10 Humbuckers Reviewed: Pickups off the Beaten Track

Discussion in 'Pickups' started by gmacdonnell, Feb 18, 2009.

  1. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Inspired by Dave Hunter's book, "Guitar Pickup Handbook," I decided to write a short list of some humbuckers I've played substantially, or owned that don't get much attention. These pickups are all different from the archetypal humbucker sound, (think Duncan '59 or 'Gibson 57 Classic,) but all offer great tones that many will love.

    For my playing style, I want clarity, dynamics, and a nice high-end. But since I prefer humbuckers which usually don't have these traits, I've spent a lot of time trying to find the right pickups for me. There is never 1 solution, however, so I've listed these 10 which to my ears, are excellent choices.

    For those with an open mind, one of these might be key to that tone in your head. So here they are, in no particular order:

    1. Dimarzio EJ (Eric Johnson) Custom: I know, many people automatically run from any Dimarzio pickup, (I was that way once,) but these pickups are about as far from a Super Distortion as you can get.

    These low-output humbuckers offer a mix of single-coil, Filtertron and normal humbucker traits. They have the firm lows and strong mids of a humbucker, but the clarity and presence of a Fender single coil. They've got a little bit of the Gretsch sound and feel, but they're really something unique.
    They have incredible clarity and fidelity, and sound great for Mayfield and Cropper-style R&B, to Eric Johnson liquid overdrive, and can be a great blues or jazz pickup. With a Fender tube amp and slap-back delay you can get a rich twang for 50's style country. They love that "just over the edge" tube amp overdrive, are very complex and 3-D, and respond very well to pick attack. A steal at about $60 each.

    2. Fralin P-92: This is a split-coil design, but fitted into a regular-sized humbucker. It is supposed to sound like a P-90, but without hum. It largely succeeds, but adds its own unique spin on that tone. The lower-output models offer excellent clarity and dynamics, for a great organic blues or jazz tone. The higher output models are raunchy, thick and gritty: think Leslie West. Average price: $110-130 per pickup.

    3. Fralin Twangbucker: Similar in concept to the P-92, but based on a Fender-style single-coil. Again, it's a very successful design, and a unique tone. Installed in a Fender, it offers lot's of snap and twang, superb clarity and a great Fender blues tone. [​IMG]In a Gibson, it's a bit unusual, but no less valid. It adds its clarity and sparkle to the thicker inherent tone of the Gibson, and gives you something very unique. It still twangs, but is much smoother. Average price: $110-130 per pickup.

    4. Fralin Unbucker: This might be a more well-known pickup, but it's still relatively scarce. This is the most conventional of all the pickups so far listed, but still offers something different. It has unmatched coils, like many PAF replicas, but the difference between the two is greater and more deliberate. The result is a sweet humbucker with more sparkle, clarity and even jangle, than your average HB. On top of that, when coil-tapped, the volume drop isn't as severe, and because it uses a larger wind, the single-coil sound is a wonerful tone all of its own. It's still not "Fender-y", (the differences in construction are too great,) but it offers a great voice for clean tones, twang or blues. If you like PAF-style pickups, but want the ultimate versatility, give this one a shot. Average price: $110-130 per pickup.

    5 Vintage Vibe Humbuckers: Wound by Pete Biltoft, (you might call him Lollar's protege,) Vintage Vibe humbuckers are custom wound to your specs. He doesn't have many "models", but can wind to just about any sound in your head. I own a set of humbuckers that were wound to sound like a cross between a PAF and a Filtertron, that blows me away every time.
    His pickups are among the finest quality I've ever seen, and they all offer superlative tone.
    Of particular interest to some are his Charlie Christian pickups which can be ordered to fir in P-90 or Humbucker spaces. He also offers Filtertrons, P-90's, and DeArmond styled pickups to fit in Humbucker slots. He offers a pickup that is two miniature P-90's that fit in a single humbucker slot. It has incredible warmth and power and coil-taps into a great p-90. [​IMG][​IMG][​IMG]
    More importantly, you can just call him up, describe your ideal tone, (however strange,) and he'll nail it. Average price: $75-85 per pickup.


    6. Bill Lawrence Wilde Pickups: Bill Lawrence is a legend among guitar electronic experts. His work dates back to the 50's and he's pioneered many groundbreaking designs, such as dual-blade pickups, replacement pickups, and noise-free single-coils. His pickups have been used by everyone from Dimebag Darrell to Wes Montgomery, as well as Aerosmith, Springsteen and Nils Lofgren, Al DiMeola, Roy Buchanan and Grant Green.

    He's never been much of a self-promoter and this has led to a couple of problems over the years. Joe Barden's highly regarded line of pickups, is in fact incredibly similar in build and tone to Bill's designs, which preceded them by many years. But because of marketing, Barden's are far better known.

    Worse, there's a company called "Lawrence" that makes imitations of his older designs and sells them through dealers and Stew Mac. These pickups
    are not nearly the same quality in build or tone, and have partly spoiled his good name. Because of the low-quality, Dimebag Darrell assumed that the company wasn't reliable any longer and took an older pickup to Seymour Duncan to replicate, hence the "Dimebucker." Bill's pickups are sill around, but if you don't buy it directly from Bill, it could be a copy.

    He doesn't advertise, and relies on world-of-mouth. So he isn't as well known. But if you love Barden's, you'll love Bill's, but he offers much more, from vintage-sounds to very modern.

    Like Pete Biltoft, he offers way too many variations to list them all. His twin-blade pickups are his most famous. He offers versions of the L-90, which is generally a warmer, rounder sound, vintage with great fidelity, and the L-500 which can be everything from hi-fi, clean and clear, to super-high-output (Dimebag's favorite pickup.) [​IMG]

    His L-09's are like refined P-90's without noise, and fit into humbucker slots.
    His "regular" humbuckers are highly-respected in the jazz world, but many blues players love their combination of warmth, transparency and clarity.
    He can also wind you something completely different.[​IMG][​IMG]
    But no matter how clear and clean his pickups are, they remain complex and
    full of texture.


    He, his wife Becky, and their family are a small business with incredible customer service. They don't advertise, they rely on word-of mouth. Their pickups are incredible, and because they're made by Bill, they're a part of history as well. I think every guitarist should own at least one set of his pickups! The best part: average price is $40-60 per pickup.

    7. Carvin H22 Holdsworth: These medium output pickups, as the name implies, were designed with Allan Holdsworth for his signature guitar. If you know about Allan, he's as finicky with tone as Eric Johnson, and has a great collection of fine vintage gear and pickups to choose from.
    [​IMG]
    These pickups are sort of modifed-PAF in design, but have 22(!) polepieces. The effect is like a blade pickup, in that the strings will not die out not matter how far you bend the strings. But they're each adjustable, (you can even adjust for a volume boost as you bend!)
    The tone is luscious and sweet. They're very clear, but complex with a sweet high-end that's never harsh, but never muddy. They're a lead players dream, because the notes seemed enveloped in a vintage warmth and clarity, that still has modern punch and power. Another steal at $60 each.

    8. Bartolini PBF Series: These pickups are Bartolini's attempt to reproduce a vintage sound with their famous modern construction and hi-fidelity. [​IMG] They have a unique sound, characteristic of Bartolini's but with much more warmth and complexity then their older designs. These are very warm and transparent pickups, and come in outputs ranging from jazz-clean to hard-rock hot. They're very versatile units, and make superb recording pickups. If you want to hear every detail of your tone, but like something warm and fat, these are a fantastic choice. Average price is $100-115 each.

    9. Lace Alumitones: Okay, I'm generally a low-tech, vintage snob but these futuristic pickups really won me over. They have a tone that's familiar and yet different. They're incredible for fingerstyle work because the separation and clarity is astounding, and yet they're fat and sustain so well that they beg for a cranked tube amp.
    [​IMG]
    They have more lows and highs than normal designs, and hence would make a great choice for the only guitarist in a band. Their clear highs make them an excellent clean pickup, but with gain they love to do that Gary Moore, infinite sustain thing. A warning: they're very transparent, and will bring out your instruments inherent tone. But in a good instrument, they're simply stunning. You could build your "sound" around these. A unique, but wholly toneful pickup. Average price is $100-110 each.

    10. TV Jones Humbuckers: These are probably the most famous of the bunch, so I won't overload you with the details. In short, Jones offers versions of the famous Gretsch Filtertron in a humbucker-sized casing. They can be ordered to vintage spec or hotter. [​IMG]These pickups sound incredible, with a sparkle and clarity almost like a single-coil. They're warm and complex, which you wouldn't necessarily think, and so they're very versatile for all styles of classic music from blues to country to rock. Highly recommended. Priced at about $120 each.


    Well there you have it! Hopefully some people will find this helpful. And please, chip in with your favorite pickups that are off the beaten track.
    God bless and keep playing!

    -Gabriel
     
  2. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Just wanted to add, (in case I didn't make it clear,) that these aren't the only great pickups out there. These are just some that don't follow the normal template and really succeed.

    In addition to the above mentioned companies, Will Boggs, Dave Stephens, Bare Knuckles, Shed, WCR, Seymour Duncan, Kent Armstrong and Jason Lollar, and plenty others, all are offering incredible products, from the relatively common and affordable to the strange and expensive. And any of those guys will be happy to wind you something special should the desire strike.

    If you like jazz and cleaner tones, Kent Armstrong is probably the man to go to. He wound me a humbucker that was an Alnico V and !! split into pairs, to be mounted on an acoustic archtop. It has an incredibly clear, balanced and transparent tone. The evenness across the strings, (The reason for the magnets,) is just stunning.


    I'd also add that, if like I was, you're searching for clarity and responsiveness, you get a new wiring harness of all the best components.
    an RS Guitar Works (Welcome to RS Guitarworks | Winchester, KY - Home) kit saves some time and money, and has everything you need.
    The "modern" kits, with their RS Guitar Caps, really clear up your sound, and are very dynamic and transparent. I'd recommend doing this before swapping pickups, or at least concurrently.

    :thumb:
     
  3. dwagar

    dwagar V.I.P. Member

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    perhaps you meant "aren't"?

    I agree about the pots and caps man, make changes one step at a time, play and listen a bunch before proceeding to a next step, if you need a next step.
     
  4. analogsystem

    analogsystem Senior Member

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    This is a great post! I have owned a couple and looked at most the pups you mention and everything seems to be right on and really informative!
     
  5. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    I definitely meant "aren't the only good pickups..." Thanks, dwager, all edited now.

    Thanks, analog! I think these are all great pups, and definitely worth being more widely known.

    Take Care!
     
  6. 5F6-A

    5F6-A Senior Member

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    :laugh2:
     
  7. madams17

    madams17 Senior Member

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    Thanks for the great reviews. Being a tone junkie and all a round tinkerer I have looked at getting many of these pickups. There are also a few I didn't know about. Nice to have an informed point of view.
     
  8. EEF13

    EEF13 Senior Member

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    this was a fun read
     
  9. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Glad you guys enjoyed it!

    In response to some questions I've gotten about where to find more information and specs, I’ve compiled a list of the companies websites and some notes on where to find them.

    Winder Links:

    Bill Lawrence’s Wilde Pickups*: Home Page

    Bartolini Pickups**: The New PBF Guitar Pickups

    Lace Music Products: http://www.lacemusic.com/electric_pickups/alumitone/alumitone_specs.php

    Dimarzio Pickups: DiMarzio.com

    Lindy Fralin Pickups: Welcome to Lindy Fralin Pickups: Fralin Humbuckers - The Finest Guitar Pickups Available Today!

    Carvin Pickups*: Carvin.com - Guitars, Amplifiers & Pro Audio

    *Bill Lawrence and Carvin pickups are only available direct from these websites.
    Lawrence” pickups sold through dealers are low-quality, unauthorized copies.
    Carvin has some outlet stores in CA, but I’m not sure if they sell the pickups there.

    **Bartolini PBF’s are made in small quantities are hard to find.
    Perfect Guitar is the only dealer that has a decent amount in stock that I know of: The Perfect Guitar - Guitars, Amps, Gear!
     
  10. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Some other humbuckers to add to the list:

    Joe Barden HB and HB Two-Tone: These pickups have an incredible amount of clarity. They've got a huge output, though not in terms of distorting your amp: you just hear more of everything: bass, middle, treble and presence.

    If you've got chops, play complex chords, or want a truly unique sound, these are a great option. But be warned: they'll show every tiny mistake in technicolor, and highlight every problem in your technique and playing. For that reason, they're great professional pickups, but can sound terrible with the wrong player. But they're also great for improving your playing, since they highlight many things that other pickups, especially humbuckers, tend to hide.
    (The same could be said for many of the best PAF's and Pat. # pickups.)

    The HB Two-Tone sounds virtually the same as the HB, but coil taps to a great-sounding Barden strat-styled pickup. Two of these in a 335 is one of the more versatile setups around. Price: $200 each.

    (If you like the sound of these pickups, but can't afford them, you should contact Bill Lawrence. While Barden's later design is different from Lawrence's, Bill can wind you pickups that have most of the same kind of qualities, for less money. Both makers produce excellent products, and they're unique, even if there are some similarities.)

    Kent Armstrong 12-Pole Humbucker: Handmade by Kent himself, these pickups are the standard humbucker on high-end archtops. They have an incredibly balanced, clear and full sound, while being very transparent and having lots of clarity. They sound great with mild overdrive, but are really designed to give a full, fat and clear jazz tone. The great thing is, with 12 adjustable polepieces you can use acoustic strings on your guitar, and still get a full and balanced electric tone. It's available to mount from the neck, pickguard, or standard humbucking mount.
    A great sounding pickup for those who want a more modern, hi-fi PAF type of sound for blues or jazz. Price: $150


    Kent Armstrong Charlie Christian SS:
    A very cool design I just encountered for the first time on an L-4CES. Kent, genius that he is, not only found a way to make a Charlie Christian pickup fit in a humbucker slot, (Biltoft and Lollar have done this too,) but he managed to somehow make it humbucking, without changing the fundamental tone.

    The result is a pickup that drips with complex, vibe and tone. It sounds fabulous for jazz, of course, but since it's so quiet, it makes a killer blues, rockabilly, and even rock pickup.

    Like all Christian pickups, it has a lot of clarity, and "pops" each note. But it's a bit smoother, and the lack of noise is just brilliant. A great design.
    Price: Not sure, probably in the $175-200 range like his other custom pickups.
     
  11. 5F6-A

    5F6-A Senior Member

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  12. SpinWheelz

    SpinWheelz Senior Member

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    You never disappoint with these write-ups, mate. Cheers.
     
  13. if6was9

    if6was9 Senior Member

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    I just wanted to chime in on the Lace Alumitone 'Humbucking' pickups. I installed a pair in a Epiphone SG copy and was completely blown away at how good they sound. In addition to the pickup upgrade I also upgraded the pots and used PIO caps. I purchased the caps and pickups on EBay at a fantastic price. I waiting for Lace to release the updated version of the Alumitone 'humbucker' (with coil tap abilities) which I have a 1978 Gibson "The Paul" guitar that I am going to try them on.

    Peace Out
    Joe
     
  14. captcoolaid

    captcoolaid Senior Member

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    I realy like the L90 thay are a great pickup done by an amazing winder. Cudos gmac for yet another great post.
     
  15. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Thanks man. I agree 100% about the L-90: it's one of the coolest pickups designs of all time, and definitely a great tone.

    Surprised more guys don't use them, considering how great they sound, and how little they cost. I guess the L-500 is more famous, because of Dime and Nuno. :hmm:
     
  16. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    Sounds like an awesome setup, Joe. The Alumitones are really cool pickups, with a great sound. They're like a classic humbucker, but with "more" of everything. Some people are surprised they don't sound all that different from a great, traditional humbucker, just with an extended freq. range.

    They are pretty transparent though. They sound great in nice acoustic-sounding guitars. But I've heard them in maple-bodies and they were thinner and harsh: just like you'd expect.
     
  17. st.bede

    st.bede V.I.P. Member

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    I would love to hear some clips...the one that lace has seems to be a bit harsh to my ears....maybe the whole maple thing...I really wanted to try them out, but chickened out....one reason is I typically do not like ceramic PUs but my V has them (untill I put in the Lawerence L500s) and I love the guitar (and thanks again Gmac)
     
  18. Jason

    Jason Senior Member

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    Wow GM, thanks for taking time out, yet again, to share your extensive experience.

    Now you've got me insanely curious about those Alumitones!
     
  19. vladmaximus

    vladmaximus Senior Member

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    Very very cool info...

    thanks...
     
  20. gmacdonnell

    gmacdonnell V.I.P. Member

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    I agree with you Bede, that those soundclips on the Lace website are a bit harsh. I don't know, maybe the guitar is bright or harsh acoustically: on a good guitar, these things scream.

    If you can, check out the Richmond Dorchester, (a new Godin brand.) It comes with the Alumitones from the factory, and apparently is a tone-monster. It's gotten some great reviews from Guitar Player, Premier Guitar and a couple others. It's a nice way to check out the Alumitones in person, if you're near a Godin dealer. :)
    [​IMG]
     

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