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The Replacements

Imitating a famous tone and what goes into it.

This month, let’s discuss the selection of replacement pickups, or at least some of the things to consider before starting the process. We get questions about this all the time at Acme, since we sell pickups, and I’ve spoken with many different pickup manufacturers about it, so I thought I’d share my observations (and theirs).

Pickups are made in all shapes, sizes and flavors, as you’re probably aware. There are thousands of replacement pickups on the market, so how do you possibly wade through all of the options and narrow it down to a manageable selection? Well, the first thing to do is to decide where you are now, and then decide where you want to go. And of course, you need to consider that pickups are only a small part of it.

One of the comments we hear all the time is, “I want to cop the tone of [insert famous guitar player here]” on this or that recording. The difficulty here is that there are so many variables involved. There’s the particular guitar that was used for that recording, the pickups, the effects, the cables, the amp, mics, mic placement, the room and – drum roll please – the player’s hands.

Even with modern production techniques there can still be great variances in the weight of a guitar body, affecting the instrument’s tone.
The player’s hands. Now that’s a big deal right there. This is often much more important than some people realize, and in my opinion it’s the single most important factor in some cases. Hendrix, Van Halen, Landau, SRV – great, great hands, all of them, and to truly cop their tone you need great hands too. This may seem like an arcane observation, but if so then think about the difference you hear when you play a note with vibrato versus without it. You influence your tone to a huge extent with your hands, and the greats make every note count. Unfortunately you can’t buy this – you have to earn it, and the path involves lots of listening and lots of practice.

So you can’t buy the hands of the greats, but you can buy much of their gear, and so you should be able to get pretty close to where you want to be, with the possible limitation being your playing ability.

But where are you now? If you’re looking to get Duane Allman, but you’re playing a Tele, the first thing you might want to consider is a different guitar. A Tele is just not going to sound like a Les Paul – they are too different. Unquestionably, Teles can be amazingly versatile, especially when modified (just look at what Brent Mason can do with one), but why make it difficult for yourself? Trying to modify a Tele with the hope that you’ll get closer to the LP tone is probably a waste of time and money, when Les Pauls are readily available, and they sound like Les Pauls without needing to be modified. I love Teles, but if it’s a Les Paul tone you’re after, then you’ll almost surely find your quest to be easier if you start with a set-neck, mahogany guitar, rather than a bolt-on, alder-bodied one.

So let’s assume you’ve homed in on a suitable guitar and managed to score that Dumble, but you’re still not getting what you want.

Well, another oft-overlooked component is the inherent tonality of the guitar in question. You might tend to think that all alder-bodied, maple-necked Strats sound pretty much the same, for example, but this would be inaccurate. In fact, this last statement will have prompted many readers to think, “well, of course, they don’t all sound the same,” but you might be surprised to learn how often people who call us for pickup recommendations begin the conversation by telling us what kind of wood the guitar is made of.

In fact, you might have done this yourself. It’s easy to buy into this idea, and perhaps part of the reason is that we’ve been conditioned to think that certain woods sound different ways. You’ve undoubtedly read on one manufacturer’s website or another about the tonal consequences of using pao ferro versus true rosewood for a fingerboard, for example. But wood is inconsistent. Several years ago Fender sold a limited selection of replacement bodies and necks, and we used to sell them. We got in the habit of opening each one when it came in and weighing it. We’ve measured ‘62 Strat replacement bodies that were under four pounds and others that were very nearly five pounds. That’s a pretty wide variation, percentage-wise. You might think that there must have been some inconsistencies among these bodies that contributed to the
variation in weight, but there weren’t. All were made on CNC machines, so dimensionally they were very consistent. All were finished in the Corona paint facility, which is absolutely state-of-the-art, so I think it’s safe to say that the finishes were consistent. All of the bodies were alder. What’s left to explain the weight variation? The weight of the wood itself.

My contention is that wood is the single greatest variable in any guitar. While it may be fairly safe to say something like, “In general, an alder Strat will sound this way and an ash Strat that way,” in my opinion the key words are in general, because where wood is concerned, there are no absolutes.

So how does all of this impact your quest for replacement pickups? I’ll tell you, but not this month. Next month I’ll discuss some conversations I’ve had with Lindy Fralin, which I think you’ll find illuminating, but first I have to go ask his permission! See you next month.

George Ellison
Founder, Acme Guitar Works