seymour duncan

Want some recommendations for choosing a pickup?

Want some recommendations for choosing a pickup?

Obviously, as someone who installs pickups regularly, I often get asked for some recommendations. Players are considering an upgrade or swap and will hit me up for some advice on the tone of this or that pickup, or whether a particular pickup will suit the style they're going for. You know the sort of thing. 

Click through and check out my advice…

Make Me Sound Like That Guy

Make me sound like that guy. Anyone that works in this business hears variations on this request pretty often. 

When I started playing, all I wanted was a Les Paul because heaps of my favourite players used a Les Paul. When I had a Les Paul, I’d try to make it sound like Jimmy Page. Of course, then, I’d hear Clapton or Gilmour and think I needed a Strat. I got a Strat but it didn't sound like Pink Floyd. Now what?

I got a Strat but it didn’t sound like Pink Floyd.
Now what?

To an extent, we all do this. And there’s nothing wrong with it. However, the make-me-sound-like-that-guy request can be a tall order. If your favourite player uses a Les Paul, you might get a Les Paul. Then you might find your hero’s Les Paul had its pickups swapped out for Lollars. You ask your guitar tech or repair person to spec out a set of Lollars. 

It’s not the same, though. It still doesn’t sound like the album or the gig I saw last month. Maybe something else is missing. What sort of capacitors should I put on my tone control?

The thing is, the noise you hear coming out of a PA array at a gig, and especially the noise you hear coming out of your stereo when you listen to the CD, is the sum of a lot of parts. 

Everything from the grey meat in the player’s skull through his or her fingers, the pick, the strings, the pickups, the guitar/bass, the electronics, the pedals, the signal run, the amp, the room, the mic, the preamp, the desk, the compressors, the reverb, the plugins, the engineer, the producer, the tapes/DAW, the mastering tools, the mastering engineer…(phew—deep breath)… Everything has an impact on the sound to a greater or lesser degree. 

You can’t possibly replicate all of these things so have a think about how far you feel it’s important to go and what's actually important to you

An anecdote might help. Gather around…

A number of years ago, I had a customer tell me they wanted to upgrade the pickups in their Strat to sound like Guitarist X. Now, I knew that Guitarist X tended to play Strats with Fender Texas Specials so after some conversation (and a shortened version of the list above), he asked me to order up some Texas Specials and install them. 

This done, he collected his guitar. A few days later he called me back saying the sound wasn’t what he wanted—it was ‘too weak’. We chatted some more and I double-checked the guitar to ensure it was working properly (it was). I offered to reverse the changes for him but he didn’t feel comfortable with my doing so any more. 

He loved the bloody things
— Frustrated Repair Guy

I later learned he’d visited someone else who had installed a set of Duncan Hot Rails. He loved the bloody things. 

Now the Hot Rails is a fine pickup but it’s not really a Texas Special. My customer wanted the sound he heard in his head when he listened to Guitarist X but Guitarist X’s axe and pickups through my customer’s rig didn’t get close enough for him. 

I wish that I’d been clearer with the caveats so my customer understood the risks and pitfalls of trying to sound like someone else. However, I also wish that I’d been able to better understand his needs instead of taking him at face value. I lost a customer and that’s not something I like. 

So, by all means chase a particular player’s sound. I’m not going to get into the ‘tone is all in the fingers, dude’ argument but, even if we stick to hardware, there’s a lot to consider.

Do some research (there are a number of great sites with rig-rundowns and gear lists) and decide what parts of the jigsaw are realistic and will give you the most return for your upgrade-dollar 


Of course, we haven’t even mentioned the disputed and ‘secret’ gear. Did Jimmy Page use a Tele for the Stairway To Heaven solo? I heard the opening licks in Sweet Child O’ Mine were played on a ukulele. You’re on your own for this sort of question. ;-)