New Pickups For Old
Hints on replacement pickups for electric guitars
Hints and tips on replacement pickups for your guitar
Sometimes a guitarist will find that a pickup has gone 'open circuit' (it's happened to me a few times). Then again you may be dissatisfied with the sound you're getting. Often solid guitar owners are distressed that the clean, tangy unamplified sound of their instrument doesn't get as far as their speaker. Again jazz players with big body acoustic electrics can find that while the bass strings are deep and mellow, the high notes are muffled and lacking in character. Perhaps the pickups, or the way they're wired are giving too much roll-off on the treble frequencies. So, what's to be done?
If you like the unamplified sound of your instrument (perhaps resonant and mellow for an acoustic electric, clean brassy and sustained for a solid, with a semi-acoustic somewhere in between) but don't like what you hear through the amplifier, then ten to one your pickups are not right for you. So, why not do something about them?
To digress, I rewired my 1960 Hofner V3 out of necessity, not desire. Quite early in its life, the middle pickup died but I didn't replace it, as I still had the other two, even though the sound of the deceased was my favourite, being clear and mellow. I gave up playing for several years to concentrate on an Open University degree (in Electronics and Relativity, among other subjects) and having got the B.A. I went in for an OU theoretical music course.
No way was I going to learn to play the recorder as specified, or use the reed organ that the Open University lend music students. So for the first time in three years I got out my trusty axe to practice the various cadences and harmonies we were expected to become familiar with, and discovered the bridge pickup had also died, probably in disgust at its long neglect. Yes, the very pickup I used to use for screaming lead breaks in my mis-spent youth!
This I replaced with a Gibson Super Humbucker (£35). A few weeks later I again disinterred the instrument, only to find the fingerboard pickup had expired. Provoked beyond endurance I then attacked my (former) friend with chisel, drill and smouldering iron, with the end results shown in the accompanying photo. For me at least, the twenty year old Hofner is now quite simply the best, most versatile electric guitar I've ever played. When I began the rewiring process I adopted a 'money no object' policy, but soon found that the most expensive pickups aren't necessarily the best.
I wired the guitar so that the pickups can be used in any combination of series or parallel, either 'in' or 'out of phase' by using double pole, double throw 'centre off' switches throughout.
At the fingerboard end I've fitted an Ibanez 2351-62 humbucker, (£8.25). This is a low inductance pickup with a fairly low output level for a humbucker and an extremely clean sound, ideal for the fingerboard position. In fact it gives the cleanest sound of any dipole flux linkage pickup I've ever tested. This type includes all the 'standard' humbucker types. Other types sometimes encountered are stud humbuckers, coaxial humbuckers, and 'drone' humbuckers, where one coil is just for hum cancelling and doesn't contribute to the output from the strings.
As the Ibanez came in a two-wire series connected version, I dismantled it and rewired it for 4-wire output. The two coils connected in series and in phase (factory setting) give a deep, clean, mellow sound when fitted in the fingerboard position. 'In phase' parallel gives a lighter sound with the higher strings sounding about the same, but the lower strings a lot less bassy. Series 'out of phase' switching gives a twang on the bass strings with the high notes still fairly mellow. 'Out of phase' parallel gives a very sharp, clean sound not unlike a harpsichord with a very sharp rhythm sound; 'melodic sharp' rather than harsh. There's a lot of volume loss for antiphase parallel on this pickup and turning your amp up for loud solo passages can give noise and hum problems in this mode. I'd definitely recommend this pickup as a replacement for a one pickup guitar which has the pick up at the fingerboard end, as it will give a superb crisp rhythm sound if rewired for phasing, and clean, mellow highs when the coils are 'in phase'.
The Gibson Super Humbucker I've fitted in the bridge position has one live output only, with braided screen, and can't be wired for coil tap or phasing with itself as the coil assembly is set in epoxy resin and there's no way you can get at the coils without wrecking the pickup. As it gives such a good sound in this position I'd not dream of changing it.
It produces a very coloured rich treble tone in this position, possibly because of the large wide magnets used without excessive coil winding (the inductance is fairly low, no higher than a standard humbucker). This helps emphasise the dissonant harmonics, particularly on the bottom strings, giving a rich, slightly raucous edge to the sound which is far more pleasing to my ears than the chopped up harmonics of a high inductance distortion pickup.
In the middle position I originally intended to fit a Mighty Mite 'Motherbucker', costing around £39 at the time. This is a three coil pickup similar to that now fitted to the Hamer Prototype, which presented several problems and in the end I mounted three single coil 'Strat' pickups on a brass plate instead. I also made a quarter inch thick mounting ring out of brass, above which the pickups protrude only a fraction of an inch. This, together with the brass backing plate, provides very effective shielding for the noise prone single coil pickups.
The assembly consists of two SSP Gotoh pickups (£5.35 each) facing the fingerboard, and a Fender Strat pickup (£25) at the bridge end. All three pickups give the clean melodic singing tone characteristic of a good single coil pickup, rich in undistorted harmonics with a clear, deep uncoloured bass. In my view the SSP Gotohs are of comparable sound quality to the CBS Fender pickups, and better than most American single coil pickups selling at five or six times the price. The DC resistance and inductance, and electrical output are very similar to the Fender which has a slightly colder tone together with a little more 'presence', due I suspect to a less symmetrical coil winding. The SSP Gotohs, like the Ibanez, are Japanese.
With these three pickups, parallel 'in phase' switching gives a clean melodic tone on the high notes and a very rich and deep gutsy bass. This effect is accentuated with just the two outside pickups on together (SSP and Fender). All three together in series and 'in phase' give a deep mellow effect, as deep and mellow in fact as the Ibanez in the fingerboard position, together with a high electrical output. Though the DC resistance of this combination is about 24 kilohms, the sound is still clean and harmonically pure due to the very low inductance and symmetrical magnetic field inherent in this kind of pickup.
Parallel switching with the Fender and SSP 'out of phase' gives a very sharp sound with a hard metallic twang on the bass strings. All three pickups in parallel with one 'out of phase' gives a boost to the treble strings while still allowing a fairly deep sound on the bass. In series 'out of phase' gives a sharp treble string with a rich, sonorous twang on the bass strings. Resonance effects can often generate subharmonics in the pickup coils. Note also that single coil pickups used together in this way are in a humbucking mode when switched 'out of phase'.
Blending pickups of different waveform parameters gives many interesting and musical tones. One of my favourite combinations is using the fingerboard facing SSP pickup 'out of phase' with the Gibson. This gives a thin, clear sound similar in some respects to a treble boosted Telecaster, whilst the Fender 'out of phase' with the Gibson sounds extremely harsh and piercing even through my old Bird valve amp's rather soggy 15 inch Wharfedale speaker, so this is a combination I don't particularly like or use. The Fender and Gibson pickups together 'in phase' gives a rich warm sound, with a melodic lilt.
Obviously, I can't describe all possible combinations (and who can describe sound in words anyway?). Suffice it to say that combining pickups with greatly different tonal characteristics can give an amazing richness and variety of tone colour, and in my view is preferable to having 2 or 3 identical pickups on your guitar.
Also, I'd seriously suggest that anyone replacing a humbucker consider mounting two single coil (Strat type) pickups side by side. They'll give clean, mellow or sharp sound depending on how you wire them, and if you have a single pickup guitar then using them 'out of phase' will give a crisp, clear sound. Some humbuckers used with their coils 'out of phase' sound really nasty and unmusical, particularly high inductance, high impedance designs. This is partly because of flux linkage between the two sets of pole pieces, which in most designs share the same magnet. Two Strat pickups mounted together will fit quite easily into a standard humbucker mounting ring, so there should be no problems on that score.
What pickups would I recommend you to try? This is largely a matter of taste. Bear in mind that although I wouldn't change the Fender or Gibson pickups on my own guitar (since they're both superb pickups and perhaps more important, I've got used to them) price is no guide to quality. The Japanese (ESP, SSP Gotoh, Ibanez etc.) and German (Schaller, Hofner etc.) pickups may or may not sound exactly the same as their high priced American counterparts but they're just as good. The workmanship on the Schallers is probably superior to the American pickups and at less than half the price. Anyway here are a few possibilities for you to consider when choosing your own replacement pickups.
|Humbucker (Clean and Bright)|
|Schaller Golden 50||£11.85|
|ESP 59 (PAF type)||£15.50 |
|Humbucker (High output, rough edge)|
|Schaller Hot Stuff (Bar magnet type)||£16.95|
|ESP Hot Pickup||£15.50 |
|Single Coil (Strat replacement type)|
|ESP V1 VintageStrat||£11.75|
|(Large magnet, high output)|
|Schaller SX (adjustable pole pieces)||£10.55|
Feature by Peter Cropley
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