Pickup Selection : Hotter Isn't Always Better

Written by
Dave Hunter
Published on
January 21, 2021 1:36:54 PM PST January 21, 2021 1:36:54 PM PSTst, January 21, 2021 1:36:54 PM PST

The replacement-pickup market has boomed in the past two decades, and more guitarists than ever are swapping these components themselves in what can become a never-ending quest for that perfect tone. The thing is, if you aren’t forewarned of a few important points regarding pickup specifications and performance it’s easy to misinterpret what you’re trying to achieve, and to end up disappointed as a result. We see this occur with players who go around and around swapping one make and model of pickup for another, then another, and another still, before giving up in frustration because each misses the mark. But it’s easy to cut out a big part of this blind-alley-style chase by understanding one simple thing up front: when it comes to pickups, hotter does not always mean better.

It’s easy to get this one wrong because in many ways it seems counterintuitive, particularly when you tell yourself you want a “hotter” or more distorted tone, and figure a more powerful pickup should be the ticket. In many cases a little more oomph from a replacement pickup choice will do the trick, but it’s easy to succumb to the “the hotter the better” mythology, and more often than not that just leads to disappointment—usually in the form of a mushy, muddy, indistinct tone.

For Those About to Rock

Sure, hot pickups have their place in some styles of music, otherwise there wouldn’t be such a healthy market in high-gain classics such as DiMarzio’s Super Distortion line or Gibson’s Dirty Fingers humbucker, and Mojotone’s own Black Magic and DW Tomahawk humbuckers and Knockout Strat pickups—to name but a few—have made plenty of guitarists very happy. For pure nu-metal fury, thrash-chunk power chording, or eviscerating shred lead playing, a super-charged pickup often does the trick. Even so, it’s worth considering other ways of getting there—while retaining a more open, versatile, and dynamic guitar tone to boot—than by chasing the maxed-out resistance readings for whatever type of pickup fits your guitar. (For a discussion of resistance and power, see the sidebar Understanding Pickup Resistance Readings.)

Here’s the rub: while high-gain pickups give you heavy overdrive tones and largely nothing but, lower-gain pickups better translate the nuances of your attack, style, and dynamics, with firm lows, sweeter highs, and less aggressive midrange that is nevertheless punchy and tight. In short, they are more touch sensitive, and they’re better at expressing the full range of your playing style. They also overload the preamp stage of your amplifier, or effects, less than high-gain pickups, and thereby help to take a full, round guitar sound along to further stages of the amp’s circuit, where some players feel the more delectable tones are generated, rather than clipping early and leaving you with nothing but heat and grunge.

When you want heat and grunge from a lower-output pickup, just crank it up—you can still get there via your amp’s volume or gain controls, or a good booster or overdrive pedals. And when you do get there, you’ll retain the superior articulation, dynamics, and tonal sweetness that these pickups deliver.

It’s a Voltage Generator

Sometimes it helps to gain a little perspective on how a pickup functions by taking a look at what it really is: a voltage generator. When your strummed guitar strings disturb the magnetic field above and around the pickup, the coil generates a low-level AC signal which represents the frequencies of those particular notes. This AC voltage is presented to the first preamp tube in your amplifier, where it is ramped up and passed along to subsequent stages within the circuit until it hits the airwaves via the speaker. It makes sense, then, that the varying strengths of that low-voltage AC signal will interact differently with your amp’s first gain stage, and will play a big part in determining the dynamics, clarity, and distortion content passed along by that crucial first amplification stage.

Let’s look at it this again from the playing perspective: if you’re slamming your guitar signal right from the very source—the pickup—it’s difficult to achieve anything less, anything more nuanced, than that fully slammed result via the early preamp stages within your amplifier. And the “more nuanced” is where your subtleties of playing style lie, such as the ability to ease up on your pick attack to get a cleaner tone, then dig in hard to drive the amp; or to finesse pinched harmonics or subtle left-hand vibrato out of your strings. If, on the other hand, you retain clarity and articulation and a broad and musical frequency spectrum right from that source—a lower output pickup, in this case—you can still get all the heat and sizzle you need from gain stages further up the signal chain that do it better. With this approach, you haven’t already cut off a huge proportion of your expressive potential before hitting your amp’s input, and it’s still there to work for you when you dial back the gain.

There are countless examples of how non-over-wound pickups work great in the hands of legendary players who still rock plenty hard with them. Eric Clapton set the guitar world on fire via relatively low-output vintage PAF humbuckers in his Les Paul while recording the seminal Blues Breakers With Eric Clapton album with John Mayall and the Blues Breakers, and slammed his Marshalls even harder with Cream afterward, using similarly low-wind mid ’60s humbuckers in his ES-335 and SG. We don’t need to be reminded of what the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Richie Blackmore achieved using standard Fender Stratocaster pickups, and even Eddie Van Halen virtually reinvented rock guitar in the mid to late ’70s with a relatively low-output Gibson PAF humbucker cobbled into his Frankenstrat.

Fighting the Feedback

If your motivation to move toward more high-output, rock-intended pickups comes from the fact that you’re getting squealing, howling feedback (i.e. not the good kind) from your current pickups, you might need to shop for pickups of different specifications that aren’t necessarily hotter, but which possess other constructional qualities.

Vintage-style Fender single coils are only lightly potted (that is, dipped in paraffin), while vintage-style Gibson PAF humbuckers were not potted at all. Purists feel that the slight microphony and acoustic-like resonance that these un-potted or lightly-potted coils induce into the guitar tone is a big part of their vintage character, adding harmonic complexity and “edge”, yet that’s often what makes these pickups squeal when used with high-gain amps. If this sounds like a problem you’re having, look for pickups that are advertised as potted, or request that service from the pickup maker as part of a custom-build.

If you’re in love with a set of pickups that you already own but would like to fight the microphonic feedback, often these can be sent back to their maker for re-potting, or to a different pickup manufacturer or repair person for that service. With some pickups, such as humbuckers or gold-foil types that have thin metal covers over them, the vibration of the cover itself can cause this microphony (rather than anything happening within the coil). This can be combated by having a pickup maker or repairperson dampen the cover’s resonance by dripping in a little paraffin or hot wax before resealing the pickup.

These more heavily potted pickups can still be lower-output (a.k.a. “low-wind” or “vintage-wind”) types, and will still offer many of the benefits regarding dynamics, clarity, and bell-like clean tones that you’d hope to get from such units, while also combatting microphonic feedback howl at higher volumes or under high-gain situations. They might, arguably, loose a few of the vintage-certified sonic nuances that authentic un-potted or lightly potted types boast of, but often that’s a fair trade-off if a substantial proportion of your playing involves high-gain lead tones.

Understanding Pickup Resistance

Readings “Resistance” is the measurement of a coil’s opposition (or “resistance power”) to a DC current, and it is given in units called “Ohms” (the symbol Ω). The same measurement of an AC component is called “impedance”, and it is also recorded in Ohms. Most pickup makers publish any model of pickup’s resistance as a specification intended to give some indication of how “powerful” that pickup might be. This can be misleading, however, because this raw number tells you nothing about how any given pickup might sound, although it is some indication of how hard it will drive your amp, relative to other pickups of the same style, which are constructed the same and made from the same materials. And that’s important: without comparing like for like, resistance readings are often more misleading than useful. Resistance specifications are generally in the “thousands of ohms” range, and makers therefore tend to use the symbol “k” for the “thousands”, so you will see numbers like 6.2k ohms for a Stratocaster pickup, for example, or 8.5k ohms for a humbucker. Essentially, any pickup’s resistance measurement just tells you how big the coil is—that is, how much wire is wound around it—or how big the two coils combined in series are if it’s a humbucker. The trouble with using this as a set standard, however, is that different gauges of wire yield different resistance readings for the same given length. Thinner wire gives higher resistance readings, so you can be fooled into thinking such pickups are hotter. The most common pickups today such as Fender Stratocaster, Telecaster bridge pickups, and Gibson humbuckers and P-90s are all made with 42-gauge, but early Fender Broadcaster bridge pickups were made with 43-gauge wire, and might give resistance readings of 10k ohms, for example, even though they don’t present a stronger signal to the amplifier than a later Telecaster bridge pickup made with 42-gauge wire that reads 7.2k ohms (I’m speaking only in approximates here, but you get the idea). So, generalizing broadly about a wide range of pickups’ power, or so-called “output”, by using DC resistance as a yardstick can be misleading. A pickup’s resistance doesn’t measure anything being “put out” at all, but is a static measure of its coil at rest, taken with a specially designed meter, and simply reads the number of turns of X-gauge of wire that have been wrapped around the coil. More or less turns of wire in a coil of a specific design will yield a more or less powerful result, respectively, but comparing the resistance readings of a Strat pickup, a Tele pickup, a Gibson P-90, a full-size humbucker, and a Gretsch Filter’Tron will get you nowhere. Even if all read exactly 6.5k ohms they would sound very different, and even exhibit distinctly different so-called output levels, driving your amp to varying degrees.