Pickups, PAF and Other Myths
Lots of people making replicas of PAF pickups and vintage Fender pickups.
An interesting note. When Larry Dimarzio came around in the 70's he got very popular, very fast. Not a matter of opinion but verifiable history. What does this tell you? It tells me many players were eager to replace something they were not quite happy with. Of course, people are always looking for greener grass so it doesn't mean stock pickups were bad. But there were short comings to stock PU's in may cases that people were eager to change. Rock guys for instance had a definite need for a hotter wind. Many sounds of the 70's sure as heck are not coming from stock pickups. Enter the 80's and oh boy.
I get a lot of rock guys looking for PAF's. However the type of music they play is a scenario where PAF's are just going to leave them frustrated. Ace Frehley was throwing PAF's in the garbage for Dimarzio's and today thousands of Ace fans are searching for the mythical PAF. Grass is always greener. I love good PAFS. They supply a gorgeous midrange honk that agrees with many styles, including classic metal. Bad PAFS just sound weak. Unfotunately many bad PAFS exist. There is a reason people changed them back in the day. Some won the PAF lottery, other lost. Gifted ears playing for a living needed working tools.
II don't think there is much difference in quality from the 50's to today. Today with have so much more technology and study at out fingertips. The success stories of the 50's such as the PAF were an accident really. I have had customers chase PAF after PAF looking for that tone in their head. The problem is that tone in their head has nothing to do with the PAF. They digested the legend and made the connection in their mind.
In the end there are good pickups and bad pickups. The parts to make pickups used to be incredibly cheap. Even today I can get a set of strat pickups for $10. These will be cheap imports that sound terrible. A few hundred bucks to a good maker will get me a set of strat pickups just as good as any vintage set. Even Fender still makes strat pickups. The materials have not changed ..... much. A set of new Fender 57/62 are going to be the same pickup you chase down on Ebay for $2500. OK that's a generalization but really - the likelihood of the expensive vintage model being much better is not good. Its a big gamble that only sometimes pays. Many of todays pickups have a "shrill" thing in common. I don't know why. Insulation coating have changed a bit and magnets can vary batch to batch. I have experienced this myself. Its like wood, you can cut two magnets from the same piece and get a different result from each. Black magic? Yes ... there is a bit of magic in the way sound comes from pickups. This is the murky waters marketers exploit. But its not all lies. Some things effect tone that make no real scientific sense.
Pickups make a big difference in sound. What it boils down to in my opinion is this. A maker who has plenty experience will know how to tailor a pickup for a tone. What might work in a maple guitar might not work well for mahogany etc. I believe the best way to get a sound is to tell a good maker what type of guitar you want to use and name some songs with the tone you like. That's the shortest distance to getting the tone you are after. Chasing a myth about what Billy Gibbons or anyone used circa whatever ... that kind of thing is full of unknowns. Eddie Van Halen for instance told so many stories about his gear it took until now for computers to be able to index it all. People were running to Eddies buddy, Jose, to get their Marshalls modded. Decades later Eddie admits his amps were stock and he made up the Jose mod story to get his buddy some business. No one knows what was in any stars guitar but their guitar tech at the time. Often times the players themselves don't know. When a pickup goes bad on the road do you think Clapton gets out the soldering iron? He might at home but on the road when something goes wrong who knows what pickup gets put where and if he likes it - he might cut the next album with it and a legend is born. Meanwhile that Dimarzio you scoff at might be the very pickup that made that sound in your head.
I don't care if a pickup says Made In Korea or Joes Garage next door. If its sounds good keep it. As a general rule the import stuff is made to please bean counters, not sound good. Its worthwhile to buy from a reputable maker. There are many and some make great pickups today that will match or beat performance of vintage favorites. As with anything it takes a little research. I don't have any deals to recommend anyone. I buy my stuff. Wolfetone has produced nice pickups and the big companies like Duncan and Dimarzio really have good sounding and cheaply priced models. Several high price boutique pickups have left me very disappointed, others impressed.
Update: Boutique Pickups
I have used pickups from many different "boutique" builders. There are some good pickups coming out of these small shops. However I must caution - there are way to many people claiming to be pickup winding experts out there. Pretty much all of these people ge their supplies from the same place. Its painfully obvious. Whether it be winding wire, hookup wire, screws, bobbins .... they all shop at the same online supply house. This alone is not a bad thing of course but they usually all claim to make totally accurate PAF's etc. Obviously this is BS and its getting beyond ridiculous. Far to many people who started yesterday populate the forums pretending to be old sages. This makes things tough for the consumer who doesn't have 8 hours a day to sift thru losers to find a winner.
I can give one hint how to search - winners, those with skill and good reputations, do not have time to talk in forums all day. They are busy winding pickups for repeat customers. Just like guitar makers. Its unfortunate as there are talented people out there who must somehow wade thru a sea of clowns to get noticed. In the Pickup winding space, this sea is growing massive. I believe it is because this is likely the simplest guitar part to get into. The parts and winding machine can all be kept in one small corner of someone's house. Unlike building guitars which requires planer, jointer, table saw, bandsaw, large belt sanders, routing table , assembly tables , paint booth ....... etc. I do not say this to thumb my nose at pickup winders. Just the bad ones who seem to do nothing but buy the same crap and then try and hawk stuff on forums by spouting BS. This is much like the kit guitars makers who do not actually make their necks etc but buy from others then paint it and call themselves luthiers. That space too has gotten out of hand.
Much like the audiophile world - far to many people in this industry spout meaningless crap until they puke, while they puke, and after without pause or shame. Even sadder, many people will line up to fork big $ for this sizzle(ala custom shop) ...without ever getting a morsel of steak. Meanwhile there are people with a perfectly grilled tenderloin on their grill ... with no one paying any attention because they are not shouting like a carnie wearing a jester hat and doing summersaults while banning anyone whose truth interferes in the forum they control .... oh yes I said it.
I make pickups on occasion but do not have any lines for sale nor intentions to have lines for sale. More than enough people offer this already. What I can say from personal experience is it appears to be more how you make the pickup than anything. I have wound with various wires etc. Ingredients obviously matter but the overall magic seems to be in how its wound. There are many people far more experienced in pickup manufacture like Seymour Duncan and he has lots of YouTube videos etc. My personal experience is that old black magic - it does exist.
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