Pro bassists weigh in on the differences between how guitarists and bassists approach the instrument.

Conventional wisdom says that even if you're just moderately accomplished on guitar, you can still pass on bass. But in reality it's not hard to spot a bass player who's really a guitar player in disguise.
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A look behind the scenes into Seymour Duncan''s marketing man''s head

Rather than writing about magnets and turns of wire, I thought I’d expose the “man behind the curtain” this month and write about guitar pickup marketing. I face a unique challenge. First of all, most guitars already come set up with decent pickups, and my job is to convince customers to change them. But second, and equally challenging, the swinging pendulum of fashion is always influencing what folks want. And believe it or not, it affects you and your guitar gear purchase decisions.

When Cathy Duncan hired me as head of marketing for Seymour Duncan, she told me, “Sell the steak and the sizzle.” The steak in this case is an electric guitar pickup. For customers to buy it, it has to perform as advertised and provide value for the money the customer paid for it. What makes selling image products like guitar pickups different from selling other consumer products like digital cameras and MP3 players—and maybe even different from selling other musical instruments like woodwind and brass—is that I’m required to sell something in addition to the product: I’m required to sell the dream. The sizzle.

The best way to sell the sizzle is by providing the customer with a great cut of steak, perfectly prepared. With the right piece of gear, you sound better and you play in new ways and with new tones that you never experienced before. The right gear drives inspiration. When that happens—when you’re inspired because of a piece of gear you just purchased—you’re truly living the dream.

Think about the guitar as a symbol. Nowadays it represents mainstream Americana. But a few decades ago it was a symbol of rebellion and counter-culture. That’s part of what makes it an image product. Many of us first picked up a guitar because of the image. If you’re like 96.5% of Premier Guitar readers, you’re a dude. And a good number of us dudes started playing guitar exactly six nanoseconds after we learned that girls like rock stars.

One way we sell the sizzle is by tapping into the rock star fantasy you’ve secretly harbored ever since you first played air guitar on a tennis racquet behind closed bedroom doors. Most gear companies have an artist relations rep who cultivates a mutually beneficial relationship with artists. An artist gets free or discounted gear and the company promotes the notion that you need to use a particular artist’s gear in order to cop their tone. Moreover, the rock star sizzle extends beyond gear and delves into the lifestyle fantasy. The not-so-subtle message is: “Use Slash’s pickup. Live Slash’s life.” Hey, it could happen.

Here’s where it gets really challenging for guys like me: popular music impacts gear choices, much in the same way it influences fashion. The late ‘60s gave birth to folk-rock, protest songs, bell bottom jeans, and the acoustic guitar pickup. The heavily processed sounds of the late ’70s saw us shelling out for leather pants along with refrigerator-sized racks full of preamps and active pickups. In the ’80s, dive bomb whammy excursions required double-locking vibratos, Trembuckers, and, dare I say it, Spandex. The outdoorsy-punk aesthetic of early ‘90s grunge made us ditch the Spandex for plaid flannel, stonewashed jeans, and a vintage guitar plugged into a few fuzzy stompboxes. Later in the ‘90s, in addition to full sleeve tattoos and aggressive facial piercings, new metal’s drop tunings caused amps to get dual rectified and guitars to sprout a seventh string.

When I started at Seymour Duncan, nearly every customer who called in wanted to sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Jimi Hendrix. In 1993, five of the top ten Seymour Duncan pickups were Strat replacements. Cut to now: the thicker tones of humbuckers rule the day. Folks who email us want to sound like Slash and Dimebag and Mick Thomson. At the moment, there’s only one Strat replacement pickup in the Seymour Duncan top ten. But guess what? It’ll swing back to single coils soon enough. That’s fashion, folks. And the cumulative result of fashion’s effect on gear is an amazing assortment of products. Today’s guitarist has more great gear to choose from than at any other point in history.

So now you know the truth. Not only am I in the musical instruments industry, I’m also in the fashion industry. As for you—whether you’re a vintage solidbody collector, a dreadnought bluegrass picker, or a down-tuned black metal screamer—the gear purchases you make are influenced by forces not too different from those that influence the haute couture collections of the big fashion houses. As for me, who knows? Maybe one day, with the right guitar and the right pickup, one of those tall, skinny, supermodels with the bored look on her face will go out with me.

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P-90 Primer

The history behind the fabled P-90

In the last column, George Ellison was going through the major pickup types, starting with the Strat single coil, which he called “the best” pickup. I’d have to agree that the Strat’s pickups are responsible for some of the greatest tones the electric guitar ever made. I love Strats, too, but I also have a special place in my heart for another single coil, one that’s older than the Strat: the venerable P-90.

During the sixteen years I’ve worked for Seymour Duncan, I’ve noticed a dramatic surge in the popularity of P-90s. In fact, no recent “movement” in pickups has been quite as strong as the renewed interest in these great-sounding tone beasts. Let’s look at the history of the P-90 and discuss its unique characteristics and advantages.

Gibson debuted their “Electric Spanish” line of guitars in the thirties as a way for guitarists to be heard, particularly in an ensemble format. Some of these early instruments, like the 1936 ES-150, used built-in, straight-bar, “Charlie Christian” pickups. Walt Fuller was the man responsible for this new design. This pickup eventually evolved into a rectangular-shaped, diagonally-slanted single coil unit with adjustable pole pieces. You could see these odd pickups on the ES-300, along with certain Gibson lap steels from 1940 to 1945. This transitional pickup was the big brother to the P-90, which Fuller developed in 1946, and which appeared on Gibson’s ES-175 and Switchmaster guitars shortly thereafter. Fuller used black thermo-formed plastic covers to house these pickups. And, like their predecessor, they used adjustable poles and Alnico magnets.

In the early fifties, Gibson began their official collaboration with the legendary Les Paul. It was in the spring of 1952 that the majestic Gold Top Les Paul debuted—featuring P-90 pickups. Back in the day, you could have one of these beauties for a mere $210. Sigh…

Some might argue that the P-90 was Gibson’s only truly successful single coil pickup. To me, the P-90 has the perfect blend of output and high-end response. Compared to the Strat, the tone is fatter, with more “beef” and more mids. Like the Strat pickup, traditional P-90s employ a single coil design with sandcast Alnico magnets. Unlike the Strat, the vintage P-90 uses a single conductor, braided shield hookup cable. The original P-90s were machine wound using 42 gauge, plain enamel magnet wire. Traditional P-90s use two magnets with opposing fields that face each other: the two south sides faced the screw pole pieces.

"Dog Ear" P-90

"Soap Bar" P-90
The average DC resistance of the original P-90s was around 8.50k ohms. Unlike the Strat pickup’s tall, thin bobbin, the P-90 uses a short, flat bobbin, which accounts for a fatter, more midrange-intensive tone. As for covers, the late-forties ES-5s and ES-175s used the black thermo-formed “dog ear” cover, while the 1952 Les Paul used a cover that looked vaguely like a bar of yellowish soap—not that you’d necessarily want to wash with it. These “soapbar” covers were readily available in black as well, and were found on the 1956 Les Paul Custom and 1957 Special Junior. The soapbar version is truly unique in that the mounting and height adjustment screws sit in between the “A” and “D” string pole pieces on one side and the “G” and “B” on the other.

If you were around in the fifties and sixties, you could hear jazzers like Herb Ellis and the great Joe Pass using P-90s to produce “warm ‘n’ woody” tones, especially when used with the heavier gauge strings of the day. Other notable P-90 users have included Freddie King, George Thorogood, and Mountain’s Leslie West.

The nineties revival of swing and rockabilly music fueled a resurgance in traditional P-90 tones. Clever pickup manufacturers have figured out new ways of delivering P-90 flavors. Some have developed ceramic magnet P-90s used together with high-output coils for “Bad to the Bone” tone. Others have built hum-canceling P-90s that use a stacked-coil design, which not only cancels the hum found in all true single coil pickups, but also allows the player to switch between series, parallel and split wiring for even more tone options. Some offer P-90s housed under covers that make them direct, drop-in replacements for humbucker- equipped instruments. And still others offer full-size humbucker pickups that can split to a real-deal P-90.

So, whaddayathink? Are P-90s right for you? Well, if you like a big, fat, punchy tone with lots of single coil “cut,” and boosted mids, then you might be ready to take the P-90 plunge.

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