We’ve discussed choosing pickups according to your style before. We’ve also had a bit of a look at choosing pickups with respect to the wood: what wood works best with which pickup for which style? In this article I want to explore some possible guitar, pickup, style and tone choices. What goes good with what?
The first thing you have to do is listen to your guitar unplugged. Is the sound bright? Is it wooly? The guitar’s natural character will make its way through the pickups to the amp, so understanding the workings of your guitar first is absolutely crucial.
Then figure out what style of music the guitar should play. If you have one or two guitars and you play many styles, it makes sense to get the two guitars to be kind of similar in tone, so one can be a backup for the other. You can also choose, of course, to have two completely different guitars. Either way, you have to figure that part out for yourself. When you’ve zeroed in on what tone you have and you’ve made up your mind on what style and tone you want, it’s time to figure out the right pickup set.
I’ve noticed that pickups can either match the natural tone of a guitar, or fill in the gaps in the guitar’s spectrum. Both options can work out well, or terribly bad! If you have a mid-heavy guitar like a Les Paul combined with a warm-sounding amp (like the mesa/boogie mark series amplifiers), the Alnico II Pro might make your tone incredibly mushy, woofy and warm because all the mids are just too much (although some players like this). On the other hand, warm pickups in a warm sounding guitar through an amp that’s got lots of bite and treble (like a Marshall) can result in amazing results! Slash is a major fan of that combination. He uses a Les Paul through a Marshall and has a cabinet that’s loaded with v30’s. That combination can have a lot of bite, but his Alnico 2 Pro signature set has enough smoothness to round it off just enough to not give that icepicky feel.
I’ve noticed that a Les Paul with a thick neck will have this issue sooner than a Les Paul with a thinner neck. It’s like having more wood in the neck adds more mids which seems to translate into a beefier tone. If you want a warm, vintage-vibed-yet-raunchy tone, a Pearly Gates might work better because it has more top end to compensate for the mids. A great pickup for the neck can be the 59 neck version for a mellow yet clear tone, while the bridge version has more sizzle and beef.
But what about the harder styles? Many players who play heavy metal and other aggressive styles play guitars with a basswood body and a maple neck. This will yield a tone with balanced highs, mids and lows, which means this wood combination is a great clean slate to make your own tone. You want a fat, tight bone crushing rhythm? Take the Invader! Tight in the bottom end, sweet in the highs and with lots of mids to not cut through a mix so much as waltz over it. You want your chords to crunch and thunder under palm mutes? Take the Distortion or Dimebucker! With their super-tight lows, screaming mids and cutting highs, these pickups are great choices in basswood guitars if you want bite and crunch.
Coincidentally, these two pickups also work great in mahogany guitars. Their midrange seems to compliment the mids of the guitar. The result? Huge, pushed mids with less bite than basswood (or any other for that matter), chunkier lows and softer highs.
The same goes for neck pickups. Sometimes your guitar has a lot of mids by default, making the choice rather hard. You’re looking for the right balance of juiciness and clarity. Guitars whose neck position naturally gives a lot of lower mids – such as Les Pauls – need a pickup with more upper mids or maybe even a mid-scooped pickup to balance out the tone. The Jazz neck and bridge and the Screamin’ Demon are great all-round choices. But if your guitar has more upper mids and less lower mids, get a fatter pickup like the Alnico 2 Pro neck, for juicier sounds.
Some pickups are so incredible they can go everywhere. The Screamin’ Demon feels perfectly at home in the neck and beside position of Les Pauls and Strats alike (in fact, semi hollow guitars seem to work great with the Demon, too!). The Pearly Gates works great in Les Pauls and Strats alike too. Just take a look!
But the pickup that seems to work in any guitar is the P-90. In a mahogany guitar the sizzle in the highs gets sweetened and the mids get some crunch. In a Strat or Tele you get a more beefy, powered-up version of the default tone of that guitar. The highs of the Strat and Tele are always more biting and piercing than a les Paul or SG, but the P-90 seems to soften up the highs on those guitars. The upper mids of the P-90 compliment the upper mids of that alder or ash body, yet fill it out with a healthy dose of lower mids (when on a Les Paul or SG its exactly the other way around!). The P-90 also seems to soften up the tightness of the lows of alder and ash, but gives the lows of mahogany a slightly chewy character.
Sometimes the stock pickup can only go so far in creating the tone you hear in your head. A new pot, or maybe something more drastic like a mag swap or making a hybrid, might do the trick. In any case, take a good listen to your guitar and your own needs, and try to understand the specs of a pickup as good as you can in order to match the spectra of the pickup and your guitar.