Two sets of pickups.
When compared, one set sounds hotter, more gritty than the other. But does that make it “better”, or “more like SRV”?
Fact: it is easy to make clean things appear dirty. It is not as easy to make dirty things appear clean.
In guitar language? A balanced, smoother set of pickups can more easily be made to sound gritty than the other way around.
The source matters.
There’s a variety of smartphone camera apps available that allow you to apply retro looking filters to your pictures AFTER you take them. AFTER is the key word here. The source, or original image is untouched. You might create an image that looks old, but the source image was crystal clear. And you can go right back to taking crystal clear images without filters if you choose.
But what if you had a camera app with a built-in “old faded picture” filter? This app took pictures with an old faded camera filter built-in. The old faded image WAS the source image.
Could you take a picture from that app and make it look new, not old and faded? Anyone who’s worked with photography knows that you cannot. Not very easily, not with very much success. It’s easier to take a clear, pristine image and apply a filter to make it look old and gritty than it is to take an old, gritty looking image and make it look clean and pristine.
In this less-than-perfect metaphor, the camera app is your pickups, and your tone is the pictures. Gritty, overwound pickups essentially have a certain sound baked into the source, and it is very hard to undo it.
Why People Like The Texas Specials
Stevie Ray Vaughan had underwound pickups, despite what rumors you may read on the internet. His amps also had a bigger resistor on the input than the stock resistor, designed to cut down the huge signal spikes from his thick strings to the first tube gain stage.
In short, Stevie’s setup was designed to minimize the amount of signal hitting his preamp tubes from his guitar. BUT, Stevie played with fat strings, and with a really strong attack. This created a higher than normal amount of signal, when compared to lighter strings and a weaker attack.The weaker pickups, and higher impedance resistor helped tame his extremely strong picking attack. This minimized the amount of distortion in the preamp tubes, allowing them to push the power tubes with more clean tone.
When the power tubes began to distort, they were distorting cleaner signal, not signal that was already dirtied up by the preamp tubes. The result COULD be an edgy tone with lots of bite. But that bite was not coming from hot pickups slamming the preamp tubes.
Most People Are Not Stevie
Most people are not Stevie Ray Vaughan. Most people don’t play with 11’s or 12’s. And most don’t have his hand strength and picking attack. I suspect that when Fender designed the Texas Special pickups, they chose to make them overwound (unlike Stevie’s pickups), because they knew most people use lighter strings and play with a less powerful picking attack.
Texas Specials will give you more bite, more grit with lighter strings and less work. This isn’t bad, but it’s important to realize that Stevie didn’t get his biting tone this way.
So, when you hear two sets of pickups, played in identical tests, and one sounds more aggressive and more biting, you’re not necessarily hearing something that sounds ‘more’?ù like SRV. What you’re hearing is a set of pickups that has higher output, and therefore, at the same pickup height, will slam more signal into the first preamp tube than a less overwound set of pickups.
THIS, alone, is not a great deciding factor. You can alway make a set of pickups sound hotter and more gritty through the use of effects.
UPDATE It’s important to realize that the signal level alone is not the “dirty” part of the pickup. The overwinding affects the shape and sound of the treble. In extreme cases it can sound brittle and harsh. This is the grit that can’t so easily be undone.
Look At The Window, Not Through It
So, if a pickup’s quality is not necessarily reflected in how ‘gritty’?ù it sounds, what should you listen for then? For strat style pickups, pristine, transparent treble, and balanced tone across the spectrum are what I listen for.
But how do you listen for transparency and balance?
Did you ever look through a window, without looking AT the window? Then, when you looked AT the window, you noticed how dirty it is? When evaluating a pickup’s transparency and balance, you kind of need to look AT the window instead of through it.
Don’t ignore “gritty” and “aggressive”, but remember, those things can always be added. Instead, focus on how pleasing the grit sounds. Is it piercing? Shrill?
Look AT the grit, not through it.
Don’t ignore “fatness”, but remember, there is a number of ways to add bass and midrange. Instead, listen to the fatness. Do the low notes have clarity, or do they sound muddy? Do they sound like a truck engine from inside the cab, or standing in front of the open hood?
Look AT the fatness, not through it.
If one set of pickups has more treble, don’t ignore it, but remember, treble can be boosted or cut. Instead, listen to how clear the treble is. Is it shrill or is it pleasing? Does it have a ‘ssssss’?ù sound, or a ‘shhhhhh’?ù sound? That’s not a great metahpor but hopefully it will make sense.
Look AT the treble, not through it.
What Is Better?
If I can leave you with one thought it is this.
The factors that make a set of pickups sound better are not always what you first hear. As you step back and learn to look AT the window instead of through it, you’ll begin to hear things you didn’t hear before.
Of course, some factors of good tone are subjective. Knowing all of this, some people will still pick gritty pickups over smooth pickups because they WANT that sound, all the time.
And that’s OK. I just want you to be able to hear the difference and understand it :-)