For many (most?) guitarists, the relationship with their instrument is a complex one. They can be cradles of creativity or fonts of frustration as we struggle to improve our skills and find our own ‘voice’. When things go right, our instrument’s tone reveals the source of our soul’s yearning. When things are going badly, we almost envy the deaf. This quest for a unique and satisfying tone is never more complicated than it is for the electric guitarist who must produce the sound of his or her dreams with the “assistance” of many components from the wood and strings and other assorted electronica of the guitar itself, through the blinking light paraphernalia of floor pedals and/or rack-mounted gear, to the amplifiers and speakers. This is the story of one guitarist’s not quite finished quest to achieve tonal nirvana.
I have always loved the feel of my Ibanez 540S solid-body electric guitar. Its neck and fingerboard radius is super flat, super thin, and of medium width – in short; it’s built for speed. The body shape is very comfortable, very lightweight, and also extremely thin. It is truly nothing short of a joy to play. Equally it’s no slouch in the looks department with its cherry sunburst finish over a nicely figured, flamed maple top. Its only shortcoming has been its sound (granted, this is a major shortcoming for a musical instrument). The palette of tones that my guitar produces has served me reasonably well – other players have even complimented me on my tone – but there has always been something missing. The tones that I ‘hear’ in my head are more nuanced, subtle, and ultimately, more expressive than the ones that I have been able to coax from this guitar.
In attempts to improve this condition, I have done all the relatively easy, inexpensive, and reversible things. I have tweaked endlessly with the settings on my rack-mounted pre-amp. I have changed string gauge (from 0.09-0.42 to 0.10- 0.46 to 0.11-48) and string type (nickel, steel, ‘coated’). I have tried different styles and gauges of picks, to include trying a thumb pick and my fingers. While these experiments have added to my arsenal of tone producing weaponry, none of them have achieved all the tonal qualities I have hoped for. So I decided once and for all that I would endeavor to remove the stock pickups from my guitar and replace them with aftermarket upgrade pickups.
This two-part series will describe the journey and the discoveries made along the way. In the first part, we’ll have a beginner’s look at exactly what a pickup does and how it does it. We’ll also have a brief overview of the tones made famous by some of the best sounding electric guitar players of the last thirty years. We’ll also review some of the web’s sources of information available to those who want to embark on a quest for tone. In the second part, I’ll describe the steps I took on my quest and reveal my results.
Pickups have the relatively simple job of turning the musical vibrations of guitar strings into an electrical signal that feeds an amplifier which somehow turns it into limousines, supermodel girlfriends, rehab, a ‘behind the music’ special, a reunion tour, and if you’re lucky immortalization in Cleveland, or at least your local Hard Rock Café. As far as the physics is concerned, electric guitar pickups are relatively simple devices (Well, up to the limousine part. Everything after that is left to the reader as an exercise).
Electric guitar pickups (1) are nothing more than a length of wire wrapped in a coil (usually around a plastic bobbin that gives the pickup its elongated oval shape) with a magnet (usually Ceramic, or an alloy of Aluminum, Nickel, and Cobalt called Alnico) in the center of the coil. Pole pieces (either adjustable screws or fixed metal slugs) poke up out of the coil towards the strings and ‘focus’ the pickup under the vibrating string. Basic principles of electro magnetism tell us that a coil of wire around a magnet creates an electro-magnetic field. The vibrations of the guitar strings create a disturbance in this field that, in turn, induces a current onto the coil of wire that becomes the output signal of the guitar (i.e. the coil ‘picks up’ the vibrations and turns it into electricity – hence the name). The output power (i.e. volume) of a pickup is related to the number of turns in the coil (the more, the louder) and the strength of the magnet (the stronger, the louder).
A single coil pickup will produce a noticeable ‘hum’ at a frequency of 60 Hz corresponding to the frequency of AC power lines that interfere with the pickups electromagnetic field. A double coil pickup (frequently called a ‘humbucker’) has two single coils that are installed in opposing orientations. When the signals from these two coils are added, the 60 Hz signals ‘cancel’ each other out, thereby ‘bucking’ the ‘hum’ and leaving a relatively noiseless signal.
Despite the simplicity of the theory behind the operation of pickups, there is a vast body of practical knowledge to be uncovered in the artistry surrounding pickup design. Design facets include the selection of the type and length of wire, the type and strength of magnet selected, and physical assembly considerations (such as potting the pickup in wax, or proper placement of the pickup in relation to the strings). By varying these parameters, different pickups can be made to produce vastly differing tonal characteristics.
All other things being equal, a single coil pickup will have a lower output level than a double coil pickup simply because it has half as much wire and half as much magnet strength. A single coil pickup historically has a brighter, cleaner sound whereas a double coil pickup will be louder, with more harmonic content. Single coils are noisy due to their picking up the 60-cycle hum, while humbucker’s increased magnetism can physically dampen the vibrations of the strings, leading to a loss of sustain. Sometimes, humbuckers can have just one of the two coils selected for output (either the ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ coil), this allows an approximation of a single coil sound.
Another aspect to consider regarding pickups is the different ways of combining more than one pickup. They can be combined ‘in phase’ or ‘out of phase’. In phase combinations are typically louder while out of phase combinations can produce interesting ‘notches’ due to the cancellation of some frequencies. Pickups can also be combined in series or in parallel for an entirely different kind of alteration to the resulting sound. Note, by careful selection of direction of pickup windings and polarity of magnets, two single coil pickups can be combined in such a way as to cancel the hum, much like a double coil pickup.
A Journey of One Thousand Miles Begins with the Very First Step.
With this bit of practical knowledge under our belts, we can consider the options ahead. With all due apologies to Steven Covey, the first habit of the highly effective tone seeker is to “begin with the end in mind”. So I suppose that it might be useful for us to describe both the tones we might want, and how these differ from the tones we get.
As most readers will no doubt understand, a truly useful electric guitar must be able to do more than one thing well. It has to be able to produce a nicely balanced ‘chime-y’ tone when playing chords without being ‘muddy’ or ‘tinny’ (2). The bass must remain present, but always taut, never sponge-y. The modern electric guitar also has to be able to voice a range of distorted tones – from the gritty bite of slightly overdriven rock rhythm to the full bodied ‘crunch’ of power chords – without its mid range frequencies being out of balance, it’s bass getting too soggy, or its treble fuzzing out. It must be able to sparkle a twang-y, jingle-jangle when appropriate, and add a touch of ‘quack’ when needed. And last but not least, it must remain articulate with warm sustain (without ever being shrill) when singing in an overdriven lead voice.
It might be useful to point out the tones of famous players in order to illustrate these qualities (3):
For distorted hard rock rhythm guitar parts, Eddie Van Halen captured the sound of a generation with the opening strains of the remake of the Kinks You Really Got Me from the first Van Halen release. Known as ‘the brown sound’, EVH’s rhythm tone (especially that used on the first four VH albums) is produced in equal parts from his hands, the guitar (with its single humbucker pickup in the bridge position), his use of effects, and an intentionally underpowered (4) Marshall tube amplifier. While we are noting his rhythm tone here, EVH’s soloing tone is equally amazing and distinctive. Another Hard Rock / Heavy Metal players with notable tone is George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob) and inimitable Brian May of Queen.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has a very distinctive rock rhythm tone that is the product of a vintage Fender Telecaster tuned to open-G tuning with only 5 strings (he omits the low E string). Bruce Springsteen, Tom Campbell (of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers fame), and others have similarly banged out a distinctive rhythm tone on the Tele’s famous swamp ash plank.
Mark Knopfler’s guitar sound on the first few Dire Straits albums was particularly admired for its chime-y quality. He combined the single coil pickups on his custom-built, Strat-style guitars in such a way as to produce a unique ‘out of phase’ tone that ‘quacked’ when his finger attack was especially aggressive. Check out the fills and solos from ‘Sultans of Swing’ for an example.
Taking Knopfler’s tone and kicking in the overdrive will bring you close to some of David Gilmour’s signature Strat tones from Pink Floyd. Check out Comfortably Numb, Wish You Were Here, and Another Brick in The Wall.
Stevie Ray Vaughn did things with a Strat that can only be described as otherworldly. From lush, clean chords, to warm jazzy single note and octave runs, to gritty blues riffs or explosive solos that alternately sting or sing, SRV had among the very broadest pallets of sound of the last 25 years. Eric Johnson uses a similarly spectacular arsenal of sonic possibility, not only with a Strat, but also with semi-hollow Gibsons (ES-335) and others. Both of these Texans have used combinations of vintage Marshall Amplifiers and Fender amplifiers in the creation of their tones.
Neil Schon, best known from the 80’s arena-filling band, Journey, had some of the most versatile tones in music of that era for both his chording and single note sounds. Any Way You Want It, Walks Like a Lady, Lights, Faithfully, Separate Ways, and a dozen others show the variety of tones he produces from a variety of guitars, mostly customized Strats and Les Pauls.
Carlos Santana has perhaps the most distinctive solo tone in rock music with his Neck-Position Humbucker-driven PRS guitar through a Mesa-Boogie amp. Warm and singing, this guitar seems to say “ooooo”, while almost everyone else’s is saying “eeeee”. (Sing these two sounds out loud to hear the difference in tonal quality. Even though you don’t change the pitch of the note you are singing, the tonal quality is quite different)
Taking Santana’s tone and de-emphasizing the bass and lower midrange frequencies while punching the upper mids and keeping the highs in check will give you the building blocks of an impressive overdriven solo voice typical of electric fusion players such as Al DiMeola and Frank Gambale. Whether DiMeola’s alternate picking or Gambale’s sweep picking, an assertive picking-hand attack, tightly synchronized with nimble left-hand note selection, combine with high output humbucker pickups for this singing solo voice that retains articulate note differentiation amidst the harmonic-rich warmth. If you de-emphasize the bass even further and crank the treble, throw in the liberal use of effects units (such as pitch harmonization and multi-tapped digital delay lines) and add more radical use of the vibrato bridge (most frequently called (incorrectly) a tremolo bridge), you arrive at the modern instrumental rock tones of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai.
Pat Metheny and Mike Stern, elite Jazz guitarists, each have a readily identifiable tone that is influenced by their choice of guitars (Metheny, a variety of hollow ‘jazz boxes’ with associated ‘rolled off’ treble tonality, and Stern, a custom-made ‘Tele-styled’ solid body with its crisp articulation), their use of reverb, chorus, and delay effects, and their formidable fingerboard skills (Metheny with his ‘slippery’ phrasing and syncopated rhythmic timing and Stern with his ‘chops of doom’ speed and melodic composition). See Also Allan Holdsworth, or John Scofield in this genre.
So, with such a comprehensive understanding of the ultimate tone objectives firmly in hand, how hard could it be to get my guitar to be able to pull off a reasonable approximation of all these tones?
Investigating the Transformation Possibilities
Fortunately, there is essentially no excuse for crummy tone these days with the number and variety of replacement pickups on the market. Seymour Duncan and Dimarzio are the two largest makers of replacement pickups for electric guitar, with Joe Barden, Carvin, EMG, Fender, Lindy Fralin, Gibson, Bill Lawrence (5), Lace, PRS, and others rounding out the field. Pickups range in street price anywhere from about $50 US to well over $100 US. The hard part is not finding pickups, but rather deciding which ones to try. Words can only do so much to give you an idea of what a pickup can do. As I described at the outset, tone is such a composite quality that listening to records with the pickups identified provides only a rough guideline. With enough technical skills, time and money, one could purchase an assortment of pickups and ‘road test’ them, but given the impracticality and inefficiency of this approach, those on a tone quest must do their best to find their own path forward.
A fun tool for those embarking on a ‘Quest for Tone’ is the Internet. Manufacturers’ websites describe their pickups with many of the same adjectives used in this article to convey a sense of the pickups intended uses. Some are described as ‘neck’ pickups or ‘bridge’ pickups. Some are described as ‘vintage’ (suggesting that a pickup closely reproduces the much sought-after tones of Fender or Gibson guitars from the 1950’s or 1960’s), or modern (usually suggesting a higher output device, or one that uses advances in technology to reduce noise, string pull, etc). Seymour Duncan’s website has an interesting feature called the ‘tone wizard’. After entering the type of guitar you have, the type of wood its body and fingerboard are made from, and the style of music you play, the wizard lists some suggested pickups for your consideration. With several dozen pickups in the product line, this is a very helpful starting point.
What I was not prepared for was the amount of confusion that I experienced when reading manufacturers websites. For example, one pickup, labeled a ‘neck’ pickup would be described in terms that indicated that it might be suitable to my purposes, but upon reading further in the description, I would see that the manufacturer also suggested using it in the bridge position. The converse was also true for pickups labeled initially as bridge pickups. I still cannot fathom how a pickup can be the same in either position. I understand that some, even many, would find the pickup to exhibit pleasing (albeit different) characteristics in either position, but I seriously doubt that it will have the same characteristics in either position. By failing to describe the changes in characteristics, I suspected that I was getting a ‘sell job’, that the pickup being pushed is a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Instead of convincing me, the manufacturer simply left me doubting that such a pickup is right for me.
Another distraction encountered during pickup selection is the names of the pickups. A pickup called ‘Screaming Demon’, or ‘Full Shred’ might have tonal characteristics desirable to a broad segment of the pickup buying public, but the connotation that these are intended primarily (exclusively?) for the heavy metal crowd is quite strong. Likewise, the tones produced by a pickup called ‘Jazz’ or ‘Bluesbucker’ might actually appeal to a greater number of players than the name might imply. I know that a ‘rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, but when you have several dozen pickups to consider, you need something to start narrowing it down. Manufacturers need to realize that their products do not have a readily identifiable physical characteristic to distinguish themselves by (e.g. when I go to an auto showroom, I know what differences exist between minivans and sports cars). When all we have is words to go by, it’s best if the words really mean something.
The websites often have sound clips of pickups. These range from snippets of commercial recordings by artists who use a given pickup (not very informative given the amount of additional production present) to simple clips of a guitarist playing guitar solo licks. These too are fairly limited examples, but they are better than nothing. There is typically not enough variety in the types of guitars used or in the playing styles demonstrated in these clips to allow the user to determine the suitability of the pickup to their individual needs. A hard rock / heavy metal shredder won’t be able to assess a pickup’s suitability if the sound clip features a clean tone playing a chicken-pickin’ lick. Likewise, a jazz cat won’t learn much from a high-gain robo-riff sample. One pickup might sound a certain way for cleanly strumming open chords, but different when playing crunchy power chords. Cleanly playing single notes on the wound strings might not yield the same tonal properties as bending notes on the plain strings high on the neck with long sustain. Further, no site that I have found has sound samples of pickups in combination with other pickups, or even what humbuckers sound like when their coils are tapped individually. So, as cool as it is to get a hint of a pickup’s sound, and to compare it head-to-head with other pickups, web-based sound samples have not reached full potential as an informative device.
Manufacturers websites also often have technical specifications of their pickups that give a pickup’s DC resistance (measured in K ohms) or resonant frequency (measured in KHz). DC Resistance loosely corresponds to the pickup’s output, with a higher DC resistance indicating a ‘hotter’, or higher, output device. Given that a pickup has to work in an AC environment, it’s DC resistance cannot provide information about it’s overall sound. Similarly, the resonant frequency of a pickup doesn’t provide much insight into the pickup’s tonal characteristics across the entire frequency range from bass, through lower and upper midrange, to treble. Some manufacturers try to give a quantitative comparison value of a pickup’s frequency response by rating the highs, mids, and lows of a pickup on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being most prominent. Again, this is a qualitative assessment more than a quantitative measurement, despite the use of numbers.
Another useful source for finding information on the Internet is message boards where guitarists share their knowledge, experience, and opinions and ask questions for others to comment on. I used the Seymour Duncan message forum extensively during my search and found the participants to be friendly, honest, and helpful. Other message forums include a Fender forum, Les Paul forum, PRS Forum, and a Carvin forum. Some participants in these forums have their own websites featuring additional samples of pickups in their guitars. Not only can some of these folks play very well (!), but also many are meticulous about describing exactly how the clip was recorded so as to give the critical listener enough information to gauge the context of the tones produced. I found this to be the most unexpected, but among the most helpful sources of info as I researched my choices. Check some out for yourself, you might be as surprised as I was what some gifted amateurs can accomplish.
A moment to catch our breath
So, there you have it. A little intro describing how pickups work, a review of some sweet sounding tones, and a few clues on where to find out more than you ever might’ve expected about pickups.
Next time, we’ll finish our journey and find out how close we can come to the promised land of tone, sweet tone.
1. This article deals only with passive pickups. Active pickup systems, where the pickups are battery powered and are coupled with “equalizer-type” tone control circuitry and a pre-amplifier, are an entirely different technology.
4. By under-powering the amplifier (i.e. providing less than 120volts of AC power), the amplifier’s tubes become saturated or distorted in a unique way. However, this can damage an amp if done improperly and is not advised for the amateur hobbyist to try at home.
5. I already own two Bill Lawrence humbucker pickups and am thrilled with them. They are X500-Ls from the mid ’80s and are probably the most articulate, balanced, powerful, noiseless, and versatile pickups I have ever played. I decided not to include them on my current replacement quest simply for the sake of variety.