Dylan: I honestly have no idea where to start with modding guitars. I couldn't tell you what kind of pickup I'm looking at and I wouldn't know what to buy to swap it out.
Is there a guitar version of "kicking the tires" for when you are guitar shopping? What are some things that are valid indicators of the quality of the guitar/pickups? I find sound to be so dependant on the amp you're using and the tone settings of the guitar itself.
As for strats, I'm not sure why I despise them, but to me they look like childrends toys. The only person who ever looked cool playing a strat is Clapton, mostly dude to his rad paint jobs.
if you werent a racist, youd know jimi hendrix looked bad-ass with a strat.
as I said...anything you buy for less than a grand will need uprades. Its not even about what you get so much as getting rid of the stock pickups. you dont get the sound you want out of the amp with crap pickups...you are just using the amp to cover up the crap the pickups are producing.
im not an expert by any means and had no problem with pickups till i started recording tracks direct...then the difference was night and day.
i think the price of the pickups is heard in the division of the strings. i can crank distortion on my PAF pickups and still hear every string ringing individually. with my inf, i can hear the strings but they meddle with eachother. the low end emg wannabes just create one muddy noise in the right key. When recording direct or with a mic, the more distinction in the strings, the more precise you are going to be with EQs and any frequency specific effects. Same thing with the amp...the EQ will produce much better results. Think of it in megapixels terms. the more pixels you have the better the results of your photoshop filters. the more dithered, the less you can do with the photograph.
I think the different style pickups tend to be about where the gain goes. my inf pickups send gain to the high mids. my paf pickups take gain in the lows and low mids. The pafs provide a naturally warm sound while the infs are happy lala. The standard strat pickups are happy lala. They make the tex-mex pickups too which even come on some of the higher end strats but can be bought for about 100 bucks aftermarket too - which are happy lala on crack. If yuo wanna play classic rock...you want more happy lala. For happy lala on an ibanez or a prs or whatever for cost effectiveness youd go with the seymour duncan jazz. i totally wanna copyright happy lala as a technical term now.
Another good thing to do is think about the music you want to emulate and find out what the guitar players doing that kind of music are using. If the guitar player has a signature model, find out what pickups are in that guitar.
stock les paul pickups are happy lala by the way. i still think youll have to replace the plastic pretending to be ivory tuning keys on that 800 dollar model though.