Sunday, May 2, 2010

Guitar Geek Blog - Pickups!

Want to make a small change that will make a BIG difference in your tone? Before you buy another pedal or a more expensive guitar, change your pickups! One of the most important break thrus I have ever had in the quest for the “perfect tone,” was when I replaced my Gibson Custom Shop pickups w/ Amalfitano PAF’s. Just like a microphone can effect how your voice will sound, pickups play a HUGE role in how your guitar sounds. Sadly most factory pickups, Gibson included, aren’t that great!

Somewhere in the past 20 years, guitar players decided that a “hotter” pickup was the way to go. The idea was that the “hotter” the pickup was the more your guitar would cut thru and that it would be louder, brighter, have more gain, and would be more driven. So guitar manufacturers started putting some version of an alnico 5 magnet (a stronger magnet than the alnico 2 which was used in the 50’s and 60’s) in all their guitars. While a hotter pickup will have a louder output, you actual lose a lot tonally and in terms of control.

The more wire wound on a coil, the "hotter" a pickup will be. This means it will have more output than traditional pickups, a little more midrange, but it will have a lot less treble and you lose a lot of definition in your sound. Think about it, the louder your pickup is the more your amp drives and the more you lose in terms of sound and control, you lose definition, high-end, your notes mush together, you also lose a lot of sweet overtones, and lower your ability to crisply slice through a mix. That is not to say that a hot pickup won't cut through a mix well, it's just that a weaker pickup, even though it is weaker, will be brighter and have a more knifelike quality.

Have you ever wondered why older vintage pickups tend to sound special and why they are preferred by many professional guitar players? That's because they were all hand made and used a weaker alnico 2 magnet! A weaker underwound pickup will have a more shimmering rhythm quality, a clearer note response, more complex overtones, and leads will cut thru a mix much better. It may sound bright and thin to those who like a lot of gain and a fatter sounding pickup (i.e. if you like mesa boogies), but if that’s what your going for, this blog isn’t for you.

Vintage pickups were also scatter-wound. Scatterwinding is the process of guiding fine copper wire by hand in a random or scattered pattern around a bobbin that is spun by a machine. True scatterwinding can only be done by hand and requires a degree of skill to get the required tension along with consistent results. When a coil is scatterwound, the wire isn't as close or even, layer on layer, as with a machine and this lowers the distributed capacitance that exists between the turns of the wire. Lower capacitance allows more top end through, the resonant peak increases slightly, and the pickup has a flatter frequency response across its range. The result is a clearer, more open sound that has the impression of being louder purely by the amount of extra detail and dynamics present. The layering by hand of the fine magnetic wire in a non-uniform pattern disperses the sterile sounding attributes inherent to machine made pickups. Pickups that are hand assembled will always sound better than mass produced, automated machine made pickups.

When I got my Les Paul custom I was pretty happy with it, it looked and felt great. I also had a Sheraton that I had re-wired with Gibson Burst-buckers. The Burst Buckers were hotter and had more gain than the custom pickups in my les paul, but sounded somewhat similar. A friend approached me about putting some Amalfitano PAF’s in my Les Paul, and I was pretty hesitant at first, after all Gibson Custom Shop pickups are the best Gibson pickups you could buy, and I had spent a good chunk of change on the Burstbuckers and were pretty happy with them as well. But I figured I would give the Amalfitano’s a whirl and see what happened.

When I got my guitar back the difference was HUGE. It was like someone literally removed a blanket from my guitar! It was brighter, chimier, was harmonically richer, and wasn’t near as fuzzy or bassy. Before with the old pickups when I would strum a chord I had a hard time distinguishing individual strings and notes within that chord, now I could hear every string and every note in the chord. I also gained a lot more control over my sound. The amp had more clean head room and I had my ability to control the sound really increased. I could drive the amp to make it break up like it used to, but I could also back it off more, which I couldn’t do before. The biggest thing I noticed was that they also cut through the mix much better! I couldn’t believe that I had a top of the line Gibson and it could still have this much room to improve. Putting new pickups in it, was literally like getting a new guitar. Compared to the Burst Buckers there was no comparison. The Burstbuckers sounded gainy, fuzzy, and the midrange was much harsher than the Amalfitano’s.

At the end of the day I will never go back. I have had Gibson burstbuckers, Gibson custom shop pickups, epiphone pickups, and played in the studio w/ tons of other Gibson guitars, and also a LP loaded w/ Seymore Duncan custom customs. Nothing comes even close to the Amalfitano hand-wound Paf’s. One of the best $300 you will ever spend.

You can order them here:

***warning his website kinda sucks….but the pickups are worth it!

1 comment:

Hannah Banana said...

Hey Jamey I'm a guitar geek! I loved this blog! :D Good stuff! I'm looking at Les Paul's myself! I'm playing acoustic alot, and I am considering buying an electric to try it out, 'cause I really have a hunger for the music industry! Anyhow, this post was really awesome to me! It's not every day I read such awesome things like this! No one else will ever talk to me about it! :) Thanks again!