Asher Guitars WD Music Products Amplified Parts Mod Kits DIY Nordstarnd Pickups
Asher Guitars WD Music Products Amplified Parts Mod Kits DIY Nordstarnd Pickups
Asher Guitars WD Music Products Amplified Parts Mod Kits DIY Nordstarnd Pickups

Do pickups really vary THAT much?

Discussion in 'Just Pickups' started by etype, Sep 6, 2018.

  1. etype

    etype Tele-Afflicted

    Sep 23, 2014
    I like a good PAF humbucker, but I have noticed that finding one might be tough. I have been reading various discussions found via Google searches. One thread extols the virtues of Gibson Classic 57s (and there is agreement that the 490R and 490T are terrible -- despite very similar specs). Then another poster elsewhere asks for a Seymour Duncan equivalent to a Classic 57 and the overwhelming response is that there are none... and it is a good thing as the Classic 57s are muddy and terrible! "You need a set of Seth Lover's", "No, WLHs > Seth Lovers" No, Pearly Gates > Seth Lovers." Elsewhere: "Shawbuckers are awesome" and then, "Shawbuckers suck." OMG. This is killing me!

    I have picked up guitars and thought the humbuckers were too muddy for me while others I like much more, so I get that there is a difference. But can sets of alnico 2, vintage wind, humbuckers really be THAT different?
    3-Chord-Genius likes this.
  2. -Hawk-

    -Hawk- Friend of Leo's Silver Supporter

    Oct 14, 2015
    IL, USA
    I like the 490’s. I must be suffering from a case of tone-deficiency!
    kuvash, Hudman_1, bftfender and 5 others like this.
  3. Bruxist

    Bruxist Friend of Leo's

    Oct 12, 2010
    Kentucky, USA
    IMHO, it is not the pickup. It is differences in the guitar it goes into, what amp it goes into, what effects are used, what ear it goes into, and -- most importantly -- how the player wants it to sound.
    kuvash, tfarny, DrBGood and 5 others like this.
  4. ukepicker

    ukepicker Tele-Afflicted

    Oct 15, 2013
    East Texas
    Good question. I've been wondering the same thing. I'll throw in my sad, uneducated opinion, since you asked. But I'm sure the experts will be along shortly.

    First of all, in my experience, what comes after the pickups (pots, caps, cable, amp, settings) maybe has a larger bearing on "tone".

    But it also seems to me that some pickups just sound better than others. Even of the same sort. And I'm inclined to believe that it has to do with the micro-differences in the winding and materials and other stuff that create "character".

    The guys who go on and on about which PAF is better are likely ones who have developed their hearing (or their biases ;)) to the point that they can tell the difference. They can detect with their ears (and their fingers, in a way) those micro-differences.
  5. D_W_PGH

    D_W_PGH Friend of Leo's

    Aug 28, 2018
    I never liked those, nor the ceramic pickups that gibson put in some les pauls. But it's a matter of preference, which is what people fail to state. Their "I don't like 490/498, there's no reason gibson should be making them" is anticipated to mean you should adopt that.

    I had a LP with the traditional gibson alnicos (before it was common to put 57s in anything less than reissue guitars, etc), and didn't like them that much. But they sure sounded like a les paul.

    Then, I got a dean hardtail, and the pickups were so clear (duncan distortions) compared to the gibson pickups that I thought they were great.....except that they couldn't really duplicate the les paul sound.

    And then duncan makes an "improved" telecaster type pickup, but when you listen to it compared to a vintage low output glassy sounding pickup, well, it's got too much output to imitate that, too.

    Bottom line being that you just have to have pickups for each case, there isn't one that will satisfy everyone.

    I love the shawbuckers. But if you're intending to get them to go from lightly wound vintage to duncan distorion, and find that they don't have enough punch for a metal zone pedal...well, a second guitar with invaders or something is better for that. Picking something in the middle to do both will probably lead to moderate dissatisfaction on all fronts.
    lineboat likes this.
  6. schmee

    schmee Friend of Leo's

    Jun 2, 2003
    My take is:
    "The right pickup and make a difference in a guitar you basically like the sound of.
    No pickup can make a guitar that doesn't sound good, sound good."

    "...and it is a good thing as the Classic 57s are muddy and terrible!"
    It may be your guitar, as I find the opposite regarding 57's ....too bright on the top end. But I suppose maybe they can be a bit muddy on the bottom end.. like almost all HB's to my ears. That's always my rub with HB's: bright top, muddy bottom. No way to balance it out. You turn the tone warmer to effect the top end and then the bottom goes muddy on you.
    etype likes this.
  7. ftbtx

    ftbtx Tele-Afflicted Silver Supporter

    I replaced the 490R and 490T on my LP with some BKP Black Dogs and rewired it and it completely changed the sound of the guitar. Not sure if that helps, but I like to type.
    Bruxist, titan uranus and Michael A. like this.
  8. Rayf_Brogan

    Rayf_Brogan Tele-Meister

    Dec 14, 2017
    I think the difference is so small that once you run through a pedal chain, amp, mic and get set in a mix that it's completely lost. Sure, there's good and "bad" sounding pickups, but just looking at the amount of PAF clones out there, there's no way anyone would tell the difference in a live, or event studio situation.

    I think with the advent of Youtube reviews, manufactures have cashed in by making pickups with minute differences and marketing them as the "true PAF sound". I'm sure you can hear slight differences when isolating a guitar, but to say one sounds definitively better than another is crazy. Especially considering most people are listening to this through ear buds or their crappy laptop speakers.

    I have 57 Classics on my LP. They sound great. If I had Burstbuckers, they would also sound great. The search for a great pickup sure is fun, but there's no way I take advice from someone on the internet that complains about a pickup sounding shrill or muddy because you know very well, they didn't bother to adjust the pickup height, or their playing through an amp eq'd for a completely different kind of guitar. Sorry for the run-on sentence.
    kuvash likes this.
  9. awasson

    awasson Friend of Leo's Gold Supporter

    Nov 18, 2010
    My two cents:

    If I have a guitar and something’s lacking in the sound it makes, I’ll adjust pickup heights, double check the pots and tone cap and play it for a while to see if I can get any satisfaction. Then I’ll see about swapping pickups.

    I do find changing pickups makes a fundamental change in the sound of an electric guitar.

    I have some spares that I can try out to see if I get close to the tonal wheelhouse I’m aiming for. Fortunately we’ve got so many options for pickups now it’s relatively inexpensive to upgrade to something really good, especially with all of the online discussions.

    One example where a pickups swap made all of the difference was on my 1981 Ibanez Artist AR100. It’s like a double cutaway Les Paul; mahogany body, set neck, carved maple top, 2 humbuckers, TOM bridge. It had the original Super 58 in the neck (uncovered) and a DiMarzio Super Distortion in the bridge. I just never really liked the sounds that came out of it. It was pretty good but too brittle sounding in the bridge and a little muffled in the neck. The in between position was not good for anything so I never used it. I swapped the pickups for a set of Donlis double cream AlNiCo 2 pickups and it made a world of difference. It’s now hands down the best humbucker guitar I’ve played. Good clean, fantastic dirty.
    CFFF likes this.
  10. KelvinS1965

    KelvinS1965 Tele-Meister

    Apr 9, 2014
    Wokingham England
    I had exactly this recently. I wanted to put a neck humbucker in my Tele and read so many forums and got so confused. In the end I bought one of the cheaper (in U.K.) ‘known’ brands online so I could return if need be. It happens to be a Dimarzio 36th anniversary but I’m sure you can find people who wouldn’t like it, but it was brighter than the dull spare one I tried first and isn’t microphonic since it is wax potted. So I will be keeping it.

    I did find that changing my pots for 500k (from single coil spec 250k) and a 0.022uF tone cap (from 0.047uF) made quite a difference before I swapped the pick up. Also spending time adjusting the height also made subtle differences too.

    In one way I was lazy because I could have borrowed a Bareknuckle Mule out another guitar but that meant stripping two guitars. I think I prefer the ‘36th to the Mule but they are in totally different guitars anyway.
  11. telemnemonics

    telemnemonics Doctor of Teleocity

    Mar 2, 2010
    First you/ we need to define "vary THAT much"!

    To my ear lots of basically same spec Tele bridge pickups either sound acceptable or unacceptable, so "THAT much" is too much for me.

    But mixed in a recording they might sound exactly the same to most casual listeners.

    For me it has as much to do with what I have to do to get my target sound; as it does with the sound of the pickup.
    I play Esquires and have to be careful how I pick and mute the high E string.
    The particular pickup can make it hard to play or not-so-hard to play.

    The guitar influence on the sound is certainly a factor, but I swap pickups in and out of different guitars so much that I can tell the difference between the pickup and the guitar.

    Matching a more strident pickup with a more mellow toned guitar solves much of the target challenges.

    But there are other pickup sound qualities that IME can't be changed by a different guitar, particularly a nasal sound or just plain thin harsh tone.

    Humbuckers are not as familiar to me, but I tend to like underwound clear ones.
    Seems like most PAF clones are wound hotter than originals, maybe because since the late '50s when the originals appeared through the late '60s when the PAF/ LP finally caught on big, guitar amps have had lots of treble added, seemingly in response to rock moving from clubs to arenas.

    Much of our favorite classic PAF recordings were made with brighter pickups through darker amps.
    Maybe brighter amps of today sound better to the modern consumer of classic tone if the pickups are darker and hotter than originals?
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2018
    Sollipsist and awasson like this.
  12. radiocaster

    radiocaster Friend of Leo's

    Aug 18, 2015
    I found the same pickups to sound great in one guitar and not very good in another. I mean not the same model pickups, the same pickups.
  13. Bruxist

    Bruxist Friend of Leo's

    Oct 12, 2010
    Kentucky, USA
    Same here!
  14. screamin eagle

    screamin eagle Poster Extraordinaire

    Oct 9, 2008
    S. CA
    Yes they can sound that different. And so can a lot of the other variables.
    Paul Jenkin likes this.
  15. etype

    etype Tele-Afflicted

    Sep 23, 2014
    When I said "vary THAT much?" it was relative to discussion board comments. It was hard to imagine how one poster could think Classic 57s are awesome and 490s are muddy when another poster claims exactly the opposite. It makes sense that the issue is that these guys are not holding all the other variables constant. But sometimes the posters seem as experienced and knowledgeable as guys at TDPRI, so you'd think they would know better than to make blanket statements.
  16. lineboat

    lineboat Friend of Leo's

    Aug 6, 2012
    I think each pickup has its place. It’s another part of the tool that completes its function. You have to decide which way you want to work with it. I have Seth Lovers in one guitar, a JB/59 set in another. My ears pick the tool for the job. No one can tell you which tool you need, and to me, that’s part of the fun. Testing them out and finding what I like best!
    Bruxist likes this.
  17. JL_LI

    JL_LI Tele-Afflicted

    May 20, 2017
    Long Island, NY
    +1 I like the 490's in my SG played into my Mesa Boogie Express 5:25. I use the pickups almost exclusively blended with the volume set between 4 and 6 and the tone for the neck pickup 8 or 10. I roll off treble from the bridge pickup. I play mostly country, mostly finger style. The reason you can't get agreement about pickups is that everyone offering an opinion plays a different kind of music and has the pickups in a different guitar played into a different amp. Pedals only complicate things from there. You can only trust your own ears. You can't hear an opinion. That said, certain generalizations can be useful. You probably won't like overwound pickups into a tube amp if you want your cleans clear as a bell and you'll have to rely on pedals if you want to use 490's for metal. Beyond that, like I said, you can't hear an opinion.
    musicalmartin likes this.
  18. bcorig

    bcorig Tele-Holic Silver Supporter

    Mar 11, 2018
    Chino Hills CA
  19. Mincer

    Mincer Tele-Meister

    Dec 19, 2017
    Tampa Bay Area
    Every detail in a pickup's construction makes a difference in a sound. Some rigs this is less apparent, and some styles it is less apparent. But there are many styles where it is really really important.
    mabley123 likes this.
  20. jvin248

    jvin248 Poster Extraordinaire

    Apr 18, 2014
    Near Detroit, MI

    I used to swap pickups until I learned how much effect the pots and caps have on the pickup output. So I now swap $20 in parts instead of $200.

    Some interesting bits you'll uncover while you look into 'variation'....

    Pots have a +/- 10% acceptable factory specification tolerance which means a potential 20% variation range from Max to min. If the thickness of a guitar body varied by that much buyers would scream -- or if fret sprout was that much you'd have no fingers left after test driving.

    Caps have a +/- 5% acceptable factory spec

    So in theory two guitars with a simple volume-tone-cap controls could have "identical" marked parts that are inspec but give 20%+20%+10% = 50% different functional output.

    Maybe that matters for tone?.... Nah! Gotta be the wood.

    Notice how no pickups are sold with a tolerance spec on them. Some pickup factories make enough units to generate solid statistics-based tolerances and assure buyers of maintaining nominal +/- a range but I think that range is scary large. So large that people can easily hear the difference between two pickups in the same guitar with the same pots and caps.

    It may be illuminating if someone can get 30 random pickup samples spread across multiple production runs (so wires, magnets, and bobbin parts have a chance to see all their respective variations across batches) and measure them up like Antiqua has been doing on individual pickups. We all might learn something useful.

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