When you’re shopping for new pickups for a Telecaster, balance is key. Look to get a neck pickup that can stand toe to toe with your bridge pickup in terms of power (and vice versa). For many people, buying new pickups for an iconic guitar like a Tele means finding a model that can emulate that classic twang. Aside from that, your own personal style is going to be the main factor in which pickup is right for you.
Whether you’re more concerned with chordal work or lines, are the lead in a rock band or play rhythm guitar in a jazz group, one of the pickups on this list is likely to suit your needs. These are the 4 best Telecaster pickups on the market.
DiMarzio Vintage Twang King
This pickup represents DiMarzio’s riff on the traditional vintage Telecaster sound. It’s constructed using controlled-tension 2-conductor wiring and Alnico V magnets that are calibrated by hand and then wax potted twice to eliminate feedback squeals. The neck pickup has a chrome cover, while the bridge pickup features a ferrous base plate. This is a pickup (see full specs) that can handle a wide dynamic range with ease, giving you a hard attack when you want power but capturing the nuance of soft picking better than past Telecaster pickup designs. The overall effect is an aggressive tone with a powerful low-range and a snappy twang throughout.
Tonerider Hot Classic
The Alnico III magnets in these pickups use a higher wind to give the tone more edge, making them perfect for blues and rock guitarists. The nickel silver cover gives the tone a remarkable transparency, while the grounded copper baseplate adds depth to the tone. The fat bass and raunchy treble that result gives a similar tone to vintage Broadcaster pickups. They give you this thick tone without letting it get muddled; the Hot Classic gives crisp note separation even on chords. There’s a reason this has been Tonerider’s best-selling pickup for years. It gives you the classic hot tone that the name implies with the durability and craftsmanship of a modern pickup. And it’s, needless to say, among the best Telecaster pickups for the money.
Fender Vintage Noiseless Tele Pickups
If you’re bothered by the 60-cycle hum but don’t want to re-wire your Telecaster for a humbucker, check out these Vintage Noiseless pickups. They use stacked Alnico II magnets to cut back on noise while still giving you the twang of a ‘60s era Tele. This means you can cut back on unwanted noise without losing the classic Fender tone. Eliminating that hum also gives you more freedom to crank the gain; whether you play clean or with heavy distortion, these pickups are well-balanced and give you consistent tone across the range. The neck model uses a nickel silver cover to increase the clarity, and both bridge and neck models use enamel-coated wire.
EMG TX X Series
EMG pickups are a mainstay in the business, associated with high-output heavy guitar playing. They use an active pickup design (see full specs) that utilizes an internal micro preamp to shape the tonal characteristics. As a result, less of the power has to come from the magnetic field and you get a guitar with better sustain and richer harmonic overtones than passive pickup designs. The end result is a high-gain bluesy tone with rocking, Hendrix-like distortion. The sound is open and responsive to picking dynamics with a minimum of extraneous noise. Though it’s most lauded in the blues and rock styles, the high-range shimmer also makes it a great pickup for country players, making these among the best Telecaster pickups period.
Every guitar is wired to take a certain kind of pickup when it comes out of the factory. In the case of a Telecaster, this means using single-coil pickups. This style of pickup is compact and powerful, but the magnetic field also tends to produce background noise, known as the 60-cycle hum, that’s mainly audible when the volume of the guitar is turned up high, or when the music being played is especially soft. As a Tele player, you have three options for dealing with the hum. You could ignore it; especially if you play in a louder ensemble, you may not be bothered by (or even notice) the hum. You could re-wire your guitar to use a humbucker—by far the most costly option, and also risky, since the process could damage your instrument.
Your last option is to invest in noiseless pickups, like the Fender Vintage Noiseless above. These pickups stack the magnetic coils to keep the pickup slim enough for single-coil designs. This does make the pickup slightly taller than most single-coil models, and you may need to make some slight adjustments to your pickup and bridge height, but these are simple and temporary modifications that can be done by your repairman.
Magnet Materials of the Best Telecaster Pickups
The material used for the pickups magnets will have the largest impact on the overall sound. All of the pickups on this list use an alloy of aluminum, nickel, and copper (called Alnico) as their magnet material. Variations in the ratios of these metals leads to changes in the magnet’s strength, which will have a corresponding effect on your guitar’s tone.
Alnico II magnets tend to give you a softer, warmer tone throughout the range. The mids are richer and more present in the sound while the highs are less strident and the lows fuller. Alnico III magnets will give you a bit more treble than others, with scooped mids and a low end that’s tight and responsive but not as powerful. Alnico IV magnets give the signal a compressed or equalized tone. The tone will be more consistent across the range, but some people find the tone to be flat and lacking character. The lows will be punchier, with crisp highs; because they brighten the sound, Alnico IV magnets don’t often work well with Fender guitars, which already have a tight sound profile. The Alnico V is the strongest version of the magnet commonly used in pickups. It has a potentially higher output than other magnets, with a bite to the treble, scooped mids, and tight lows, and works best in hotter winds.
No one magnet is inherently better than the others. Play around with various strengths and styles until you find the one that fits your own ideal tone. Upgrading your pickups is the simplest way to transform the sound of your Telecaster; the key is choosing the right one to match your ideal tone and style.