Oh, the search for tone. What a journey you are - both maddening and exhilarating. Maybe it’s exhilarating because it’s maddening, but I digress. What started as wanting to play one song, or like one guitarist, has turned into a thing unto itself, equipped with its own personality.
It seems the beginnings take root in trying different guitars - letting the brands guide the tone you’re after. But sometime thereafter is a realization that to really hone-in on the tone they’re after you find yourself staring at their pickups.
Sure we could talk about guitar pickups and their uses, but I think more useful to you might be pickups and their relation to play style.
Hard Rock Playstyle
Just about every hard rock recording from bygone eras were done so with vintage pickups. We now know these as medium - to - low output, and they require the majority of your tone and feel to come from the amplifier. These types of pickups allow you to hear the individual voices while playing complex chords with some overdrive.
No wonder vintage pickups were used. Most of those hard rock albums we grew up listening to are cut with overdriven amps.
Pickup Selection for Hard Rock: Medium Output Humbuckers
In the quest for tone musicians have demanded more and more from the gear they play with. What started as overdriven amps has become something of an artistic autopsy. Ripping apart our gear bit by bit to pull still more from it. This is effectively how the high output pickups came about, as overdriven amps were only taking us so far.
High output pickups produce more gain and sustain which can make playing styles like Legato and finger-tapping easier to do. These require less amp drive for gain, translating to a lower noise floor.
Pickup Selection for Metal: High Output Humbuckers
Country, Blues and Classic Rock Playstyles
Brighter and thinner than their dual counterparts, single coil pickups have been in records since the 1920’s. The high-end and midrange are tight and focused while the tone can be glassy and chiming. These are some of the tones you’re after when playing country, classic rock and blues.
If you value clarity like the playstyle suggests, you’ll be hard pressed to find it in another pickup type, but you’re going to find these to be a bit noisy, which we’ll get to down below.
Pickup Selection for Country, Blues, and Classic Rock: Single Coil Pickups
The Tone You May Seek and The Noise You Don't
Probably the first thing you’ll notice in single coil pickups is that they’re noisy. What you’re really hearing is all of the electronic ambient “noise” in your house because the pickup is an electromagnet (poles with wires wrapped around them).
There’s a school of thought that everything in the world creates vibrations, and that’s kind of what you’re hearing. We also call this 60 cycle hum.
Enter those dual coil humbuckers, named specifically because they “buck” the 60 cycle hum, delivering a quieter pickup.
But those humbuckers don’t sound like a single coil. So what gives? Well, there’s actually a quiet coil clone out there that delivers that single coil tone without all the noise from the years of an earlier vintage.
The Quest Continues...
It’s not a linear path nor a destination that’s final. There’s always another tweak, another tone. We are tinkering with new ways to do the same thing, or chasing something entirely new. But it begins in the pickups. That’s the first place we turn on the journey.
What’s your play style and how are you getting those tones? I’d love to hear.