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Pickups - The Number One Electric Guitar Upgrade By A Mile!

by vaughn skow August 02, 2018 7 min read


Okay, this blog actually begins in 1978, just a little before last weeks installment.  I was about 13, maybe 14 and had gotten my first decent electric guitar, a Strat, played through the Twin Reverb mentioned last week.  About that time, Eddie VanHalen had just hit the scene and his FrankenStrat with only a Bridge Humbucker had all us guitar kids enthralled to say the least.  At that time, and in my little farm town, no such replacement pickups were to be had and so I did what any 13 year old kid would do, I removed the middle pickup, mounted it right beside the Bridge pickup, flipped the magnets upside down (reversed the polarity), and wired them in series. Whoo-Hoo!  I had a smoking hot (14K/6H would be my best guess given what I know today) bridge humbucker! Just like Eddie, who needs a middle pickup anyway, right?  And oh my God was it a hatchet job!  I had the soldering Iron I got for my 9th birthday, and used a screwdriver and hammer to "rout" out the body, and my mom's sharpest kitchen knife to enlarge the hole in the pick-guard.  Strangely, that's still her favorite knife, and it's had a big chip out of it ever since I used it on the pick-guard some 40-years ago.  Holy crap did that pickup change turn that guitar into a whole new beast, let's talk about that!

I believe this is the first gig with the new Frankenstrat (before I started painting on it), and my Twin Reverb with those glorious JBL's in her (she weighed 20-pounds more than I did at the time:-)

Vaughn Skow age 13 first gig

In 1978 in Jackson Minnesota there were, as far as I knew, exactly zero overdrive pedals to be had.  There were a couple of Big and little Muff Pies and a LPB-1 floating amongst us kids, but as you all know, those were nasty fuzz ... not AT ALL Eddie's saturated and smooth Marshall "brown sound"!  And folks, a single coil Strat bridge pickup into a silver-face Twin Reverb with JBL D130F's will NEVER break up, every ear drum in Minnesota would rupture before THAT happened.  But, with my home-made hot as heck humbucker in the bridge ... yep, I could actually push the front end of the amp into at least a little bit of sweetness before everyone in the county started telling me to turn down.  Score!  And, I kept the neck single-coil in place so I could still do SRV type neck tone.  I even did my own black-n-white striped paint job, yep, I had a DIY Frankenstrat of my own.  Soon word got around and I was doing it for everyone, paying customer number one was my bass player buddy Dave Ellefson, who you might know from his slightly successful band MEGADETH.  I'm not kidding, the pickup swap was a life changing event.  Now, let's contrast that to the OTHER things I tried in various attempts to tweak my tone.

The epic Pic Saga...

Of course there was the very expensive tube experiment mentioned in last weeks blog, but I certainly didn't stop there.  I tried EVERYTHING available.  As I wrote about in this blog, I went through decades in a quest to find a pick that would revolutionize my playing and/or tone.  Seriously, read that blog, it's an epic pic journey.  In the end, the plain old Fender picks that I started with were probably as good as anything I've ever tried since ... if they just wouldn't break!  It turns out that no pick can really alter your electric guitar tone all that much, and all crazy-ass designs do is make it downright uncomfortable to play.  My God, that darn stone "Mind Pick" that I bought in about 1980 ... what a load of crap; I mean seriously, it felt like I was playing with a rock ... oh yea ... I was!  I'm sorry friends, but if you are looking to a PICK to rock your world ant significantly change the quality of your tone or playing, you will be seriously disappointed.

How about STRINGS?

For my FULL feelings, read this blog, otherwise ... Okay, sure something as dramatic as, say going from 1940's flatwound nickle strings to today's standard round-wound nickle-steel designs ... sure, that's going to be a huge tonal difference.  But, from one brand to another, or one gauge to another, no ... you will not stumble on some magic elixir that makes your tone or playing better.  I love when I see folks totally trashing "brand A" strings and singing the praise of "brand B" ... when I know that they are exactly the same string except for the package they are put in ... and in many cases "Brand A" actually makes both brands! Snake oil, folks ... don't buy into it!  Just like in last weeks discussion of tubes, I would still advise to stay away from the generic made-in-China strings, because there are poor quality control measures and sometimes poor manufacturing techniques employed, and so you'll have issues with breakage, ball-ends unraveling, and so on.  But if you think you'll realize a significant difference between the standard nickle-steel strings from D'Addario, GHS, and so on, you're once again either conned into buying snake oil or setting yourself up for disappointment.  Oh ... and for God's sake, play the gauge that feels best to YOUR touch.  Just because Billy Gibbons or Jeff Beck play insanely tiny gauge strings, or Stevie played extremely fat strings, don't think that'll make you play like either of them.  Like most players, I went through my SRV phase, bought a SRV signature Strat the first year they came out and strung her up with 13-60 gauge strings just like Stevie,  Holy crap, that was the worst experience I ever had playing guitar, except maybe for my first guitar/finger torture device, ordered from the Montgomery-Wards catalog.  God, it HURT so bad!  Please dear friends, don't put yourself through that, it will NOT help you!

Volume pots, tone pots, and Capacitors:

Some folks believe tweaking your volume pot value from say the Gibson standard 500K to 350K will be sooo sweet ... or maybe going from a .047 to a .05 cap will do the magic.  It ain't gonna happen.  Now here I will say this, if the values in your guitar are just flat VERY WRONG for some reason, then yes changing to proper values on pots and caps will make a significant difference in tone and response throughout the travel of the control.  BTW: for my take on Tone Caps, read this blog.  I will just mention here that several times I have had guitars come into my shop that just flat sounded awful, and the problem was tracked down to horribly improper pot values.  For instance, single coil guitars generally sound best with 250K-ohm pots, and that's what historically they nearly always had installed at the factory.  In some cases, 500K or even 1meg pots are acceptable.  But, TWICE now I've had old Kay/Harmony guitars come in with factory original 100K pots, and believe it or not one guitar, that I actually bought because the owner hated it so much, had 100-ohm pots!  It was a triple-pickup Old Craftsman (Kay) "Speed Demon" with "speed bump" pickups, all with their own volume and tone controls, and all factory-original 100-ohm!  Yep, it sounded totally dead and lifeless.  The Speed-Bumps sound very dark for a single-coil anyway, so I went back with all 500K pots, and now she sings beautifully.  So the take-away here is, especially with those marginal catalogue guitars from the 40's-60's ... be aware that the values may be off enough to really screw your tone!  I think when they ran out, that Chicago factory must just have grabbed whatever they could get off the shelf locally, oh, and I've also seen guitars where owners went to radio shack and got whatever value was in stock to replace a bad pot ... sometimes with values terribly inappropriate.  Okay, that was a loooong caveat, but apart from those extremes, new pots and caps ain't no silver tone-bullet, baby.


OMG, of course I went through a cable phase ... don't we all?  Yep, from about 1980 to 1990 I must have tried EVERY new golly-gee-wiz cable that came out.  Spent waaaay too much money, and NEVER could tell any difference.  I'll avoid getting technical, but the fact is that unless you have VERY long cable runs (above about 40-feet), you'll never really hear any difference in a guitar cable.  Standard disclaimer: the cheap made-in-China crap is often so poorly made that they have manufacturing defects that render them unusable, so stick with cables that don't come free with a $49 guitar!  One quick side-bar: when I first moved to Nashville I worked for a brief time at a serious cork-sniffer high-end audio dealer; we sold speaker cables up to $30,000 (oxygen-free silver cables).  Yep, really, and the owner almost always up-sold those things to his customers.  One day I'd had enough and called him on it, saying "you KNOW you can't hear any difference between those things and our bottom-end $50 cables, right?" He said, "of course, but these are the richest people in the south, they aren't really looking for better sound they are looking for bragging rights, and I'm happy to provide them with that".   I'm done here ... wow, that was short :-)

Circling back to pickups.

Just like it was true when I discovered it at age 13, it remains true today:  no other upgrade/change to an electric guitar will make any where even close to the difference of a well chosen pickup swap.  NOT EVEN CLOSE.  Still not getting it?  Read this.

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