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Evolution of Guitar Pickups (Back To The Future)

by vaughn skow October 01, 2020 3 min read

G'day fellow guitar mates! A couple days back I had a killer up & coming Nashville based guitar player in the shop for a pickup upgrade on his uber sweeeet 1968 Tele; it was a road I've been down way too many times.  The guitar was a sort of family heirloom, passed down from his father, a former Nashville pro, to him (a future Nashville pro :). Problem is, back in the 80's dad had yanked those "awful" vintage Tele pickups out and replaced them with the cool (for the day) active EMG pickups.  Hey, I can't fault the guy, throughout the late 80's and early 90's EVERYBODY was yanking vintage pickups and putting in those darn sterile, lifeless EMG dog turds.  A bit of background here:  This was the era of "hair metal", and the dawn of the high-gain, high-volume, super distortion era of guitar tone.  Folks didn't really want their tone to be great, they just needed it to be able to have huge amounts of distortion at insane volume levels;  those super-sweet sounding vintage designs just were not made for the atrocities 80's guitar tone would inflict, and they squealed and  whined when asked to perform such degrading acts.  Enter the era of the "active" pickup, with  EMG leading the charge.  These very under-wound and heavily potted pickups, complete with on-board "active" pre-amps, were more than willing to get REALLY dirty without complaint; yeah, they sounded really dead and lifeless when played clean, but heck, who EVER played 80's metal clean?

evolution of guitar pickups

And so we return to the Tele that just left the shop.  What a beauty!  Legitimately rode-worn ultra lightweight ash with the perfect feel for a truly great vintage Fender, and she rang like a big, round, beautiful bell when played unplugged.  With those active EMGs, plugged in she was totally uninspiring to put it nicely; the tone was just plain dead, lifeless, clinical, sterile ... there was no sustain, no complex upper harmonics, just ... meh.  But hey, there was no 60-cycle hum, and we all know THAT'S what really matters ... NOT!  The Rx was simple, we put in my Historic based Vaughn's Velvet Tele set, and now she sounds even better plugged in than unplugged.  Even with high gain she nails classic southern rock on the bridge pickup, and SRV on the neck; but the real beauty is how complex, sweet, and rewarding she is on clean tones.  So big, bold, and beautiful, steeped in upper harmonic richness and glory.

I only wish this were rare, but it's far from it.  I've pulled active pickups, and other crazy "noiseless" style pickups out of so very many beautiful vintage Les Pauls, Strats, and Teles that I've lost count, in most cases, the owners didn't even bother hanging on to the original pickups.  Imagine, throwing away a set of original PAFs, now worth a solid ten grand!?!  In the 80's it happened every day.  Ugg!

The good news:  TODAY, folks get it.  Great tone is back baby, and it's back with a vengeance.  The coolest of the cool players are all about the sweet, sexy, complex vintage tones of an honest great guitar with honest great pickups plugged into an honest to goodness great sounding tube amp.  Going back to the future has never been so AWESOME!  And, speaking of amps, up next on this blog we'll be talking about the similar amp transition from early rock through 80's rock and into today, be SURE to check it out!  See ya then!

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