Some players, myself included, have noticed a subtle but palpable difference between direct-mounted pickups and those mounted more traditionally in pick guards or mounting rings.
It was originally popularized by Edward Van Halen in his original Frankenstrat and various parts-mutt touring guitars, but it never really caught on in mass-produced instruments – maybe only a select few besides Eddie’s own EVH series.
I originally discovered the benefits in the neck pickups of my “parts-o-caster” Strat builds, and I recently noticed it in bridge humbuckers as well. I’m now fully a believer!
This is accomplished as the name implies, by mounting the pickup via small wood screws directly into the wood of the body’s pickup cavity. There seems to be an increase in resonance, and it imparts this woody “you are there” effect when the guitar is played. There’s “more” of your guitar there, more “umph” and “cluck” to picked notes. Sustain seems to be improved too, since the pickup appears to be sensing vibration from being directly connected within the cavity as well as from the strings!
If you’re using a moderate to high output pickup, a direct-mounted pickup also seems far less reliant on height adjustment to sound as if it’s in the “sweet spot” – usually it already just does. If not, one could quickly and easily build up the mounting surface with small wood shims to raise the pickup in the cavity accordingly. The guitar sounds more alive in your hands: more punchy, percussive and authoritative. Going forward I don’t see myself building any more Superstrats using mounting rings for their pickups. From now on all my pickups are going straight into the cavity!
Next time you’re in a music store and you notice a guitar with a direct mounted pickup, try it out. A/B it with a similar guitar with a pickguard or a mounting ring. See if you don’t notice a little extra something that you don’t hear in suspended pickups!