Over the years, when I’ve pulled my 1960s Gibson ES-345 out of its case, guitarists have been drawn to it like industrial-strength magnets. They’ll ask if it’s all original, and I’ll say: “Well actually, I’ve put a Seymour Duncan JB in the bridge position.”. They’ll peer closely at the pickup and look a bit puzzled, then I’ll explain that I switched the pole screws and put on the original cover so it looks in keeping with the rest of the guitar… And then their faces will develop this expression which just says: “Like, why have you removed a genuine 1960s Gibson humbucker and replaced it with an off-the-shelf SD???”… Then I plug the guitar in, and they’re like: “Ah. That’s why.”
In theory, I shouldn’t really be a great fan of the Seymour Duncan JB humbucker at all. It uses a strong ceramic magnet, and it’s technically a high-, rather than vintage-output unit. I tend to favour traditional gear, so the JB’s spec falls outside of what I’d normally look for. Additionally, I don’t see the JB as the easiest replacement to accommodate. It needs a decent guitar in order to really shine. Used on a newish and rather cheap guitar it’s likely to sound pretty nasal. But used on a more mature or higher quality guitar with good acoustic properties, the JB is a pickup to get very excited about.
The JB can arguably be considered Seymour Duncan’s first significant pickup. It’s essentially a rehash of a unit Seymour made for Jeff Beck in 1974, after Beck’s Les Paul was stripped of its PAFs by a dodgy guitar tech. Intending to provide Beck with a replacement for the Les Paul’s previous ballsy bridge pickup sound, Duncan took a broken PAF from a Gibson Flying V and used his already extensive rewinding knowledge to create an authoritative-sounding, bridge-specific unit, which he fitted to a Tele-type guitar. Beck’s liking for, and use of that guitar was soon immortalised on record, so the pickup design is very much among the historically recognised pioneers of classic rock pickup hot-rodding.
If you consider what Seymour was aiming for when he created the original – namely, a means to cover the territory of a particularly covetable, overwound bridge position Gibson PAF, but with more balls and overdrive potential – you get a good picture of what to expect from the JB.
The pickup undeniably has that upper midrange kick which can really send an overdriven valve amp crazy, but the stronger magnet allows the pickup to be wound louder without losing its definition. If you have two vintage-output humbuckers in a guitar, and you set them the same distance from the strings, you’ll get a noticeable output drop when switching from the neck position to the bridge. That doesn’t happen with a JB at the bridge. And if you use the JB on an older Gibson guitar, you do get that sense of a super-hot PAF. Other classic Seymour bridge ‘buckers such as the Custom Custom don’t have the same character. The Custom Custom is smooth, and it’s gorgeous – and it even has an alnico magnet, but it doesn’t have that slightly brash hotspot that cuts right through the mix, encourages harmonics, and tells the amp when to scream its head off. If you want that, it has to be the JB.
I have to admit that I wasn’t really happy with the sound of my ES-345 in its original state. My attention was drawn to the JB as a solution because I’d read that Neville Marten and Eddie Allen – at the time prominent staff members at Guitarist magazine – were both using them. I figured that those guys genuinely must have tried loads of pickups in the course of their work, and if they’d both picked the JB for themselves, it must have a lot to commend it. Then I researched the pickup further and decided it was going to be the missing piece of my ES-345’s jigsaw. That’s the way it turned out. The guitar doesn’t sound like some HM superstrat – it still sounds like an old Gibson semi, but with a sort of… ‘black belt in Karate’ kind of attitude. All the punch and attack the guitar was originally lacking, is there in abundance.
WHERE TO USE THE JB
With all pickup replacements you have to look first at the guitar, what it’s lacking, and what the replacement pickup was designed to deliver. Only if the pickup was designed to deliver what the guitar lacks should you consider using it. That sounds obvious, but a lot of people buy mellow pickups to improve mellow guitars, or bright pickups to improve bright guitars, and it doesn’t really work. Pickups are, to a degree, like EQ controls. If you had a bassy sound, you wouldn’t increase the bass – you’d increase the higher frequencies. That’s how pickup replacements should be seen too. If you have a guitar that sounds a bit ‘hollow’ or ‘woolly’, and short on upper midrange, the JB will sort things out, with all the usual benefits of the Seymour Duncan brand. High quality, dependable operation, excellent overdrive compatibility, etc. Conversely, if you have a guitar that’s already a bit middly or nasal, putting in a JB is probably not a good idea.
What you can expect with the JB is extremely good performance, power, and a sound that puts you in charge. It’s a bridge pickup, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend trying it in the neck position. But used as specified, in a naturally resonant instrument, it’s still, after over 40 years, extremely hard to beat. Its primary forte is overdrive and distortion, but it does acquit itself well with clean tones too - especially when combined with a vintage-output neck unit. And at the end of the day, if it was good enough for Jeff Beck…
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