There’s nothing quite like playing the blues. Every note, phrase and hint of vibrato rings out soul. And there’s nothing like seeing a good blues guitarist in concert like BB King, Robert Cray, Gary Clark. Jr, Joe Bonamassa – the list goes on and on. Most blues players use vintage-style pickups or vintage-style with-a-bit-of-edge for hotter blues. And many use the complete range of their tone; you’ll see them switching between different pickup positions on a pretty regular basis as they take advantage of the character each position has to offer. Here’s a look at some great pickup options for players looking for a predominantly blues tone.
The Whole Lotta Humbucker gives you that vintage sound but with a little bit of edge thanks to rough-cast magnets and a special winding pitch. It’s well balanced, has more midrange than the ’59 and can do either blues or classic rock.
The Pearly Gates is great for blues/rock – it’s super sweet and has very clear cleans but you can push it with a little gain for some hot blues. It absolutely sings with tons of clarity and it sounds great when the amp breaks up. The mids are rich but balanced with plenty of high end to make harmonics jump out. And even if you don’t go with a Pearly Gates bridge, if you want a singing neck pickup, go with the PG neck version.
These pickups were created as an accurate replica of the pickups in one of Joe’s deeply loved ’59 LP’s nicknamed “Magellan.” Those early PAFs could vary quite a bit in sound and the number of turns of wire. These pickups provide lots of articulation and were prototyped until Joe could not tell the difference between the original pickups and the final prototype. The neck features an Alnico 2 magnet and there’s an Alncio 3 in the bridge which give you a great vintage clear sound perfect for the blues. There are only something like 400 sets of these left out of the 1,959 set that will ever be made.
The Antiquity and Seth Lover are recreations of the original humbucker. The Seth Lover pickup was created by the inventor (Seth Lover) and Seymour W. Duncan. The Antiquity version is aged to look and sound like a pickup you’d find on a Les Paul that was built in the golden 50s, while the Seth Lover version is the same one you would have gotten when you drove your Cadillac to the local music store and bought an LP for $325 back in the day. Authentic old blues tone, articulate, sweet, airy and open. How authentic are these pickups? The mold used for the butyrate bobbins is from the same factory that made the original mold for Gibson. 42AWG plain enamel mag wire, nickel silver cover, 2.5-inch Alnico 2 bar magnet, custom machined metal spacer and maple spacer, single conductor push-back braided lead wire, and nickel silver bottom plate with long mounting legs. A vintage Leesona winder is used to create the pickups, one of two machines Seymour Duncan acquired from the old Kalamazoo, Michigan Gibson factory.
The APH-2 (standard and Slash version which has a little boosted output) both give you plenty of versatility and a sweet, smooth but just warm enough sound for blues. The neck pickup sings, while both pickups when develop just enough bite when you push the gain. They can do blues, classic rock and even hard rock (especially with the Slash version). They’re also great for guitars that are just a little too bright and border on harsh.
Alnico II Pro/Pearly Combo
This is another great combo, especially if you have a brighter guitar, since the Pearly Gates neck is just wonderful and fatter in the neck. Meanwhile, the warmer and slightly smoother Alnico II Pro gives you plenty of versatility and will help keep it from getting harsh in the more treble-prone bridge.
The ’59 pickups are based on the originals so anyone seeking a warm, rounded blues tone will find a great match with these. They give you clarity with vibrant cleans and adding some overdrive gives you an ideal blues rock tone.
No list can be complete without the JB which has incredible versatility, and thanks to the singing highs it can do a good blues tone. This is an especially good choice for those who play multiple styles and might want to play blues one moment and crank out some 80s rock the next.
Not all blues guitarists play a humbucker equipped guitar. In fact, some of the greats like Stevie Ray Vaughan preferred a Strat. Here are some options for those with a Fender Stratocaster or similar style guitar.
The SSL-1 is made to give you that classic Strat vintage chime; it makes a Strat sound just like you would think it should. For those looking for an SRV-like tone, these are a good match. You can get them as a set (with RW/RP middle for hum-canceling in the in-between positions) or you can get an SSL-5 if you want something a little hotter in the bridge with more output and sustain.
These are great if you want to add some overdrive into the mix. The middle and neck give you great bluesy bell like tone while the bridge gives you just enough edge for a hot blues/rock tone. If your Stratocaster is sounding dull, these will certainly bring it to life – many folks prefer the Custom Bridge, which gives you a beefed up vintage tone and more versatility.
These Antiquity Texas Hot pickups sound just like they are named, like you’re sitting in neon-lit bar in Amarillo listening to some local blues on your third bottle of Southern Star. They have a vintage design with a nice “smokey” tone and are well suited to rock and blues.
What pickups have you found give you the best blues tone?
If you had trouble understanding any tone term in this article, check out the Dictionary of Tone Terms.