distinctive, but if what you want is more oomph throughout your range, these Bill Lawrence humbuckers can definitely get you there.
Another great affordable humbucker option is the 81 from EMG. It’s fully shielded and wax potted to minimize excess noise and feedback. The ceramic magnet gives your tone a bright edge with great control and clarity, along with a consistent sound across a wider frequency range than previous models. The definition and balance on chords makes it a great choice for rhythm players and lead players alike, and they’re especially popular among metal musicians. They tend to sound the best used in the neck position, where they’ll give you great harmonics with a lot of versatility. These should be on anyone’s list of the best cheap guitar pickups.
The most popular materials for pickup magnets are ceramic and Alnico. Ceramic magnets are made with ferrites, typically iron oxides, which produce a strong magnetic field. This makes ceramic magnets a bit hotter and brighter, with more treble in the sound. Alnico magnets are made from a combination of aluminum, nickel, and cobalt that produces a slightly weaker magnetic field than the typical ceramic model. This gives Alnico magnets a generally warmer, smoother tone that’s especially desirable to jazz players.
Ceramic magnets are less expensive than Alnico. This has given them an undeserved bad reputation because companies that make low-quality pickups use the cheapest option available, but though they have different tonal characteristics there is no inherent quality difference between ceramic and Alnico magnets.
As long as the rest of the pickup is well-constructed, a ceramic magnet could be the right fit for your sound, especially if you play in a rock or country style—and especially if you’re looking for the highest possible sound quality on a budget. Indeed, for high output pickups, ceramic is often the better choice, making sure you get enough high end response and giving you the brightness and crunch that’s so desirable in a heavy blues or rock tone.
Pickup Design and Placement
The double-coil design of a humbucker pickup eliminates the 60-cycle hum and excess noise that often accompanies single-coil designs. This hum is most noticeable when you’re playing at low dynamic levels, meaning jazz and folk guitarists especially tend to favor humbuckers. Beyond the matter of tone preference, however, is the practical fact of your guitar’s wiring. An instrument that’s built to take a single-coil pickup can be modified to fit a humbucker, but this process is often costly and can cause both aesthetic and structural damage to your neck and bridge. Buying a pickup that fits with your guitar’s existing wiring is by far the most economical option if you’re shopping on a budget.
Where you put the pickup on your guitar will also make a difference in the overall sound. Most guitars use a two pickup system, with one placed at the neck and one at the bridge. A pickup that’s designed for use at one position can work at the other (a bridge pickup won’t short out if you use it in the neck position) but it won’t give the same tonal qualities as it would if used as intended. The best cheap guitar pickups will often come in either a bridge or a neck design, so make sure you pick the right one.
The pickups on your guitar can be switched out independently of each other, giving you the opportunity to mix and match styles and tone colorations. Upgrading one pickup at a time can be an economical way to improve your sound. Most people find that changing their bridge pickup has a greater impact on their sound than changing out the neck pickup. If you’re looking to buy just one new pickup, choosing a new one for your bridge is likely to yield the most significant improvement.