Do 3-pickup guitars suck?
Sometimes, yeah they do.
Above is what's known as a "Black Beauty" Les Paul. Epiphone only makes this currently. If you want one in a Gibson flavor, you'll have to ring up their custom shop and shell out some serious cash. And in all honesty, the Epiphone version isn't exactly cheap either. But then again, it is a Black Beauty model and you don't see them very often.
The guitar that comes up when you ask players to name a 3-pickup solid-body electric guitar is of course the Fender Stratocaster.
When I used to play a Strat as my main guitar, what I would always do is set the middle pickup as low as I possibly could where the pickup pole pieces were just barely above the pick guard. Why? So I wouldn't keep whacking the middle pickup with my pick...
...and that is the reason why a 3-pickup guitar can suck.
For most players, the middle pickup area of a 3-pickup guitar is exactly where you pick the most. Going back to the Black Beauty above for a moment, while it looks great, the 2-pickup version Custom Pro is something most players would rather have (and is quite a bit less in price as a nice bonus) because it's just a better player's guitar since it doesn't have that annoying middle pickup that gets in the way.
What about the Strat?
Any Strat that does not have 3 skinny single-coil pickups in it looks weird to most people.
For example, the Fender Blacktop Stratocaster HSH, which is a fine guitar with fine electronics, just looks odd. It doesn't "look like a Fender Strat," even though it totally is.
No matter what, a Strat with 3 skinny single-coils is always the most desirable. Not only must it have 3 skinny single-coils, but also have exposed pickup pole pieces to complete the proper Strat look.
And yes, that means if you want the traditional Strat look, you will have to deal with that middle pickup by doing one of the following:
- Play around the pickup
- Lower it flush to the pick guard so it stays out of the way when you pick/strum.
- Lower only the top part of the pickup as that's where you would whack it with the pick.
Some players will do the "lower the top half" on both the middle and front (as in neck) pickup to avoid bashing into them when playing. You'll notice on a lot of vintage Strats that the pickups are set up exactly like that by the player. Now you know why.
For many Strat players, the two most-favorite pickup selector positions are 2 and 4, meaning rear + middle and front + middle. Not only are they the positions that cancel the hum since the middle pickup is reverse-wound, but they also create a sound that Strat players affectionately call "Strat quack."
If you give up playing Strats, you give up that quack sound that only Strats can do. So if that quack is a distinctive part of your sound, you'll need a Strat to get it.
I, however, was willing to give up that quack sound because I find 2-pickup solid-body electrics much easier to get along with.
Do I miss Strat quack?
While the Strat quack that the middle pickup provides is a very distinctive part of the Stratocaster sound, I found that it was something I didn't really miss at all when I switched over to the 2-pickup Jazzmaster. Once I went to the Jazz, I was just fine leaving the Strat behind.
I like the 2-pickup layout so much that for future electric guitar purchases, I'm only considering 2-pickup guitars like the Telecaster.
"Versatile" really isn't a selling point if that versatility gets in your way
Above is a Ibanez JEM/UV Steve Vai Signature Electric Guitar in Sea Foam Green. It's expensive. And while I'm sure the neck on it is wonderful, the electronics are perfect and the pickups are voiced correctly for what it is, this is a guitar where you will constantly be bashing into the 3-pickup layout with your pick.
Most guitar players can't play this thing. It's not due to "lack of ability," but rather due to the fact there is absolutely no room to pick or strum without whacking a pickup. The neck has 24 frets, meaning the neck-side pickup had to be pushed back to accommodate that, pushing the HSH layout even closer together than usual. Were this guitar a 22-fret, there could be proper pickup spacing, but not here.
The JEM, in all honesty, would be better off as an H/S instead of an HSH because at least then you'd have some room to pick and strum.
The Music Man Axis, also an expensive guitar, is a far better, far superior design. It has a proper 22-fret neck, 2 pickups and plenty of space between the pickups for all the room you'd ever want so you don't whack them when playing.
In other words, while the JEM restricts, the Axis allows for more freedom of play.
Should you never buy a 3-pickup guitar?
You can buy any kind of guitar you want because I'm not the boss of you. If you like Strats, get a Strat. If you like Black Beauty Les Pauls, get one. If you like the JEM, get one...
...but just know you'll probably be whacking the middle pickup constantly in any of those guitars unless you move it out of the way by lowering it. Or if it's a guitar like the Black Beauty Les Paul where you literally cannot adjust the middle pickup out of the way, it will get all scuffed up by whacking it constantly while playing.
On a final note, you will notice that on many older 3-pickup Gibson solid-body electrics with gold covers that the middle pickup is all scuffed up and discolored. The reason for the scuffs and scratches is because of the player hitting it constantly with his pick. The discoloration comes from the fact the player cleaned the middle pickup cover twice as much in an attempt to smooth out the scratches on each string change. All that extra cleaning on just that cover caused the gold finish to wear off quicker compared to the other two pickups, which is why it's discolored in the first place. Gibson didn't use a different gold pickup cover for the middle pickup. The discoloration over time is due to player making it that way.