Buyer’s Gear Guide – Pickups
The importance of choosing the right pickups for your guitar, is an often overlooked part of the whole tone search. We spend most of our budget on expensive pedals but a tone starts with the guitar and its pickups. In this feature we’ll look at different single coil models with David Gilmour’s tone in mind as well as a few tips and tricks.
Simply put, a single coil pickup consists of a given length of coil, six magnet poles and mounting plates. The tone characteristics of a pickup is a combination of different types of ALNICO magnets and coil, number of wounds and the technique used during the winding process. Less turns of the coil creates a cleaner, more transparent tone with less output. The more turns, the more output with more mid range and less highs.
When you pick a string, the vibration resonates between the wood (body and neck) and the strings. The vibration is picked up by the pickup magnets that pushes the magnetic field through a stationary coil. The signal is induced and in turn amplified. The type of wood, lacquer, string gauge, pick etc will colour the resonance.
Why new pickups?
Like pedals, the pickups in your guitar are a part of your tone but perhaps more importantly, they pick up and transfer all the nuances in your playing. You could very well just use whatever pickups you want or even make a pickup yourself but choosing a model that fits and enhances the timbre of your guitar, the tone of your amp and your technique, is important to get the tones you want.
In the listings below, I’ve focused on the familiar and easily available models from Fender but I recommend that you check out similar models from different brands. Everyone has their special way of winding a pickup and it’s the small nuances that makes a difference.
Choosing the right pickups
Obviously, which pickups you should choose depends on your taste and purpose of use. Depending on what tones you want, a dark sounding guitar, will perhaps need brighter, low output pickups (Fender CS 54, 69), while a bright, thin sounding guitar, can be improved with a set of higher output pickups with more bass and mids (Fender Tex/Mex, Duncan SSL5, EMG DG20).
The same principles applies to combining pickups and amps. The hotter the pickup, the more you push the amp towards breakup. This can cause some difficulty in choosing the right pickup if you’re mostly playing at home. A hotter pickup will compensate for some of the tone loss caused by low volume but it can also make a smaller amp distort sooner. My best tip is to check to try out a couple of models or at least have some idea of how the models will work with your rig.
I prefer low or moderate output pickups. These are generally more transparent sounding, allowing the pedals and your playing to sound more natural and dynamic.
All of the models I’ve listed are tested with David Gilmour’s tones in mind, using the same guitar (alder body and rosewood neck) and setups for both stage and bedroom. Most of the models will be able to cover a wide range of other genres and tones as well.
Fender Custom Shop 54
Recommended similar models: D Allen Tru Vintage 54, TTS ’54 Proof, DiMarzio Area 58, Kinman Impersonator 54
Classic clean and transparent, bell-like Strat tones, with a bit more bite in the bridge position. A bit thin in the lower frequencies but this can be compensated by installing an even hotter bridge pickup. If you want David’s Strat Pack 2004 tones, then look no further.
Magnets: Alnico V
Resistance ohms: 5.9k to 6.5k (neck to bridge)
Gilmour tones: #0001 Strat.
Fender Custom Shop Fat 50s
Classic clean and transparent Strat tones with, compared to the 54s, a bit more mids scoop and bass. Ideal for neck position.
Magnets: Alnico V
Resistance ohms: 6k to 6.3k (neck to bridge)
Gilmour tones: Featured neck pickup of the Fender Custom Shop David Gilmour NOS/Relic Stratocaster
Fender Custom Shop 57/62
Classic clean and transparent, bell-like Strat tones. Very similar to the CS 54s, with slightly less output.
Magnets: Alnico V
Resistance ohms: 5.6k (all positions)
Gilmour tones: A lower output alternative for the #0001 and Black Strat tones.
Fender Custom Shop 69
Recommended similar models: D Allen VP ’69 Voodoo, TTS ’65 Haze, DiMarzio Area 67, Kinman Woodstock
Classic clean and transparent Strat tones, with glassy highs, mids scoop and thumbing lows. A full set is spot on Gilmour’s Atom Heart Mother-WYWH tones. Replace the stock bridge with a Duncan SSL-5 pickup for Animals-present Black Strat tones.
Magnets: Alnico V
Resistance ohms: 5.8k (all positions)
Gilmour tones: Black Strat all eras.
Fender Custom Shop Texas Specials
Recommended similar models: D Allen Austin Blues, Kinman Blues
Based on the CS69s, these have a bit more output, with extra mid range and bite. Great alternative if you want that classic late 60s tone on brighter sounding guitars and amps.
Magnets: Alnico V
Resistance ohms: 6.2k to 6.5k-7.1k (neck to bridge)
Gilmour tones: Slightly warmer alternative for Black Strat tones.
Fender Custom Shop Tex/Mex
Classic, vintage Strat tones with, compared to the CS69s, higher output, boosted mid range and an overall warmer tone. Great alternative for brighter sounding guitars and amps and bedroom, low volume level setups.
Magnets: Alnico V
Resistance ohms: bridge 7.4, neck and middle 6.4k
Gilmour tones: Warmer and darker sounding alternative for Black Strat tones.
Seymour Duncan SSL-5
Recommended similar models: DiMarzio FS-1
Based on the late 60s tones, the SSL-5 was conceived in 1979, designed for David Gilmour’s Black Strat. The pickup has a classic, vintage Strat tone with considerably higher output and mid range, compared to the CS69s. Great bridge pickup for more sustain and bite.
Magnets: Alnico V Resistance ohms: 12.9k (all positions)
Gilmour tones: Black Strat bridge pickup (Animals – present).
Fender CS 69 and S Duncan SSL-5 combo
This combination is as close as you’ll get to David’s Black Strat setup from Animals to present. The moderate output, transparent sounding 69s in the neck and middle, makes a great contrast to the hotter sounding SSL-5 bridge. Ideal for warm and smooth rhythms, bluesy solos and full-blown Big Muff mayhem.
The Fender Custom Shop David Gilmour NOS/Relic Stratocaster sports a slightly different setup than the original Black Strat, as requested by David: Fender CS Fat 50s neck, Fender Custom Wound middle (CS69-ish) and Seymour Duncan SSL- bridge.
D Allen Voodoo Blues set
The Voodoo Blues set feature a combination of the Voodoo 69 neck and middle pickups and a slightly overwound bridge pickup for more output and mid range. Lovely open sounding and dynamic pickups, ideal for Hendrix, Blackmoore, Gilmour and all your favourite late 60s tones. See my full review of the Voodoo Blues set here.
D Allen Echoes set
Utilizing a push/push mechanism (the set feature a custom tone pot that you need to swap with your old) you can switch between two “modes” on the bridge pickup – a slightly overwound 69 at 7.6k (same as featured in the Voodoo Blues set) and the even hotter SSL5-ish at 12.5k. The neck and middle pickups are Voodoo 69s. This is a versatile set covering most of David Gilmour’s tones as well as just about everything else. See my full review of the Echoes set here.
TTS Crazy Diamond set
The Crazy Diamond set is based on that late 60s transaprent, mids scooped tone, with a slightly overwound bridge for a bit more output and bite. Well balanced and dynamic pickups ideal for those early Black Strat tones. See my full review of the Crazy Diamond set here.
EMG DG-20 set
This is a custom set featuring EMGs legendary SA single coils, similar to the Fender CS69, and the active tone controls, the EXG treble and bass booster and SPC mid range booster. The set was featured on Gilmour’s 1983 Fender ’57 reissues, notably the Candy Apple Red Strat – David’s main guitar between 1987-2005. See my full review of the EMG DG-20 set here.
Active VS passive pickups
Single coils are by the nature of their design, quite noisy. Some manufacturers has tried to tackle this issue by designing different kinds of hum canceling systems for single coils. EMG, among others, started to offer active pickups in the late 70s. The advantage of the active pickups was that they shielded the guitar from the huge stadium light rigs and they could also drive the guitar signal through long cables and big effect racks. The down side, and what made many go back to the passive, vintage style single coils, was that the active pickups didn’t sound Straty enough and lacked some of the dynamics of the vintage models.
Others, like Kinman, has succeeded in making noiseless pickups with a twist on the basic, vintage design using iron and differential winding techniques in the noise sensing coils. The tone and dynamics are intact and you get a very silent signal.
If you simply can’t stand noisy single coil pickups, you might want to look into a humbucker. It won’t sound exactly like a Strat but choosing the right model will take you very close. I prefer the old PAF or a mid 50s humbucker. Set them slightly lower than usual and you’ll have a warm, transparent Straty tone. It’s also worth checking out the humbucker sized Seymour Duncan Phat Cat P90s.
There’s no right way of setting up the pickups but keep the following in mind: low string action will create a strong magnetic pull, which can kill the sustain and create distortion and bad pitch. A high string action will create less magnetic pull but the pickup will also sound weaker and loose some of its characteristics.
I like having the bridge pickup fairly close to the strings and the neck slightly further away. This allows a slighty edgier lead tone and smoother rhythms. You can do this because the strings has a higher tension at the bridge, so there’s also less vibration and magnetic pull. You can also experiment with different outputs, like a hot Duncan SSL5 bridge and a mild Fender CS69 neck. This allows a bit more boost for leads and solos.
A single coil pickup is pretty much an exposed antenna picking up all kinds of electric radiation. There are two types of noise that afflict magnetic pickups. HUM is electric interference that surrounds us all, caused by 50Hz (Europe) or 60Hz (USA) alternating mains from electrical components. BUZZ appears as a static caused by radio noise propagation from electrical components (motors, processors etc).
The typical 50 or 60 cycle hum is hard to eliminate. You can add a gate or noise suppressor to the signal chain but these units have a nasty tendency to kill the sustain. There are also hum canceling systems like the Ilitch, which works quite well. However, the most effective and inexpensive way of dealing with the problem is to eliminate as many nearby electrical components as possible and turn away from the source. A few degrees to the left or right or a step back, is often enough.
Buzz can only be eliminated by installing a conductive shielding (copper foil) inside the guitar cavity that’s connected to ground. It’s not a shielding like an umbrella but rather a drain of the electric interference out of the guitar to ground. Although an easy and effective way of dealing with the problem, shielding will also reduce some of the high frequencies in your tone by raising the capacitance of the circuit. This is especially noticeable on low output, bright sounding pickups like the Fender CS69.
Pickups is a huge topic and just like pedals, it’s easy to get lost in what models and brands to choose. My best tip is to have an open mind and to appreciate the fact that pickups matter and by choosing the right pickups for your guitar, you’ll get a much better tone and basis for your pedals.
Feel free to use the comments field below and share your favourite pickups models and tips!
Related feature – Tip of the week (15) – Tone (part 2) Guitars.