Guess I’m keeping with the theme of posts that have been a long time coming. I was going to do a Tim demo, but after listening back to the video multiple times trying to convince myself that it didn’t suck, it still sucked. So that one’s getting pulled from youtube, and another one needs to get recorded today; which also means another day of uploading to said video sharing site. (That sentence was supposed to sound cooler than it did.) So I figured, hey, even though the video demonstrates so vividly that I don’t know how to play guitar, I can just pull it, and then pontificate on something else in a new article, which will then restore my faith in my own musical skills without having to actually practice. It’s perfect.
There are five main types of guitar pickups:
The double pickup. Like two single coils. Named as they are because originally, when single coils hummed, they put two of them together, wired each reversed from the other, and bucked the hum. What resulted was a thicker, more articulately full across the spectrum of sound, higher output sound. And then, of course, there’s variations on them, such as the more woody sounding, scooped mids-wound ones that ES-335’s and other hollowbodies use. And some of the Rickenbackers and old Gretsch’s used ‘toaster’ humbuckers that had a more open and woody sound as well.
(Here’s a picture of some of the ‘toaster’ buckers. Okay, okay. I just wanted to show a picture of Edge with his current rig, and the sweetest looking wood on a guitar I have ever seen. But mostly just Edge.)
The original pickup. Thinner sounding than the humbucker, lower output. They’re more mellow, and with the proper application of gain, can sometimes sing more, and sometimes be more responsive. Also have that ‘classic’ sound. Again, there’s different variations, such as between Strat single coils and Tele single coils. The main difference here is in the winding of the coils, to match the different pickup configurations on the two guitars. On Tele’s, you want to get the two pickups to match together for that neck/bridge combined Tele sound. On Strats, you want the three pickups a little more separate for the 5 position tonal options. And, of course, there are the scooped mids-wound ones for the woody, jangly sounds in Rickenbacker’s and some of the old Danelectro’s.
(Great photo of Jimmy Page playing some ‘lipstick’ single coils in a Danelectro. I believe this is on his extended solo on ‘Over the Hills and Far Away.’ But the important thing is the shoes. I have decided that I am going to have those. And the sad thing is that I am deadly serious. If my wife is reading this, she is cringing right now.)
Bit of a mix between single coils and humbuckers, but not quite. I’ve heard them described as more trebly humbuckers, as fuller single coils, as ‘making a Les Paul into a Rickenbacker’, and everything in between. Personally, I think they have their own sound, which I can only describe as warm and mellow, yet with a vintage bite to them. Especially with gain. And I am quite aware that that might not make any sense whatsoever. It’s honestly been a long time since I’ve played on P90’s, and when I did, I probably threw the guitar down with a disdainful look meant to insinuate, ‘I am much too rebelliously raw, metal, and in love with Kirk Hammett’ to like this sound. (I don’t think the other metal kids in Guitar Center were as impressed as I would have hoped.)
(There’s some great pictures of Brad Whitford playing some Melancon P90-equipped guitars, but the Melancon Forum is down right now. I’ll try to remember to put them up later. I probably won’t.)
I put this in its own category, because, even though active pickups are either in single coil or humbucker form, they always tend to sound the same to me. And that’s not a bad thing…just a style thing. Active pickups tend to have the thinner, more compressed sound that gives them tons of sustain, and less feel and dynamics. They work great for metal and other types of hard rock where you get most of the heaviness out of the amplifier, and the guitar becomes more of a ‘vehicle for sustain’ on some of the heavy chords and flying leads, where you need sustain all up and down the fretboard. And I hope this is sounding with good towards metal and hard rock, even though I usually tend to poke fun at the spandex, fans blowing in the hair…which Steve Vai actually does…the fire blasts from the side of the stage on the bends, the train whistle riffs, the Floyd Rose misuse that each band thinks they have invented, and the dramatic ‘this next note might just kill you with my talent’ looks in the eyes. Just want to make sure it’s coming across as complimentary, and that I do believe there is a place for metal, BC Rich’s, and shirts unbuttoned past where anyone would ever want to see. I just heard Jason Bateman say, ‘This is going to sound sarcastic, because it’s going to be complimentary…’, and that is not what I want. So if you play active pickups, rock those active pickups. Honestly, they do have a very unique sound, and can be put to good use. Oh ya! I totally missed this. By ‘active’, it just means they need a 9 volt to work. But that gives them that compressed sound. The biggest manufacturer of these type pickups is EMG.
Now that being said, certain guitarists have used active pickups in different ways, capitalizing on the sustain. Michael Brook uses them sometimes for some of the long, swelling, soundscapes he gets on guitar, and bassists use them a lot for added sustain so they can play less and fill more space. So there are other uses besides metal.
(Here’s some active pickups. Nope. Just wanted to show some metal. Fantastic, fantastic metal. But I’m sure they used EMG active pickups. It’s not a question, really.)
And if you’ve never seen this, well……it is beyond what mere words can attempt:
These pickups are used to ‘mic’ the strings in a traditional way. Usually on the bridge. They’re more for acoustics, to get that real acoustic sound of the vibrating strings without trying to add gain, but certain electric companies are using them now to mix in with the signal from the other pickups, or to give you added versatility by trying to give you an ‘acoustic’ sound without switching guitars. I’ve yet to install one, and am not sure if I will, but I do think it’s at the very least a cool and innovative idea.
Now that the basics are out of the way (or at least, my opinion on what the basics are, which could be totally wrong…except that it’s not 😉 ), we can go into what makes pickups sound good.
Quality of the Components
As with anything, the component quality is very important. And, like it or not, most of the mass-produced companies use poor quality. And with the independent or boutique ones, you pay for it, but they are using higher quality or even ‘real’ copper, and better magnets.
Handwound Versus Machinewound
There are advantages to both. Handwound tends to have a warmer and more dynamic sound. There is care put into the winding. However, there is also tons of room for variation, which is why sometimes the exact same model of a ’62 Les Paul which looks to have the same wood, can sound incredibly different. With machine-wound, you get a much more uniform sound over a larger number of instruments. But what it comes down to for me, is hearing handwound, and hearing machine-wound. Handwound has ‘that’ sound. More weight to the notes, more dynamics, and much less sterile.
Most pickups use Alnico V magnets. However, certain independent pickup manufacturers are starting to subscribe to the theory that part of what gives vintage pickups ‘that sound’, is not only the hand-wiring, but the fact that the magnets are wearing out a bit. So some of them are starting to use Alnico II and III magnets, as this is what is guessed to now be the strength of the magnets after they’ve worn out a bit in some of the vintage guitars. Very interesting theory, and one that I’ve found a lot of truth to in using the lower output magnets.
Some pickups have staggered poles for each string, and some uniform. Personally, I like uniform for Les Pauls for the clear ring, and staggered for strats and teles for a more textured sound. All up to personal preference, and of course, my opinion. hehe
This makes a huge difference! And you can do it with a screwdriver and don’t even have to remove the strings. Think of it like a singer’s placement to the microphone. The further back, the warmer and more spacious it sounds. But too far back and you don’t get the punch. The closer up, the more full and punchy it is. But too close, and you lose clarity and get distortion. Finding the spot your pickups are most happy at, is crucial. And every guitar and pickup combination is different. There’s no formula. And for those of you who are Edge and U2 fanatics (stupid…can’t believe you guys), one of his secrets is having the top of his pickups slightly lower than the bottom, so that he can turn up his bass and mids a bit more on the amp and get a fuller sound when he goes high on the neck, without it getting too muddy when he comes back down to play on the lower strings.
Certain boutique pickup companies are rumoured to have put actual magic into their products. Same magic that Klon, BJFe, Toneczar, and Pete Cornish effects have inside of them. It’s true.
(See? Actual magic. And if you can’t see the magic, then the only possible explanation is that you don’t know tone. It’s actually ‘anti-true bypass’ and ‘my hands will turn into David Gilmour’s if I play this’ magic. Honestly, I’m sure they sound great. Because of the magic.)
So, I subscribe more to the boutique pickups deal, because I like the higher quality components, the hand-winding, and using lower output magnets, although that’s an easy switch if you want to do it yourself. So, here’s a list of just a handful of some of the boutique pickup companies:
WCR–great pickups, great blend of warmth and ‘singing.’ I’ve used these and have been very impressed.
Lollar–also a great pickup company. A little more highs on his pickups, but also a sweetness that I haven’t heard elsewhere.
Seymour Duncan–the original boutique company. There’s debate about whether they’re still good, or whether they’ve gone to more ‘mass-producing’ techniques. Either way, I think they still sound good. Not my favorite, but definitely a very good sound. Oh ya…make sure they say ‘Seymour Duncan’ and not ‘Duncan Designed’. Not the same thing.
Gibson (actual vintage) PAF’s–yep, there’s a reason these pickups cost more than most guitars. Killer sound, especially if you get a well-wound set.
Gibson (new production)–still haven’t been impressed. Supposedly the custom shop ones are good, but I’m still not a huge fan. Apologies all around. hehe
Gibson (actual vintage) Dirty Fingers–yes on hollowbodies. Great woody and dry sound that really brings out the acoustic sound. No on solid-bodies. The dry sound doesn’t do much for the guitar.
Gibson (actual vintage) T-Tops–really good sound. Not quite vintage PAF, but still killer.
Wolfetones–my current favorite for humbuckers. Very well-wound, will use the Alnico II magnets on some models, and closest thing I’ve heard to a vintage PAF, while also having some of its own unique characteristics. Very dynamic, and reacts to different amplifiers.
Fender (actual vintage)–absolutely.
Fender (new production)–definitely lacking that ‘Hendrix’ weight to the notes.
Laguna–surprisingly? Not bad.
Lindy Fralin–favorite single coils at the moment. Lower powered magnets on some models, staggered pole positions, and incredible warmth, clarity, and weight.
Suhr–incredibly classic sound. Little more trebly, maybe like Lollars. But big and singing. Good times.
Manlius–good pickup. Really, really big sounding. Bit over the top for me, but still a great pickup. Well-priced, too.
Kinman–get rave reviews. Very expensive. I’ve et to try these.
Bill Lawrence–only heard these in clips, and they sound good. Might be a sleeper, or might be not quite up to snuff. But I’m sure they’re quality…his cables are stellar.
There are a ton of other boutique, independent, handwound, and mass-produced pickups out there. A literal ton. Of course, the problem with pickups is that the good ones also react to the wood in your guitar, so you have to install and de-install. Takes a lot more time to try them out then a bunch of pedals, or even amps or guitars. But it can be worth it. Like I said, I’m a believer that the guitar is the most important factor in your tone, and the pickups are the microphone for your guitar’s tone. Just as if you get Emmy Rossum singing into a Fender Passport mic; doesn’t mean her voice is bad, but the sound is still terrible. Now, get her singing into a Shure blue line or what have you, and now the true sound of her voice comes out. Same with pickups in a guitar. Except active ones. Just kidding, just kidding! But you still gotta love the ’80’s. Or the bands who still think it is the ’80’s.
(Absolutely fantastic. And props to anyone who can name the film Meat Loaf appeared in that may have been the only decent piece of entertainment he has ever performed. hehe I think something scary is coming to get him. At least in his mind. Or in his pharmaceuticals. Don’t worry. He’ll fend it off with a Stryper-esque vocal shriek I’m sure. I would say with an anti-tasteful guitar solo, but I’m not sure he ever plays the guitar. He just likes to hold it.)