Can better pickups really make a cheap guitar sound more high-end?
I’ve been wanting to try this test for quite a while now, doing a controlled experiment where all the variables are the same to test the difference between stock pickups and high-quality ones like mine. For this test I acquired a fairly run-of-the mill P-Bass copy with a maple neck, rosewood fretboard, some sort of inexpensive body wood like basswood or laminate, and standard electronics. Cost: $100.
I started by recording the stock bass via direct input to my M-Audio Firewire. I recorded in ProTools and just used some simple compression and a little bit of reverb to give it some depth. I did a simple riff (forgive my sloppy playing) first with a pick and then switched to fingers.
Next I took apart the bass and took out the old Select by EMG pickups. Output was 7.6k and magnetic pull was over 50 Gauss per coil.
I replaced these with a set of my vintage-spec pickups with Alnico V magnets hand beveled and hand weakened to 25 Gauss. They are scatterwound with 42 gauge Formvar wire with 10,000 winds per coil, yielding a little over 10k of output. I top it off with wax potting in the proper mixture of beeswax and paraffin and wire it all up with vintage-style cloth covered push-back wire. Truly the cream of the crop. Total cost of the bass with my pickups: $200.
I wired everything back up and restrung the guitar with the same strings and recorded the same riff with the same software and the same compression and reverb and you can hear the results below in the two mp3 files. It helps to listen with some high-quality headphones.
First you will hear the guitar with the stock EMG pickup, it’s a cheap pickup and sounds about as it should.
Next you hear my vintage-spec P-Bass replacement. First, pay close attention to the extreme highs and you will notice even the most subtle sounds of the fingers moving over the roundwound strings, something you can’t even hear from the EMGs. This clarity and response of my pickup is a result of scatterwinding, this lowers the distributed capacitance of the pickup. Now listen to the extreme lows and you will hear nice round, organic low notes where the EMG is flabby. If you listen to the track again and this time listen to the mids and you will hear all kinds of character and life where the EMG’s are obviously lacking. A guitar should have a “voice” and not just sound like a P-Bass, the mids are where this character lies. The Sklar pickups hear this voice very well and it comes through organically whereas the EMGs sound harsh and metallic.
The clarity and character of the Schuyler Dean pickup comes from the select components that I use and the quality of the craftsmanship. They say a band is only as good as its worst player, and that is true with pickups as well. If every piece of the puzzle is a good one then the results will be good.