Pickups aren't the easiest thing to purchase.
We understand this. For starters, there are an abundance of
manufacturers offering a wide variety of replacement pickups these days. It
is also rather difficult to accurately gauge what is best for yourself unless
you happen to be fortunate enough to have the opportunity to actually compare
various pickups first hand with your rig. To top it all off, you will hear all
sorts of conflicting opinions, many of which come from total strangers on message
boards who may have all kinds of hidden agendas.
Our goal at guitar-mod.com is to help streamline some of this
information to hopefully help you make a sound decision based on facts
and not hype.
How Do Pickups Vary, and Which of These Variables
Really has an Effect on Tone?
Lets take a look at the various parts of a pickup that may
vary from one manufacturer to the next, or one model to the next.
Pickup Resistance - measured in ohms (k)
will give you an idea of the pickups output. Many manufacturers actually wind
to a specific number of turns, as opposed to straight resistance which is
why you may see some variation. Either way you look at it, the result is the
- more turns (or more resistance) = more output and more midrange and
- less turns (or less resistance) = less output and less midrange and
Magnets - most magnets used in pickup production
are either Alnico V, II, and Ceramic, however you will also see Alnico III
(as in the case with Lindy Fralin Real '54's). Alnico stands for Aluminum,
Nickel and Cobalt. The magnet selection most definitely has an effect on tone
- Alnico II - This provides the warmest tone, as well
as decreased dynamic range. It also has the least string pull so you can
set the pickup height a lot closer to the strings without having any tuning
- Alnico V - This is widely used in pickup production
and has a brighter tone than Alnico II.
- Alinico III - These were used by Fender in 1954 Strats.
Expect these to be about 5% brighter and have 5% more lower mids.
- Ceramic - Even brighter than Alnico V or III, and often
used for high output pickups to help counterbalance the treble lost by
the higher resistance (remember higher resistance means more midrange,
but less highs).
Gauge of Magnet Wire - this definitely has
an effect on tone.
- 43 gauge wire will have more high end, but less volume than 42 gauge
wire wound to equal resistance. This is the main difference between the
Lindy Fralin Steel Pole 42 and Steel Pole 43 pickups. The 43 gauge wire
is thinner, and the laws of physics dictates that thinner wire has a higher
resistance per foot, so the end result is fewer turns of the coil are
needed and the physical size of the coil will be smaller.
Type of Wire - thin copper wire which comes
with an insulating coating. Some believe this has an effect on tone, but I
am not among them.
- Single Build Polyurethane Nylon wire (SPN) - A very common
wire used in pickup production today. The insulating coating is polyurethane
with nylon which is very durable.
- Plain Enamel - used on many early Fender pickups
- Formvar - used on many Fender pickups in the 60's. Formvar
has a thicker layer of insulation which results in a larger physically
sized coil for a given resistance, and some people believe this results
in a warmer sound. Many pickup manufacturers dispute this point, so the
jury is still open on this one.
Winding Technique - the winding technique
used by the pickup winder.
- Each winder has his/her own technique which will ultimately effect the
final tone. You will often here the term "scatter winding."
Scatter winding is the process of guiding the wire by hand in a random
pattern. This can only be accomplished by hand, although I'm sure computers
can be programmed to simulate this. Many feel that the uneven layering
you get with scatter winding lowers the overall capacitance which equates
to more top end.
Wax Potting - the process of encapsulating the coil to reduce
microphonics, which is characterized by high pitched squealing..
- Pickups are generally potted in either wax or lacquer, although most manufacturers
use wax these days. Many feel that lacquer doesn't penetrate the coil as
well as wax.
How do I choose a pickups?
First, remember the Joe Jackson song "You
Can't Get What You Want, Until You Know What You Want." Start,
by asking yourself the following 5 questions:
- What type of sound are you after?
- How would you describe your guitar tone currently (bright, dark,
warm, muddy, etc.)?
- How would you describe your amp tone (bright, dark, etc..)?
- How much are you willing to spend on a new set of pickups?
- Can you deal with 60 cycle hum?
Let me give you a couple of real examples.
- MY OWN ALDER TELE - One of my main gigging axes is
an alder Tele with a rosewood fingerboard. Alder is warm sounding wood,
and rosewood can be a bit on the dark side. My primary amp is Rivera Fandango
which sounds terrific, but again, is a very much a dark sounding amp.
I have counterbalanced these darker elements with a set of slightly underwound
Stock Fralin pickups. The end result is a great tone! The extra highs
and twang of the pickups work tremendously well counterbalancing the darkness
of the rig. I have played the same guitar through brighter amps, and the
result is too bright for my liking, but through my Rivera the result is
absolutely perfect. 60 cycle hum isn't much of an issue for me since the
position I use the most is position 2 which is hum-canceling since the
pickups are of opposite polarity.
A CUSTOMER'S ASH STRAT - A guitar-mod.com
customer does quite a bit of session work and his 2 main objectives were
versatility and quietness. He wanted the guitar to be able to go from
Stevie Ray, to Joe Pass to Angus Young! Since he demanded no 60 cycle
hum, I recommended he look at the Virtual Vintage series by DiMarzio.
The setup I recommended was a Blues in the Neck (DP402), 2.1 in the Middle
(DP401), and a Heavy Blues in the Bridge position (DP403). The neck pickup
is great for getting that Stevie Ray Vaugh blues sound, as well as a pretty
convincing yet modern be-bop tone with the tone rolled down. The 2.1 in
the Middle gives you a great "notched" quack in positions 2
and 4, and the Heavy Blues in the bridge can helps him get an aggressive
and fatter bridge tone. I also suggested he use a "neck-on"
switch to get 2 more tones (neck/bridge as well as all the pickups on)
for even more versatility. He was quite happy with the results!