Why do pickups cost so much?

Someone emailed and asked why my guitar pickups cost so much money. The first sentence of my reply was a link to some humbuckers that cost four times as much as any Revel humbucker. And then I tried to explain the actual cost of a pickup, from the materials to the time to the endless hours of research and development that goes into every pickup I sell.

I don’t mind the question. I understand why it’s asked and I wish there were an easy answer.

The most popular pickup I make and sell is the Vintage ’72. It’s also the one that takes the longest amount of time to make. Because I build the bobbins by hand it’s a literal time suck. Each side of the bobbin has to be drilled for two different size holes and one side has to be tapped. But before any of that happens I have to cut tje flat work and the spacers on a laser cutter. Before that happens I have to design the flat work and spacer in an appropriate program and output it to a specific file type that the laser’s software can understand. I don’t even have a reasonable estimation of how much time goes into just that process alone but it’s more than I probably care to realize given the cost of the pickups that are built with these parts.

Once the bobbins are ready to go each one is wound one at a time. All said and done this takes roughly thirty minutes. Then leads are attached to the end of the wire. The bobbins are taped. The magnets are inserted and then the magnets are charged collectively. Then the magnets are individually de-gaussed to a precise level, one at a time, by hand. Then the bobbins are secured to the baseplate. In between the bobbins and the baseplate is the reflector plate, which I have likewise had to design, have locally manufactured and locally plated. Then the lead is attached and is carefully soldered to the bobbins.

Next up is the engraving of the cover which I do by hand. Finally the cover is put on the pickup, soldered in place, and the lead is soldered to the baseplate. I am now on about hour three of ONE pickup. Next it goes into a guitar for testing. Then, finally, the pickup is potted. Then the pickup sits for a day and is tested again. Finally it is ready to be packaged and shipped, a process that takes, perhaps ironically, almost as long as any other part in the process.

The time alone is almost worth the cost of the pickup and that’s before the cost of the materials or the research and development that went into make the Vintage ’72 an amazing thing to hear.

Other builders charge more than I do because they can. They’re brand rings out louder than Revel. Other builders charge less. How is that possible? Most of the process is automated and the parts are Asian made and bought in bulk.

BUT…when you see a Chinese humbucker for sale on Ebay for $15, pause to consider that measly sum in the context of the process I have just described. When you see a Fetish this or Dragon that for sale for $30, do the same.

And that leads me to the part of the email conversation I was having with yesterday’s would be customer that did bug me. He asked “Is there really a difference between a cheap Ebay humbucker and your humbuckers? I’ve heard a boutique pickup next to a cheap one and they sounded the same.” And here’s where it becomes impossible to not sound condescending even though I honestly do not mean to be. And, so, my apologies but…

Just because you can’t hear the difference doesn’t mean there isn’t any. 

I truly believe in the adage “If it sounds good it is good.” I really do. But that doesn’t mean that what sounds good to you doesn’t sound awful to someone else. Serious players buy boutique pickups because they sound better and serious players buy good amps because they sound better. Serious recording studios use the gear they do because it sounds good. So on and so on. And I dare argue that, even if you’re not hearing certain things now, you will.

It took me a long, long time (longer than I care to admit) to hear the tonal nuance in certain pickups. I had to carefully train my ear to hear them and it wasn’t training that’s possible by listening to Youtube videos. Those many years of careful attention and close listening was an investment in the pickups and guitars and amps I build today and in my own music. And again, this is NOT condescension. But if you honestly can’t hear the difference between a GF “Perfect PAT Boutique Fat Vintage Tone Most Amazing Humbucker (made in China)” you owe it to yourself to at least consider that you just can’t hear the difference…yet.