Choosing Pickups to Match Your Guitar’s Wood

We’ve discussed choosing pickups according to your style before. We’ve also had a bit of a look at choosing pickups with respect to the wood: what wood works best with which pickup for which style? In this article I want to explore some possible guitar, pickup, style and tone choices. What goes good with what?

The first thing you have to do is listen to your guitar unplugged. Is the sound bright? Is it wooly? The guitar’s natural character will make its way through the pickups to the amp, so understanding the workings of your guitar first is absolutely crucial.

Then figure out what style of music the guitar should play. If you have one or two guitars and you play many styles, it makes sense to get the two guitars to be kind of similar in tone, so one can be a backup for the other. You can also choose, of course, to have two completely different guitars. Either way, you have to figure that part out for yourself. When you’ve zeroed in on what tone you have and you’ve made up your mind on what style and tone you want, it’s time to figure out the right pickup set.

I’ve noticed that pickups can either match the natural tone of a guitar, or fill in the gaps in the guitar’s spectrum. Both options can work out well, or terribly bad! If you have a mid-heavy guitar like a Les Paul combined with a warm-sounding amp (like the mesa/boogie mark series amplifiers), the Alnico II Pro might make your tone incredibly mushy, woofy and warm because all the mids are just too much (although some players like this). On the other hand, warm pickups in a warm sounding guitar through an amp that’s got lots of bite and treble (like a Marshall) can result in amazing results! Slash is a major fan of that combination. He uses a Les Paul through a Marshall and has a cabinet that’s loaded with v30′s. That combination can have a lot of bite, but his Alnico 2 Pro signature set has enough smoothness to round it off just enough to not give that icepicky feel.

I’ve noticed that a Les Paul with a thick neck will have this issue sooner than a Les Paul with a thinner neck. It’s like having more wood in the neck adds more mids which seems to translate into a beefier tone. If you want a warm, vintage-vibed-yet-raunchy tone, a Pearly Gates might work better because it has more top end to compensate for the mids. A great pickup for the neck can be the 59 neck version for a mellow yet clear tone, while the bridge version has more sizzle and beef.

But what about the harder styles? Many players who play heavy metal and other aggressive styles play guitars with a basswood body and a maple neck. This will yield a tone with balanced highs, mids and lows, which means this wood combination is a great clean slate to make your own tone. You want a fat, tight bone crushing rhythm? Take the Invader! Tight in the bottom end, sweet in the highs and with lots of mids to not cut through a mix so much as waltz over it. You want your chords to crunch and thunder under palm mutes? Take the Distortion or Dimebucker! With their super-tight lows, screaming mids and cutting highs, these pickups are great choices in basswood guitars if you want bite and crunch.

Coincidentally, these two pickups also work great in mahogany guitars. Their midrange seems to compliment the mids of the guitar. The result? Huge, pushed mids with less bite than basswood (or any other for that matter), chunkier lows and softer highs.

The same goes for neck pickups. Sometimes your guitar has a lot of mids by default, making the choice rather hard. You’re looking for the right balance of juiciness and clarity. Guitars whose neck position naturally gives a lot of lower mids – such as Les Pauls – need a pickup with more upper mids or maybe even a mid-scooped pickup to balance out the tone. The Jazz neck and bridge and the Screamin’ Demon are great all-round choices. But if your guitar has more upper mids and less lower mids, get a fatter pickup like the Alnico 2 Pro neck, for juicier sounds.

Some pickups are so incredible they can go everywhere. The Screamin’ Demon feels perfectly at home in the neck and beside position of Les Pauls and Strats alike (in fact, semi hollow guitars seem to work great with the Demon, too!). The Pearly Gates works great in Les Pauls and Strats alike too. Just take a look!

But the pickup that seems to work in any guitar is the P-90. In a mahogany guitar the sizzle in the highs gets sweetened and the mids get some crunch. In a Strat or Tele you get a more beefy, powered-up version of the default tone of that guitar. The highs of the Strat and Tele are always more biting and piercing than a les Paul or SG, but the P-90 seems to soften up the highs on those guitars. The upper mids of the P-90 compliment the upper mids of that alder or ash body, yet fill it out with a healthy dose of lower mids (when on a Les Paul or SG its exactly the other way around!). The P-90 also seems to soften up the tightness of the lows of alder and ash, but gives the lows of mahogany a slightly chewy character.

Sometimes the stock pickup can only go so far in creating the tone you hear in your head. A new pot, or maybe something more drastic like a mag swap or making a hybrid, might do the trick. In any case, take a good listen to your guitar and your own needs, and try to understand the specs of a pickup as good as you can in order to match the spectra of the pickup and your guitar.

About Orpheo

Orpheo is a long-time member of the Seymour Duncan forum with an interest in the technical side of luthery and pickups and plays jazz, blues, rock and metal on predominantly carved top single cutaway guitars.
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  • Patrick Kluivert

    Everything you say is already explicated in the product description of Seymour Duncan. Everybody who has read the product info knows that Dimebucker and Distortion yield heavy sound. What a dumbass article.

    • Prostheta

      I have to agree with Patrick on this one. This article says nothing new. It would be far more useful if the lay person had “wooly” or “chewy” defined in more specific terms with examples people can work with so they know what a wooly sound is.

      Whilst it is good to bring all the otherwise well-known information together in one article, it is fundamentally flawed by being purely based on SD products. We have no lipsticks, alumitones, laces or other tonally unique pickups to create a more representative palette. The world isn’t made of Les Pauls.

      • Michael Caronia

        I have no idea why this Orpheo guy remains on Seymour Duncan list of bloggers. His previous articles are no less fundamentally flawed than this one, not to mention the vague terms that only exist in his head and the writing errors. Give it up Orpheo

        • http://www.facebook.com/derek.vadneau Derek Vadneau

          Why not provide useful criticisms, like Prostheta mentions? Otherwise, if you really don’t like his articles don’t read them. Why make someone feel less of themselves?

      • http://www.facebook.com/derek.vadneau Derek Vadneau

        Good criticism about the terms. I think it would be useful to try and describe terms like this, although difficult to do with words, which is why people tend to use words like this – they try to describe things in terms we might be familiar with with our other senses.

        For the second criticism: it IS a blog on the Seymour Duncan site. You really expect it to go over everyone else’s products? If this was a personal blog, or a
        site that was independent of brands, then I would hope for that (expect it
        if it was a review site). But, it’s not.

        If you’ve come to the Seymour Duncan blogs to read up on Alumitones, Lace, or DiMarzio, you may be disappointed.

        “The world isn’t made of Les Pauls” The first video is of a Strat. Are you asking that he focus on other types of pickups than humbuckers?

  • Iron Dan

    What about semi-hollows and hollows?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bongano Stefano Bongini

    What set do you recommend for a 1990 Gibson Explorer for classic rock tones?
    Thanks.

    • Sean Jones

      Distortion/ ’59

      • Stefano Bongini

        Thanks!

  • Orpheo

    Patrick Kluivert: I disagree. The descriptions just say what goes good in what. I was trying to explain the reasoning behind some good (or bad) combinations.

    Stefano Bongini: for classic rock tones? The pearly gates in the bridge: that rocks really great IMHO. The ’59neck in the neck gives you a smooth, glassy lead tone and (slightly) “sparkly” cleans. The pearly neck is also great if you want a bit more power and ‘grit’. If you wanna go ‘michael schenker style’(eventhough he played a V), I say take the jazz bridge for both positions and swap the magnets for alnico8′s. Thats for me the archtype rock sound of the 70ies, but the pearly can go there too.

    About semihollow body guitars: same deal. My article can be applied to all kinds of guitars. Just take a listen to your guitar. Warm sounding unplugged needs a brighter pickup in order to not get boomy or mushy, and vice versa. But that is also dependent on your amp (as I clarified in the paragraph about the alnico 2 pro and how slash uses that pickup).

    • Orr Pheo

      Hey dude, explain to us what you mean by ‘woofy’ and ‘mushy’, and why you only base your article on Les Pauls. Are you high on pot all the time? Have you ever heard of Strat? ES 335? Hamer Duo Tone? Idiot!!!! Same deal with semi hollow? Then explain to me why Invader is never used in a George Benson Ibanez.

      • http://www.facebook.com/derek.vadneau Derek Vadneau

        Your fist sentence had some merit, then you start getting personal – why? Did Orpheo bully you as a kid?

        Hiding behind a made up name. That’s mighty big of you. Good thing you came here to make such a positive impact.

      • dr.raff

        ur a dick bro

      • dr.raff

        do us a favor and stfu from now on.. thanks

  • KL

    How about guitars that have maple body and maple neck? I like to play classic metal like Dokken, Ratt etc. Which pickups are the right choices?

    • http://www.facebook.com/i.like.gilfs Branden Squeezie Cahill

      George Lynch has signature pickups called Screaming Demons by SD. http://www.seymourduncan.com/products/electric/humbucker/medium-output/sh12_george_lyn/

      • KL

        I did consider that. However, when I approached one of the guy onthe guitar shop where I bought my guitar from, he recommended the Invader for the bridge and 59 for the neck. Should I trust the guy?

    • DarthPhineas

      I am also into that style of music and know where you are coming from. the SH-4/TB-4 JB is a great place to start, both GL and WD are known to have used it during the era. if you are up for a Custom Shop model, the RTM DiMartini model ( http://www.seymourduncan.com/products/custom-shop/artists-signatu/warren_demartin/ ) is excellent in a really bright guitar like yours – it takes the sound/tone of a JB to the next level and has slightly sweeter highs. the SH-11/TB-11 Custom Custom would also be a good choice
      The SH-1 ’59 neck is a good suggestion. That, or a SH-2 Jazz neck. Either are a good match for a JB in the bridge, although I think the ’59 would be better for what the style of music. SD has a return policy, so if you don’t like one, try the other.

  • Jakatone

    I have a question for the experts. I have a LP classic with stock ceramic pickups, and i LOVE the neck pickup, it is not at all to hot like some would say, in fact i can get a very good vintage tone. The bridge pup however is not to my taste really, i need something with more bite but that can compete with the big output of the ceramic neck pickup. I play mostly classic rock/blues stuff…..trough a JMP 50w marshall

  • OregonWildWood

    Thanks so much for a great post…! It’s amazing how much difference the right tonewood and component combination can make in the sound and playability of your guitar. http://www.oregonwildwood.com

  • Josh

    I’m in the process of making my own guitar, based off the explorer design. The body will be made mostly out of walnut (not exactly sure which species of walnut), with a strip of what I believe is white maple. It’s the same maple that’s used in maple necks. Anyways, that strip of maple is just a little wider than the base of the neck, by MAYBE 1/4 inch, and the neck is also a maple neck, with a rosewood fretboard. I’ve been trying to decide on what pickups I should go with. Seymour Duncan’s SH-6 (Distortion Mayhem), Seymour Duncan’s SH-8 (Invader), or even though it’s a different brand, the EMG 81/85 Combo. But I’d rather stick to SD since SD’s pickups have more of a natural organic sound, where as EMG’s tend to have a compressed, less attack sound (this is in my opinion by the way). From what I can tell, it really seems like the SD SH-6 would really suit the tonal qualities of the woods being used. If it helps, I play metal, and I’m not intentionally looking for a pickup that emulates someone else’s sound (if that was the case, I would’ve already bought Mick Thompson’s pickups). And my main tuning is, Drop A# / Drop Bb (same tuning, Drop A# just sounds lower lol). I would greatly appreciate someone else’s opinion since for once, Google, can’t help me. Thanks.

  • hadi

    Is a neck: pearly gates
    Bridge: screamin demon combination good?

  • Jluke Darklight

    Seems that I choose right. I have a Duncan Distortion TB6 on my Ibanez RG 370 (basswood body / rosewood fretboard) and it sounds great.
    The only issue is that the lows are too much, and this generates a lot of “headroom” especially on the low strings (I use Dunlop Heavy Core Heaviest 12-54 tuned in Drop B).
    What could be the reason? Is there a way to solve this problem without changing my SD pickup model?
    Cheers :)

    • Chris Bisperink

      I’m not sure if I understood your question correctly, but you could try and mess around with pickup height; closer to the strings generally gives more lows and more output in general, which might make your sound mushy. Back your pickups away from your strings a bit to get more ‘gnarl’ and ‘bite’. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in this, just use your ear to find the position you like!

  • Jithin Peter

    Hey i own a dean razorback FL with basswood body maple neck,rosewood fret board. I am lookin for a modern metal tone , without any scoops. For heavy palm muted Chuggs , and not so crispy or penetrating highs gains. I have my eyes on SH-13 or Sh-6. Please suggest.