Choosing A Bridge Pickup For Your Les Paul
Previously, I discussed some of my favorite pickup selections for the neck position of a Les Paul which you can read here. In this article, I wish to explore some of my favorite pickups for the bridge position of a Les Paul. When I talk with players about tone, gear and music in general, the general concensus is that you need pickups with a lot of output for metal and pickups with less output for ‘everything else.’ I disagree with that notion (though it holds some truth, I have to admit) and I’ll try to highlight pickups that can do a large selection of styles as well as pickups that seem almost dedicated to a specific style.
Developed in the early 1990s in a joint venture between Seymour W. Duncan and Seth Lover, the inventor of the humbucking guitar pickup, the Seth Lover humbucker is one of my favorite vintage output humbuckers. The Seth is sweet yet clear, fluid yet transparent and has an incredible kind ‘character’. The highs are sweet but with enough power to cut. The midrange is broad and bouncy and the lows are just like the high end: sweet but with enough presence. The Seth Lover doesn’t possess lots of output, but makes up for that in terms of character and kindness. If you don’t rely on copious amounts of power to drive your amp and instead require a pickup that offers a broad tonal spectrum, the Seth is the right pickup for you!
While not a Les Paul demo, this video helps you get an idea of the open character of the Seth Lover:
No two 1950s PAF’s were wound the same, that’s why you see so many PAF-replica’s and PAF-clones. The Antiquity is one of those replica’s, just like the Seth and the ’59. The Antiquity offers a completely unique tonal perspective, though, than either the Seth Lover or the ’59. Where the Seth excels in sweetness and kindness and the ’59 is woody and crunchy, the Antiquity falls right in between those two yet offers a complete unique tone of its own. The Antiquity feels loose and relaxed, but the moment you dig in it gets crunchy and tight. The Antiquity Humbucker’s feel is strongly influenced by the way you play: a bit more relaxed and the tone gets more fluid and squishy. A bit tighter and you get more punch and attack, but never losing clarity.
As popular as the PAF-platform is, some players need more output, tightness and aggression in their tone, something that can’t be found by dialing in an amp or adjusting the picking technique. Sometimes you just need more power! And that’s just right where the entire line of Seymour Duncan ‘Custom’ pickups come in! The Custom started it all: this PAF-on-the-rocks has much more power than your average PAF and offers more tightness, more crunch to the mids and a much tighter low end. By having the SH5 Custom in your Les Paul you’ll be getting a huge boost in your midrange as well as getting a strong, tight low end. In case the Custom has too much mids for your taste but you wish to maintain the same tight low end and amount of output (albeit slightly reduced due to the different magnet), the Custom 5 will get you right there. A bit less ‘modern’ than the Custom, the Custom 5 allows you to play almost all sorts of styles with little or no compromise!
When I first tried the Alnico 2 Pro, I wasn’t fond of it. It was warm and velvety with lots of mids, almost a nasal-like. I steered away from the Alnico 2 Pro for quite some time but then I heard it in another guitar and I was amazed, prompting me to try it again. The second time I tried it, I really liked it! After trying it out a bit more I figured out my initial predicament: it’s very sensitive to what kind of guitar you put it into. If your guitar already has a lot of mids, and some Les Pauls are really mid heavy, it might become a bit nasally. So, if you want a bit more mids and more fluidity, the Alnico 2 Pro is your best friend. On the other hand, the Slash-signature Alnico 2 Pro is also an amazing pickup. It takes the Alnico 2 Pro concept a bit further by giving it a bit more output and also a bit more ‘crunch’ and sizzle. Even though I love both pickups, I prefer the Slash version in a Les Paul. Fun to note, though, is that the Alnico 2 Pro (bridge) is a great neck pickup in a strat with a floyd when paired with a hotter pickup like the JB. Fluid but with enough cut to be versatile for leads and fat solos.
A list with great pickups for a Les Paul would simply not be complete without the Pearly Gates! This pickup was based on a PAF and has an alnico 2 magnet. But where the Alnico 2 Pro is designed to be warm and fluid, the Pearly Gates is raunchy, dirty and nasty with plenty of bite in the upper mids. I compared it once as the smaller sibling of the JB. Less output but it tries to compensate with a bigger bark. The output really isn’t that high but it’s being compensated by the rudeness, ballsyness and sizzle of the Pearly Gates. This is surely one of my favorite lower output pickups if I want a more vintage plus-vibe.
One of my all time favorite bridge pickups in the hotter segment, the Alternative 8 is Seymour Duncan’s first Alnico 8 production pickup and was designed to make full use of all the benefits that Alnico 8 has to offer. Not only does the Alternative 8 have a lot of power, it has lots of articulation and clarity to match. The highs are fluid and slightly cutting but the thick mahogany body of a Les Paul will soften that up slightly. The mids are broad and have a lot of crunch and the low end is tight and aggressive. The Alternative 8 is perfect for the harder styles, but when you coil split the pickup you get a raunchy yet clean tone, amazing for riffs that require a bit of crunch but with more airyness to it. Compared with the JB, the Alternative 8 has a softer upper midrange spike and compared with the Distortion, the Alternative 8 is a bit more fluid and less choppy.
This pickup is perhaps my most favorite pickup for a les paul. It offers the chime, clarity and sparkle of a vintage voiced pickup but pairs it with the tightness and fluidity of a hotter, more modern pickup. It’s not nearly as hot as the Custom but has a slightly higher output than the ’59, Seth or Antiquity. Because this pickup uses 2 completely different coils, this humbucker has a much wider dynamic range which result in incredible harmonics. I know very few medium output pickups that squeal so much as this pickup. If you want it to, of course!
Les Pauls and bridge pickups are a tough combination. They can be either to skreechy or too nasally; neither is what I personally want. I want my mids to be open, my lows to be tight and the highs to be kind. The pickups I mentioned offer exactly that, but with several degrees of output and several voicings of the EQ (chewy or crunchy mids, singing or cutting highs etc etc).