Pickup Swap

A few weeks ago I swapped out the pickups on my beloved old super-Strat. I replaced the whole kit and kaboodle with a set of DiMarzio Evolution pickups. I don’t have a ton of experience with guitar electronics and, frankly, that always really bothered me. I know that it can get complicated, but the basic concept seemed so straightforward. So I decided to dive into the world of pickups, soldering and guitar electronics. Now that I have some clue as to how this stuff works and have had a taste of success, I can’t stop thinking of all the ways I want to mod my guitars.

On the heels of the Strat pickup transplant, I decided to level-up and swap out the pickups on my Les Paul Classic. This guitar is Gibson’s recreation of the classic Les Paul of 1960 (or at least some approximation of one). The only difference is that mine had extremely hot pickups. The 500T in the bridge was an absolute face-melter. It was kind of cool, but between my EVH Wolfgang and the aforementioned Super-strat, I didn’t need another guitar like that. I wanted something a little bluesier with a little less metal.

So I wandered down to my favorite local guitar store and acquired some new Seymour Duncan humbuckers. I settled on a ’59 (SH-1) in the neck and a JB (TB-4) model in the neck. There’s a dizzying array of pickups out there in the world and the choices are overwhelming. Fortunately I got a chance to try these out because the local shop had a G&L ASAT Deluxe, which has that exact combination of pickups. After thirty minutes of noodling around with different settings, I was sold. After tackling the super-Strat’s wiring (which was fairly byzantine), I felt pretty confident about digging into the Les Paul. But as soon as I opened up the Paul to look at the wiring, I was completely stumped. 

Img 1986

Img 1986

Unlike the pickups in the Strat, which had four wires coming off of each humbucker, these appeared to be soldered on with just the shielded jacket. Frankly, the simplicity of it baffled me. But then I figured it didn’t particularly matter how these were soldered on, only that they needed to come off and that I could refer to the handy wiring guide that came with the new pickups once it was time to solder those in. The nice thing about this arrangement is that I only had two places to de-solder and the old pickups came right out.

After about twenty minutes of fishing wires through the channels in the body down to the electronics (how do they make that anyway?), I had my new pickups soldered in place. A quick check with the multi-meter and my adequate soldering skills were confirmed. Time to rock! 

I wanted to have some kind of comparison between the sets of pickups. Memory is a pretty poor way to compare different sounds, so I made some recordings of the Les Paul with its original pickups before I started this operation. I didn’t have a lot of time to mic up an amp, so I recorded these on my iPad using JamUp Pro and AudioShare.

Once I rewired the guitar, I went back and made (roughly) the same recordings again with the new Seymour Duncans.

The JB measured a whopping 14kΩ on the multi-meter. Which means that once the coils are activated by a playing string, it’s going to put out a relatively strong signal. By comparison a single-coil pickup has a resistance of around 5-7kΩ. Resistance doesn’t tell you much other than this pickup was relatively “hot” (it doesn’t say anything about the tone). The original 500T is around the same value and I was worried that I’d simply replaced one face-melter with another. But after noodling with it a bit and comparing these recordings I think I’m pretty happy with it. More than any of my other guitars, the Les Paul responds well to rolling back the volume without a huge loss of tone (particularly the highs). Typically the high-end is the first to disappear when you roll the volume back. There are some wiring mods you can make to reduce this (which are on my list of things to try).

For now though, I’m going to give this a week in its current configuration. The real test will be how it responds when it has to fight it out with drums and bass. Thankfully, Seymour Duncan has a very nice return policy that allows you to exchange pickups so that you can get a sound you’re happy with.