I’ve got the question a few times, so I figure I would set the record straight from my perspective.
Do different pickups on electric guitar really matter? Or is it the guitar? Do pickups matter as much as strings?
Short TLDR answer: YES. Perhaps more than anything else. Definitely more than strings.
Long answer: The pickups in your electric guitar have probably the most impact on what your sound is like. Just listen to the same guitar with humbuckers or single coils. Or even the same setup with stock pickups vs EMG’s. Higher quality pickups are less noisy, provide a myriad of different timbres, and change the sound of your instrument more-so than strings, wiring, nut changing, bridge altering, you name it. It makes sense, thats what is doing the heavy lifting and taking the vibration of the strings and converting it through your electronics into your amplifier!
For me personally, I’ve always gravitated toward active pickups (EMG’s) since Metallica used them. On my first guitar I put in EMG’s and it was an eye opener. That guitar was always noisy and thin. EMG 81’s and the thing sounded like Kirk Hammett’s guitar. Perhaps for me the biggest difference was the hum reduction. The output of EMG’s was way higher and beefier, but without all the drawbacks. Needless to say most of my guitars have EMG’s in them because on electric, I mostly play metal. They sound beautiful with high gain. While I used to use two EMG 81’s (one neck one bridge position), that’s no longer the style I favor. It’s kind of like the same thing with different clothes on. The combo’s I favor now are the EMG81 in the bridge and either an EMG85 or EMG60 in the neck. Both of those are warmer and have better cleans than an 81. I’ve recently checked out the X series and purchased a 60x and 85x to put in two of my guitars. I’d say 85’s are better at maingaining (see what I did there?) and 60’s have better clean/more change in tone.
Not all my playing is metal though, which is why I decided when I was reconstructing the aforementioned first guitar, I decided to give DiMarzio’s ToneZone in the Bridge position (early Paul Gilbert style) and Air Norton in the neck. How does one go about picking pickups though?
I tend to watch YouTube videos these days for comparisons. Here are a few that feature EMG’s. This man is truly doing the (dark)lord’s work with posting these, I find them incredibly insightful. Minimalistic in the best way.
I’ll also watch demos to get a vibe if they are the right thing for me. Try typing in the pickup combo you want, see what comes up!
And of course, reading on forums. For instance, I did a lot of reading about the Air Norton and when I read what people DIDN’T like, it made me want it more. There was talk of it being too ooey gooey and warm, and too far different from a bridge pickup. That is EXACTLY what I’m looking for. I want my bridge in this guitar to be treble king and hot, and I want the neck pickup to be glassy and warm, I don’t want them to sound anything like each other.
Now, this won’t fix everything about a cheap guitar. If your guitar is $100, it probably isn’t worth it to spend $200 on pickups to hotrod it. But, if you’re in that midrange guitar level, say, $400-800, the quality of the instrument itself is probably good enough to explore hot rodding with pickups should you desire. Check out your favorite artists. What do they use? Is their setup complicated, or is it relatively guitar-amp to where you can really hear the pickups?
Have fun picking your pickups out there!