Having worked at Suhr Guitars and Azola Basses, in addition to gigs as a recording engineer, Carey Nordstrand is one of those guitar builders who’s seen a bit of everything. And in 2004, after developing pickups for both his own custom basses and other luthiers, word of his pickups’ excellence spread so much that he expanded the pickup side of his bass company into a full-fledged operation. Today, his pickup line includes designs for both bass and guitar, and his recently released Shush Puppy single-coils are designed to address the age-old issues of feedback, noise, and hum without losing the sweet, syrupy chime that defines a great single-coil.
Twist on a Classic
The Shush Puppies’ compact design and modern appearance make them stand out visually next to conventional single-coils. Though they can have the effect of seeming a little bigger than standard single-coils when you take them out of the box, they will fit in a Stratocaster without any additional routing or pickguard replacement.
Each alnico 5 pickup houses two thin bobbins containing 12 tiny pole pieces each. Twelve of these 24 are visible through the plastic cover. Nordstrand’s copper wire is carefully handwound around each custom-formed bobbin to prevent feedback, and it’s optimized for 250k potentiometers. Each pickup’s bobbins are wired in series to prevent hum. Neck and middle pickups each have outputs of 6.9k , and the bridge pickup reads a bit hotter at 7.4k. The Shush Puppies also use insulated plastic wire and are offered with pickup covers in classic shades of black and ivory. Unfortunately, the covers don’t completely cover the bobbins, leaving a gap of about 1/6" where you can clearly see the copper windings, so it’s important to clean out any debris in and around the pickup cavities before installing the Shush Puppies.
With their super-quiet performance, crisp tone, and pristine highs, the Shush Puppies accomplish nearly every one of Nordstrand’s intended goals. It’s surprising how little the hum-cancelling design affects the single-coil tones—if it even does at all. A lot of hum-canceling single-coils compress and dampen the response in the pursuit of low noise, and the objective is usually met at the expense of springy lows and syrupy quack. This is most definitely not the case with the Shush Puppies.
Dropped into a Fender Stratocaster and running into a Fender Twin Reverb’s second channel, the slightly hotter bridge Shush Puppy sang beautifully when playing slowly swept chords and gingerly picked alternating melodies. The highs have a quick attack, as you might expect, but the lows also have a faster response than most Strat-style pickups. Playing with a softer approach doesn’t diminish the attack much, and you hear a lot of rising bottom end no matter how lightly you pick. The bridge pickup’s output is remarkably strong and piano-like—qualities that aren’t easy to find in aftermarket bridge single-coils.
The highs and lows of the neck and middle pickups are also powerful and crystal clear, though they speak with a wide, low midrange. They also breathe a bit more thanks to their slightly lower output. Pick the strings with a soft touch, and the highs open up with a hi-fi kind of clarity. The treble response of the neck pickup in particular is very responsive, but it can also amplify small quirks and rough edges in your playing. If you keep an extra keen eye and ear on your technique, this is a boon, though.
Nordstrand has successfully melded the sound and feel of a great single-coil with the low noise of a humbucker—all without sacrificing the bright tonality, response, and chime of a great traditional single-coil. Each pickup has ample volume and punch, and the set balances wonderfully together, too. The lightning-quick response might cause some vintage purists to raise an eyebrow, but the impressive harmonic complexity, glorious detail, and whisper-quiet noise level qualify them for a spot in the upper ranks of boutique contemporary single-coils.