More S/H Superstrat Pickup Combo Adventures: The JB/STK-S6 Set
For those that read my last review of the 59/Custom Hybrid and the STK-S7 used as an S/H combo (or as a primer for anyone that didn’t), l love Strats with Floyds and S/H pickup combos. That’s probably my No.1 favorite pickup combo, followed by a S/S/S combo with a vintage Strat bridge, and then any LP-style two humbucker setup (Floyd optional…lol). But in terms of versatility, especially w/o a tone control -they can be tricky to choose pickups for, as far as matching goes. If you’re like me, you probably don’t want a huge want a huge volume disparity when switching between pickups with clean tones, or for the neck pickup to wilt or mush out with heavy distortion.
They’ve got to work well separately and harmoniously when used together. Oh yeah, the humbucker’s got to split well too, so instead of three tones, you have five to choose from. All of which should clean up well with the single-volume setup under varying degrees of gain. Tall order, but it can be done. Thanks to the folks at Seymour Duncan I get the opportunity to try to find another great SD S/H pickup combo, this time in my main guitar, a late-90s Warmoth Koa Strat build.
Dubbed “Excalibur” (by a friend, and it kinda stuck), it has a one-piece Koa body (rare if not impossible today: I’m told now that Koa is a protected species due to over-harvesting), a Maple neck with my favorite 1 3/4 R5 nut width, and a 10-16″ compound-radius Ebony fingerboard. It has a recessed Original Floyd Rose bridge modified with a Floyd Upgrades Titanium Big-Block and string-lock inserts, with stainless steel and brass hardware. After some early active pickup experimentation, it had housed a (mounting-ring suspended, rather than direct-mounted) TB-11 Custom Custom and an older direct-mounted STK-S1N since about ’06 (both of which I’d been quite happy with!). It’s been my workhorse and mainstay for gigs, recording & product beta-testing/reviewing (or was until I recently built the Bomber); so I know what it sounds like characteristically (regardless of the pickup so far) – balanced. Not flat-sounding, but… equal frequency-wise, not too much or little of anything acoustically, and very warm & articulate. Not boomy but enough low end, plenty of mids, and pleasant, not shrill highs acoustically or electrically thus far. It’s one of the most open-sounding guitars I own, with great string-to-string balance too, so I was eager to try this (again). Koa is supposedly a Hawaiian cousin of Mahogany. It would certainly seem so tonally IMO from what I’ve heard if maybe a littler brighter, so that’s what I went with originally when I consulted the Tone Wizard (since Koa isn’t a body wood option, the Wizard hasn’t been to Hawaii – yet). The Wizard’s recommendation for rock/metal: Ironically a TB-11 Custom Custom – or a TB-4 JB. The Wizard hadn’t failed me yet, and I’d loved the CC – Why not? I requested the TB-4.
The JB is long-respected, and one of ‘”the” sounds of rock n’ roll, and probably in more guitars, and on more recordings than you’d think, in both it’s TB and SH -spaced versions. I went with a push-pull 500k potentiometer since that’s what I usually use in these setups, like in the Bomber install previously, though the JB can (and was actually designed to work with) 250k ones much like the Stack Plus series will work with either. Using a 250k pot is recommended with a JB if the highs are found to be shrill in your particular guitar, so I ordered a 250k push-pull pot too, just in case.
The Wizard recommended a SLBJ-1 JB Jr or a Quarter Pound Flat SSL-4 for the neck. But I personally prefer the appearance traditional pickups & JB Jr doesn’t fit that description. The SSL-4 does, but is a true single-coil, I’d prefer to use a Stack Plus to avoid the noise. And since I loved the Vintage Hot Stack STK-S7 so much in the Bomber (though IMO it’s more shreddy than bluesy in the neck position of a S/H-Floyd setup – it can do both, and cleans), I figured another of the Stack Plus series pickup wouldn’t let me down. I wanted a little more of an SRV-Hendrix neck vibe for the neck of this guitar, though. I decided on the Custom Stack Plus STK-S6, since it was patterned after the SSL-5 true single-coil I’ve loved the sound of in so many guitars. More Hendrix than Yngwie neck vibe-wise for solos. There was a moment of silence out of respect when I pulled the old pickups for their years of tireless and toneful service, but then it was off to the races!
Plugging it in post-install, it was immediately understandable how the JB got the “voice of rock” tag. Talk about punch and zing! No ice-picky mids or shrill highs in this guitar, but definitely more way more spark and personality IMO than the Custom Custom it replaced (and don’t get me wrong, I loooved the CC in this guitar!). It’s not as dark – definitely brighter, with a little more sizzle (in a good way likely due to the A5 vs the former’s A2). There’s an abundance of mids and upper mids. Much like the CC, the bass could be a wee bit tighter for my tastes, but it’s not “flabby” or “undefined” at all. I doubt however, it would be an issue once you were playing in a band context rather than at apartment volume. HUGE, powerful open chords. It’s got a great crunch for distorted rhythms and excels and mid to high-gain tones. It produces very nice low gain growl around or past 3 or 4 volume-wise. The lead voice is impressive too – singing to screaming. Any riff I could think of by a player I’d heard/read used a JB in the 80s to today (Jake E. Lee, Steve Stevens, Skid Row, Jerry Cantrell, Steel Panther, etc.) I tried had that characteristic bite and snarl that you think of when you think of that style of music. It’s that sound. I found the split tone to be quite useful as well. I don’t think I’ll be needing to swap potentiometers, I don’t find the highs at all unpleasant using a 500k in this guitar. The pickup accentuated everything I already liked about my guitar. YMMV.
The A5 rod magged Custom Stack Plus STK-S6 doesn’t disappoint either – tough, authoritative – but more bluesy than the STK-S7 in that no matter how much gain you throw at it, it retains more of the Strat vibe. It’s a little warmer, and has a great, smoky neck vibe. Clean tones are round, bell-like and percussive; it does seem to have many qualities of the SSL-5, because it sounds great in the neck of this guitar. It’s very responsive to pick dynamics and cleans up well with a touch of the volume knob. Great for neck position chord-comping. Where the STK-S7 is rude, the more powerful STK-S6 is slightly more smooth and polite. It’s by far superior to its predecessor in this guitar.Once again, there’s no huge volume drop when switching between pickups, the Stack Plus series can hold their own against a humbucker, if the two I’ve now tried are any indication. The JB is just cool, such a fun pickup, very inspiring to play. I’m officially calling it 2 for 2 on successful selection of Seymour Duncan S/H combinations.