Telecasters are great… probably my favorite guitar of all. But when your Tele is stock, chances are that it came loaded with vintage-style pickups. Depending on your rig and your style of playing, this may translate to noise (i.e. the dreaded 60-cycle hum), or in the case of the bridge pickup, a somewhat brittle tone, and few options. Here is a list of areas to think through before you make your final decision on your next Telecaster bridge pickup upgrade.
Should I install a noiseless bridge pickup?
This may be the most important decision you make. The reason is that true vintage-style pickups tend to do one thing and do it really well. Noiseless pickups give you more options, but some guitarists (and I mean serious tone snobs) feel that with them you lose a bit of that “vintage” charm. I think this is mostly a lot of baloney. I can tell the difference, but I’ve been playing for over 30 years, and I can’t always tell the difference. It’s just not that big a deal. If noise is a consideration, get a noiseless pickup. If noise is not a problem, and you really want to stay faithful to that vintage Fender Telecaster sound, then get a vintage-style model. End of conversation. Once you’ve spent more than 20 minutes thinking about this, then you’ve no doubt over-thought it.
What is the best Telecaster Bridge Pickup upgrade?
Now we are, of course, getting into the really subjective stuff. No one can really say which ones are the best of the best of the best, because to a large extent, it’s a matter of taste. For starters, you can check out an earlier post about the Best Telecaster Bridge Pickups. You can also browse this site by tag or category for “pickups;” there are plenty of helpful articles. All that said, here is a general lay of the land:
The main companies for Telecaster pickups are Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio, Fender, and Lindy Fralin. There are a few smaller companies out there, but I’d say these are the ones to consider by default. If you are thinking right now: “…hey, what about Lollar or Joe Barden, or EMG” etc., then you clearly do not need any advice. Go out and buy whatever you want. If you are not as experienced at buying Telecaster pickups, then I’d recommend that you at least start out with the companies I suggested. They are all a bit different, however, so here is the high-level:
Seymour Duncan – Probably the most varied product line and appeal to players of all types. Most of their pickups are very warm and not overly hot.
Dimarzio – They tend to be more popular with harder-edged styles such as Rock. Plenty of their products are just great for lighter styles such as Blues or Pop, but they tend to make slightly more aggressive models.
Fender – They have probably the most minimal product line as they are not solely a pickup maker (they are busy making some of the most amazing guitars and amplifiers of all time, so you can’t blame them), but what they do they do really well: vintage.
Lindy Fralin – A real boutique shop. Lindy is super cool and makes amazing pickups. His stuff is a bit pricier than the bigger names, but if you really know what you are looking for, he has a product line that delivers
How do I decide which Telecaster Bridge pickup upgrade is right for me?
Again, this is really a matter of opinion. But as a rule of thumb, first, consider your playing style; are you a Rock player? A Jazz player? Blues? Country? Answering this question is the fastest way to help you narrow things down. If you play Metal or heavy Rock, you may want to consider a noiseless model, and maybe even a blade / rails type of design. If you lean towards really heavy styles like Metal, then active pickups become very appealing. But few Tele players are Metal players, although I suppose they are out there.
If you play more moderate styles such as Rock, Rock & Roll, Blues, Funk, etc., then it’s a toss-up between vintage and noiseless. Noiseless is better if you have to cover a broader range of sounds and are likely to use a lot of gain / overdrive. Vintage is better if you do not plan to play extremely loud or use a lot of gain, yet want a really old-school sound. This is particularly true of Funk, where that old-school / low-fi Telecaster bridge sound is really critical (and this is one thing that high-output Tele bridge pickups do not do as well as vintage ones).
OK, but what about installation? Is doing a Telecaster bridge pickup upgrade hard?
Nah. Not at all. This is one of the really great things about the Telecaster; the bridge pickup is a very standard shape. From old-school vintage to over-the-top high-gain models, they all have that same three-screw mounting scheme and drop into place with ease. Twist, twist twist, and you’re done.
What are the downsides to vintage Telecaster bridge pickups?
Noise. That is the big issue. Once you start to play at high volumes and / or use a lot of gain, you are gonna start pulling your hair out because there will be a lot of noise that is nearly impossible to get rid of. This can be particularly problematic in the studio. Other than that, vintage-style Tele bridge pickups tend to be one-trick ponies; you get pretty much one sound.
What are the downsides to noiseless Telecaster bridge pickups?
There are fewer downsides here. Tone-snobs will complain about the loss of highs or in general, how they don’t quite do the “vintage” thing as well. For the most part, you can ignore that. You’ll know when you know enough to know the difference (nice sentence huh?) : – ) The only other downside is that if you want to take advantage of the flexibility of a noiseless pickup (as some come with a four-conductor cable for multiple wiring options), you’ll have to be prepared to cut up your pickguard and you have to be fairly handy with a soldering iron (or pay someone who is). This is all worth it though; you can usually get two great sounds out of one pickup. And then you have twice as many bridge-neck sounds as well.
There are a few things to think about when you’re considering a Telecaster bridge pickup upgrade. Whether to go noiseless, which company to go with and which model to choose are just a few of the high-level decisions you’ll have to make. But just be sure to ask yourself as many questions as you can. For example: “What is my playing style?” “Do I tend to play loud or use a lot of gain?” “Do I need to get more than one sound out of my Telecaster bridge pickup?” The better the questions you ask yourself, the better the answers will be from the web pages, repair professionals, or guitar players that you check with.