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The replacement pickup industry has become engorged with choices to the point that most guitarists have a hard time finding what’s right for them—or even knowing what to look for. Internet bulletin boards, which I refer to as the Wild West Web, simultaneously inform, skew, and confuse even savvy consumers with endless options. Pile on the fact that “great” tone is subjective, and you can easily see how the business of winding wire on magnets remains a black art. You also recognize that lack of a clear objective can keep you searching indefinitely.
One common mistake is attempting to make a guitar sound like something it isn’t. Another expensive detour is thinking that because a particular pickup sounds good in one guitar, it will sound good in another. If only there were some magic graph or rating system that could make sense of all our options.
The Human Voice Lesson
Choosing a pickup can be a daunting task, but if you know what to look for it’s a whole lot easier. I learned a valuable lesson while working with Don Gehman, a legendary and brilliant record producer. It wasn’t about guitars at all, but the exercise was applicable just the same. Don had a phenomenal collection of vintage microphones, and when a certain manufacturer wanted some input on their new line of tube mics, they sent some to us in the studio to critique. It was my job to set the new mics up next to Don’s $10,000 Neumanns and Telefunkens, run the identical chains, and get the levels set. We were using a really sweet Neve sidecar and some Fairchild 670 limiters, but we also had some modern Focusrite mic preamps on deck for comparison.
With everything in place, Don asked the vocalist, Tommy Shaw, to speak into each mic while we listened with eyes closed. As Tommy went from mic to mic, speaking, shouting, then finally singing, I had a hard time making up my mind. Don, on the other hand knew immediately what he was listening for. When I told him I couldn’t choose which one I liked best, he offered some sage advice. Don reminded me that I knew Tommy’s voice well enough to identify him on the phone with a single word, and that I should listen for the mic that made Tommy sound, well, like Tommy. “The object,” Don confided, “is to bring out the character in the voice that makes it sound like who the singer is.” This is the identical process I use today to determine which pickup to pair with a guitar.
Putting It to the Test
It’s a time-consuming task to ear-test pickup after pickup through a variety of amps and at a wide range of volume and gain settings, but it can be a lot of fun, too. I got to use Don’s lesson recently when choosing a pickup for a new instrument I’d designed and built from African limba. This guitar had a 25.5" scale, which tipped the response toward snappy and bright. The body was chambered, which kept the mids and lows lively and prevented the treble from running away with the show. An unamplified test confirmed my intuition—the guitar was airy and projected well. The bass was tight but not pronounced. The most apparent virtue was a nice upper mid that was well defined, smooth, and breathy. This, I decided, was the attribute to emphasize—it was the instrument’s true voice, and I didn’t want to bury it. I’d need a pickup that could support the low end without sacrificing the breathiness of the upper mids.
The cast of suspects included Lollar Imperials, Wolfetone Marshallheads, Tom Holmes 450s, and a number of Duncans (based on Pearly Gates, ’59s, and Seth Lovers), two sets of DiMarzios, some stacked Phat Cats, a Harmonic Design set, and even some active EMGs. I had narrowed the field down to this group based upon my experience and knowledge of the guitar’s construction. Any of these pickups could be a stellar choice under the right circumstances.
Choosing the Right Amp(s)
It’s always a good idea to use your main amp to set a comparative baseline, but I also like to audition with a slew of amps to get a better feel for what the pickup/guitar combination is capable of. If I can find a magic combination that just blows me away, it will be worth considering even if it is a specialized setup. (This concept isn’t encouraged in many marketing circles, though. I’ve found that, in an attempt to appeal to more customers, some salespeople prefer watered-down products that sound pretty good in the largest number of circumstances.) In this case, the test amps ranged from small combos like my vintage Ampeg Jet, a Fender Pro Jr., and a tweed Fender Harvard, to a Mesa/Boogie Rectifier half-stack and a 1972 100-watt Marshall. Plus a lot of stuff in between, like my trusty red- panel Vox AC30 Twin and various Fenders.
I kept Don’s lesson in mind as I listened for the character of the guitar to come through. What I heard was that clear, breathy upper mid with a tight, but slightly attenuated bottom end. For me, this guitar really seemed to come alive with Euro tubes as opposed to American 6L6s or 6V6s. I could easily compare that with my Simul-Link-equipped Mesa/ Boogie Blue Angel, just by turning a knob.
It was a tough call, and I had to keep focused on the point of the exercise. In the end, I found that—in this guitar—the Seths with the Alnico 5 option really opened up and shimmered without surrendering the African limba body’s midrange voice. It wasn’t that the others weren’t good, it was just that the Seths really transmitted what was great about this particular guitar.
My advice is to be open to the possibilities within any instrument—then celebrate it. Just like good friends, guitars come in all shapes and sizes, and every one has a different personality. Find a pickup that highlights the character of the guitar instead of trying to make it only what you can imagine. In the end, you’ll be surprised how liberating it is. And that’s a game worth playing.
Noted designer, builder, and player Jol Dantzig founded Hamer Guitars, the first boutique guitar brand, in 1973. Since then, he has worked or recorded with many of the most talented and famous names in music. Today, as the director of Dantzig Guitar Design he continues to help define the art of custom guitar.