Are low gain pickups the answer to great tone?

I have been thinking about this for a couple weeks, mainly because the general consensus I am seeing lately is that the older, more experienced a player becomes, the less gain he/she seems to use to get to the ideal tone, especially with today’s modern options.

Lynch’s Screaming Demon isn’t exactly a high gain pickup, as far as i have heard. The pickups on Gary’s strat were low output, apparently, and EVH used a regular PAF in those old records. On the other hand, Kiss, Maiden and Priest used a DiMarzio Super Distortion back in the day. Different strokes for different folks.

The way I currently have my setup, I have high gain pickups in almost all of my guitars. This is because back in the day I had bad amps, and when I upgraded to the Marshalls I didn’t wanna use a pedal for gain except for the ocassional boost. I wanted to do things the way my heroes did it back in the day, which was cranking their amps and giving them an extra edge someplace in the chain.

I am not into uberheavy high gain sounds. My ideal type of tone is 70’ hard rock or 80’s metal.

The way I stand now, I haven’t used the Marshalls in a while and I have a Fender tube combo with some pedals for home use. There’s  plenty of gain on tap in these, as the three I am currently using are a Riot, an OCD and a Keeley modded DS-1. When I first started using them, I honestly didn’t pay attention to where I was setting the gain. I just moved the pots until it sounded good to my ears. Recently I noticed they all were set up at around 12 o' clock or lower.

A few weeks ago i atended a guitar clinic where the guy used a Les Paul type guitar with Duncan 59’s and a Strat with an unknown humbucker in the bridge. His setup employed an EVH 5150 overdrive for gain, and he sounded great. I took my main guitar, a Strat with a Duncan Custom 5 and after the clinic he wanted to try it with his setup.

The Custom 5 is allegedly a high output PAF with an Alnico 5 magnet. And with the way he had his 5150 set, it was umbearably distorted, nothing like it sounded with his guitars. I am talking brutal metal high gain. Not my cup of tea at all.

Now were this my pedal, i would have turned down the gain and it probably would have worked great. But that got me thinking that maybe I am missing something with high gain pickups.

So what do you guys think? Low output pickups and let the pedals/ amp do the work? Or high gain to begin with and adjust as needed? Can the same results be obtained either way or maybe I am just Reading too much into it?


  • Dinosaur David BDinosaur David B Posts: 18,270
    edited December 2020
    HBs are different animals from SCs. And you know that.

    Look. Everything is a balance between how hot you run your amps, where you get your distortion from, etc.  And there are so many ways to get to the same place.

    Yes, Gary Moore's 61 Strat had low output, true SC pickups, and he used a Boss DS-1 to get the Corridors/Victims tone live (as you see in the Rockschool video).  At that point in history, NO ONE HAD A COMPUTER, or a monitor creating noise on his signal in the studio or live.  If he had tried to record those tracks on a Protools PC with 2 or 3 monitors in the room, the noise would have been unworkable.

    So don't be a purist at the expense of reality.

    These days, the trend is heading toward guys using preamp pedals through clean amps.  Personally I like getting my distortion from the amps and hot pups rather than pedals. I find hot pups get there easier. But that's just me. And your rig may be totally different.

    These days, if you're talking about using true, noisy SCs in a Strat for Dino music in 2019, you're mad! And I say this a guy who has TWO (almost unusable) Strats with noisy SCs.  I'm spec-ing out a 3rd that FINALLY has NOISELESS SCs, because true SCs for heavy rock/metal in 2019 is just flat-out nuts.  There are just too many electronics in my home to get anything like a clean recording. And the same is even true for HBs, but to a slightly lesser extent.

    My point is that you cannot take something like the pups out of context with the rest of your rig and categorically claim any one thing or another.  Gary's pups were low output SCs. My Blackmocaster's were high output SCs, but I got a very similar recorded sound with them. 

    Frankly, It's all about the sound you dial up with the whole rig. Not what pups you put in the guitar.

    Post edited by Dinosaur David B on
    I threw me guitar out. Why bother? Why bother? Use it as a coffee table. Because I can't play it like that. 
    -- David St. Hubbins.
  • Great answer, thanks. I forgot to mention noiseless PUs. That's the one thing i became aware early on, with my first strat type guitar. The noise was unbearable and this was the early 90's. No WiFi yet...

    Nowadays my two guitars with SCs have noiseless PUs. There's no other way, really. Duncan is making a line of noiseless based on their classic models. That's what I am going for on my next strat, which I'll probably build myself unless I get the dough for a Chubtone.
  • mr_crowleymr_crowley Posts: 6,651
    edited January 2019
    You probably knows this and Dave's post is great but I thought I chip in one thing I've noticed, my two cents if you like.

    Every amplifier has a sweet spot and every guitarist has an amount of distortion and compression he likes to have in his sound. And that might be different for different styles, hence different guitars for example.
    My mindset is that you choose an amplifier that has the right tonality for you and put it in it's sweet spot where you think it sounds the best. And then you balance that out with the output of the pickups. More gain = hotter p'up... It's a bit of a balance thing where you have to like try stuff out until you find something you like. You know you have p'up you know you like and an amp you like than you have to balance the sweet spot(s) of the amp against the output of the pickup to get THAT sound.
    If you add pedals the same logic goes but you'll have one more component to balance.

    I pretty much always have my Marshall set the very same way. Along with my MXR Micro Amp which is set a bit different depending on what I'll do but usually between 12 and 3 o clock. Then I get different guitars for different things. If I wanna do real hair metal, late '80s hot rodded sound I grab my Ibanez (with a DiMarzio Evolution) and kick in the Micro Amp, if I turn that off it's more mid '80s heavy metal.
    If I put in my Gibson (P90s) it's very raw NWOBHM sound with the MXR activated and if I take it out of the chain it is like late 70s early 80s hard rock sound, very AC/DC-ish to my ears.
    And this goes for all my guitars. My BCR Gusnlinger (EMG81) does more modern and chugging stuff, my Tele is like another shade of the Gibson (which is great when recording) and my Les Paul copy is dark and very high output and is nice for those downtuned heavy riffs.
    But I almost never touch the controls of my amp or pedals. I have them set up in the way I think they sound the best, then I just change guitars (or p'ups if you like) for different purposes and different sounds.

    I think that is the key to succesfully getting the tone you like being able to find an amp (and maybe pedal) that just give you the right basic tone and then match it with a pickup that gives you that extra little thing that pushes to whole thing into perfection.

    I might be oversimplifying things but for me this approach has worked well :) And left me fiddling less and playing more, which is a great thing :+1: 
    Post edited by mr_crowley on
  • Dinosaur David BDinosaur David B Posts: 18,270
    edited January 2019
    It's funny. I think that with experience, most of us learn to dial in whatever sound we naturally gravitate to with pretty much any guitar or amp we play through. This (IMO) is partially what perpetuates the tone is in the fingers nonsense. But it has less to do with our fingers and more to do with our ears.  I know I usually gravitate to a similar sound regardless of whether I'm using a Strat or a LP or whatever, and I think most players do.  

    In a more famous example, Jimmy Page on Zep I, dialed-up a tone that sounds exactly like a LP through a Marshall on those tracks -- particularly on things like Dazed and Confused. At the time he did this, he no longer owned and wasn't playing a Les Paul OR a Marshall.  That album was recorded with a Tele, and a Vox Super Beatle (the Supro has been debunked by JP, himself).  But that was clearly the sound he gravitated toward in his head, because soon after, he got that very gear became synonymous with the LP/Marshall combination and sound. 

    So it really didn't matter whether his pups were hi or low output, or if his amps were this or that. My point is he would have dialed up that sound one way or another, regardless. And it's even easier to achieve that in the studio.

    Post edited by Dinosaur David B on
    I threw me guitar out. Why bother? Why bother? Use it as a coffee table. Because I can't play it like that. 
    -- David St. Hubbins.
  • Great point. Another good example is John Sykes. He famously used Gibson Dirty Fingers on his LP with Mesa Coliseum heads for the 87 Whitesnake album. At some point in the 90's he switched to what ever PUs Gibson was using then (classic 57s? something like that) and JCM 800s and he still sounds pretty much like you expect him to sound in the live albums where he plays those songs, at least to my ears. I have seen a video of Gilmour playing Confortably Numb with a Charvel with a bucker in the bridge and it still sounded like him. Page of course is the best example. I know literally dozens of people that swear every Zep album is a LP thru a Marshall.
  • TravisWTravisW Posts: 1,041
    I agree 100% that people gravitate towards dialing their sounds a particular way. I think I've noted here before about the guy in a local cover band who I first met about 20 years ago, when he was playing through a Peavey Classic 30, and it sounded really good. He's been through at least 5 figures worth of guitar gear since then, and every live rig he's ever had, from the Mesas to the modded Marshalls to the low wattage Dr. Zs all sounded pretty close to how he had dialed in that Classic 30. 
  • bourbonsamuraibourbonsamurai Posts: 1,638
    edited January 2019
    one area where pickup output has a noticeable effect is pick attack.  if you are heavy handed, and attack your guitar like Robben Ford, you likely will not get along with high output pickups, no matter how the rest of your rig is configured.
    Post edited by bourbonsamurai on
  • Seven MoonsSeven Moons Posts: 8,933
    The closest I've been to my idea of a classic 80s tone was on this amateurish Scorpions cover:

    I don't think it sounds like a "modern metal" tone, although it was entirely recorded with EMGs. So, there are different ways to achieve the same goal. I find it much easier with high output pickups straight into a nice amp, than with OD or distortion pedals... 
  • one area where pickup output has a noticeable effect is pick attack.  if you are heavy handed, and attack your guitar like Robben Ford, you likely will not get along with high output pickups, no matter how the rest of your rig is configured.
    This is a great point. There are recording from heavier bands, death and grindcore stuff where you can hear the picking, which means they probably used high output PUs with high gain amps. That can get annoying if not careful.
  • eduardoritoseduardoritos Posts: 3,802
    You can always put some air between pup and strings if the pick up has too much gain.

    I have a Custom 5 in one of my guitars and I really love how this guy sounds, but, I have down flat to the pup ring, because is a really loud pick up.
  • Dinosaur David BDinosaur David B Posts: 18,270
    edited December 2020
    Funny you should bring that up.  If one guy has a low output pup set really close to the strings, and another has a high output pup set low, how meaningful are any conclusions you draw? 

    Regardless of pup output, I always raise my pups as high as I can get them (stopping just before the magnets cause vibration issues) and I let the chips fall where they may -- that is, I adjust/compensate elsewhere as needed. But that's just another example of how many ways there are to get to the same place. 

    Honestly, you have to work really hard to get bad tone in 2019. 
    Post edited by Dinosaur David B on
    I threw me guitar out. Why bother? Why bother? Use it as a coffee table. Because I can't play it like that. 
    -- David St. Hubbins.
  • A few weeks ago I saw a thread at the Duncan forum from a guy who was obsessing over Viv's Dio tone. And I mean EVH nut brown tone levels of obsession. Anyway one of the points was that Viv used very high output PUs, stuff like the DiMarzio X2N and a Duncan Invader, but photographic evidence showed the Invader very low, deep unto the guitar. I mean, If you are gonna go to those lengths, why not use a regular output PU and keep it at a normal height?

    But as everything with gear, I suppose this in not an exact science. i guess Viv just stuck to it cause it sounded good. Why fix something when it isn't broken?
  • inmyhandsinmyhands Posts: 11,704
    I'm all over the map here. There was a time when I would only use low output pickups. I'm talking like 40+ years. When it comes to true single coils I remain in the same place. Singles need to be low output and still be positioned a good distance from the strings. This produces less volume but allows for two other necessities to create vintage single coil excellence. 1st ..... it makes Straitis, (which can also occur on any true single coil guitar), a non player. It doesn't happen. 2nd ..... it allows vintage, (non-master volume), single channel tube amps to reach their "sweet spot" on the volume control without blowing everyone out of the room.
    With humbuckers I've found models that can be high output and yet sound just as good as low output pups. I don't really understand how this works but it does. Suhr Doug Aldrich, DiMarzio Breeds, EVO2's and Freds, Seymour Duncan Custom Customs and JB's. They work.
    Of note*  When I played through 100 to 120 watt Marshall or Peavey tube amps my preference was solidly low output pups even when using humbuckers. My amps now range from a 6 watt Cornford to a 60 watt Fender. Most fall between 30 and 36 watts. With this amount of tube amp output it's opened up a whole new world of pickups that can produce heavenly tones. 
    Pickups have to be considered as just a part of the tone producing signal chain. When no pedals are involved I  consider the following .......
    Wattage of the amp.
    Preamp tube tonal amps, (Mesa and other cascading gain preamp models).
    Power / Output tube tonal amps, (Marshall, Fender, most Boutique models).
    Guitar to amp or using pedals in between.
    When gain pedals are involved I just assume a vintage pre with a tonal output tube build. When talking tube amps this is the form that works the best with gain pedals. The most popular amps today seem to be setup to work with pedals. If you own or look to own vintage classic amps and want to utilize gain pedals in your signal chain you'll do best looking at Fender, Marshall and Vox type builds and use pickups of a low to medium output.  
    Mesa changed everything. That cascading preamp seems to just love anything you throw at the front end. There are multiple brands building amps of this type today and work much like Mesa in this situation. In many ways they seem to prefer higher output pickups. It's like adding another gain stage in front of the onboard stages. John Petrucci gets fantastic tone using a medium high output neck and very high output bridge pickup into a Mesa Mark II C+. Excellent electric guitar tone in every way. Steve Van uses high output pickups into his signature amp and gets the guitar tone found on his songs "Whispering a Prayer" and "For the Love of God". Again .... excellent guitar tone.
    Because of my love for multiple effect pedals in the signal chain and a strong preference for classic / vintage / boutique tube amp builds dependent on the amp tone involving more output tube than preamp tube voicing the majority of my personal pickup choices fall in the low output column. That said ........ for particular amp choices and setups I also own and use high output humbuckers including DiMarzio Super 3's, Breeds and EVO 2's. All three of these sounded fantastic through my old Mesa Mark III.
  • yngwie666yngwie666 Posts: 6,557
    I tried low gain pickups but I keep coming back to Suhr Aldrich or SH4 or similar. For me low gain is good for 70's rock or blues, otherwise you need an overdrive pedal and your sound will be less shaped by the guitar+amp and more by the OD in the middle, which 99% of time will be a close circuit to a TS9 or TS808.
  • cvansicklecvansickle Posts: 6,292
    The Suhr Doug Aldrich may have a high gain rating, but it sounds much fuller than the typical humbucker in that range. The Les Pauls I have with Dougies are significantly louder than the SG with a Gibson 498T. Sure, a Les Paul should sound bigger, but we're talking A LOT bigger, bigger than a Les Paul with a 498T would sound.

    The SG is next for the DAs, I'm afraid...
    Death Or Glory - Who Dares Wins!
Sign In or Register to comment.