I remember the day I got my first electric guitar – a cheap Status brand Stratocaster copy. It wasn’t exactly the greatest axe in the world, but I loved that damn thing. Put thousands of hours of fingergrease into it. And it only took a few weeks of being an electric guitarist to realise – the middle pickup was where a lot of my favourite sounds were.
Even in those early days I knew that the majority of rock riffs were played on the bridge pickup (‘Paranoid’ notwithstanding). And I knew the neck pickup was ideal for bluesy soloing and full-bodied chords. But that middle pickup surprised me because it made me realise that despite all the guitar books I’d read and absorbed, despite all the mags I’d memorised, none of them ever really went into detail about what a middle pickup is ‘supposed’ to do. But y’know what? That’s a good thing. It meant I was able to form my own opinions about what that pickup could be used for. That gets harder and harder as you become more experienced.
Personally I’ve found that I tend towards the middle pickup for Jeff Beck-style fingerpicked lead lines, for Shadows-like surf guitar melodies, for Hendrixian chord melodies, and especially in combination with the bridge pickup with the tone control rolled down for a Robert Fripp kind of sound. And Stevie Ray Vaughan famously used his middle pickup for the intro to “Pride And Joy,” so if it’s good enough for Stevie… Also, Jimi used it on “Little Wing,” so there ya go!
Of course, the middle pickup is commonly used in association with the bridge or neck pickup, and it’s pretty much standard practice to split the coil of a neck or bridge humbucker when used with the middle single coil in the ’2′ and ’4′ positions on the pickup selector switch. I tend to think of the neck/middle combo as the place to go for acoustic-like clarity, harp-like note separation and bouncy funk. And the middle/bridge combination is my go-to setting for gritty, bluesy, tough-sounding lines. That goes back to my early worship of Mr. Big, because Paul Gilbert often seemed to switch to that setting. It gives you a punchy attack and plenty of definition and ‘string sound.’ And of course it’s great for that Mark Knopfler ‘Sultans Of Swing’ sound.
I also noticed something else: as already mentioned, I like to roll the tone control back and use the neck/bridge combination for Robert Fripp-like sounds. It gives you that sort of honky sound. But depending on the layout of your guitar, this effect can be reduced or enhanced. If your guitar has a dedicated tone control just for the middle pickup, you’ll get more of a notched wah wah kind of sound, with enhanced harmonics and a thick attack. But if your guitar has a master tone control, this mode sounds more muffled and oboe-like.
Here’s a bit of noodling I recorded a while ago when I had my hands on a Framus Diablo Supreme X guitar. It has a Cool Rails in the neck, an SSL-1 Vintage Staggered in the middle position and a JB at the bridge. You’ll hear each of the pickup settings one by one, starting from the bridge humbucker and going through to the neck pickup. Then you’ll hear another five which include the split coil modes for the JB and the Cool Rails. The middle pickup is heard by itself at 1:30-1:56, and again at 3:45-4:12. You should be able to count the chunks of audio waveform in order to jump between bridge, bridge/middle, middle, neck/middle and neck recordings (and ditto for the follow-ups with the coil split).
The middle pickup on this Framus really stood out to me, as I wrote in my review of the guitar at the time:
“For me though the real star of the Diablo is the Vintage Staggered Single Coil in the middle. It’s perfectly voiced as a great ‘middle ground’ if you’re into the whole SRV simultaneous rhythm/lead style, and it’s a particularly expressive lead pickup – especially if you’re using a valve amp set right at the edge.”
And that pretty much nails the charm of the middle pickup, regardless of musical context: it’s not as trebly as the bridge pickup, nor is it as woofy as the neck one.
What about you? Do you use the middle pickup? Why? How? If not, why not?