With 40 years of pickup design under our belt, we’re sharing a little history, what makes vintage so popular, and how our vintage-style, boutique guitar pickups have evolved over the years.
It’s fascinating that most traditional boutique guitar pickups, after six-plus decades, are still the same design as the originals. Yes, today’s market features some amazing new technology and active electronics. But, the vast majority of the humbuckers and single-coils out there still use magnets, wire, and a bobbin or two. From that perspective, it’s incredible how much ground we’ve all covered with such a simple structure.
Why people love that vintage sound
What’s more amazing is that the original designs are in higher deman than ever. People love that identifiable sound of vintage-style boutique guitar pickups. The proof is in thousands of websites, blogs, forum posts, and YouTube videos dedicated to the holy grail Strat, Les Paul, and Jazzmaster pickups of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Heck, we have pages about them ourselves!
No matter the style of vintage pickup, there are two characteristics that unite them all. They all provide clarity and the ability to let the player’s personality shine.
Where does that vintage ‘magic’ come from?
While it feels like magic when playing through a set of ‘50s or ‘60s pickups, it comes down to the fact that most older pickups have a much lower, ‘vintage-output.’ These pickups were engineered to give guitars a detailed tone without pushing the day’s amplifiers into unwanted overdrive. Add in the use and availability of different materials, the hand-made process that resulted in wider tolerances, and you have a very general recipe for creating that ‘magic.’ In fact, we still own and use many of the original winding machines. These original machines create guitar pickups that replicate the sought-after originals in near-perfect detail.
There is a definite thread that unites all these vintage pickups. But at the same time, each of them still goes about achieving their sonic characteristics very differently. Here’s a quick rundown on some of the most well-known pickups, their history, and what makes them so popular.
The most well-known pickups, their history, and what makes them so popular.
The pickups found in Fender’s earliest production solid bodies are still some of the most popular in the world. Fender set six magnetic pole pieces into a single bobbin and wrapped it with copper wire. This created a pickup that set the standard in electric guitar tone.
But it’s the bridge pickup’s metal base plate that gives it their legendary twang. It was the epicenter of country, rock, blues, and jazz for decades to come.
The Tele neck pickup enjoys less acclaim. With its smaller size and lack of baseplate, it’s a much mellower sound. Rockers and chickin pickers don’t use it as often. But it is an excellent choice for Prince-like funk, clean arpeggiation, and full-sounding jazz tones.
Since the Strat’s introduction, its trio of single-coil pickups has been required equipment for legions of guitarists throughout the world. After receiving input about what tweaks players wanted to see on Fender’s already famous Telecaster, Leo Fender went to work ‘improving’ his pickup designs. By removing the bride pickup’s metal base plate, adding a middle pickup, and placing the same pickup design in all three positions, a new world of tones emerged. The Strat now offered players a less aggressive voice, a famed bell-like quality to the highs, and a balanced voice across all the pickups.
Strat Single-Coils Today
Thanks to Strat pickups’ sonic versatility and pleasant voicing, not much has changed since the early days. But there have been two significant additions that have become cannon in Stratocaster design. One is updating the original 3-way switch to a 5-way design that makes getting the iconic in-between tones as easy as a flip of a switch. Fender also began winding the middle pickups in reverse with reverse-polarity. This eliminates 60-cycle hum when combined with either the neck or bridge pickup.
Those two additions, and Leo’s initial design, created a perfect storm of tone. Tone that just may be the most popular and most versatile combination of pickups ever. Maybe that’s why players as diverse at Buddy Holly, Bonnie Raitt, and Billy Corgan have all built vastly different, chart-topping careers on that common platform.
The only pickup design that enjoys the same notoriety and devotion as Fender’s single-coils is the original Patent Applied For (PAF) Gibson humbucker.
Though Gibson already had their own single-coil design – the P90 – Gibson engineer Seth Lover set out to create a version of the pickup that removed annoying 60-cycle hum and buzz. He combined two bobbins, wound in the opposite direction of one another. Each side of the pickup would cancel the other’s noise. He noticed that it ‘bucked’ the hum. The humbucker, and its goofy name, was born.
This revolutionary concept also had the unexpected benefit of imbuing the pickups with a much fatter tone and midrange character. And because of their vintage output, those PAFs also retained a top-end chime and clarity. Session ace and YouTube rockstar, Pete Thorn, has referred to the PAF as “a Tele on steroids.” Jazz and burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene quickly embraced PAFs, and they have lived on ever since.
Modern Humbuckers Today
Today, most humbuckers have a bit more muscle for driving amps and pedals. That also removes a bit of that chime, causing some players to be surprised at the original’s clarity and versatility. We suggest you drop a set of vintage PAFs—or better yet, a set of Seymour Duncan Antiquities—into your dual humbucker guitar. You’ll find you can shift from spanky cleans to full-throttle rock with the greatest of ease.
The P90 History
Originally, P90s were found in Gibson’s big-bodied jazz boxes, giving them an amplified voice that could compete in the volume wars. But it was the release of Gibson’s Les Paul in the mid-’50s that saw the P90 outfitted onto a solid body electric guitar. Within a few years, Gibson replaced the Les Paul’s P90s with their cutting-edge humbucker designs. But, not before their unique combination of top-end detail and midrange bark had collected quite a few devotees.
That tone is created by the P90’s wider, flatter winding and form factor. Imagine the warm lows of a humbucker married with the bell-like qualities of a Strat. Then add in a helping of upper-mid bite, and you have a good idea of the P90 ‘thing.’
P90’s Impact Today
While not as prevalent as the humbucker, the history of modern music is riddled with classic P90 tones. Mountain’s Leslie West and Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi both invented the pulverizing sounds of early metal with them. Jazz luminary Charlie Christian famously played an early version of the pickup (now known as the Charlie Christian pickup). And Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong has used them as the core of his punk rock power for years.
Jazzmaster Single-Coil History
Let’s start this one off by stating that Jazzmaster single-coils are not the same as P90s. Though they share some similarities, the Jazzmaster’s pickups come from the Strat’s lineage, not Gibson’s.
Fender designed the Jazzmaster as an upscale alternative to the Stratocaster. It was to offer jazz players a solid body option for higher-volume applications, introduce a bit more warmth, and still retain Fender’s trademark clarity.
While the guitars didn’t take off with the jazz cats, their full-range tone – and oft-overwhelming electronics package – did become a massive hit with ‘60s rockers. They also spearheaded the reverb-drenched surf rock genre that is still going strong to this day.
Jazzmaster Single-Coil’s Today
And then came the ‘90s Sabbath-influenced, fuzzed-out riffs, and back to basics aesthetics. Thanks to the Jazzmaster pickups’s mix of muscle and definition, players like J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore were able to breathe new life into the offset guitar craze. Grunge, alternative, and indie rock scenes have held these pickups in high regard ever since, keeping them at the top of popular music with synth-like leads, explosive grind, and rhythmic jangle.
Also extremely popular with both the old-school rock ‘n’ roll and alternative crowds is the Fender Jaguar. The Jaguar’s pickups bridge the gap between the Jazzmaster and the shorter-scale Mustangs and Duo Sonics. Thanks in large part to their ‘claw’ surround, these pickups have a voice that lives between organic and metallic. Vintage Jaguar pickups are known for their great attack and note separation.
Jaguars also boast a shorter scale length that contributes mightily to the tone of the instrument. So, if you want the clean arpeggios and precise clarity of these pickups, it’s important to pair them with the right guitar. That said, there are plenty of Jag pickups available at different output levels for everything from authentic vintage tones to something with more grit.
Much like how the Jazzmaster blends Fender’s famous top-end with a bit more punch, Epiphone’s (later Gibson) mini-humbuckers boast full-sized humbuckers’ quiet performance and fatter midrange with added jangle. Their smaller size contributes to a lower output, which gives them this brighter sound. A good way to think about it is, if you want a single-coil with some humbucker traits, get a P90. But if you want a humbucker with a bit more single-coil clarity and chime, you can’t go wrong with a mini-humbucker.
Gibson got their hands on Epiphone’s design when they purchased the company in 1957. And it was with Gibsons-in-hand that Johnny Winter’s Firebird-driven blues rock tones and the ‘70s Les Paul Deluxe models brought the mini-humbucker to prominence.
Fender Duo-Sonics and Mustangs were both originally intended as student guitars. Each was released with a beginner-friendly 22.5″ scale length, bumping out to a 24″ option later. This gave the guitars a slightly fuller sound. So, they needed to have a thinner-sounding pickup to balance their voices.
These guitars and their unique pickups created a long list of devotees. And understandably, they are incredibly close to Seymour’s heart as well.
“I saw my first Mustang on a ’60s TV show called Shindig. There was a guitarist by the name of Jerry Cole who played solos for many guest artists,” he said. “Soon after that, I had my band members drive me to 8th Street Music in Philadelphia to buy my first Mustang.”
Concerning the guitars’ unique tone, Seymour says, “The pickups are not very loud but have great fidelity. I have even talked to Eric Johnson about these pickups, and they’re one of his favorites.”
The Seymour Duncan Antiquity Line: vintage-style boutique guitar pickups.
Seymour invented our Antiquity line of boutique guitar pickups to pay tribute to the enduring popularity of each of these pickup’s early models. The line’s story goes back to the 1990s, a particularly unique time in guitar history. ‘Shred’ guitars were on a bit of a decline, and the vintage guitar market was huge. Guitarists were beginning to relic their own instruments. Yet they couldn’t get their hands on the actual vintage guitars they were coveting. So, Seymour created the Antiquities to give those guitarists the aged look, tone, and response of those gold-standard pickups.
Handmade. Period correct. Every time.
Because Seymour is very detail-oriented, our Antiquities had to be exactly like the originals, down to the finest details. So, Seymour pulled on his 40-plus-year archive of data on pickup design with insight on every nuance down to the smallest detail. If player feedback and the thousands of guitarists around the world who rely on their Antiquities are any indications, Seymour nailed it.
What he didn’t anticipate was how popular these vintage-style boutique guitar pickups would become. And particularly with guitarists playing newer guitars. Guitar builders and players started asking for our Antiquity pickups with a new, pristine look, rather than an aged cosmetic.
Introducing the Seymour Duncan Retrospec’d series.
Now you get all the yesteryear tone of our Antiquity boutique guitar pickup line with a pristine, showroom-floor look.
Available for the following models:
Vintage-style Antiquity Retrospec’d Humbuckers
Our Antiquity humbuckers give you the same tone you would find in a 60-year-old P.A.F. Right down to the way the magnet ages after decades of playing. The bridge model is wound a little hotter for better balance (and to reflect the mismatched sets that were extremely common among the originals).
Vintage-style Antiquity Retrospec’d Texas Hot Strat
The Antiquity Retrospec’d Texas Hot delivers a spanky, bell-like chime and a little more growl and midrange from your bridge pickup. Each pickup is custom-aged magnetically to simulate the wear and tear that a pickup goes through after decades of playing. This adds the sweetness that only six decades of playing can provide. They are also lacquered and potted in lamp black paraffin wax, like the originals.
Vintage-style Antiquity II Retrospec’d Surfer Strat
Classic single-coil sounds of the 60s were a little beefier than their 50s counterparts. But not at the expense of classic Strat chime and bounce. The Antiquity II Retrospec’d Surfer Strat set uses specially calibrated Alnico 5 rod magnets and a custom scatter-wound coil to nail that exact tone. The bridge pickup is wound 50% hotter for more mids, and we soften the treble with degaussed magnets. And, of course, each pickup is aged to sound like a 1960s original. They have vintage-correct blue/yellow cloth pushback lead wire, light gray bottom flatwork, and custom-aged covers.
Vintage-style Antiquity Retrospec’d for Telecaster
If you play a vintage 50s Telecaster pickup, you’ll find that the high end has softened and sweetened a little. The Antiquity Retrospec’d Tele Lead gives you that aged, early 50s Tele tone in spades. Custom-calibrated hand-ground Alnico 2 rod magnets sweeten its high end. And, like the originals, the ferrous bottom plates are not wax potted, which gives you a little extra edge and snarl. The rest of the pickup is lacquered and potted in lamp black paraffin wax.
Vintage-style Antiquity II Retrospec’d for Jazzmaster
Our Antiquity II Retrospec’d Jazzmaster bridge pickup uses hand-ground Alnico 5 rod magnets and a special coil wind to deliver ’60s Jazzmaster crispness, glassiness, and snap. The aging process utilized on the magnets mellows the attack a bit for the smooth treble of a fantastic vintage instrument. Clean tones are sharp and clear and dirty tones have a gloriously ragged bark that cuts. We also use heavy Formvar mag wire, vintage-correct gray flatwork, cloth push-back lead wire, and the same lacquer and wax potting as the originals.
Vintge-style Antiquity Retrospec’d for P90 Dog Ear
Put the weathered midrange grittiness of an original ‘59 ES-330 into your newest guitar with our Antiquity Retrospec’d P90 Dog Ear. These single-coils use two specially calibrated alnico 2 bar magnets and a custom coil wind. This combination delivers the gritty, vintage correct growl of a great bridge pickup. If you remove the cover, you’ll find the same hand-fabricated bobbin, plain enamel mag wire, and flatback tape that was made in Kalamazoo during the early days.
How to find the vintage-style pickup that’s right for you
We get it; plenty has been said about vintage-style boutique guitar pickups. And as we openly admit, we’re very guilty of it ourselves. But let’s face it, every great guitar tone in history had its start with these groundbreaking designs. And the continued popularity and incredible demand of our boutique guitar pickups mean they are still a standard in tone. But, because much of the ‘information’ floating around is either opinion or straight-up incorrect, we’re giving you the facts. Facts that come straight from Seymour’s long career at the top of the pickup and tone game.
Seymour’s vast experience is also why you’ll always get boutique guitar pickups that embody the best of these classic designs.
If you want to find the right pickup for you try our custom Pickup Finder tool. And don’t forget to dig further into the Seymour Duncan blog! There’s a ton of in-depth information on all our different designs, how-tos, tone demonstrations, and a whole lot more.