Building the perfect S/H beast: 59/Custom Hybrid & STK-S7 review
Choosing a set of pickups for a Superstrat with a single-volume, single coil/humbucker pickup configuration isn’t as easy as you’d think, especially if you’re looking for versatility. There are a few things to consider, but perhaps the biggest is nailing the balance between the neck pickup and the bridge humbucker. What are you gonna be using the neck pickup for? Just cleans, or do you plan to use it for solos along with the bridge pickup? If the latter, it’ll need to be at least a slightly higher-output version to be able to keep up with the humbucker, but still capable of cleans too. Do you want a traditional single-coil, or will noise be a problem? If so, you’ll want to choose either a stacked design or a single-coil sized humbucker. How about the bridge pickup? Are you planning on playing classic rock riffs? All metal all the time? Or will it need to be versatile enough to do split and clean tones as well? These are all things to ponder when selecting your preferred weapons of choice.
I need a neck pickup that does Strat cleans but can still compete with a humbucker under high gain without mushing out. I also need a medium-high gain bridge humbucker that sounds tight and focused with distortion but still splits well for cleans. They both also need to clean up with the volume knob, and work well with all gain settings on all three of my Mesa Mark III’s channels. Basically a pair of pickups that can do everything. That’s not too much to ask, right? Fortunately, thanks to the good people at Seymour Duncan Pickups, I got the chance to try to discover a set of Duncans that would do just that – I’m honored at the opportunity!
For this guitar I was looking for a gutsy kind of Hendrix/SRV bluesy neck pickup tonal vibe. I wanted a traditional pole-piece vibe with the pickups, so I didn’t want a single-coil sized humbucker or one with rails, I wanted something that looked like a traditional single-coil. I was familiar with the Duncan Classic Stack pickups (I’ve had an STK-S1N in the neck of another S/H guitar of mine for a few years now) and I was excited to check out the next generation Stack Plus design. After checking out the specs on various new models available, the Vintage Hot Stack Plus STK-S7 ‘s described ‘overwound vintage tone’ sounded like it would best fit the bill.
As for bridge pickups, I’d been dying to try out the 59/Custom Hybrid. The hybrid design involves combining the screw-coil of a ’59 model with the slug-coil of a Duncan Custom. Originally popularized by the SDUGF’s BachToRock as a DIY project, the folks at Duncan eventually decided to make it a production model. I’d heard nothing but raves about it, and it sounded like it would cover all the sonic bases I needed. That was of course my go-to choice. The test guitar was my Charvel/KnE Strat build with an Ash body, Maple neck, and an Original Floyd Rose modified with a Floyd Upgrades Titanium Big-Block. Nicknamed “The Bomber” due to its graphic finish by Jeff Rich of RCA Guitars. It had previously been sporting another SDUGF DIY favorite, the Custom 8, which I love, so the bar was set pretty high expectation-wise. For the 59/Custom. I requested the Trembucker version to match the string-spacing of the guitar’s Floyd Rose bridge.
When I opened the STK-S7’s packaging, I noticed immediately part of the new design meant the removable cover was gone. These are now fully enclosed units. I also noticed what appeared to be a small resistor on the bottom of the pickup, and since I was going to be direct-mounting it, I took care to pad it underneath with a small piece of foam in the cavity as an extra precautionary measure. Not to worry though: it fit fine! The 59/Custom Hybrid would also be direct-mounted for maximum resonance. No pickguards, no mounting rings: wood screws into the cavity. Done. (Check out this article for more on direct mounting).
Once I’d pulled the old pickups, installed the new ones and restrung the guitar, I wired it with a three-way switch and a single push-pull 500k potentiometer for coil-splitting the 59/Custom. Two pickups and five tones to choose from, but with no tone control, another reason the pickups had to be responsive to the volume knob!
Plugging it in, the bridge pickups rewards with a rich, thick, complex tone that’s surprisingly woody and organic. The 59/Custom is a thing of beauty. Though it has slightly less output, it’s got a similar though not quite as tight low-end grunt like the Custom, but the ’59 coil imparts a more open, grainy sound overall, with a vintage growl and grind on the low strings the regular Custom can’t match. The A5 magnet seems to give it a bit more brightness and sparkle on the top end too, but it doesn’t sound harsh. It doesn’t seem to lack for mids, either. Open chords just RING. Rhythms are powerful and authoritative, and the lead voice is simultaneously singing and articulate. It is equally adept at mildly-distorted classic rock and more brutal metal tones, and split-mode (which selects the stronger Custom coil) further adds to its versatility. It has great harmonics, too. I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict it will probably one day become one of the most popular rock pickups ever. Yeah. It’s that cool.
One caveat: due to the slightly lower output, it will make you work a little harder, but I found it’s well worth it. It’s wood and fingers, and whatever gain you’re throwing at it. A bit less forgiving of mistakes, but far more rewarding in tone. If I had to pick, it’s more ‘classic rock’ than ‘metal,’ but it seems like there’s nothing this pickup can’t do.
The A5 rod magnet STK-S7 Vintage Hot Stack doesn’t disappoint in the neck position either; when used alone with a clean tone it yielded a great Hendrix-SRV vibe for chording and single notes but without a hint of noise. Under moderate gain it’s tough-sounding, and it works great for bluesy licks. It’s also great for high-gain shreddy soloing, affording a vocal tone and excellent note clarity, plus it’s just bright enough to really stand out. I have to say Duncan’s new Stack Plus design is a win because in all honesty, it absolutely smokes the old STK-S1N in my other guitar!
I was also pleasantly surprised at how well it matched with the 59/Custom Hybrid. Clean tones are great whether the 59/Custom is in split or humbucking mode, and when switching between the two pickups during distorted leads there’s barely a noticeable volume drop, allowing near seamless, dynamic transitions in passages. Both respond well to the volume control and clean up nicely, too. While of course the volume and gain get lower, the gorgeous, juicy TONE doesn’t, all the way down to zero. I have just stumbled upon a new favorite S/H rock pickup combo!