By Martina Fasano
The 1970s and 80s were a hotbed of lean, mean, gorgeously dirty guitar tones that would go on to inspire millions of musicians in the decades that followed. Many of those legendary tones we try so hard to emulate every time we plug our guitars into an old school stack are a direct descendant of a once “revolutionary” pickup that cancelled out the familiar hum that was heard on so many recordings of the 1950s: the humbucker.
It’s hard to think of life without the humbucker if you love classic rock as much as I do. While my early childhood music appreciation consisted of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, the music that inspired me to pick up my own guitar was most often made with that magic hum-cancelling pickup that gave us sounds like Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”, Heart’s “Barracuda”, Guns’n’Roses “Welcome To The Jungle”, and countless other hits that were the mainstay of radio back when AM and FM radio played rock on every other station.
Suppose you want to channel your inner Peter Frampton or CC DeVille. What humbucker combos can you use to get you a tone worthy of 70s and 80s rock legend status? Here are some ideas to get you started.
This is our newest “old school” humbucker set, and it will definitely give you that signature 70s and 80s crunch that I often dreamt about as a youngster while I woodshedded away for hours on end. This Alnico 4 (magnet)-based set is perfect for late 70s arena rock tones. A listen to the demo video featuring the talented Doug Rappaport shows off the slightly hotter than usual bridge pickup tone, which means you get more crunch than 1950s era models, but not the compression that comes along with higher gain pickups. A set of these in your favourite dual humbucker guitar will indeed make for a special Saturday night, but they will keep you rocking the other days of the week too.
One of the most popular and most heard combinations in all of rock history, the JB is a favourite of many classic rock guitarists. The JB is the most sought after replacement pickup in the world, and there is good reason for it. Coupled with the Jazz humbucker in the neck, this combination can be heard on plenty of rock recordings. Chris Stein of Blondie is a fan of this combination, as is Dave Mustaine of Megadeth. The JB itself has plenty of users that will no doubt be in many people’s vinyl collections, including KISS’s Paul Stanley. If you want the look that goes with the tone, try the JB/Jazz Antiquity set.
Full Shred Set
Imagine a bridge pickup with bright, moderate output with a tight low end and scooped mids. Pair that with the most articulate and bright sounding neck position humbucker, and you have a Full Shred bridge/neck set, developed with feedback from players like Vivian Campbell and Heart’s Nancy Wilson. Ah, the stuff dreams are made of! If you need some inspiration as far as the types of tone possible from the Full Shred, check out the work from Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. Classic rock tone at its finest!
The Vintage Blues set is the 59 neck and bridge models together. A full sounding P.A.F. humbucker sound featuring an Alnico 5 magnet, combined with one of the most versatile neck pickups in rock make for a stellar combination. It’s no accident that this vintage-voiced set bears the number of a very popular year for a single-cutaway guitar model that changed the rock and roll landscape forever: Gibson’s Les Paul Standard. The 59 set will give you a chance to get a vintage sound in your own dual-humbucker guitar and help you coax some magic out of your current solid body mahoghany masterpiece.
If you’re looking for a way to give your already warm-sounding guitar with a prominent mid-range (think Les Paul or PRS) a more authentic sounding 70s/80s rock tone, try the Duncan Custom SH-5 bridge pickup coupled with a 59 in the neck position. Howard Leese of Heart and Bad Company was able to use his SH-5 to record some of the best riffs and hooks of the 1970s and 80s.
While I’ve mentioned only five in the ‘Top 5,’ there are other pickup combinations that will have you channelling your inner classic rock mojo. A swap for the Slash signature set into your Les Paul or Les Paul-style guitar will have you back in “Paradise City” mode in no time. If you prefer some Texas hospitality and ZZ Top inspired tone, try the Pearly Gates set. The Whole Lotta Humbucker set – the name says it all, doesn’t it? Drop a set into your guitar and play the intro to “Whole Lotta Love,” and you’ll see what I mean. The very popular JB/59 combination is a favourite of CC Deville, and that will definitely help you out as you play that searing solo from “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” when you take the stage to play in your next 80s cover band.
What are your favourite humbucker pickups for 1970s and 80s rock tones?