Guitar pickups that changed my life

Pickups that transformed both my playing and 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, it’s much better than spending your money on beer : – ). 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 so 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 read or when I saw another guitarist live. So, sometimes, you discover new and exciting things based on the previous adventures of another guitarist. I hope that some or even a little of this lens inspires you in the sane way. Enjoy!
Pickups can make a big difference
Pickups can make a big difference

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, it’s much better than spending your money on beer : – ). 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 so 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 read or when I saw another guitarist live. So, sometimes, you discover new and exciting things based on the previous adventures of another guitarist. I hope that some or even a little of this lens inspires you in the sane way.


Fralin Steele Pole Strat Pickups

What would happen if a single coil and a P-90 had a baby?

Fralin Steele-Pole
Fralin Steele-Pole

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.

The bottom of a Fralin Steele Poled
The bottom of a Fralin Steele Poled

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. They do sound great in the neck position, but it is in the bridge and middle position 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, 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.


Mini Humbuckers

Truly the best of both worlds

Gibson Mini Humbuckers

Probably the pickup that has 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 very obsessed with using these pickups.

Custom Pick Guard
Custom Pick Guard

The biggest challenge to using Mini Humbuckers is that unless you are using a Firebird or Les Paul Deluxe, they cannot be simply 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 un-done, 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.

 

Gibson Firebird Pickup
Gibson Firebird Pickup

Firebird – These are my favorite. They have a very “Waxy” or “Squeaky” sound to them. They Seymour Duncan “Antiquity” series is quite good, but the best ones to use are older ones pulled directly out of a Firebird. You can find

Gibson Mini Humbucker
Gibson Mini Humbucker

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.


Gibson T-Tops

One of the best humbuckers that Gibson every made

Gibson "T-Top"
Gibson “T-Top”

From the late 60’s to the late 70’s, Gibson produced humbuckers that have come to be known at “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” remained.

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 70’s contains great T-Top tones. If you like humbuckers, but also like to get

What Are The Best Mini Humbucker Guitar Pickups?

What Are The Best Mini Humbucker Guitar Pickups?
Gibson Mini-Humbuckers

If you are thinking of switching to Mini-Humbuckers, or upgrading to them, here is a rundown of the best ones out there.

Mini Humbucker pickups 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 with Mini Humbucker pickups and find the ones that are best for you, but it is worth the effort.

Seymour Duncan

Vintage Mini-Humbucker SM-1

This is a pretty faithful reproduction of a Firebird pickup.  Duncan kinda ruins it by sticking their friggin’ logo on it, but that’s just me. Great single coil / humbucker hybrid sound and drops right into place.


Custom Mini-Humbucker SM-2

This is a great mini humbucker for more driven tones. The clarity is pretty good on this pickup and it does clean tones well.

Seymourized Mini-Humbucker SM-3

The most aggressive of the three, this pickup offers a high output with strong mids and great clarity.

Seymour Duncan Product Page

Dimarzio

Both the DP168 and DP198 are pretty cool pickups. Naturally, the DP198 is quite a bit hotter. The difference between the sound in parallel and series mode is pretty drastic. In series mode this is the thickest mini humbucker I know of. It may be a bit too much for some, but the lower mids are pretty off the hook. In parallel mode these are a bit on the bright side, but plenty of snap crackle and pop.

Gibson

Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Mini Humbucker Reissue

This thing just sounds great. If you are a big fan of the Les Paul Deluxe, this pickup pretty much nails that sound.

Summary: Mini Humbuckerguitar pickups are wonderful inventions. They offer plenty of girth and bite when you want a full humbucking sound. Yet, when you want the sweet bell-like tone of a single coil, they can handle that very well. These days, it seems like just about every after-market company offers at least one Mini Humbucker pickup. Vintage, Noiseless, take your pick(up).. pun intended : – )