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Tone Tip: Pickup Selection

Dave Hunter | 09.10.2008

One running theme that you might have discerned in this Gibson Tone Tips series involves my efforts to encourage you to keep it down—that is, reduce  pickup heights, gain levels, amp size, and so forth—in order to ratchet up the tone factor. This time around the block I’m revisiting the same old warhorse with regard to pickup selection. As with other installments that have revolved around this subject, some of the advice here might seem to be counterintuitive, but stick with me. I’m hoping it will all prove itself in the pudding, and if it doesn’t, feel free to throw it out the window and do whatever floats your boat.

This Tone Tip is super simple: when choosing a replacement pickup, or contemplating the pickups in a new guitar you are considering buying, don’t automatically succumb to the “hotter is better” mythology. Hot pickups have their place in plenty of kinds of music—don’t get me wrong—otherwise there wouldn’t be such a healthy market in high-gain replacement pickups such as the Dirty Fingers, or guitars such as Gibson’s Les Paul Menace, with hot Modern Classic 490R and 498T alnico humbuckers, or V-Factor X, with scorching 496R and 500T ceramic humbuckers. For pure nu-metal power, thrash-chunk power chording, or eviscerating shred lead playing, a super-charged pickup often does the trick.

On the other side of the coin, however, for the vast majority of other styles, where clued-in players understand that they want to achieve dynamics, nuance, musical subtlety, and finger tone more than sheer power, the lower-gain pickup rules the day. This is a simple fact that a lot of players lost track of in the late 1970s and ’80s in particular, when the replacement pickup market first boomed and a “hotter is better” mentality pervaded the guitar world. This is partly understandable, since the era was also one of slightly anemic amps (the sun having set on the golden age of the tube amp a few years earlier) and the efforts of plenty of players to make “the big rock sound.” Stick in an over-wound or ceramic magnet pickup, and you drive those limp amps harder, achieving distortion a little easier. It seemed like the perfect solution, but players in droves inevitably started missing the smooth highs, vocal tones, and great touch sensitivity that they still remembered from the good old days.

Many guitarists attributed this, and correctly in part, to vintage guitars, and to the way the old tube amps reacted to them. But a major part of this interaction, of course, was in the pickups. Although the great humbucker had come to be viewed as the powerhouse of pickups, a close examination of an original Gibson PAF pickup of 1957-’62 (as reproduced in Gibson’s Burstbucker or ’57 Classic) reveals that they don’t have DC resistance readings in the 10k to 12k ohms range like high-gain humbuckers, but hover down in the 6.5k to 7.5k range, no hotter than plenty of singlecoil pickups. The same  relative “coolness” applies to vintage P-90s when compared to many modern replacements inspired by that classic Gibson singlecoil (and note that a P-90 and a PAF humbucker really have very similar outputs, even though they sound quite different).

Can’t rock with a low-output pickup? Tell that to Eric Clapton, who ripped it up in the 1960s with PAFs on his original late ’50s Les Paul Standard and equally low-output “patent number” humbuckers on an ES-335 and SG Standard; or to late-’60s era Pete Townshend, who powered the Who with two relatively low-gain P-90s on his SG Special; to Jimi Hendrix, who occasionally played a ’60s Flying V or SG with low-powered humbuckers, or a late ’60s Stratocaster with weaker singlecoil pickups than those guitars generally carried a decade earlier. Or indeed to Eddie Van Halen, who set new standards for rock guitar tone and flare by screwing an original Gibson PAF humbucker into his Frankenstein guitar in the late ’70s.

Rock? Undoubtedly. And here’s the rub: while high-gain pickups give you heavy overdrive tones and largely nothing else but, lower-gain pickups better  translate the nuances of your attack, style, and dynamics, with plummy lows, sweeter highs, and less aggressive midrange. In short, they are more touch sensitive. They also overload the preamp stage of your amplifier, or effects, less than high-gain pickups, and thereby help to take a full, round guitar sound along to further stages of the amp’s circuit, where some players feel the more delectable tones are generated, rather than clipping early and leaving you with nothing but heat and grunge (this theory was discussed in depth, from a different angle, in a previous Gibson Tone Tip that addressed Pickup Height, Using Input #2, and Preamp Tubes). You want heat and grunge? Crank it up—you can still get there. That’s what volume knobs, booster pedals, and overdrive effects are for. Check it out, and I’m betting you’ll discover added nuances of tone.