Do Humbuckers Go Bad (And Why)?

Many, if not the most, of today’s guitars have humbuckers. They’re great invention, as they do a great job in cancelling the noise and hum of the output signal.

But can humbuckers go bad over time? And if they do, what’s the reason?

Humbuckers do go bad, especially if not maintained properly and regularly. Poor maintenance can cause corrosion, copper wires can get damaged and break, switches can worn out etc. Also, humbuckers can simply go bad because they tend to demagnetize over years.

We’ll discuss all of this thoroughly, in a second. Stay with me.

Humbuckers are basically poles that attract the nickel and steel in the strings of a guitar.

When the string of an electric guitar vibrates, it causes a disturbance in the magnetic field, which creates a current that travels along a coil that’s wrapped around both magnetic poles. Eventually, this becomes the sound that comes out through the amp.

Read more about how humbucker works on a Wikipedia, here.

There are various models of humbucker pickups available, serving various purposes. Although some may be magnet based, others are different. A major concern is that they can wear out with time, particularly if you make use of a second-hand one.

It’s Often Hard To Notice Your Humbuckers Have Gone Bad

It often takes several years for this to happen. That’s because humbuckers are mostly magnet based, which can be either ferrite or alnico and so it’ll be difficult to notice or feel any decay.

They usually come with two coils having magnets that have opposite polarities. Just as it is in most guitars, several wraps of copper wire is tired around the humbucker pickup.

Once a string is plucked, a disturbance will arise thereby inducing some current in the coil. This interaction will result in an electromotive force. Although the current generated is not much, the signals can be amplified by using the amp of the guitar to produce quality sound.

Magnet Decay

Humbuckers go bad as a result of magnet decay. This process is usually slow and mostly goes unnoticed. As years go by, usually over a hundred years, the magnet can lose some of its properties.

This implies that even if the instrument is fifty years old, it is almost impossible for you to feel the difference or for the magnet to wear out.

How Do You Know Your Humbucker Has Gone Bad?

There are many ways to tell if your humbucker has gone bad. Although it is unlikely for this to happen, you must remain cautious to avoid damage to your guitar.

Have it in mind that humbuckers are durable, and don’t easily break because their parts are not movable. Some signs to look out for include:

1. Break In The Copper Wires

A major cause for concern in humbuckers is the rather thin copper wire used for inducting electromotive force in the instrument.

The copper wire measures about half a mile in length and is turned about six thousand times, making it prone to damage. This damage can be cause either as a result of time or other factors.

2. Corrosion

Although pickups have parts that are not movable, they face the danger of corrosion, just as it is with other parts of the guitar, because they pots are turned constantly.

In most instances, the corrosion will occur in pole pieces because they are usually exposed to sweaty hands. Corrosion doesn’t usually affect the tone of the guitar, but it can cause serious problems later on.

Check the article from this site about dealing with rusty pickups.

3. Worn Contacts

When switches are moved constantly, the thin contacts can get worn out and need replacement. Failure to use switches for a long time can cause oxidation on the contacts from high humidity or extreme moisture.

It is important to make use of a contact cleaner to clean the contacts. While cleaning, ensure you don’t over-spray the solvents on the instrument.

4. Damaged Volume Control

All hookup wires eventually lead to the volume potentiometer. Sometimes, while soldering the wires to contacts, the solder can travel from one lug and meet with another lug. This can interfere with the volume control.

5. Pole Pieces Grinding

If the magnets grind and cause the pole piece to overheat, that can cause the insulation on the magnet wire to get burnt. Therefore, the coils can get damaged and stop working.

As time goes on, the DC resistance and the exposed copper wire will stop functioning.

Since the magnet wire on most pickups are tightly tied in contact with pole pieces, grinding movements can weaken the poles and also leave tiny magnetic particles that can damage the instrument.

6. Less Output On The Humbucker Pickup

This usually happens when the magnet is degaussed. What is degaussing? Degaussing is the process of decreasing or eliminating a remnant magnetic field. Read more about it on Wikipedia, here.

Anyway, it leads to an output that sounds warmer. Less output on the instrument is mostly caused by extreme shock, heat, varying currents and other factors from the environment.

The shape and size of the magnet used will determine its stability and will eventually produce better sound and higher output.

7. Lower DC Resistance

Internal breakdown can happen in the coil at times due to insulation fatigue that leads to shorter magnetic layers. This breakdown can lead to a reduction in the DC resistance of the humbucker.

8. Amplifier Not Functioning

You need to keep an eye on this one also. Although it sounds funny, ensure that you’ve plugged in the amp and it has power. Also, ensure that all the wires are connected to all contacts.

Check out this article if you’re experiencing problems with your amp.

9. Pigtails

This is the connection found between the hookup wire and the insulated magnet. In most cases, they are those black and white wires that are used in hookup wire connection.

10. Thin Humbucker Sounds

When this happens, it’s an indication that the coil is bad or broken. You can troubleshoot this by checking if the components like the capacitors, circuit and switch are fixed properly.

How To Maintain a Humbucker?

The process of cleaning and maintaining the humbucker of a guitar is different from that used in cleaning the body. Such cleaning has to do with the internal parts of the instrument, and has to be done properly, and with the right equipment.

Carrying out maintenance can be done by anybody, as long as you following precautionary measures.

Check out if your humbuckers have sunken. Sunken pickups can become an issue. Read more about it here.

Also, you have to make sure that fluids don’t leak into the internal parts of the instrument such as the humbucker, because this can cause corrosion and permanent damage.

Fluids can also affect the switches, tone and volume controls, so ensure you keep them away.

If you notice some rust around the humbucker, you might get tempted to make use of a wet cloth to wipe it off. Avoid that. Remember that rusting will not necessarily affect the tone of the guitar.

There are some people that prefer it due to its aesthetics. But if you decide to clean if off, ensure you make use of a rust remover that is non-toxic and non-acidic.

By properly taking care of your guitar, you will most probably prevent any kind of oxidation or corrosion of the pieces of your humbucker. Although, some components might weaken over time, which will likely be caused by soldering or other electronic areas of the instrument.

I highly recommend you to check out the linked article above about how to clean rusty guitar pickups. If due to one reason or the other your magnets weaken and lose magnetic strength, you can re-magnetize.

Further maintenance can happen in terms of replacing units with better ones. Such as:

  • Replace The Tone Pots

This option is the cheapest and most practical. Upgrade your guitar to have a higher tone pot.

  • Use The Best Magnets

There are some magnets that deliver warmer tones which are classified as dull or muddy by some critics. Other magnets such as Alnico V deliver brighter tones.

  • Coil-splits

This is a recent technology that was created to have tone potentiometers that are fully functional.

When carrying out maintenance on your humbucker pickup, begin by using a soft cloth and advance from there. If you intend to have a thorough cleanup, you can make use of rust remover or compressed air.

You might want to consider replacing the humbucker if rust and dirt have caused significant damage to it, or if the sound isn’t pleasing anymore.

With the various options available in this modern age, there is no reason to settle for humbuckers that are less functional and uninspiring.

Having a well-equipped instrument will offer you various aesthetic and physical opportunities to have a better tone that will suit you better.

Find The Best Humbuckers For Your Guitar

Make sure you take a look at what are some of the today’s best & affordable pickups for clean tone, jazz or blues.


I hope this article was helpful. If you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, I’m more than happy about it.

Don’t forget to check out some other interesting articles from this site about various guitar topics and issues!

Cheers, and rock on!

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