Is guitar pickup modding stupid?
Woe be to those by those who perform ill-witted guitar "upgrades."
Guitar pickup modding is something a lot of guitar players do to make a guitar "better," but ultimately results in making a guitar sound awful.
Most modders know little to nothing about how electric guitars are supposed to work
I've seen a lot of guys on the internet do mods, and very few of them end up with an instrument that sounds any better than it originally did.
A quick list of classic modder mistakes:
Installing "hot" pickups in a Strat
End result: A Strat guitar that sounds like an overpowered, over-trebly mess.
What he should have done: Used a cheap compressor.
There are many Strat players who firmly believe that "hot output" pickups are the only solution to getting good Strat tone. It isn't. "Hot" pickups make a Strat sound awful because of the nature of the skinny single-coil sound.
Now of course, the modder will try everything to get that Strat "hot." He'll try hot-output, realize it sucks, and junk it. Then he'll try a stacked single-coil, but then get frustrated because the pickup "doesn't sound like a Strat."
In the end, all he needed was a compressor. That's it. He wanted the sound to be boosted, and be able control the amount of boost. The compressor will do that. No mods required. And a lot cheaper.
Or, if you want to do it real old-school style, use a simple booster pedal. There are even tutorials on the internet that show you how to build a booster pedal yourself, due to the fact they're so easy to make and only have 1 knob on them.
Or if you want to take the really, really easy way, just buy a Blacktop HH Strat and call it a day.
Installing a preamp
End result: No appreciable difference in sound compared to a passive setup.
What he should have done: Used a properly-voiced passive pickup instead.
There are certain types of guitars where a preamp works great and others where it makes no sense at all.
In bass guitars, a preamp makes total sense. Why? Because the vast majority of the time, bass players use nothing but clean signal with little to no effects applied. In that kind of sound environment, it makes sense for a bass player to have a preamp, which allows for an on-the-instrument 2-band or 3-band EQ.
On 6-string electrics however, preamps ordinarily don't serve much of a purpose. If using it for signal boost, the distortion pedal is already doing that. If used to "clean up the signal," that suggests your existing wiring is total crap and needs rewiring. If used for frequency band adjustments, um.. ever hear of a tone knob? Yeah, that thing. Try using it. Or just use a linear taper potentiometer for the volume control to get easy-access treble cutoff with a small turn from 10 to 9.
The moment a 6-string guitar has distortion or even a light overdrive applied to the signal, the preamp at that point has become totally useless. Why? Because the dist/od effect almost completely negates any tone shaping the preamp did before reaching the amplifier.
Like I said, no appreciable difference. For "hot" output, either use a booster, a different distortion pedal or just outright use a dual coil (as in a humbucker) pickup that has high output, such as the DP100.
Where does a preamp actually make sense on a 6-string electric? Jazz and country music. Guitarists of those styles play clean, and the preamp actually does make a difference when they play, because the clean tone has to be as crisp and clean as possible. But for rock or metal, preamps are useless because the dist/od applied to the signal just destroys (in a bad way) the pre-amplified signal.
If you play rock or metal, don't pre-amplify at the guitar. Not necessary. Just get a properly-voiced, high-output dual coil pickup.
Not matching pickup output levels from neck to bridge
End result: Blaring rear (bridge) pickup that totally overpowers front (neck) pickup, making the middle and front pickup selections totally useless.
"Metal" guitar players do this a lot.
The modder installs a ridiculously hot-output pickup in the rear position, but to save money does not buy a front-voiced pickup of equal output level for the front position. This in turn makes the guitar only playable on the rear position and nowhere else.
If you've ever picked up a used guitar at the guitar store, strum a few chords with the rear pickup selected, but then when switching to middle or front the guitar "totally goes dead," that's most likely not a worn-out front pickup. Some idiot modded the guitar and put a rear pickup in it that had way too much output. Either that, or he put in a junk pickup in the front position and traded it out that way.
All you need to know here is that if you're going to install an aftermarket pickup, make sure its output level at least somewhat matches the other pickups.
For example, on certain Gibson guitars you will see the pickups listed as a 490T and a 490R. What does that mean? The T is for treble (rear/bridge position) and the R is for rhythm (front/neck position). Each pickup is voiced specifically for their respective mounting positions.
Heck, even Squier does this. The Squier Jaguar uses a Duncan Designed JG-101B (rear/bridge position) and a Duncan Designed JG-101N (front/neck position). So even they know to do it so the guitar is voiced properly.
Are you matching up your aftermarket pickup output levels properly when you mod? You should. The big guitar makers do it for a reason. And that reason is that it ends up making for a proper-sounding electric guitar.
A quick cheat sheet for proper pickup mods
These are really easy to follow.
1. Stick with one brand
Which brand? That's your preference. But stick with one, be it DiMarzio, Fender, EMG, Seymour Duncan or whatever. Just stick to one brand so you have some consistency going on.
2. Pay attention to position
Don't put a pickup meant for front/neck use in the rear/bridge position and vice versa. Pickup makers voice pickups for certain positions, and it's just not just mentioned for the heck of it. When a pickup maker states a certain model is for a certain mounted position on the guitar, they mean it.
What happens if you put a pickup voiced for a specific position in the wrong position? One of two things. It will either be a trebly mess, or "sound like mud." No, your guitar won't blow up or anything like that by mounting a pickup in the wrong spot. It'll just sound bad.
3. Pay attention to output level
Match your output levels between pickups, as noted above.
4. Shield, shield, shield
Get a roll of self-adhesive copper shielding tape. You'll need it. It doesn't matter what pickups you're using. Shielding is necessary.
If you're modding a cheap guitar, you will find little to no shielding where there's supposed to be some, so get a roll and be prepared to use it.
What happens when you don't shield? Signal noise. Does copper shielding eliminate all signal noise? No. But it can decrease a good amount of it. Better to have it than not have it.
5. Mind your string spacing, or get blades/rails and don't care
You'll notice some pickups are labeled as being "F spaced." That's Fender spacing, meaning the string spacing Fender guitars use.
If you want a pickup where you absolutely do not have to care about string spacing at all, use a pickup that has blades or rails in it.
An example of a blade pickup is this Lindy Fralin Strat set. The blades are really easy to spot because the pickup has "lines" on it. Those are the blades. Other pickup makers made similar styles.
On pickups with pole pieces, as in those circle things, the string is supposed to hover directly over the pole. If it doesn't, the string will barely be heard. Blade and rail pickups take care of this potential issue where if the string hovers anywhere over the blade/rail, it will be heard. Problem solved.
While true that blade/rail pickups don't have a "classic" look to them, they're a lot easier to deal with because string spacing is a non-issue.
Pickups described as "vintage" are usually the best kind
I'm specifically referring to new pickups where the sound they make is described as vintage and not the look, meaning not that "relic" crapola.
"Vintage" means "normal." It means a pickup that's voiced without any special or "enhanced" junk going on. It means a traditional pickup with traditional windings that in most instances has a very predictable sound to it. And yes, predictable is good.
Throughout the 2000s and still today, pickup makers have tried some seriously wacky crap with their pickup offerings, all in the name of trying to be "innovative."
An example of this ridiculousness is the Seymour Duncan "Black Winter" pickup. Everything Seymour Duncan used to describe this pickup is total marketing schlock. Words like extreme and hardcore and crushing are used, which of course makes no sense at all to describe how a pickup sounds.
In other words, it's a pickup for people who fall for marketing hype. Remember the EXTREME computer video graphics cards of the 2000s? Yeah, they're all in landfills now. Guess they weren't so EXTREME after all. Neither is the Black Winter pickup. It's a frickin' pickup and not as "dark as the winters in Scandinavia," as Seymour Duncan's web site says. And yes, that is an actual quote from their product page on it.
Conversely, the Seymour Duncan SH-1 set, which does not use all that dopey marketing crap, is a better pickup. It has a product description that actually makes sense, such as "Classic appointments include plain enamel wire, long legged bottom plate, vintage single conductor cable and no logo." YES! THANK YOU! That is useful information.
Again, "vintage" means "normal." It is an output rating that will give you more control over your sound because the output is not blaring all over the place. Mate those pickups to properly wired potentiometers in a housing that's well-shielded, and you've got yourself a guitar that sounds great for any kind of music.
Mod if you must with aftermarket pickups. But choose the right pickup(s). And don't go "extreme." You'll hate it. Stick to "vintage."
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