Ken Parker, guitar builder extraordinaire and inventor of the absolutely revolutionary “Parker Fly” guitars, once said: “If aliens from another world gave us a box that could cure all the worlds’ disease, what would we do with it? Use it? Or take it apart to see how it works?”

If the electric guitarist is a fair representation of mankind (maybe not the best group to choose, we are a “questionable” bunch), we’d have done the latter. The electric player enjoys such a large aftermarket of parts today that a guitar can be made from soup to nuts with replacement parts. Once upon a time if you had a guitar with a dead pickup, you were out of luck (at least for a while). Techs saved every part from any basket case guitar (they still do, but not out of raw necessity anymore).

Aftermarket replacements and “player’s choice” oriented replacement pickups become readily available in late 70s. They were a breath of fresh air and before long become a tornado of choices, options, debates, and the modern obsession that is today’s electric guitarist’s pursuit of tone. It’s true that all parts make the whole; nearly every part of the guitar contributes to its tone.

A good or badly done fret job can change the way a guitar sounds, not just how it feels. The pickups are probably one of the single most important contributing factors of a guitars tone. So, what do we do?

Leave it be, or take it apart, like Ken Parker said?

If you are handy with a soldering iron, can read a schematic, or just a born DIY’er, you can install and exchange pickups easily on most models. If you are not so inclined, any decent tech can do it for you at a reasonable price. Let’s begin with some common model guitars, and favorite replacement pickups.

What do you want from your Strat? One commonly desired modification is to “turn up the heat”.

Fender Custom Texas Special Set

Ironically, this set of aftermarket pickups are made by Fender, the same folks that brought us the Strat.

While they will work (and most likely be a “drop in” replacement) in most single coil guitars, many Fender players replace there OEM pickups in favor of this set of Fender pickups. The Texas Specials come as a complete set of three single coils. They’re manufactured like vintage 60s Strat pickups that spent a little too long on the winder. Extra wire wraps around the coil means extra output, extra output pushes the amp harder, which in turn produces a more aggressive tone. If some extra heat and attitude is what you are after, this set has it! Manufactured to emulate the sound of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s tone, this nearly universally loved replacement set has enough bite to put a fire on your tone, but not so much that it burns down. Working with the guitars volume control gives an added dimension: turn up the volume to turn up the heat or roll the volume down and your guitar will clean up nicely. It’s a very touch sensitive and expressive pickup set for those that like it hot, but not molten.

 

What else might you want from your stock Strat?

Another common desire is to remove the noise (a.k.a. 60 cycle hum) that is inherent to every single traditional single coil pickup.

Fender Hot Noiseless Strat Pickup Set

As the name implies, they are hotter (more output) than the standard Strat pickup, and…Noiseless. That’s right, quiet as a church mouse. No 60 cycle single coil hum. Unlike the double coil “Humbucker” (I bet you can now guess where that name comes from), they retain the tone of a single coil. Like the Texas specials, this replacement pickup set is also from Fender. Designed by Fender at the request (and with input from living legend Jeff Beck), for the player that wants a hotter, fatter, grittier Strat tone, even beyond a Texas special, but with none of the unwanted (although traditional) buzzing. The Pickup has two coils (like a humbucker) with one providing the single coil tone and the other “dummy” coil cancelling the hum. The end result is a higher horsepower, amp pushing, big “Strat” sound that is silent until you tell it otherwise.

 

What do you wish was different about your humbucking pickups?

Like the Strat, many are satisfied with the stock pickups. On the other hand, others will always want a new or different sound. Many Les Paul or humbucking pickup-equipped guitar lovers want the elusive late 50’s PAF tone, while others will seek even more power and sonic explosiveness that a vintage humbucker may not offer.

For when “more” is only a good start:

Bare Knuckle “Warpig” Humbucker Set

Though these guys have been around nearly 20 years, they have started to gain extreme popularity in the last 4 or 5 years. Bare Knuckle Pickups offer something for every taste imaginable: Vintage, contemporary and extreme tastes are all represented. The Warpig humbucker set is on the extreme side.

To say “hot” is underestimating this extremely high output monstrous pair.  Roughly 2.5 times as powerful as the venerable 1950’s Gibson humbucker, and  4x’s hotter than a vintage Fender single coil, it might be best to use welder’s gloves when handling these beasts. Bottom heavy tone with most of its power in the lower register, this is a great choice for power chords, and still has enough midrange and highs to cut right through the mix on upper register work and soloing. Lowering the volume on the guitars volume pot tames this beast enough to play any type of music, but capable of providing definition, even with more distortion than you’ve ever dared to use.

 

For when ‘Les’ is more…

There is no pickup more mythical, sought after, or valuable than a genuine 1950s Gibson humbucking Patent Applied For (PAF). Gibson’s Seth Lover was charged to make a hum-canceling pickup by then CEO Ted McCarty. The rest, as they say, is history. Vintage Les Paul tone seekers have many reproductions to choose from but what’s the best and closeset? You decide. There is no debate this one is a top contender:

Seymour Duncan Seth Lover Signature Set

Hot compared to non-humbuckers, like a Strat or Tele pickup, but not molten hot by today’s standards.

The Seth Lover signature is as close as one might get to a Vintage 50’s pickup as possible. This is the opinion of Mr. Lover himself, who worked with Seymour Duncan personally re-designing his original creation. The plastics come from the same source as the originals and the wire is to exact specs, as well as wound on the very same machine that wound the originals back in Gibson’s Kalamazoo factory by Seth Lover so many years ago. Each set is balanced for a slightly hotter bridge pickup than its neck position companion. Correct materials, craftsmanship and know-how are built in, down to the maple spacers, exact dimensions, and nickel covers.

The tone is pure vintage.  Powerful but not overbearing: a strong, tight low end, full midrange, and that unmistakable sweet and pronounced high end. Complex overtones and tonal feedback come when the amp is set just right. Remember, if it don’t squeal, it ain’t real!

 

You can find these and more pickups at SamAsh.com!

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Mike Rock
A fixture in the Rock and Roll guitar community since 1978, Mike Rock is the “Go-To” source for Sam Ash's most intricate questions involving Guitars and related gear. A collector whose true passion is playing, Mike has performed over 2,500 gigs around the world. Mike began his musical journey studying the trumpet. While buying sheet music for a recital, Mike first heard an electric guitar through a fuzz box. Forty years later, he still maintains that the fuzz WAS germanium based (he is a bit crazy). This encounter drove Mike to his first guitar and a tube amp. Soon his guitar was heavily modified and the amp was on its 3rd replacement speaker. Mike was hunting for tone and blowing guitar speakers before there was a “boutique” or “vintage” market. It wasn’t long before Mike was buying, and validating vintage guitars and gear for some of the biggest companies in the world, finally finding a home assisting mentor and friend Sammy Ash, at the place where he heard that first Fuzz Guitar, so many years ago. Mike still performs regularly and recognizes the history and beauty of vintage and modern gear. Mike is aware not everyone is a collector and most players need a set up that works for the sound they chase, regardless of its pedigree, or vintage or status.