That Single Pickup Magic

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.

Courtesy VintageKramer.com with permission

Courtesy VintageKramer.com with permission

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.  

Tom Scioscia

About Tom Scioscia

Tom Scioscia is a gear geek. It's never enough for him to just play the guitar. He needs to know how it all works. It all started with taking apart a broken toaster at the age of four to fix it. That eventually parlayed itself into building and modifying guitars, amps, computers, and cars.
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  • Duckie Brazelton

    i have a Gibsom 55 LP jr/melodymaker with a P90 and it’s my go to guitar and it’s never let me down -runnin it thru any amp -thru the Marshall Plexies or Fender Blues delux it performes flawless everytime…

  • John Z

    I have a 1963 Epiphone Casino Hollowbody Single Seymour Duncan 59 P/U and it Rocks

  • Ian Carlton

    My only experience with a single-pickup guitar is a Maestro Les Paul Jr. clone. I hesitate to call it a “knockoff” because Maestro is actually owned by Gibson, but let’s be real here, that guitar was shit. Now I’ve got an Epiphone ES-335 with the perfect amount of versatility: two split-coil humbuckers, each with its own dedicated volume/mode toggle knob and tone knob, plus a three-way selector. I can easily see myself playing this thing for years and years to come.

  • Evy Moon

    Here’s my favorite with a SH-4. What more can I say ?
    http://instagram.com/p/ikDhyns8uQ/

  • Rick Kent

    My go to guitar is a self built esquire wired as a 54. The pickup is of unknown manufacture but puts out 12.7 and cost me %15.00 on ebay. It sings, the tonal variation is fantastic

  • zedthewizard

    I always liked the idea because if I dig a pick deep, I don’t have to worry so much as on a Strat, but I’ve never owned a single pick up guitar, but I always look. However, I’m unsure that without a comparison . .. . you’ve done enough. I just bought a G&L ASAT Tribute Swamp Ash Tele, and I love it. However, the thinner pickups of my Fenders maybe make better use of some overdrives and fuzzes. I also have to say that the flexibility of my Fender Am. Del. Strat is good and all; but that of the Baja Classic Player Tele is up front. It’s so versatile. However, on any record or records you often go for a sound, and I can see that accomplished with a single p/u guitar. Though, many records are recorded with many guitars also. I do love the Custom Customs, but you need to pair it with the 59 in the neck to adequately cover CREAM!

  • Doy Bowers

    I have a ’63 S.G. Jr. that had a P-90 in it until the summer of 1980 when I spilled a beer in it at a gig which began to short out a couple of days later so I had a Humbucker put in it. (Igor You IDIOT What Have YOU DONE???) IT’s always been my go to Ax. A single pick-up and a whammy bar is all you really need.

  • Enough is Enough

    I think y’all may enjoy this. First, Santa (she’s pretty good looking!) got me an Alpine White “Tuxedo” Epiphone Les Paul. I had the choice to spend the extra money for the real deal and will; but, at this time and place of my guitar playing and performing and now becoming a tech head as I have of the last 15 years this was the best purchase for me. I took it apart as soon as I got home. I knew those pick ups were history in the store! BTW-I’ve been fixing all my friends guitars and PC’s for 15 years. I’ve dabbled with amps and I was a sign installer for years. I shopped it out and got a “Hot Set” of some Dragonfire Custom P/U’s All Gold covers keeping it classy but now hot; and, I added a 5db booster from Guitar Fuel that has settings bypass, clean booster, vintage O.D., Distortion and heavy metal. Are you kidding me? I’ve had the Joker’s smile for a couple of months now. But one of my other guitars I bought to play around with is a $128.00 one humbucker Bronze B.C. Rich. Here’s the deal. First I have a Seymour Duncan invader in the bridge position and the original lead pick up from this guitar in the neck position of a very nice quilt-top double cutaway Hamer I’ve been playing for years. And it sounds badass…of course! So, I don’t know wtf this guitar is made from! Whether it’s…F…I don’t! It looks like a composite of some sort. But the one pick up without second sucking back more on the strings and their harmonics is exactly what that guitar does. I routed it for a Floyd Rose knock off, I stacked two Pickups and combined them on the side with the screw bolts. Both were one side posts and the other side screws. Add a switch and it really works! The second pick up feels the guitar better plus what it gets from the screws. Another thing is, I have had just about every pick up I have owned in this guitar and they have sounded much better. I always wondered what was up with that “F” thing. It’s always stood out well! Check out my creations. One shows the P/U schematic. The other shows the guitar in a nice decorative and festive state with the color scheme inspired from back when the Dallas had a professional football team.