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Why The Pickups In Your Guitar May Suck

by vaughn skow August 03, 2014 4 min read

Les Paul The Log

Les Paul's "The Log" circa 1946

Hello my tone-addicted buddies!  As some of you know, I’ve been in development on my own pickups for about the last two years.  I’m not QUITE ready to announce anything of a terribly official nature yet … but soon!  So … I’ve been spending hundreds and hundreds of hours dissecting pickups.  Carefully measuring values, painfully unwinding coils, comparing the most minute of details, and I have come to an overwhelming conclusion: Most current production pickups SUCK.  Let’s talk about that.

I’m not quite sure just EXACTLY what’s happened … but in the last 50 years or so, pickup technology has gone from good to bad.  Now, I’m not always the smartest guy in any room, but isn’t that the wrong direction?  It’s a widely accepted fact that the pickups Leo Fender and Seth Lover were designing and producing in the 1950s-1960s are STILL the industries high-water mark, tone-wise.  That just doesn’t quite make sense, I mean, with all of our technological achievements and improvements, why don’t we make better sounding pickups NOW?  Okay, where guitars are concerned, I get it, it’s all about the wood, and nothing beats the no longer available tone woods of pre-1969.  But pickups, man that’s a TECHNOLOGY item, right?  Maybe.  Kinda.

The pioneers of electric guitar got it right; they FULLY understood the significance of the PICKUP in an electric guitar.  In electric guitar tone, the pickup accounts for about 70-90% of the actual amplified tone.  That’s HUGE!  Forget the subtle differences between woods or the material a nut or bridge are made from … the PICKUPS are where the bulk of your tone actually happens.  Shoot, to make his point, way back in about 1946 Les Paul made his famous “The Log”, an electric guitar with a body comprised only of a rough-cut leftover piece of 4x4 salvaged from a construction site.  His point:  the BODY doesn’t really matter much on a solid-body electric guitar … it’s all about the PICKUPS.

And so, as solid-body electrics were being developed in the late 1940s and through the 50s, MUCH attention was devoted to pickup design.  The result: simply amazing sounding guitars.  I have a set of 1959-1960 Gibson “PAF” humbuckers that are to this day the “holy-grail” tone that I compare all my humbucker designs to, same goes for my ’62 Strat for single coils.  That kind of hits me as a little crazy.  I mean, with all the “active” designs, stacked singles, neo-magnets … and the list goes on … why can’t we make pickups that sound better than they did in 1960?  Well, first off, that’s kinda like the idea folks had in the 70’s that solid-state amps should be superior to those antiquated vacuum tube designs … and we all know how that played out.  As it turns out, technology and TONE seem to be at odds with one another more often than we think.  Who out there can argue the fact that a hundred+ year old Steinway Grand sounds better than most anything being produced today, or that a 1940 Martin D-28 can’t be beat with a modern guitar … or, more to the point: that a ’62 Strat or ’59 Les Paul just plain can’t be bested by anything currently in production.

So … why?  I think it comes down to two things:

First: humans make art (ie music), machines don’t.  Sure modern CNC machines can achieve tolerances no human could ever boast, but that just plain doesn’t produce “art” … and electric guitar is most certainly art in its absolute truest and most basic form.  If you don’t believe me, just swing by my shop and watch me make a few pickups; you’ll soon be a believer.  Oh, and neither can a “non-artist” produce fine “art”.  The idea that a worker in some place with cheap labor can suddenly be transformed from someone who makes bra-straps to a guitar pickup builder is downright appalling.

And last: the materials.  Honestly, it just turns out that, like with my vacuum tube analogy, often what may be more “high-tech” just doesn’t sound good.  Take magnet material, the first permanent magnet speakers, as well as the first guitar pickups used a magnet referred to as AlNiCo for its composition of Aluminum, Nickel, and Cobalt.  By today’s standard, it’s considered a pretty archaic magnet composition … but it STILL produces the best TONE from a speaker or pickup. 

Lately I’ve been pulling and trashing a lot of the pickups put in the Fender “standard” Stratocasters (Made in Mexico) to replace with my works of art.  It’s absolutely appalling the utter trash pickups they are putting in these guitars that still carry the name of my personal hero, Leo Fender.  They may look like a Strat pickup from the outside, but they ain’t.  They are made on an all-plastic bobbin (wrong) with steel slugs for “pole pieces” instead of AlNiCo magnets, they are wound with the most inexpensive wire they can source, and then they stick a couple of the cheapest little bits of ceramic magnet material to the bottom of the pickup with a couple of spots of hot-melt glue.  I think I’m goanna throw up.

So, if you’ve got a Mexi-Fender, Squire, Epiphone, or the like be warned: the image you are about to see is graphic and grotesque.  Here is a pic of a Mexi-Strat’s stock pickups, as I found them when I removed the pickguard for an upgrade.  Look close, yep one of the ceramic magnets had actually came unglued from the neck pickup and fallen off.  Like I said, it’s grotesque.

Mexican Strat Pickups

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