Choosing Pickups In Unusual Wood Combinations

We all know the tried-and-true electric guitar tonewoods: Maple, Mahogany, Alder, Ash, Rosewood and Ebony. But what if your guitar only contains some of these woods, none of them, or no wood at all? How can you choose a pickup for construction materials which don’t follow the same wood combinations used for the past 70 years? This article will provide answers to those questions as well as provide links for those that wish to investigate the magic combinations of guitar materials and pickups to unlock the sound that is yours.
If it ain’t broke…

Will this sound like every other tele? Probably not, as this one is made of Florida cypress.
Will this sound like every other tele? Probably not, as this one is made of Florida cypress.

I know, I know. Leo and Les had it right at the beginning, right? Well, as certain exotic woods like Rosewood, Ebony and Mahogany become more scarce due to over farming and clearcutting*, the guitar community has responded with alternatives. Some of those are responsibly farmed, and some are man-made, but either way, it should provide the guitar building community with the raw materiel for our beloved guitars for years to come.
*to be fair, the guitar community is only a small industry compared to other wood-based industries. 
My guitar is made of wonderwood. I want to replace the pickups. Now what?

A neck on a guitar I built with Warmoth parts is made of Wenge, which has great growly lows.
A neck on a guitar I built with Warmoth parts is made of wenge, which has great growly lows.

OK, a little research is in order. Lets take a wood that has grown in popularity these last few years: Basswood. This is a soft, lightweight wood that is usually finished with a hard opaque finish due to its dent-ability and its rather unattractive grain pattern. How do I know this? My first stop is Warmoth Guitar Products wood description page. It describes basswood as having a warm tone with good mids. This would tell me that a body made out of Basswood might need pickups which flatten out the mids a bit. If the guitar has a Maple top, that could cause the body to add more high end than a plain Basswood body. If I played a heavier type of music, lke anything with a suffix -metal or -core, I would restrict my pickup choice further to include higher output pickups that don’t get so muddy. Looking at the Seymour Duncan Tone Chart, I see a few options: The Custom 5 looks good, but so does a Duncan Distortion, and what about the Full Shred?
OK, it’s narrowed down. Kinda. What now?
Well if you think YouTube is just for cat videos and kids’ singers proclaiming love for a specific day of the week, step right up son, and learn the beauties of a demo video! Demo videos might not use your specific wood combination, and no two guitarists play exactly alike. However, hearing and seeing how a pickup performs will help us narrow the list down a bit. Within two minutes, I found the right video comparing the pickups I was wondering about above.

What if I have another kind of wood, like Poplar?

The one on the left is alder. The other is poplar. I thought the same pickups would work. Not so much.
The one on the left is alder. The other is poplar. I thought the same pickups would work. Not so much.

Well, I can describe what I went through with my Poplar/Maple/Rosewood guitar. Like many, I never owned a poplar guitar, until I got a Music Man SUB1 which has a heavy textured finish. The shape and neck materials are the same as another guitar I owned, a Music Man Silhouette Special (with an alder body), and this guitar was to be a backup for my main gigging and recording guitar. I started out with my pickup set of choice, which is an Alnico II Pro in the neck and Custom Custom in the bridge. Well, all things being the same (except body wood), it should sound the same as my main guitar, right? Nope.
It sounded like my other guitar, if it were under a mattress in the next room. First, I had to decide what I didn’t like about it (too many mids, doesn’t cut through). Then I looked on the Duncan Tone Chart. It looked like what I really needed was something with a lot less mids. I switched out the Alnico II Pro for a Jazz (which I didn’t appreciate the last few times I tried) and the Custom Custom for a Custom 5. This effectively scooped out those overbearing mids, and while this combination wouldn’t have worked for me in any of my other guitars, it worked perfectly here.
What if there isn’t wood at all?

The Composite Electrics Blade was made entirely out of carbon fiber.
The Composite Electrics Blade was made entirely out of carbon fiber.

While wood certainly has an effect on tone (check out this blog post to read more), alternative materials are only going to get more common in instrument building. Carbon fiber and 3D printing has gained popularity, and even well known companies are using high-pressure laminates and fiberglass for parts like fingerboards. All of this contributes to the tone. Comparing the acoustic tone of one of these guitars to a wood guitar can help determine the right path to take when choosing the right pickup. You can also consult the manufacturer, or contact Seymour Duncan directly for a recommendation. This will save time when switching pickups and make sure you are happy the first time.
All this seems like too much work. Any other ideas?
Oh yeah! If you are facing a pickup dilemma, chances are you are not the only one. Register and post in the Seymour Duncan User Group’s Pickup Lounge. There is a thread there right now about recommendations in a basswood guitar. Posting a thread is easy- just include the woods in the guitar, the amp used, kind of music you play, and what you don’t like about your current pickups. This can help narrow the search for the right pickups in your guitar.
If you live in the US don’t forget about Seymour Duncan’s 21-Day Return Policy, which I used when figuring out what pickups should be in my Poplar-bodied guitar.

Do you have an unusual combination of materials in your guitar? What is your favorite wood combination?

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16 Comments

  1. Or just get a JB in the bridge and 59 in the neck. I’ve never seen or heard of a guitar anywhere that sounded bad with that combo.

  2. Not so sure about the unusual, but I’ve got a ’03 Les Paul Studio – 1-piece ash body, 2-piece ash top, mahogany neck and ebony fretboard, with the usual 480R/498T combo. Loads brighter than a ’10 Standard w/BB’s, in fact the 498T can be downright harsh.
    BTW, suggestions are welcome… 🙂

  3. John Hellert: the JB works great in many woods and guitars but in a mahogany guitar? Not so much. The upper mide spike of the JB does strange things with the mahogany… I don’t think there is ‘one pickup to fit them all’. Every guitar needs to be reviewed on its own. Some pickups work in almost all kinds of guitars, though, like the PATB1 (amazing in a strat AND a les paul!), the alternative 8 (think JB but with thicker mids, smoother highs and a more open, dynamic sound), the 59/custom hybrid and pearly gates… But even then, you have to find the right one for the right guitar and that takes experience. That’s why articles like this and the Seymour Duncan User Group Forum are so beneficial in honing down the right pickup for your needs.

    1. I’ve got a ’90 LP Std that I put a JB in the bridge on day 2 of owning… I assure you it sounds amazing!

    2. Interesting, as my favorite ‘go to’ guitar is my Ibanez SA1260 equipped with JB bridge & JB Jnr neck. The p/ups work great in this guitar and it has a mahogany body…..I have found though that any basswood bodied guitar that i’ve owned seems to sound a bit wimpy and lack ‘balls’ through driven or distorted amp, compared to denser wooded guitars such as ash, mahogany etc. They also have a tendency to sound a bit muddy with high output p/ups (of more than 16K output).

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