Why Do Some Guitar Pickups Sound Great And Others Sound Dull?

Published: 28th October 2011
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Let's start by stating that what is thought to be a great guitar pickup by one guitarist may not be considered nice by another. This is all about tone and everybody has a completely different idea of what the right tone is.

A well made pickup is just like a fine meal. It's the combination of several different ingredients blended together to complete the magic recipe. Too much garlic or not enough heat and your meal can be poor, sloppy coil windings or incorrect magnets (to name just two ingredients) and bang goes your pickup's tone. There are many aspects that need to come together and the various guitar pickup suppliers seem to have their own take on it.

It's not easy to get that incredibly elusive 'special' tone. Even the much sort after Gibson PAF (Patent Applied For) humbucker pickups of the late 50's were not all good. The good examples from that era are probably the best sounding pickups you'll ever have the pleasure to hear, but there were definitely some duds from that period. This inconsistency was mainly due to the hand built nature of these products, with stories of some workers in the Gibson factory taking a coffee break and leaving the winder on for just a bit too long.

Listed below are a few of the variables that will play a crucial part in the overall result of a guitar pickup build:

1. The build quality in general. The taping, soldering and general putting together of all the components.

2. The coil windings. The pattern, tension, number of turns, if it is scatter wound (some prefer this to the more uniform machine winding) and the type of wire.

3. The general quality of the materials used including the screws, magnets, bobbins etc.

4. Whether or not the pickups are wax potted. This is the process of sealing a pickup in a wax and paraffin mix to stop any microphonic feedback through the amp. Some say that a great pickup doesn't need wax potting, in fact the old 50's humbuckers weren't potted, but in reality most need it.

5. The balancing act between the various components. For example the various alnico and ceramic magnets balanced with the total number of coil winds is an important juggling act.

The other aspect to consider is of course your style of playing. For example a jazz guitarist might prefer a more mellow sound with less output and maybe an Alnico 4 magnet. In contrast a rocker may well be looking for higher output centered around a ceramic magnet.

There are some great established pickup makers out there such as Di Marzio and Seymour Duncan and also some amazing new boutique pickup builders like Tub Guitar Pickups. If you want to give your axe a shot in the arm you should check them out.


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The author has performed with various bands over the years and owns a variety of guitars. He loves to upgrade and customise his instruments and highly recommends the excellent replacement humbucker pickups and Stratocaster pickups from TubGuitarPickups.co.uk.

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