Through watching countless local and major acts, I’ve come to notice that many players don’t realize the importance a guitars pickup arsenal can make in the over all tone. As the first line of tone shaping, they ultimately control the frequencies and levels your amp has to work with. Many are quick to blame an amp or a speaker cabinet for muddy lows or shrieking highs in their sound. But it’s important to remember that it is only amplifying (hence the name amplifier) or cutting the frequencies provided to it.
For a long time, I never understood the need for aftermarket pickups, or paying extra for a guitar with pickup upgrades until meeting Tim Mahoney of 311. As a big fan of the band in my teenage years, I always wondered how he had such a variety of tones from a single rig and guitar each night. Upon asking, I expected to hear about various pedals, boutique heads or a monster rack setup. Surprisingly, he said it was the Seymour Duncan JB and Jazz pickup combo he was using in his Paul Reed Smith Custom 24. The clear string definition, carefully planned EQ, and generally fuller sound were essential to each of the sounds. Thus allowing his Budda combo amp to sparkle with cleans, and the Mesa Dual Rectifier to really attack at high gain settings while retaining clarity the entire time. At the time, it was truly the Guitar Hero tone to me.
Through personal experimentation and the advice of the great members of the Seymour Duncan User Group, I’ve tried many of the aftermarket humbucker pickups they offer. As an avid hard rock guitarist, I’ve also learned how no pickup sounds the same in 2 different guitars (as I’ll discuss later in the ‘Woods’ section) because of the characteristics of the wood. However, most of what makes them great will be consistent.
As the standard hard rock humbucker guitar pickups for my rig go, the Seymour Duncan SH-4 JB, SH-8 Invader and SH-5 Custom models fit my taste the best, and I’ve recommended them on countless occasions.
The JB works best in denser, brighter sounding guitars (Fender Stratocasters, Older Paul Reed Smith CE’s and most alder/basswood bodies) with rosewood fret boards because of the tighter bass response, strong mids, and medium to high output around 16.4k ohms DC resistance (how guitar pickup gain is usually measured). I tend to use these in guitars that didn’t have much of a clean presence right off the showroom floor. For the same types of guitars that naturally have a good resonance and clean tone, I’ll use the Invader to really bring out the dirtier side of the instrument. This guitar pickup comes paired with the Seymour Duncan SH-2 Jazz neck pickup in countless mid-priced and high end guitars, and the Seymour Duncan Hot Rodded pickup set.
The Seymour Duncan SH-8 Invader is quite the unique looking pickup. With large black-oxide caps, it’s appearance is different from the usual slug & screws we have become used to. Because of this setup, the Invader only comes in one size (no need for trembucker spacing), as the poles are wide enough to cover the tremolo or wider guitar pickup applications. The Seymour Duncan Invader is very bass heavy to make up for the lost low end in dense woods or to bring out the boom in darker sounding guitars, while still being manageable. But the mids from this pickup are the highlight in my opinion. They tend to be on the lower-midrange side and roll off the high-midrange area a bit. This keeps me from having to scoop the mids as drastically on the amp when songs call for it, but it will still cut through the mix with a strong presence. Having almost 17k ohms of DC resistance in the bridge model, this Seymour Duncan pickup really rocks any preamp stage, and brings out the full potential of any modern distortion channeled amp. All metal guitarists should have at least one Invader equipped guitar at their disposal, and many guitars aimed at the genre now come with them standard like the new Synyster Gates Custom Schecter.
For most of my general use and live guitars, I’ll use the Seymour Duncan SH-5 Custom because it’s a great mix of the 2 listed above, and it’s got the best response from the 3 Seymour Duncan guitar pickups in my opinion. Although it doesn’t have quite the gain the Invader or JB can produce (only 14.1k ohms) the distortion from power amp tubes in my Mesa Boogie Single Rectifier or Marshall JCM2000 DSL100 usually compensate nicely in a live situation where I can turn the master up past 6 (good luck pulling that off on your hourly-paid recording engineer unless you’re Lemmy). But the lack of gain works to your advantage when going for a clean tone without having your roadie or working-for-beer friend run you out a different guitar for the songs calling for that sound. The bass tones are well controlled, the mids are strong and somewhat violin like, and the high end shimmers without getting brittle. In a thinner-bodied guitar like my Gibson SG Standard, it can really make the guitar sound much larger.
All the ideas I’ve expressed here are from personal trials, and the opinions I’ve formed as a result. I hope this can act like a guide for anyone new to the aftermarket guitar pickup world. But I also encourage you to try many others in hopes of finding the sound you’re really after. There are also many brands of pickups available to players today such as Dimarzio, Bill Lawrence, EMG, and Lace-Sensor. For more information, check out their web sites. But as always, the best way to begin your pickup journey is to find out what your favorite player is using, and go from there.
*Note: Not all pickups are the correct size to fit your guitar and/or string spacing. Guitars equipped with tremolos or metric sized bridges tend to need a “Trembucker” or “F-Spaced” size. If you’re unsure which size to get, the general rule is any string spacing (from the middle of the low E to the middle of the high E) is less than 2 inches, humbucker or standard spacing is fine. 2 inches or more will require the larger “Trembucker” size so your strings line up evenly with the screws and metal poles of the pickup. This will keep notes from fading in volume when bending, and provide the best string volume balance.