Defining the Pickup End Game
Routinely prying apart a coveted instrument
didn’t used to be the norm. With an almost
total absence of do-it-yourself literature, guitarists from the original Golden Age of electric
guitars were pretty much stuck with the pickup
choices that instrument builders had made for
them. Of course, this didn’t stop those hapless
artists from creating what we now consider
the definitive sonic palette of contemporary
music. So, what did those builders know that
seemingly has been lost? And how come, aside
from a few pickup products that are focused on
breaking new ground, most pickup work today
seems to be a time-travel rehash—a search for
something that happened before? It’s enough
to either completely empty your wallet or just
plain stop you cold in your tracks.
The replacement pickup industry has become
engorged with choices to the point that most
guitarists have a hard time finding what’s right
for them—or even knowing what to look for.
Internet bulletin boards, which I refer to as the
Wild West Web, simultaneously inform, skew,
and confuse even savvy consumers with endless options. Pile on the fact that “great” tone
is subjective, and you can easily see how the
business of winding wire on magnets remains a
black art. You also recognize that lack of a clear
objective can keep you searching indefinitely.
One common mistake is attempting to make
a guitar sound like something it isn’t. Another
expensive detour is thinking that because a
particular pickup sounds good in one guitar,
it will sound good in another. If only there
were some magic graph or rating system that
could make sense of all our options.
The Human Voice Lesson
Choosing a pickup can be a daunting task, but
if you know what to look for it’s a whole lot
easier. I learned a valuable lesson while working with Don Gehman, a legendary and brilliant
record producer. It wasn’t about guitars at all,
but the exercise was applicable just the same.
Don had a phenomenal collection of vintage
microphones, and when a certain manufacturer wanted some input on their new line of
tube mics, they sent some to us in the studio
to critique. It was my job to set the new mics
up next to Don’s $10,000 Neumanns and
Telefunkens, run the identical chains, and get
the levels set. We were using a really sweet
Neve sidecar and some Fairchild 670 limiters,
but we also had some modern Focusrite mic
preamps on deck for comparison.
With everything in place, Don asked the vocalist, Tommy Shaw, to speak into each mic while
we listened with eyes closed. As Tommy went
from mic to mic, speaking, shouting, then finally
singing, I had a hard time making up my mind.
Don, on the other hand knew immediately what
he was listening for. When I told him I couldn’t
choose which one I liked best, he offered some
sage advice. Don reminded me that I knew
Tommy’s voice well enough to identify him on
the phone with a single word, and that I should
listen for the mic that made Tommy sound, well,
like Tommy. “The object,” Don confided, “is to
bring out the character in the voice that makes
it sound like who the singer is.” This is the identical process I use today to determine which
pickup to pair with a guitar.
Putting It to the Test
It’s a time-consuming task to ear-test pickup
after pickup through a variety of amps and at a
wide range of volume and gain settings, but it
can be a lot of fun, too. I got to use Don’s lesson recently when choosing a pickup for a new
instrument I’d designed and built from African
limba. This guitar had a 25. 5" scale, which
tipped the response toward snappy and bright.
The body was chambered, which kept the mids
and lows lively and prevented the treble from
running away with the show. An unamplified
test confirmed my intuition—the guitar was airy
and projected well. The bass was tight but not
pronounced. The most apparent virtue was a
nice upper mid that was well defined, smooth,
and breathy. This, I decided, was the attribute
to emphasize—it was the instrument’s true
voice, and I didn’t want to bury it. I’d need a
pickup that could support the low end without
sacrificing the breathiness of the upper mids.
The cast of suspects included Lollar Imperials,
Wolfetone Marshallheads, Tom Holmes 450s,
and a number of Duncans (based on Pearly
Gates, ’59s, and Seth Lovers), two sets of
DiMarzios, some stacked Phat Cats, a Harmonic
Design set, and even some active EMGs. I had
narrowed the field down to this group based
upon my experience and knowledge of the guitar’s construction. Any of these pickups could be
a stellar choice under the right circumstances.
Choosing the Right Amp(s)
to set a comparative baseline, but I also like to
audition with a slew of amps to get a better
feel for what the pickup/guitar combination is
capable of. If I can find a magic combination that
just blows me away, it will be worth considering
even if it is a specialized setup. (This concept
isn’t encouraged in many marketing circles,
though. I’ve found that, in an attempt to appeal
to more customers, some salespeople prefer
watered-down products that sound pretty good
in the largest number of circumstances.) In this
case, the test amps ranged from small combos
like my vintage Ampeg Jet, a Fender Pro Jr.,
and a tweed Fender Harvard, to a Mesa/Boogie
Rectifier half-stack and a 1972 100-watt Marshall.
Plus a lot of stuff in between, like my trusty red-panel Vox AC30 Twin and various Fenders.
I kept Don’s lesson in mind as I listened for
the character of the guitar to come through.
What I heard was that clear, breathy upper
mid with a tight, but slightly attenuated bottom end. For me, this guitar really seemed
to come alive with Euro tubes as opposed to
American 6L6s or 6V6s. I could easily compare that with my Simul-Link-equipped Mesa/
Boogie Blue Angel, just by turning a knob.
It was a tough call, and I had to keep focused
on the point of the exercise. In the end, I found
that—in this guitar—the Seths with the Alnico 5
option really opened up and shimmered without
surrendering the African limba body’s midrange
voice. It wasn’t that the others weren’t good, it
was just that the Seths really transmitted what
was great about this particular guitar.
My advice is to be open to the possibilities
within any instrument—then celebrate it.
Just like good friends, guitars come in all
shapes and sizes, and every one has a different personality. Find a pickup that highlights
the character of the guitar instead of trying
to make it only what you can imagine. In the
end, you’ll be surprised how liberating it is.
And that’s a game worth playing.
Noted designer, builder, and player Jol Dantzig founded
Hamer Guitars, the first boutique guitar brand, in 1973.
Since then, he has worked or recorded with many of the
most talented and famous names in music. Today, as the
director of Dantzig Guitar Design he continues to help
define the art of custom guitar.