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Are we overthinking pickups a bit much?

Discussion in 'Just Pickups' started by [J.K.], Mar 22, 2013.

  1. [J.K.]

    [J.K.] Tele-Meister

    Jun 27, 2011
    Okay, so bear with me a minute here...
    I realize there are a lot of different pickups out there with even more variables on each, but is there a bit too much mysticism out there about the nuances of tone from pickups? I have a friend who is swapping PAF clones out weekly it seems, but from what I can tell, they're all AlNiCo II variants with the same AWG and, presumably, similar windings. Of course, he has a host of adjectives for each new set, but I'm starting to become a bit skeptical. He's tried recording them each, but mic placement alone (to me) makes as strong of an impact, along with general amps settings etc... and in the end it always sounds like a Les Paul through a Marshall to me, with shades of grey between.

    Where does all the tone chasing from pickups come from, and why isn't there as much of a fervor over something like speakers, which have an arguably more measurable impact on tone?

    Not trying to start a war here, but I'm curious why we often tend to gravitate towards pickups when it comes to adjusting our tone over other things...
  2. Willie D

    Willie D Friend of Leo's

    Nov 19, 2004
    Seattle, WA
    Yes. Yes, we are.

    And this is a place for overthinking every element of guitar tone. That's why we come here. It helps us to know that others appreciate our obsession with extremely subtle nuances.
  3. Bulldog87

    Bulldog87 Tele-Afflicted

    Jul 2, 2008
    Louisiana, USA
    Forget pickups. Thats all voodoo. I still think Paint color is the most important aspect to a guitar. Oh, and the strap. :)
  4. supernewt

    supernewt Tele-Meister

    Feb 16, 2009
    Raleigh NC
    Where you pick the strings--close to the bridge or up the neck--has a huge impact.
  5. steve440

    steve440 Tele-Meister

    Mar 8, 2009
    Toulouse, France
    I'm with you on this one. I went through a bit of a pickup thing a few years ago. Ended up with some nice stuff, Lollars, van zandt, suhr etc. Thing is, I just bung em in, think to myself, well they're good quality and they do the job. To me, and this is only my opinion, the difference in two similar pickups from two good winders can be achieved by the tweak of a knob on your amp.

    Also the whole pickup swapping procedure is a faff. It takes too long and it's really hard to a/b them. By the time I've got one out, had a cup of tea, smoked a cigarette been asked to do some mundane stuff by the wife and put the kids to bed. I've forgotten what the old one sounded like in detail before I've even started putting the new one in.

    Just the way i see it, ymmv. No offence to the guys that are really into this side of things;) But i just don't have the patience, time or the money to chase subtleties that small.

  6. telepath

    telepath Friend of Leo's

    Jun 26, 2009
    Wales, UK
    Sometimes I honestly think we all ought to consider taking a year out woodshedding with an esquire type / one bridge pup - partscaster wired for simple for vol and tone, with a run-of-the-mill .. I dunno - GFS pup in it.
    We'd all come back more skilful players.

    But , to be fair, this forum is not about that. Otherwise - what's to talk about?!
    It's just fine as it is.
    If any of us step over the line re 'esoterics' , generally someone will politely point it out ;)
  7. gtrguru

    gtrguru Friend of Leo's

    Apr 29, 2011
    Detroit Metro
    I didn't like the sound of the stock pups that came in my Mexi Tele or Strat and swapped them out for high output and 50s style pups respectfully. No plans to chase the dragon any more. Sure it would be nice to have custom winds by Lollar and the like, but I would rather place my money in amps, speakers and pedals. Just my preference.
  8. YoGeorge

    YoGeorge Tele-Afflicted

    Mar 16, 2003
    Absolutely. In the glory days of the 50's and 60's, people bought a guitar and just played it.

    Nowadays, it might be worth changing out pickups in a lower end guitar (like a MIM tele) to something with vintage construction (like AVRI, Nocasters) or go a bit hotter if you like. And then just put your effort into woodshedding and setting up your amp knobs. There is nobody in any audience that will hear the subtleties that we discuss and hear in isolation when comparing pickups.

    I am saying this as a guy who owns 6 teles, most with pickup swaps, and a couple which have been thru 5 different sets of pickups. In recent years, I am much calmer about changing stuff out and rarely do it.

  9. adjason

    adjason Poster Extraordinaire Silver Supporter

    Jan 9, 2010
    Well most of them sound a bit different to me but most of them also sound good
  10. R. Stratenstein

    R. Stratenstein Doctor of Teleocity Ad Free Member

    Aug 3, 2010
    Loganville, Ga.
    This ^^,'

    And don't forget that you have to leave a spot on the back, just under the neck without paint, so the wood can breathe.
  11. thinling

    thinling Tele-Meister

    Mar 3, 2012
    New York
    Probably all the after-market pickups sound good. Some mid-price or cheaper guitars come with pretty lifeless sounding pickups because they were made very cheaply, to keep down the guitars cost.
    Upgrading to a better pickup makes sense... but I'm a bit perturbed to realize I'm hoping to buy some pickups that will cost more than the new guitar I'll put them in! But those cheap guitars are well made now. Back in the day I bought a cheap guitar to set up as a slide, and when I raised the bridge and restrung with heavier strings the bridge posts just crumbled - they were made of clay and plated!
  12. Dan R

    Dan R Poster Extraordinaire

    Mar 17, 2003
    Charleston, SC
    Are we overthinking pickups a bit much?


    However it is good to have choices. There are different "flavors" out there. I've tried and/or used DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan and Bill Lawrence models. All were good and different. Many other great manufacturers out there. It's all about having the choice to find what suits you best. Just don't drive yourself crazy over it.

    Dan R
  13. soulman969

    soulman969 Telefied Ad Free Member

    Mar 20, 2011
    Englewood, CO
    I'm not sure how you define "over thinking". I have a certain preference as far as the tonal characteristics of my guitars are concerned. The pickups are the voice of the guitar and I know what type of voicing I prefer so those are the type of pickups I use.

    Since I've researched them ahead of time I know what to expect and I'm not disappointed. It seems to me that chasing tone through various pickups only says I should have done more research to begin with in order to eliminate what I don't like.

    The speaker in an amp is somewhat equivalent in that it's the voice of the amp and I think the process is somewhat the same. By doing the research ahead of time you can usually come up with a good combination that fits both the amp and you're playing style.

    Then again some people just like to tinker and explore so that's the way they do it pickup set by pickup set or speaker by speaker. It may be an expensive hobby but it probably beats betting the ponies.:D
  14. russpurdy

    russpurdy Tele-Holic

    Feb 11, 2007
    I just read in an interview that celebrated Nashville guitar genius Guthrie Trapp ended up sticking a set of mim standard tele pickups in his main guitar. Kinda makes you think...
  15. bblumentritt

    bblumentritt Tele-Afflicted Platinum Supporter

    Dec 3, 2012
    Austin, Texas
    Leo had a couple of housewives hand wind his simple pickups using old sewing machine motor driving a wheel with a rubber band. Those pickups sounded pretty good.

    Now, you can by 24 different Tele pickups from the same vendor... and they do sound different.

    The better you play, the better you will sound.
  16. Guitarist4u36

    Guitarist4u36 TDPRI Member

    Mar 27, 2008
    Branson, Mo
    I think it all boils down to "the chase".
    We've all done it and are guilty of it and honestly, there's nothing wrong with it. But after 30 years of playing professionally and thousands (yes I said thousands) of shows later, I'm slowly learning that you finally have to "stop the madness" so to speak and play your instrument. Easier said than done though...I'm a member of "TCA" or "tone-chasers anonymous"....along with many other "chasing" groups...LOL. :D
    We try hundreds of cables...from $20 to $500 bucks, some claiming they can tell a major difference in their tone, we change out bridges, nuts, pickups, strings, tweak here, tweak there, different amps, tubes, speakers, rosewood, ebony and maple fretboards, body woods, hollow, chambered bodies, different thickness and radius necks...not to mention different boutique builders of copies of amps and guitars that we've been playing for 60 years.
    I say all of this to say again...THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS!! BUT: while I agree that there is a big necessity in quality along with the luxury of having personal preferences, you can easily get caught up in the chase to the point that you are never really content for fear that there might be something "better" out there. But there never really is a "be all-end all" when it comes to this matter because well...we forget two small details in this equation...nature and reality.
    Unless the only place you ever play is in a capsule somewhere, where there's perfect acoustics and temperature, humidity, air pressure, human conditions and ALL other conditions never change, strings and tubes never die, amp knobs never get bumped (you get the picture) then you really don't have a way to do a perfect comparison.
    Granted, we all know that what I'm saying here is way too extreme....and yes we can tell differences in instruments, amps, effects and such, but when you take your guitar, effects (that you've tweaked on for months) and amp that sounds great in the rehearsal room out to a club, outside at a fair when it's 100 degrees, outside at a private party that happens to be booked on an unusual cold day in August, a stadium with the acoustics bouncing all over the place, the crowd noise, the BAND noise, etc., then you have to find a certain place to be honest with it all. Necks and bodies change with temperature, your hearing changes in different settings, air pressure makes sound waves travel different. With all these variables in place, can we honestly know for sure if "my new $200 guitar cable sounds slightly brighter than my old one"? Or I can tell my 9 volt battery is at a certain percentage of charge? I'm still guilty...I admit, but I'm slowly trying to free myself of this never ending chase that usually accomplishes nothing but draining my wallet. I'm trying to enjoy making the music more than enjoying the details of how I make it.
    Peace and love!! ;)
  17. Telenator

    Telenator Doctor of Teleocity Vendor Member

    Sep 19, 2005
    I feel that pickups are a bit over-thought because they are not thought of in a specific enough context to begin with.

    People often go "tone chasing" by swapping out pickup sets and hoping that the next set will give them the tone they've been looking for.

    I take a very different approach to this whole mess.

    When I build, or play a guitar, I listen to it. I play it and listen to what it's tonal tendencies are. I feel that every guitar has it's ultimate sound before any pickup is even added. (no, acoustic resonance means nothing) My job is to best match the pickups to that guitar's natural tendencies. To find a set that is harmonious with the wood and hardware that make up any given guitar.

    In my opinion, taking this approach will give me the best possible sound that guitar is capable of. It may not be the sound I most wanted, but it will be the best (in my opinion) that the guitar can deliver.

    In short, it's important to know what you're after before you begin to shop for pickups. Decide right up front if you're after a particular sound, and then decide if your guitar will be able to produce that based on what you hear with the pickups that already in there.

    Or, decide that based on what you hear when you play your guitar, it will sound the best it can by installing a set of pickups that is brighter, or darker, or more focused, or woolier, etc.
  18. AJBaker

    AJBaker Friend of Leo's

    Oct 3, 2010
    What I've actually come to discover, is that it isn't so much the sound of the pickups that counts, but how they balance with other pickups in the same guitar. My strat with CS69 pickups (all three about 5.5k) sounds great, but the bridge pickup was so quiet compared to the other two, that it was hardly useable. I didn't need a better bridge pickup, just a louder one.

    On my tele, I had a set of boutique pickups, and each pickup sounded great on its own, but it was impossible to find amp settings that could work for both pickups. Either the bridge was too bright or the neck was too dull. The set wasn't good because to me they didn't balance.
  19. Rob DiStefano

    Rob DiStefano Doctor of Teleocity Vendor Member

    Mar 3, 2003
    NJ via TX
    most of the stuff written by the manufacturers and vendors about their pickup offerings is pure hype bullsh!te.

    you would be totally amazed at the materials cost of most any single coil pup, particularly those sold by manufacturers who buy the stuff in box car volumes and sell a single coil for three figures.

    in bidness terms, which matters most in this society, more money is spent on marketing hype that the worth of most products.

    any pickup can be made to render decent tones. really. think about that a bit.

    it's the anal gearhead over-obsessive player that needs adjusting most of the time.

  20. StoogeSurfer

    StoogeSurfer Tele-Afflicted

    Jan 26, 2011
    Pickups can make a huge difference. Can you make a cheap ceramic sound as good as a vintage alnico? Um, no.

    But if you're chasing nuances between alnicos, you've probably got the sickness.

    It took me about three tries, but I swapped out the stock pickups in my toploader Tele recently and got lucky and nailed what I was after, and I really don't see every taking them out of that guitar now.

    That said, what people are plugged into after their guitar makes a big difference in the way they perceive a pickup's sound, so I've fairly well learned to not trust those opinions in favor of the more generalized descriptions the makers tend to provide.
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