Part 4: What is "Vintage?"


What makes a pickup "vintage?"
Why do the pickups on a guitar sound so different from each other, even if they're identical?

Seymour Duncan winds many vintage-style pickups on the same historic Leesona machine that Gibson used in the 1950's.

What makes a pickup "vintage?"

A vintage pickup is literally old. "Vintage-style" usually means a new pickup designed to sound like an old one. Vintage and vintage-style pickups generally have only moderate output. The term "vintage" has most often been applied to designs that originated before 1970, though as we move forward in time, so does the expiration date on "vintage." But for now, at least, all vintage-style pickups are passive.

There's another wrinkle: vintage-style pickup magnets can weaken over time, resulting in a softer, smoother tone. Some pickups are designed to mimic this aging process. Say you were looking for a vintage P.A.F.-style humbucker: You could choose between one of our models that that sounds like a pickup straight off the late-'50s production line (the Seth Lover humbucker), and another that mimics a similar pickup as it would sound and look today after decades of wear and tear (the Antiquity humbucker).

Finally, vintage gear tends to display more variation from unit to unit relative to modern gear. Fifty years ago the technician winding pickups might have been distracted and left the pickup on the winding machine a little longer then normal, resulting in a coil with extra windings of wire and a hotter output. Modern standardization is usually a good thing-you're less likely to encounter unwanted surprises. On the other hand, the relatively casual standards of the past sometimes resulted in happy accidents.

Fortunately, some of the best happy accidents have been preserved for posterity. For over 40 years Seymour W. Duncan has kept meticulous notes on the best pickups to cross his workbench. Many of these have been resurrected as Seymour Duncan models. For example, our '59 Model is based on a particularly sweet-sounding '59 P.A.F. in one of Jeff Beck's guitars. Another of our models, the Pearly Gates, is inspired by another, rawer-sounding '59 P.A.F. That's just one example of two supposedly identical pickups from the same year displaying different musical personalities.

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Why do pickups on a guitar sound so different from each other, even if they're identical?

Because they "hear" different segments of the vibrating strings, depending on where they're placed. The pickup nearest the bridge always sounds brighter than the one nearer the neck, even if the pickups are identical. If a guitar has three pickups, the one in the middle splits the difference.

Some guitarists use identical pickups in each position and still get contrasting sounds from each pickup. Others use different types of pickups, often to balance the tonal tendencies of a particular pickup position. For example, a guitarist might choose a moderate-output pickup in the neck position and use if for clean-toned chords, but opt for a high-output bridge pickup for a louder, more distorted, solo sound. A pickup of that type will probably sound darker than a single-coil, but a player who finds the naturally twangy bridge position a little too bright would welcome that change.

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