The Kramer Chronicles Volume IV: The Custom

In the continuing saga of testing pickups in my 80s vintage Kramer rebuild, we’ve been through how the ’59, Pearly Gates, and Alternative 8 sound in the bridge position, and matched with the ‘59N in the neck. Since the Voyager’s Alder body has proven to be an interesting test bed for all the pickups so far, it seemed like a good idea to continue exploring the options in the Seymour Duncan humbucker line. This installment we’ll check out another long-time favorite and staple of the line: The Duncan Custom. Seymour’s “PAF on steriods” design is one based on a just overwound enough coil and a ceramic magnet.

“Did someone say ROCK?”

The TB-5 Custom has long been a favorite of mine, as have many of the multiple variations that have emerged over the years (The Custom Custom, Custom 5, and the Custom 8). Seymour really nailed that wind, and the slight tweaks made by the magnet variations have all yielded successful results. I had the ceramic Custom in my No.1 Charvel mutt Strat for years until I got the mag-swapping itch and converted it to a C8. But each wood type/guitar sounds different, so I was interested to see how well it worked in Alder, and matched with a 59N. Like all the other installments of the Kramer Chronicles, I stuck with the single volume/tone/push-pull coil-split/3-way switch wiring scheme. A few things have become the norm: once again the Trembucker version was used to accommodate the wide Boogie Bodies neck and Floyd Rose string spacing. Once again Zebra coils were requested (because I really like the look of them in this guitar, okay?).  And of course, because of the included mounting ring, swapping pickups was again a breeze.

Voyager on the slab
“Get back over here and put some strings on me!!”

Special honorable mention should go out to the ’59N as well – not only do I like the tone in the neck, I’m impressed with how versatile it is. It’s the everyman of neck pickups. Regardless of the pairing – there to do the job, and does the job exceptionally well. When called upon to work with any bridge pickup, in humbucking or split mode, the ’59N‘s personality defers to and compliments its partner. Although some fared a little better than others, out of all the combos I’ve tried, not one could even remotely be accused of sounding “bad”.  Also reassuring in this case is the fact that the Custom/’59N combo is offered as standard equipment on several retail axes. I had a feeling it’d work in the Voyager, too.

Fortunately, as has been my experience in the past, the Custom did not disappoint. As the ’59B sounds like the perfect vintage-flavored companion to the ’59N (naturally), the Custom sounds somehow familiar, but it’s got a LOT more “oomph,” for lack of a better word. More grit and grind… it’s definitely performance-enhanced! It still retains a cool hint o’ vintage vibe, but it is unashamedly ROCK, no questions asked. Not overpoweringly so, though – it has just enough gain to beef up your signal, but not so much you lose any clarity.

Who knew the Kramer spoke lolcat?

In fact, the operative word IS “beef”. As in “large slab ‘o”. The ceramic magnet seriously tightens up the low end, fattens the mids, and adds the right amount of snarl to the highs. As you crank up the gain, the snarl remains, but power chords also begin to bark (in a good way!). It aims to get its point across, and yeah, it does. In the Alder-bodied Voyager it sounds  big, warm and full – not at all harsh. This combination of attributes lends itself equally well to aggressive palm-muting as well as huge-sounding open chords. I think it’s a fantastic pickup for heavy rhythms, affording seriously chest-thumping cabinet ‘thunk’ that you feel. If you dig in with your right hand, the Custom definitely communicates that it – and you – aren’t messing around. It has a powerful, authoritative vibe. Let’s just say “you WILL respect its authori-tay.” For leads, the tone is bold and assertive, allowing for clear, articulate legato runs, and punchy staccato picking. It cleans up well with the volume knob, and sounds great in combination with the ’59N in humbucking or single-coil mode. I wondered how well it’d hold up in single-coil mode being a ceramic; I feared it might sound a little on the harsh side,  but in the Voyager, nope, not so – not bad at all!

And it’s not by accident this is a popular pickup combo in so many guitars. They compliment each other fantastically. Of the combos I’ve tried in this guitar thus far, this one gets closest to exactly what I want a 2-humbucker combo to do. If you play with it, you can achieve a nearly perfect balance between the two. I dialed the pickup height in so that I was able to seamlessly combine or switch between pickups with no discernible volume drop. It’s a surprisingly versatile combo when the single-coil option is available. Pleasing cleans, smokey low-gain blues growls to epic AC/DC medium gain riffing. It can also do the heavy lifting, allowing full-on brutality and angry wailing if need be. Let’s check out how it sounds being put through the paces in the Voyager…

For this installment I went back to the original re-amping approach to show how the Custom reacts as it encounters heavier levels of gain. Let’s start with the old faithful Head Case “Gypsy.” Notice the throaty, assertive “I’m talkin’ over here!” vibe:

Ratchet up the gain a little more, as in this case with HC “Prometheus”, and the palm-muting suddenly jumps out, becoming more pronounced and insistent. Now we’re getting into the “thunk” region. Add volume and you start to feel what your right hand is doing.

Voyager Custom Prometheus by jhale667
Once you get up to the level of the “Heavy 6160” – forget about it. You’re in “take no prisoners” realm, and the Custom isn’t even considering wilting under the pressure. The low end is tight and percussive enough that it reaches out and grabs your attention. Chunk and crunch at will. It can pretty much take whatever you throw at it gain-wise, and retains its character and uniquely still-somehow ‘vintage’ feeling vibe.

Voyager Custom Heavy 6160 by jhale667
Now let’s check out something utilizing the ’59N and Custom combined for rhythm and lead tracking. I used 3 rhythm tracks, one using  two of the amp emulations used above, “Gypsy” and the “6160” using the Custom along with a clean HC “Quarter” track combining the Custom and the ’59N in single-coil mode doing the drone low E chord in spots. I recorded the goof lead on 2 tracks using both “Gypsy” and the more brutal “Dimitar V8”. It retained clarity with both gain settings, and is a cool lead tone when combined.

Voyager Custom Slabbage by jhale667
As you can hear, the Duncan Custom is yet another  formidable bridge pickup, capable of blues, rock, metal, and just about anything you can think of! This one’s a serious contender for permanent residency in the Voyager when all is said and done, but next up is the sound of ROCK – the legendary JB! Stay tuned…


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