Pickup Shootout

New pickups in your old guitar can provide you with almost any style of tone. If you choose carefully you can zero in on the exact sound you seek. Or, if you prefer, you can just randomly buy new pickups and surprise yourself with whatever tones result.

Where pickups are concerned there's simply too much of a good thing. You can now make any guitar sound almost like any other guitar. No matter what pickup is installed, you won't know if you like it until you actually use it for a while.

Don't expect a new pickup to immediately sound right with the same amplifier settings as you used before. Invest the time finding the new sounds available.

Our Favorite Pickups - This Time

Yamaha Pacifica 112. Test bed for new pickupsWe tested these seven pickups in a 1998 Yamaha Pacifica 112 using string sets: 10's and 11's

#1. DiMarzio Blues Trio, consisting of one Replica Gibson Humbucker (bridge position), one Strat Standard Replica, one HS2 Stacked Humbucker.

#2. Genuine Fender American Strat Standard w/ staggered pole pieces.

#3. Fender Japanese Strat (neck pos.).

#4. Fender Mexican Strat (middle pos.).

#5. Ibanez V-1 Humbucker (bridge pos.).

This group of pickups provided a few very nice trio options, and several combinations that didn't work well together.

While the DiMarzio Humbucker was the most powerful, it was a bit harsh played clean and a bit nasty sounding when overdriven. It also doesn't mix well with any of the other pickups (the "in between" position was always too treble and harsh).

The Ibanez V-1 humbucker worked nicely as a lead or rhythm tone source. When overdriven it offers smooth distortion with a willingness to rocket into double harmonics if you so desire.

For our middle position pickup, we've pretty much settled on the DiMarzio HS2 stacked humbucker. It offers a good single coil tone with no noise, and has more volume than any of the single coil pickups. It works well when coupled with the Ibanez hum or the Japanese Strat pickup.

The American Strat pickup did sound good in the middle position but it didn't combine well with the humbucker.

The Mexican Strat pickup would be our choice of middle pickup if it had enough macho for leads. It offers the most "quack" tone when coupled with either the bridge hum or the neck single coil. By itself the tone is jingly sounding---almost like a twelve string, good for rhythm, bad for solos.

The Japanese Strat pickup resides in the neck position. It is the only one of the group with the proper magnet spacing for the neck position (it would work in the middle also). This one offers the most volume of the single coil choices. It has a full, soulful and bluesy tone. Good for lead soloing.

The DiMarzio Strat replica may have a little more volume and attack than the American Strat pickup, but they sound similar. Both of these offer the true Strat tone, but are not so useful when combined with a humbucker or a stacked humbucker.

Pickup Shootout - More Info

The first time I played Bobby's '98 Yamaha Pacifica 112 (Strat style axe), it was loaded with the DiMarzio Blues Trio pickups for the hum/single/single configuration (dealer installed at purchase). The DiMarzio (Gibson) Replica humbucker dished out so much volume and low end that it was difficult to find any amp settings that sounded right when switching from one selector position to another. On it's own, the pickup offers just what you'd expect. Plenty of sustain and overdrive, with a tone that goes from nasty to nastier the higher you raise the volume. The big problem was that it wasn't a good match for the other two pickups. The Strat replica mounted in the middle slot didn't mix well with the hum, and had such a low output comparatively that it became useless on stage. The HS2 stacked humbucker living in the neck position seemed at first to be the right choice, but after a few gigs it became apparent that it should be moved to the middle in an effort to achieve some sort of volume balance between the bridge and middle pickup.

So now we have the DiMarzio Humbucker in the bridge hole and the DiMarzio Stacked Humbucker in the middle slot. We couldn't use the DiMarzio Strat Replica in the neck position because the pole pieces were spaced wide, for bridge or middle position. The two hums worked well together, and the five wire option on the stacked hummer allowed us to experiment with humbucking and single coil variations in combination with the full sized humbucker. With single (tapped) coil middle and bridge hum combined, the tone was nice and "quacky" but lacked sufficient volume to be useful. We tried to find a workable amp adjustment because the tones were nice, but to no avail. With the bridge and middle (humbucking mode) together, the volume was acceptable but the tone was way too ear piercing. Once again, if the amp was set right for the humbucker it sounded bad with the stacked hum. If the amp was set right for the stacked humbucker it sounded bad with the other.

It was at this point that we tried a different bridge pickup in hopes of finding some compatibility between the five pickup selector positions. In went the Ibanez V-1 humbucker. Suddenly we had a pair of nicely matched pickups for the bridge and middle slots. The Ibanez also offered coil tapping, and it worked equally well in coil tap or humbucker mode. We could now switch back and forth between the first three selector positions and really USE the available tones. We could achieve a neutral balance in volume or increase the volume of either pickup just by juggling the height differences. The Ibanez V-1 has a nice tone range for rhythm chops and provides a smooth overdriven tone that lends itself to a variety of lead solo playing styles. The DiMarzio humbucker, on the other hand, was good for lead soloing--period! The DiMarzio HS2 stacked hummer has a good single coil tone and, when combined with the V-1, supplies a convincing amount of quack and, happily, none of that single coil noise.

Now all that remained to do was find a neck position pickup that would compliment the other two. The Japanese Strat pickup was our only real option because it was the only one on hand with the correct pole piece spacing for the neck position. We did try an American Strat Standard pickup and the DiMarzio Strat Replica pickup in the neck position and, just as we expected, the high e and low e strings couldn't be heard due to their improper spacing relative to the magnets. In went the Japanese Strat pickup.

Past experience with a Japanese Strat left me with the impression that the pickups were the best part of this axe, and the neck pickup was the best of the three. Strong volume and rich tones were now singing out from our Yamaha Pacifica. All five pickup selector positions were usable, and the transition from one setting to another was natural and pleasant. All five positions can now be used for lead soloing or rhythm playing, and each position offers a fairly unique tone. The Japanese Strat pickup does introduce a bit of single coil noise into the back two selector positions, but the tone it produces is so good that the noise becomes tolerable (just an opinion).

We also had a Fender Mexican Strat pickup on hand and felt compelled to try it out. So we set out to compare the Mexican Strat pickup to the DiMarzio Strat Replica and the American Strat Standard pickups. These three would each spend a week in the middle position of our Yamaha axe. The Ibanez V-1 and Fender Japanese Strat pickup would provide the constants by which to compare. After removing the stacked humbucker in the middle hole, the DiMarzio single coil was the first to wail. It sounded just like it should, nice Strat tone that combined well with the neck single coil. But it was useless when combined with the Ibanez humbucker (it was even worse with the DiMarzio humbucker). Only four of the selector positions were usable. The same thing happened when we installed the Fender American Strat pickup in the middle. In our opinion the DiMarzio Replica and the American Strat Std. pickup are the same. Same tone, same volume and same compatibility. The DiMarzio may have just a hint more output and sharper highs, but they are so similar that we would just as soon have one as the other. Neither one combined well with the humbucker. Both sounded great by themselves.

The Mexican Strat pickup was the big surprise of the shootout. When combined with the V-1 humbucker (bridge) or the Japanese Strat (neck) pickups, our Yamaha axe became Mega Duck. We couldn't believe the quack level that was achieved. More quack at a higher volume than we'd ever heard from any Strat or Strat Clone. By itself, the pickup's tone was jingly, like a twelve string. Nice for rhythm parts but too undefined for solo work. Still, all five selector positions were usable, but we couldn't use the middle position for lead soloing. Considering the grooviness of the quack, the lack of a middle solo tone position would be easy to live with.

In the end we chose the DiMarzio stacked humbucker for our middle position pickup, but one day we will do something with that Mexican Strat pickup, it was just too cool to forget. The final judgement:
Bridge pickup-Ibanez V-1 Hum.
Middle pickup-DiMarzio HS2 Stacked Hum.
Neck pickup-Fender Japanese Strat.

Of course, the body woods, tone and volume pots, string gauge and other variables will all affect how these same pickups would sound in a different guitar. Our shootout is not intended to declare a winner, but to demonstrate some of the small details that can make the difference between tone happiness and noisy disappointment.

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Information on wiring, soldering and other technical aspects of guitar repair and maintenance.

GM Arts "Pickups"
Here's an excellent article about pickups by GM Arts, with wiring options and lots of good information.