Are boutique pickps really different than others?


Master Member
Here's the thing that's been bugging me as I plan my second W build. Pickups - they're as simple as can be, really. I mean, you've got a magnet, some coil around it, a ground wire, and a hot wire. Magnets vary in size, shape, and composition, and the coil varies in composition, gauge, and number of turns. There's a little variation in pole piece size, but that pretty much covers it.  Strength is gauged by DC resistance. Comparing, say, Fralin pickups with their closest GFS equivalents, I'm kind of stumped. You've got the same magnets, same wire, same resistance, roughly. One costs $40 and one costs $120. The GFS 'premium alnico' strat pickups in my Warmoth cost $60 for three, and they sound as good as any strat pickups I've played with. The Seymour Duncan little 59 in the bridge is a great pickup, and sounds totally different than the GFS neck and middle, but not better and costs $80. It's just different by design.

I'm NOT trying to imply that all pickups are equally good, at all.  I've played through crappy pickups. BUT, given the same exact materials, measurables and physical dimensions, what the heck are you paying double / triple the price for?  All I can come up with is 1) magic mojo, 2) geek cred, and 3) made in the USA ridiculousness. I don't believe in magic, don't have anyone other than you guys to brag to, and prefer Toyotas to Chevys.

So, what do you pay extra for, expressed in non-mystical terms? I'm tempted to find a store with a good return policy so that I can A/B some GFS pickups against some expensive ones, but I'd rather play than tinker, in general. If you've done that, I'd love to hear.
ssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh, don't let the others hear your. what you have stumbled upon is bigger that the both of us can ever comprehend, this goes back to the time of les paul.  it hurts just to think about it. you have taken the red pill, so lets get started.  the secret behind the high dollar pick ups is forty-tw...  lksdflkjflk (throat slit by assassin, head slams keys)
The Gear Page mantra...

"If it costs more, if there is a waiting list, or if nobody else has ever heard of it...

it MUST be better!"

I'm still waiting for CB to blow me away with some micromagnetic particle physics.
What RLW said.  Except, give it a guru endorsement, make it hard to get, make it expensive... and the waiting list will grow....
In my career I've tried/gone through almost everything pickup-wise. A lot depends on the type of music and effects chain/amplification you use. If you're playing metal/using a lot of effects the only real differential is how "hot" they are in terms of output.

I've used the GFS overwound grey-bottom Texas Staggers on a couple of builds and there's no appreciable difference between them and a set of Fender Custom Shop '69s besides the $75-80 in costs UNLESS you're plugging straight into a Fender tube amp; the FCS set is a little mellower playing blues, the GFS a tad more shrill...

On the other hand, if you want a set of the GFS "PAFs", I'd be happy to sell you a set for what I paid for them with free shipping...

I've tried the Fralins and send one set back and wired the other set in a pickguard and eBay'ed them for $33 profit. Per my great local music store - Mass. Street Music in Lawrence, KS; Fralins "were a fad and now it's over, want a deal on a set?"

It started out with curiousity piqued by postings on this board, but I'm completely sold on Rio Grande PUs now, have used their P90s and HBs and a set of their single coils are going in my next Strat build. In every case so far, vintage tone, but with BALLS, what more could you want/ask for? This from a guy that has previously owned '54, '57 and a couple of early 60s Strats and '60s/early seventies Gibsons with P90s and HBs.

If you want to continue to experiment, eBay is a great source; if you don't get impatient you can find deals on a wide variety of PUs, just never cut the leads and you can always relist them/get your money back if you buy them right; if you have a modicum of soldering skills and use some vintage type cloth insulated wire you can cram them in a pickguard and make $20-50 getting rid of them if you don't like them, but that's a lot easier to do with S-S-S or S-S-H Strat sets...

the question is: Are the GFS pickups made in Asia?...if so, that is why you pay half of what you'd pay for a pickup made here in the US. That extra $40 pays for a safer work place for the folks that wind the pickups and puts a little extra cash in their pocket so they can pay their rent.

Given the price, I imagine they're Chinese knockoffs; but no "country of origin" listed on website/PUs/paperwork...
Jack: I'm not disagreeing with anything you're saying, I'm just looking for a more 'engineering' answer. ie, why rio grande is better than fralin or GFS, now that you've introduced that wrinkle.

About the Rio Grande Jazzbar, the 10k value has me wondering; I much prefer the sound (on the SD website) of the SD 'vintage' p90 at 8.12k than I do the 'hot' one at 12k, at least for the neck position in this guitar. In general, I like more clarity and individual string definition (not sure what that's called in guitar lingo), I like to be able to strum an open G and hear each string clearly. I like my distortion to come from the amp, basically. So, does that jazzbar have the kind of warm sound I'm looking for, even though it's wound pretty hot?
ALso, have you used the GFS P90s?  Anyone who has?

bpmorton777: Hope this doesn't offend you, I know it's a sensitive subject especially in parts of the midwest.  But I have no truck with the 'US guys need to pay rent' argument.  What, they don't have rent in Korea? Lots of places in the US ain't that safe to work at, and pay subsistence wages too.  I lived in East Asia for 7 years, so I look at it as just another place.
"Jack: I'm not disagreeing with anything you're saying, I'm just looking for a more 'engineering' answer. ie, why rio grande is better than fralin or GFS, now that you've introduced that wrinkle."

From an "engineering" standpoint I guess I'd have to say I prefer a pickup that's more overwound and has different/heavier magnet structure in general

not offended at all...alltho i guess im sounding like a red-neck. i dont mean to. I feel that most of the issues surrounding all imports to the US have to do with rampant American consumerism. I read something in the paper the other day about how most of the smog in the bay area (i live near San Fancisco) was flown in here on the jet stream from China....Well, if people over here didnt need cheap ipod accessories and $299 laptops we wouldnt have to worry about stuff like that would we?

Im not totaly without blame myself. I own an imported (Korean) Hamer guitar. I would hope that given that S. Korea is free and democratic that their workers would be treated ok and payed a living wage.

Brian, gotcha.  I've read they're blaming LA smog on China now too!  Actually it's a serious issue in Korea and Japan, and there's nothing they can do about it. Pretty much everything we're wearing and typing on is made over there, anyhow, so as long as my guitar parts are well-made I don't care too much where they come from.  So I'm kind of back to square one on my original question!
"I would hope that given that S. Korea is free and democratic that their workers would be treated ok and payed a living wage."

Fascist state we created; ostensibly has a form of democratic process, but the Chaebols control all the politicians/government.
Jack, I lived there for a couple of years (english teacher). It's not a fascist state and hasn't been since the 80s. They probably have a lot healthier democracy than we do - seriously. They have like 80-90% voter participation and man, do they have issues to vote on.
But we're not talking about my pickups anymore!
reading this thread makes me glad I'm a bass player/builder ... where changing pickups does make a significant difference in tone

all the best,

back to pickups

the guys hand winding boutique pickups one at a time have more control over materials and workmanship than they do in a factory. that is whay they'd cost $120 a pop.

stuff being mass produced and sold cheaply has a bigger chance of being put together sloppily and  having the wrong materials either by the factory running out of one thing and substituing another.

I agree with you in principle, but it does depend on the factory - a Lexus is going to have a lot fewer problems than a hand-made Bentley, partly because humans are less consistent than robots.
Are there differences in the quality of, say, an alnico v magnet?  or are they all the same, more or less? Maybe I should just start exploring sounds instead of looking for the engineering answer.
That's sort of why I tried HighOrder pickups.  I paid $55.00 a piece for the A2-bridge/A-3 alnico humbucker set in my Warmoth LP.  I just gave Jeff the DC Resistance I wanted for each (roughly the same output as SD Antiquities), and ran the A-2 bridge pickup with an asymmetrical wind.  I think he's jacked his prices up a little since then, but very affordable still.  They sound killer too.  Why pay double?
quick tidbit on the smog. the kashmir goats in china overgraze. there feet are like stilettos, and they turn up the soil, causing massive dust storms. the dirt in the air helps carry the pollution, and all of that is carried over in the jet stream. about 40 % of the smog over LA is form china.
crazy as hell.

any way yeah i'm glad to be a bass player, and i'm glad the emg hz bass pups are only $80 a piece on musicians friend.
Ok I'll try to answer the OP question.  Supply and demand, if your making pickups and people are buying them faster than you can make them, you raise the price to slow down demand to a point you can keep up, of course you add more workers to make more.

I wind my own pickups, and your right, it's not rocket science, it's pretty simple. the most important step in making a pickup is potting the coil to dampen microphonic feedback. This is why the term scatter winding is the hot keyword in pups, it allows space for the potting wax to help secure the windings

Most of the well known pickup builders would love for us all to believe there's something unique and mysterious about their pups. There is not.

If you wanna copy any pickup out there, just use the same magnets, same guage wire, and wind it up to the same resistance and you will be close.

Having said all that, the more pups I make the better they sound, so there is an element of actual craftsmanship through practice, that helps the sound.