Boutique pickups vs cheap guitar pickups. Or, “Why do pickups cost so much?”

Someone emailed to ask why they shouldn’t just buy and play cheap guitar pickups.

They wanted to know why Revel Custom Pickups cost as much money as they do. In answer to the question 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. But since there isn’t here’s the difficult one.

boutique pickups vs cheap guitar pickups

The most popular pickup I make and sell is the Vintage ’72 Wide Range Humbucker. It’s among those 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 the 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. 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 the pickup is potted. Then the pickup sits for a day and is tested before packaging. 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 Wide Range Humbucker an amazing thing to hear.

Other builders charge more than I do because they can. They’re brand rings out louder than Revel Custom Pickups. 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 $20, do the same. Ignore politics and ethics and ideologies, ideas about international markets, labor practices and laws, etc. Seriously consider the time and effort that goes into making one good pickup well in contrast to the price of the many cheap pickups.

And that leads me to the part of the email conversation that did bother 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. 

Serious players buy “boutique” or custom pickups because they sound better. Serious players buy good amps because they sound better. Serious recording studios use the gear they do because it sounds great. 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 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.

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