Buying a Guitar with the Right Pickups
One of the great things about the booming replacement-pickup market is that if you love a guitar you already have but feel the pickups can be improved, you can usually find something new to do the trick. It’s a lot easier, however, if you acquire the guitar with at least the right types of pickups in it in the first place.
You are much more likely to be happy with a guitar in the long run, and therefore to keep it, if it arrives with pickups already installed that you’re entirely happy with.
Check out the following list as a rough matchmaker between pickup types and the genres of music at which they tend to excel:
Fender Stratocaster-style single-coil pickups: These masters of bright, clear, clean tones cut well through a band or a recorded mix when the other instruments aren’t too heavy. They have plenty of chime for pop and clean contemporary rock tones, with decent bite when you dig in harder.
Played with some mild distortion from a pedal or amp, they make bright, clear rock’n’roll pickups or are great for thicker blues tones in the neck position. Show them even more distortion, or a fuzz pedal, and they yield lively, bouncy lead tones a la Jimi Hendrix or Ritchie Blackmore.
Fender Telecaster-style single-coil pickups: Still somewhat bright and clear like a Strat pickup, a good Telecaster pickup (the bridge pickup in particular, which the Tele is best known for) generally sounds somewhat meatier and thicker and drives an amp a little harder when you dig in, even in relatively clean settings.
This is the classic hard-twang pickup, the sound of everyone from Don Rich with Buck Owens to Pete Anderson with Dwight Yoakam. Given more distortion, it becomes a great rock pickup that could almost be mistaken for a Les Paul: Think Jimmy Page’s “Stairway to Heaven” solo (played on a Telecaster), or almost any lead played by Bruce Springsteen.
Gibson P-90s single coils and their reproductions: Fat, biting, and with a slightly gritty, grainy edge, the P-90 is an extremely characteristic pickup. It’s great for rock and blues players who want a thicker, slightly darker tone than the thinner Fender-style single coils tend to provide, although it can still have luscious, shimmering highs through a clean amp.
Gibson PAF-style humbuckers and their reproductions: These seminal humbuckers have become the go-to for everything from classic-rock, to alternative-rock, to even heavier style for good reasons. The better examples have a rich, luscious tone in the right guitar, while exuding a singing, almost vocal-like quality when revved through some distortion.
They usually enhance a guitar’s sustain well and are great for intentional harmonic feedback sounds without excessive noise or squeal. On the other side of the coin, such humbuckers are the choice of many jazz guitarists for their depth and warmth, yet with enough clarity to give single-note runs and chords some clarifying attack.
Gretsch DynaSonics and Filter’Trons: The classic Gretsch single-coil and humbucking pickups both exhibit traits that have come to be labeled as “that great Gretsch sound,” including excellent clarity and note definition, yet with a certain depth and thickness that adds great body to the tone.
DynaSonics sound a little more raw, which segues into an excellent rock’n’roll tone with an amp just on the edge of distorting; Filter’Trons can sound somewhat more refined (and with less hum, of course) but also really sing and sustain well with some overdrive.
Hot single-coil and humbucking pickups: A vast number of manufacturers also offer hot renditions of the classic pickups, units that are made with ceramic magnets and/or extra turns of wire in the coil to produce a stronger electric signal that drives an amp harder.
If you’re into heavy rock of any form, explore some of these in your desired format. If you’re not into heavy rock, however, you may find that these pickups often don’t excel at clean or mildly crunchy tones the way more traditional designs do.