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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Even with modern production techniques there can
still be great variances in the weight of a guitar body,
affecting the instrument’s tone
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.
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.
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.
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.
But where are you now? If you’re looking to
get Duane Allman, but you’re playing a Tele,
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
Founder, Acme Guitar Works