Even before the aftermarket pickup business was born, guitarists were refusing to accept the supposed laws of pickup superiority. Take Eric Clapton for example. In 1970 when he built his famous partscaster ‘Blackie’, he selected a 1950s Strat body and neck, and had a wealth of highly-lauded pre-CBS Fender pickups at his disposal. So, he put the best three pre-CBS pickups in the guitar, right? Wrong. He fitted two pre-CBS pickups, and a brand new CBS job, from 1970. And what’s more, that CBS unit, from what came to be considered an unpopular period of Fender pickup manufacture, survived throughout the guitar’s working life. So, whilst we all know what we’re supposed to like, and what’s supposed to be best, what’s actually right for our personal needs can be a very different matter.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF PICKUP SUPERIORITY
Psychology is critical in the sale of aftermarket pickups. At the pre-sale stage, physical sound has little real-terms bearing. Let’s face it, there’s nothing the manufacturers can play us which really tells us what their pickups are going to do in our guitars. So many factors govern how a pickup performs, that any audio demonstration is virtually meaningless. Guitars can have significantly different sonic characteristics from one to the next – even within a single brand and model. And elements such as the amp, the effects, the mic, other components of the recording process, and not least, the player, have a marked impact on what we end up hearing. In a chain of sound production subject to a multitude of defining factors, knowing how much of the tonal appeal is down to the guitar pickup is next to impossible.
And of course in the old days (1970s and 1980s), there was typically no way of even hearing a pickup demo. There was no Internet, and guitar magazine cover CDs didn’t appear until the 1990s. So the sellers sought to paint an evocative picture, which was as much about how the pickups looked and were presented as how they sounded. It was about history, technology, celeb association, building the musician’s dream – anything guitarists were likely to be swept away by. I won’t use the expression “snake oil”, because the leading edge of the pickups business has always, in my view, delivered, and has not sought to mislead. But whilst all those choice, premium pickups were being eulogised and hyped to the hilt, the stock units they were there to replace had no one to gift wrap them in pathos. Largely, that’s remained the case.
So how good are stock electric guitar pickups? Well, it’s pretty widely accepted that if you buy a high-end guitar, you probably won’t need to worry about changing the electrical components. Indeed, many high-end guitars feature pickups which themselves are available as part of the proprietary replacement market. In the mid and upper budget areas of guitar production, however, stock pickups tend not only to be far less drenched in hype, but also to be far less well documented in terms of precise spec. No one is shouting about them, so we really don’t know much about them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re no good, but it does mean they’re unlikely to evoke the same levels of excitement in the guitarist’s mind.
AN UNUSUAL COMPARISON
Across the sphere of electric guitar pickups, it’s vintage and premium aftermarket units which command the attention. The appeal of these artefacts centres around a manufactured imbalance in our perception. I’m going to explore that imbalance with two separate guitar pickup appraisals. One is a budget pickup, and the other is a genuine vintage pickup from the 1960s. Read these appraisals carefully, as there’s a surprise waiting at the end…
- “This unit had the kind of characteristics you’d expect in a guitar costing around £130. The tone wasn’t bad, if you don’t mind a rather weak signal and an absence of the top end bite for which this type of guitar is renowned. The microphonic squeal at rehearsal volume, however, was bad. It made the pickup unusable in certain musical contexts, and showed what happens when a manufacturer is too pushed for time, is not paying attention to quality control, and is cutting corners in the manufacturing process.”
- “Sometimes, a guitar pickup transcends the barriers of genre, and slips with ease into any musical style like it was tailor made. This unit offered a noticeably thicker and warmer sound than I’d expect from a brand new American Standard equivalent, and generated a creamy overdrive which really made the instrument purr. But the midrange body creating that creamy drive, did not come at the expense of crisp definition. This truly was an object lesson in versatility and tonal balance.”
Pickup number 1 was the ‘vintage classic’ from a 1960s Fender Jaguar I once owned – built after the company ceased wax potting, causing vibration in the coil windings, which in turn created microphonic squeal. A fairly high level of demagnetisation over the years had both weakened the output signal, and diminished the top end bite. Despite the generally eminent status of vintage Fender pickups, this one did indeed have at least some of the characteristics you’d expect in a guitar costing around £130.
Pickup number 2 was the stock pickup from a 1990s Squier Silver Series Strat. I wouldn’t rank that pickup as the best I’ve ever used, or anything like it, and there were drawbacks I didn’t mention. But everything I wrote was true. It does have a nice, balanced basic tone, and it’s perfectly competent in a technical sense.
And that’s the point. When you talk up many stock pickups in the way replacement and vintage vendors talk up their more illustrious wares, you find that actually, there’s no shortage of positive elements to focus on. As I did in the little trick above, you can make an expensive pickup sound like the absolute pits, and a cheapish pickup sound like the dog’s doofers. Which one actually is better, for you, will come down to many factors, but here are some of the things you should consider…
POINTS TO CONSIDER
- A lot of the shortfall in tonal attractiveness which guitarists attribute to the pickups, is actually the fault of the guitar – and this is particularly true with new or newer instruments. Because the pickup replacement business is so big, convenient, and full of promise, guitarists run to it as a first resort. But the quality and maturity of the wood, and the compatibility of the hardware and setup, are likely to have a much bigger impact on a guitar’s perceived tonal beauty than the pickups. With virtually all the guitars I bought new in the ’80s or ’90s, playing them in for twenty years plus and just generally letting the wood mature has improved the sound in a much more substantial manner than qualitative pickup upgrades could.
- Aftermarket pickups can be priced to recover big R&D, tooling/retooling, obsessive visual detailing, hand production or marketing costs. It doesn’t necessarily follow that those factors will translate into a sound that’s more compatible with your tastes. As long as a stock pickup doesn’t have technical flaws, it’s a straight matter of personal taste between the sound it produces, and the sound a replacement might produce.
- Vintage pickups lose top-end definition as part of the ageing process, and aftermarket simulations of vintage pickups often have that characteristic engineered into them for reasons of authenticity. If you want a mellower tone, then that’s fine, but if you prefer or need maximum high-end definition, the stock pickup(s) could suit you better.
- Stock pickups may sometimes be basic, but they’re at least vaguely matched to the guitar at the design stage. If you’re replacing the original units with something dramatically different, will the new sound still suit that design of instrument? And if you’re just ‘upgrading’ with something broadly the same, will there be enough difference to warrant the change?
- Stock pickups are part of the guitar, so if your interest is driven in any way by historical appeal, replacing them could, particularly in years to come, be detrimental to your experience. No matter how much hype there is surrounding the ‘vintage’ accuracy or authenticity of a replacement pickup, it’s never going to be more authentic, on your guitar, than the original equipment. That’s the great irony of replacement manufacturers marketing on historical interest. The more time that passes, the stronger the sense is likely to be that your guitar should have its original pickups. That’s almost certain to reflect in its resale value too.
- When you bought into your guitar, you also bought into its stock pickups. So if you try before you buy, there’s more than a hint that your stock pickups might suit you best. If you didn’t like the sound of those pickups in the first place, you probably wouldn’t have bought the instrument. Your stock pickups are a known quantity which appealed to you enough to drive through your purchase of the guitar. But replacement pickups are always an unknown quantity. Even if you’ve used an exact model of replacement unit before, it may still sound different in a different guitar. Replacing pickups you were initially happy with is always a gamble, and with any gamble, you may lose just as you may win.
The purpose of this piece has not been to cast aspersions on replacement pickups. I’ve bought loads and I’ve very rarely been disappointed. It should also be stressed that some pickups found in cheap guitars definitely do have serious technical flaws – flaws which to all intents and purposes just don’t exist at the top end of the replacement market. BUT, if your stock pickups already give you a tone you like, and operate in a technically sound manner, £100 plus is a lot of money to spend for a result you may not like as much. And in the end, if Jimi Hendrix, with his brand new, bog-standard and rather buzz-ridden CBS stock pickups, could become the most influential guitarist in the world, then the argument that feeble and technically suspect stock pickups can hinder a musician’s progress really doesn’t hold much water.
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