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2-pickup vs. 3-pickup guitars

Fender Cabronita Telecaster Thinline, Maple Fingerboard - Shoreline Gold

Gibson SG Deluxe Guitar Orange Burst

Above are the Fender Cabronita Telecaster Thinline in Shoreline Gold and the Gibson SG Deluxe in Orange Burst.

Ordinarily, when people think of 2-pickup vs. 3-pickup, Les Paul vs. Stratocaster comes to mind. I decided to change that to show that you can have it the other way around where the Gibson is the 3-pickup and the Fender a 2-pickup.

Do you need to spend big bucks to get a 2-pickup Fender or a 3-pickup Gibson?

For Gibson, yeah you need to spend a lot to get any solid-body electric guitar from them with 3 pickups in it, starting at around $2,000.

With Epiphone, there are only two 3-pickup guitars they make. One is still generally available and the other you have to hunt around for. The generally available one at the moment is the Nighthawk. The one that requires hunting around for is the "Black Beauty" Les Paul. To the best of my knowledge, most (but not all) Les Paul models labeled as a "Black Beauty" model will have 3 pickups in it.

With Fender, getting a 2-pickup guitar is easy and inexpensive. You've got Telecasters, Jaguars, Jazzmasters, Fender Blacktop Series Stratocasters, Mustangs and so on. Plenty to choose from.

Which is the better of the two?

I cast my vote for the 2-pickup guitar as the better choice for one very simple reason: You don't bang your pick against the middle pickup because there isn't one.

The next time you're in a guitar store, take a look at any well-used guitar that has 3 pickups in it. You'll see a lot of scratch marks on the middle pickup. Very typical.

On Strats, I will always adjust the middle pickup height to being almost flat to the pick guard because otherwise I will hit it often with a pick; this is something I've pretty much always done ever since I first started playing Strats in my teens.

My main guitar is a Jazzmaster now, and that has only 2 pickups in it. Do I miss having a middle pickup when playing the Jazz? No, because the Jazz has a tonal character that's great on its own and doesn't require a third middle pickup.

The middle pickup is only good on a Fender-style guitar

Believe me, there's a reason you don't see middle pickups on a lot of guitars. And the reason is that unless the guitar is a Fender or Fender-style in the way it's set up, the addition of a middle pickup is pretty much useless.

A Strat wouldn't be a Strat without a middle pickup, no question about that. You can't get the famous Strat pickup position 2 and 4 settings without the middle pickup.

But for pretty much every other electric, a pickup in the middle doesn't give you any new good sounds. The middle position will sound like something best described as generic, as in the sound won't have any real character. And even when you combine with the front or rear pickup, that still won't help out much.

Three humbuckers, said honestly, is a bad idea for any electric. The only reason Gibson ever made them was just because they thought it looked cool. But you'll notice that whenever they did it, guitars with 3 humbuckers were only realeased as special edition models. As far as I know, the Les Paul Standard never had 3 humbuckers in it.

If you ever had the question of "What can 3 pickups do for me?"

...the answer is that you want a Strat, as it's the electric that does 3 pickups best.

For everything else, stick to 2.

Published 2014 Apr 4

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