Changing out your guitar's pickups is so simple you can do it yourself. All you need is a soldering iron and some rosin-core solder, a Phillips Head screwdriver, and a wire stripper. It's a fully reversible operation; I installed, extensively tested, and changed out six pickups in the same guitar in one afternoon with no mishaps. If you're solder-phobic, you can have your new pickup put in at your local guitar shop for a modest fee. But even if you've never used a soldering iron you shouldn't have any problem, it's basically just tacking a couple of wires to a pot. Now let's get down to it.
We'll use an Epiphone Les Paul as our example. Refresh your memory on the controls. Looking at the guitar held in playing position, the top row of knobs are the volume and tone controls for the rhythm (neck) pickup. The knob closest to the neck is the volume control. The lower row of knobs controls the volume and tone for the treble (bridge) pickup. First remove the strings, bridge, and tailpiece.
Then place the guitar face down on a non-scratching surface and remove the back plate behind the knobs. Don't try to use the wrong size of screwdriver, you'll strip the screws and have a bad day. Leave the round plate alone, that's just for the toggle switch, which we're not changing.
When the back plate is removed, you should see something like this (see image). If you have a digital camera, take a picture of the open cavity for future reference. The volume pots--the ones we'll be concerned with here--are the two on the left, rhythm pickup on top and treble pickup on the bottom. On the rhythm pickup volume pot, there should be a red wire with the shield connected to the back of the pot and the inside connected to the first lug on the bottom of the pot. There is a similar arrangement on the treble pickup volume pot except the wire is black. (The colors may vary depending on the guitar you're working on. The hot wire is the one connected to the lug.) These are the pickup connections.
Carefully unsolder and remove these wires. Do not cut the wires, just touch the soldering iron to the solder joint while very gently pulling on the wire. The wire will come off as soon as the solder melts. Leave the blobs of solder on the backs of the pots. If there's enough there, you won't have to use additional solder later.
After the pickup leads are loose, flip the guitar back over, remove the four corner screws from the pickup bezel.
Lift the whole pickup assembly out. Grasp the pickup lead and gently pull it out through the tunnel in the body, entirely freeing the pickup from the instrument.
Remove the pickup from the bezel by taking out the two spring-loaded screws on the side.
Mount the new pickup in the bezel by reversing the process using the new screws that came with your pickup. With the spring tension on it, threading the new screw in the pickup can be a little tricky, but with persistence you'll get it.
Thread the new pickup cable through the tunnel to the pot cavity. Cut the new pickup cable to the length of the old pickup cable or coil it neatly in the pot cavity. All that's left to do now is to strip and prepare the new leads and solder them in place the same way the old ones were. Use your picture as a reference. (You did take a picture, didn't you?)
Step 10A: Vintage two-conductor wiring
Gibson '57 Classic, '57 Classic Plus, P-90, and P-100 pickups all feature vintage two-conductor wiring. These pickups are very simple to install. Skin back the shield (wire mesh) to reveal the hot lead wire. Strip the end of the hot wire back 1/8" using your wire stripper or a razor blade. "Tin" the wire by touching the tip of the soldering iron to the exposed lead wire and applying a little solder to soak in between the strands. Don't try to skip this step, it makes the rest of the job much easier.
Twist the fibers of the shield together to make a separate ground lead and tin this lead as well. Solder the hot lead wire to the right-hand lower terminal (the one the hot lead from the old pickup was attached to) by putting the iron on the terminal, melting solder on the terminal, and slipping the end of the lead wire through the hole in the terminal. Add more solder if needed. Very gently tug on the wire to be sure it's secure.
Solder the shield wire to the back of the case of the pot by heating the pot with the iron and using a flathead screwdriver to hold the wire down while adding solder. If there's a good-sized blob of solder from the old shield, that should be enough. Again, tug lightly on the wire to be sure you've made a solid connection.
Step 10B: Standard four-lead wiring
Most Gibson humbuckers feature four-lead wiring to enable coil splitting (using only one coil of the dual-coil humbucker). If you're not going to enable coil splitting (which you probably won't for a Les Paul), these pickups are almost as easy to install as two-lead pickups. The green and white wires are for coil splitting; just solder them together, put a piece of electrical tape over them, and forget about them. The red wire is the hot lead. Tin it and solder it to the terminal. Twist the black wire and the bare wire together, tin them, and solder them to the pot casing.
If you want to use the coil-splitting function (also called coil tapping), each Gibson pickup comes with a wiring diagram under the foil lining of the box to help you install it.
After you install both pickups, carefully inspect your work to make sure the solder joints are clean and shiny and that there are no stray wires. Before closing the pot cavity, plug the guitar into an amp and tap the new pickup's pole pieces with a screwdriver. If the connection is right, you'll hear the tapping through the amp. Also check to be sure the volume control is working. Put your guitar back together and enjoy your wonderful new tone!
The simple process of changing out your pickups can transform your so-so axe into a tonal titan. Find the right model for your sound and give it a try--you won't be disappointed.