Choosing Pickups That Cut Through the Mix

Chainsaw
Save a tree – cut through with your pickups, not a chainsaw.

For most of my career I’ve played in a band with another guitarist. I’ve even had the pleasure of sharing the stage with a second guitarist and a keyboardist. This always presents a bit of a problem though: how do I make my instrument stand out?
I’m not talking about being louder than everyone else. That’s easy, and it completely misses the point of playing in a band. The goal isn’t to brutalize my band mates (and the audience) with sheer volume. A band is a team, not opponents on a decibel-strewn battlefield. As guitarists in a band, we want to straddle the line of blending in and standing out. We don’t accomplish this with volume; we accomplish it with EQ.
Every instrument produces sounds that fall somewhere within the range of human hearing (between 20 Hz and 20 kHz would be considered perfect hearing – most people have less range than that). The key to a balanced mix where no-one gets buried is to carve up that frequency cake and eat only your share. A drummer can cover a broad swath of that range, although most of a drumkit’s output tends toward the low and high ends of the spectrum. A bass guitar sits well within the low range, though some bassists like a bit of a high-end percussive attack. Keyboards vary greatly depending on the patch the keyboardist has dialed up.
Meanwhile, we guitarists occupy the most exciting part of the audio spectrum: the midrange. Exciting? Of course! The midrange, after all, is the frequency band that humans are most sensitive to, because it’s also the range of the human voice. This is good news for us because it means we have a big advantage over the other instruments in terms of being heard. However, it also means we’re competing with the singer, and of course with each other.

Slash!
Leather pants probably don’t help Slash cut through, but they certainly don’t hurt.

Dividing up the midrange can be tricky, since there’s not a lot of wiggle room in there, but it’s doable. Listen to AC/DC, Pearl Jam, Guns ‘n Roses and so on, and you’ll hear two guitarists who stand apart in the mix without fighting each other. A big part of it is experience with how the other guy operates, and a healthy respect for your fellow six stringer is critical.
The other aspect is gear, and a very big part of your gear is your pickups, especially when it comes to sitting in the mix. Your pickups are where your tone starts. Everything further down the line – pedals, amps, and speakers – is affected by the frequencies your pickups emphasize.
Look at the examples I came up with for guitar duos. Notice something about the pickup choices of the two guitarists:
AC/DC: PAFs for Angus, FilterTrons for Malcolm
Pearl Jam: Humbuckers for Stone, Strat single coils for Mike
Guns ‘n Roses: PAF humbuckers and P-90s for Izzy, Alnico 2 Pro for Slash
Notice two common things here: the two guitarists use very different pickups, and the lead players tend to choose pickups that have more of an upper midrange bite. Of course, most of these guys aren’t always reaching for the same guitars day in and day out (except Angus and Malcolm) but it’s not a coincidence that the axes we most know these guys for seem to be complimentary to what their band-mate chose. It’s also no coincidence that lead players seem to reach for pickups that have that bold, scorching midrange, like the JB, Pearly Gates, or Alnico 2 Pro Slash. A lead player with a pickup like that is going to play very nice with a more scooped, airy-sounding pickup in the rhythm guitarist’s axe.
I can attest that this theory bears fruit in the real world. Up until recently, I’ve been in a band with a great guitarist who was a dyed-in-the-wool Les Paul man. When I brought my Strat with an SSL-5 Custom Staggered in the bridge, I stood out in the mix without even trying. I was fitting nicely into the frequencies his Les Paul was staying out of, and vice versa. I have another Strat with high output rails pickups, and one with a humbucker in the bridge, but none stood out as well as that Strat with the SSL-5.
To conclude this topic, I’m going to help one lucky person stand out in the mix. Seymour Duncan has asked me to take this opportunity to announce a really cool contest. You can win a set of Seymour Duncan Alnico 2 Pro Slash pickups with the box signed by Slash himself! To enter, simply tell us your favourite guitar solo (any artist) in the comments on this article. Good luck!
Congratulations to Shawn Downer – our random selection produced “Crossroads” by Eric Clapton and he was the first to get it right!

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