Once upon a time there was a great war.
This war was a marketing war, all based on the quantity of a guitar’s equipment. Up until late 1953, the two major players were tied with two pickups, when one side introduced a three pickup guitar. Things were again tied between the major players at three in 1957 and have remained the same since.
In my view, the silent winner of this war, is the single pickup guitar—the hotrod of the guitar world. While maybe not jacks of all trades like the guitars with more pickups, they’re still versatile tone machines with advantages over their more well-endowed variants.
Probably the most obvious advantage to a single-pickup guitar is simplicity. Guitars, such as the Gibson Les Paul Junior and the Fender Esquire (Jeff Beck’s is pictured below) give you that one pickup with not a lot of controls to muck about with (volume and tone and, in the case of the esquire, a preset bassy setting and a control bypass setting).
Some guitars are even simpler, with just a volume control, a la the trend started with Edward Van Halen’s Frankenstein.
Another advantage that many feel single-pickup guitars have is increased sustain and harmonic content. With no neck pickup, there’s not an additional magnetic field pulling on the strings. That leaves the strings able to vibrate more freely with no harmonics being dampened.
Many a player over the years has sought out this hotrodded tone and/or the simplicity. Below are some of the most famous examples.
Charlie Christian most-notably played a Gibson ES-150 with a single neck pickup. In fact, that Gibson-designed pickup has become so associated with Christian that it now bears his name in all of its forms, including those offered by Seymour Duncan. In these early days of the electric guitar the ES-150 was notable for having the pickup closer to the neck than Gibson’s preceding lap steels and guitars from other manufacturers, giving the guitar a mellower tone appropriate for Christian’s jazz and swing.
Luther Perkins was the man behind The Man In Black from 1954 to 1968 known for his “boom-chicka-boom” style of playing. Journalist Allen St. John had the opportunity to play one of Perkins’ Fender Esquires, a 1955 model, at Christie’s while the guitar was up for auction. He discovered that the guitar was just born to play in Perkins’ signature style, with its raised up pickup, heavy strings, and the Esquire’s ability to bypass the tone control.1
Jeff Beck also wielded a Fender Esquire, this one from 1954, to effective use and influence. The influence of that guitar’s tone and Beck’s playing was great enough that even Gibson published an article on their site about a Fender guitar, saying “What Beck and his battle-scarred Esquire accomplished in 1965 alone established the roots of everything from psychedelia and heavy metal to punk and jam bands.” Beck acquired the instrument in 1965, already modified by its previous owner with contours mimicking a Stratocaster, but with a white pickguard on it which Beck replaced with a black one. Eventually Seymour Duncan himself came to possess Beck’s Esquire, saying that he had the choice between that, a ’51 Telecaster, and a mid-‘50s Strat, but said, “I picked the Esquire because Jeff used it!”2
Malcolm Young of AC/DC is most often found defining what rock rhythm guitar is with a ‘60s Gretsch Firebird Jet that’s seen many changes over the years. It didn’t start out as a single-pickup guitar. In fact, at one point, a THIRD pickup was added in between the two stockers. Since then, the guitar has seen the removal of the neck and middle pickups, the original red finish, as well as some bridge changes. In Malcolm’s case, his Jet became a single pickup simply because he didn’t use anything but the bridge pickup (which was actually the original neck pickup) and he removed what he wasn’t using.
One guitar cobbled together from parts back in the late ‘70s because nothing on the shelf did what its homebrew builder wanted ended up setting a trend that permeated the ‘80s. Edward Van Halen built his Frankenstrat out of second-quality parts he bought from Lynn Ellsworth of Boogie Bodies for $130.
Over the years it went through a few different paint jobs (all black, then taped up in stripes to leave some of that black visible under a new coat of white, then red over it all with the same treatment), a couple different bridges (originally a six-screw Strat trem, then a couple Floyd Rose prototypes, then a proper Floyd Rose), but it almost always featured just a single humbucker set in the bridge, screwed straight into the wood of the body, and wired with only a volume control. While it doesn’t seem to be what drove Eddie to install only one working pickup, it very likely affected his masterful use of harmonics and his much sought after tone.
Nobody can actually nail down every single detail of the guitar due to secrecy and lost memories over the years. That hasn’t stopped people arguing about body woods, paint types, trem sustain block composition, and the placement of the 1978 quarter. However, it’s certain that a few different pickups have lived in Franky, including an old Gibson PAF that Eddie potted (and almost MELTED) himself, possibly a pickup rewound by Seymour Duncan, and finally the pickup which ended up in the guitar around 1983/84. Nobody with official knowledge is saying what it originally was, but it’s believed to be a pickup that Seymour Duncan originally created.
Eddie also played several guitars made by Kramer, a lot of these subject to the same speculation of specification as the Frankenstrat. His main Kramer was the 5150, which was likely loaded with a single Custom Custom.
While guitar marketing does still try to impress with pickup quantities, it’s evident that there’s a good deal of magic that can be derived by distilling a guitar’s configuration to a single pickup, as exemplified by the above examples.
What do you think about single pickup guitars? Sound off in the comments.