Hands-On Review:Seymour Duncan Pickups and Effects, Recipes for tone
By Ara Ajizian
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
When you think about it, a signature guitar tone is a pretty mystical thing. Even if you’ve never heard a particular song before, the moment you hear that opening riff or lead, it’s pretty easy to identify who’s playing, be it Carlos Santana, Slash, David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, etc. It leaves many of us asking, "How do they do it?" So we run out and spend money on new guitars and amps … anything that might bring us closer to that sound. Or, maybe hearing such legendary players inspires us to seek out our own signature tone. Either way, that age-old question isn’t answered easily, but one area that’s often overlooked is the importance of your guitar’s pickups. If there’s one man in the industry who truly understands this, it’s Seymour Duncan, and that’s why his company leads the pack in pickup manufacturing and refining tone for players of every genre.
Although there are plenty of elements in the signal chain that have an effect on your sound, it’s hard to understate the importance of pickups in the Great Tone Equation, as I like to call it. Effects are another variable that can take your tone from good to great or, conversely, from great to suck if they’re not good quality or used improperly. For this review, Seymour Duncan sent me three guitars outfitted with different pickups and three of their SFX stompboxes to see how each pairing could help you capture certain signature sounds and use them as a starting point for creating your own sonic signature.
Slash ’n’ burn
When I first started playing guitar after playing bass for a number of years, I thought the Great Sound Equation was easily solved: 1 Gibson Les Paul + 1 Marshall tube amp = great rock tone. Well, that’s definitely a great place to start, but having been a Musician’s Friend staff writer for nearly five years now, I’ve learned there’s a lot more that goes into it.
The first pickup/effect pairing I dug into is aimed at achieving the unmistakable rock tones that players like Slash, Jimmy Page, Mike McCready, and countless others have taken and shaped into their own unique sounds. I received a pristine Gibson Slash Signature Les Paul Goldtop outfitted with Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro humbuckers and the SFX-11 Twin Tube Blue two-channel preamp, and was soon immersed in a sea of glorious rock tone.
With its two sub-miniature 6111 dual-triode tubes, the Twin Tube Blue is voiced for blues and rock, making it the perfect complement to the Alnico II Pro pickups. Thanks to their uniqe coil windings, the mid-level output of the humbuckers drove the Twin Tube Blue’s tubes nicely. This imparted a warmth and richness to the bottom end on the pedal’s Clean channel that broke up nicely with a turn of the guitar’s volume knob. They also provided plenty of crunch for the Lead channel for balls-out riffing and soaring leads with tons of sustain. All in all, this pairing made for dynamic, responsive rock tones across the spectrum. You want a little Zep? No problem. Covering "Sweet Child o’ Mine" with your band? Check. The Alnico II Pros and Twin Tube Blue are a match made in rock ’n’ roll heaven!
As legendary as the Les Paul is in the annals of rock tone, right there with it is the single-coil sound of the Fender Strat. I won’t lie—though I love the feel and playability of a Strat with a maple fretboard, I’ve always gravitated more toward the Les Paul sound, feeling that the single-coil-equipped guitars I’ve played didn’t give me the kind of creamy warmth that guys like David Gilmour somehow coaxed out of their instruments. The secret, it appears, is in the pickups. The second axe I received was a vintage Strat equipped with Custom Staggered SSL-5 single-coil pickups along with the SFX-10 Déjà Vu Tap Delay with BBD. I reviewed the Déjà Vu earlier this year and fell in love with its blendable digital and analog bucket brigade delays.
Talk about creamy … the SSL-5 boasted a thickness I hadn’t encountered from single-coils before, particularly in the bridge position. With distortion engaged on my tube amp, the sound was rich yet full of high-end harmonics that enriched the overall tone. The typical single-coil brightness was enhanced without sounding twangy or shrill. In conjunction with the Déjà Vu, the bridge pickup had me believing I could create soaring, David Gilmour-style leads, even though I’m more of a power chordist when it comes to playing guitar.
Far from a one-trick pony, the Déjà Vu’s ability to blend digital and analog delays opened up a universe of sounds along with the unique tonal characteristics of each position of the Strat guitar’s pickup switch. Along the way I was able to tap into a number of tones that immediately made me think of a number of Strat players I’ve always admired, as well as create sonic patterns that were all my own.
What makes the SSL-5 such a tasty pickup is its overwound coil, which generates a higher output than the classic SSL-1. The sound is like a single coil on steroids, perfect for heavy rock, SRV-style blues, or any situation where you want to maintain harmonic richness and increase sustain.
The final pairing I had to evaluate turned out to be a high-gain, screeching monster of searing metal tones. A Schecter Diamond Series axe outfitted with Duncan’s active Blackout humbuckers and the Twin Tube Mayhem are a dynamic tonal team that covers the gamut of all things metal.
Blackout humbuckers were designed to give metal guitarists more of what really matters: lots of low end for soul-crushing chunk and vicious amounts of top end for lead work with enhanced hum reduction and less compression than other active humbuckers. Translation: huge output and a very musical tone across the entire frequency range.
The Twin Tube Mayhem, already voiced for metal, interacted brilliantly with the high output of the Blackout pickups, creating an incredible dynamic range. The massive amount of gain was easily kept in check—or unleashed—with the Mayhem’s Volume and Gain controls. Along with the tone controls on the guitar, the pedal’s three-band EQ was effective across the board. Scooping the midrange and enhancing the low end made for darker, modern tones, while raising the highs and mids drew out classic ’80s-style speed metal sounds. Subtle changes to the overall sound were easy too, as was switching from rhythm to lead using the Twin Tube Mayhem’s selectable 4dB/8dB boost switch.
The Twin Tube Mayhem isn’t your typical metal-distortion stompbox—it’s got an incredible feel because the tubes run at a high plate voltage and really connect with your pickups, giving you the response and roar that you’d expect from a high-gain tube amp. It’s a great step up to the "big leagues" of metal tone if you’re tired of fizzy-sounding pedals or the wannabe buzz of multi-effect "metal" presets.
This setup was definitely not for the faint of heart. Though I love listening to bands like Pantera, Slayer, and Mastodon, as a player I tend to lean more toward straight-up rock. So there was definitely a learning curve for me dealing with that much gain. After a while though I was really impressed with how versatile this pairing was, and the range of tones it produced. Whether you play sludge, doom, old school, modern, or any other style of metal, you’re sure to be pleased with the output and versatility of the Blackout pickups. Add a Twin Tube Mayhem and you’ve got a rig that can do all things metal with an amazing amount of gain and tonal control.
Time for an upgrade
I’ve really only scratched the surface of what’s possible with a set of killer pickups and the proper effects. Of course, everyone’s style is different, and that’s why Seymour Duncan makes dozens of pickups beyond those I covered here. For a relatively small investment and an afternoon with the soldering iron (or a trip to your local guitar shop if you’re not that adventurous), you can reinvigorate your axe and your creativity with a new universe of sounds.
Seymour Duncan’s fundamental understanding of good tone extends to their line of SFX pedals too, giving guitarists even more ways to get the sounds in their head out of their speakers. Blending the right Duncan pickups for your sound with SFX effects can help you capture your favorite classic tones, or create a sound all your own.