Pickups that transformed both my playing and my tone
This is a celebration of my favorite pickups. The title may seem a bit much, but it is true; these pickups absolutely changed my playing style as well as my tone. I am a bit of a pickup nut. At one point I owned over 100 different pickups, but had only about a dozen or so in a guitar. This is a pretty clear indication of obsessive compulsive disorder. But, at the same time, there are many worse ways of spending one’s time and money.
In all seriousness, I have spent the last 30 years in search of the holy grail. Granted, different pickups are often suited to specific styles of music; you would not use a vintage strat single coil for heavy metal, but with that in mind, quite often within that style, there are usually many different pickups that can improve your tone.
Why do I say that some pickups “transformed my playing?” I say this because in some cases, the sheer physics of a particular pickup inspired me so much that my playing really improved. Because I was able to elicit certain kinds of sounds from my guitar that I had previously not been able to create, my playing would drift into new territories.
This is highly subjective stuff. But, in many cases I only discovered a pickup because of an article I’d read or a live performance that I’d seen. So, sometimes, you discover new and exciting things based on the previous adventures of another guitarist. I hope that these views inspire you in the same way. Enjoy!
Fralin Steele Pole Strat Pickups
What would happen if a single coil and a P-90 had a baby?
These Strat pickups are quite a departure from the norm. Instead of six pole magnets wrapped with wire, it is six screws that straddle two magnets. This is the basic design of a P-90. What is particularly cool about these is that because they use screws instead of flat poles, you can adjust each pole piece so that the height to the string is just as you want.
Tone – These pickups have all the “Bell Like” chime that you would want in a single coil, but also have the bite of a P-90. They are not hum-canceling, but they can be reasonably quiet with a moderate amount of drive. They shine, particularly in the bridge and middle positions, and they do sound great in the neck position. It is in the bridge and middle positions, however, that you often need more thickness. In each case, they have a warmth and body that you will not find in normal vintage-style single coils.
Summary – Lindy Fralin’s shop is a pretty special place. They are religious about pickups. If you go to their website, at http://www.fralinpickups.com/, you can get plenty of details about their custom winding options. If you play a Strat, these pickups are seriously worth checking out.
Truly the best of both worlds
The pickup that has, perhaps, the biggest impact on my playing is the Mini Humbucker. I was first drawn to these because of my fascination with the tone of the guitarists from Lynyrd Skynyrd. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure that these guitarists did not use Mini Humbuckers as much as I thought. But in many photos, I would see Gary Rossington using a Gibson Firebird. Since this guitar had Mini Humbuckers, I became quite obsessed with using these pickups.
The biggest challenge to using Mini Humbuckers is that unless you are using a Firebird or Les Paul Deluxe, they cannot simply be dropped into place. The easiest way to start experimenting with these pickups is to use a Strat with a “swimming pool” route and a custom cut pick guard. You do have to make a bit of a commitment here as routing your strat in such a way cannot be undone, but that decision is up to you. I am obsessed by pickup experimentation so these kinds of decisions usually take me about 9 seconds to work through in my brain. For the custom cut pick guard, just go to http://www.warmoth.com, they have a page that allows you to order customized pick Guards.
There are for the most part, two different flavors of Mini Humbucker that I recommend: Les Paul Deluxe and Firebird.
Firebird – These are my favorite. They have a very “waxy” or “squeaky” sound to them. The Seymour Duncan “Antiquity” series is quite good, but the best ones to use are those that are older and pulled directly out of a Firebird. You can find these on eBay.
Les Paul Deluxe – These are great. They sound more like a normal humbucker than the Firebirds, but they have a much more open feel.
Summary – Mini Humbuckers offer you the best of both worlds; they are humbucking (i.e. no 60-cycle hum), they
are capable of great chime and clarity when you play clean, and when you use a lot of drive, they sound fantiastic. They will never sound quite the same as a full-sized humbucker, but they have a fullness and grit all their own. You really have to experiment and find the ones that are best for you, but it is worth the effort.
One of the best humbuckers that Gibson every made
From the late 60s to the late 70s, Gibson produced humbuckers that have come to be known as “T-Tops.” The name comes from the odd “T” that protrudes from the top of one of the bobbins. This is a result of the mechanism used to hold the bobbin when it is formed, and then when released, the “T” remains.
Tone – These pickups have all the girth and macho that you come to expect from a humbucker. But they have a certain kind of bite and open sound that you don’t often find in double-coils. Much of the classic rock that you know and love from the 70s contains great T-Top tones.