I. Electric Guitar Tone: Pickups and Strings
There are basically two types of pickups for electric guitars: single coils and humbuckers; and they sound completely different. Single coils tend to be softer and brighter (and electrical interference will cause them to hum); humbuckers tend to be louder and have much stronger midrange and bass response (and they don’t hum). In addition, single coils tend to have better clarity than humbuckers when played clean, but humbuckers tend to work better with overdrive or distortion (because they are more powerful). Single coils also tend to sound better in the neck position, and humbuckers tend to sound better in the bridge position (again because of the midrange response and the additional power).
There are a number of pickups marketed as single coils that don’t hum, including Fender’s Vintage Noiseless pickups and Lace Sensor’s “Holy Grail” pickups. For the most part, those types of pickups are actually tiny, bright sounding humbuckers. They are made to look like single coils by stacking the two coils on top of each other, instead of laying them side by side. No matter what anyone tells you the only thing that really sounds like a single coil pickup is a single coil pickup.
I think a better way to solve the hum issue is to get a reverse wound reverse polarity (rwrp) middle pickup (Fender Custom Shop Fat 50’s have a rwrp middle pickup). That way, if you have a Stratocaster, for example, you will have single coil tone in positions 1, 3 and 5, but you will have no hum in positions 2 and 4. Alternatively, if you have a Les Paul, you could get humbuckers that allow you to split the coils, etube so that you can convert each humbucker to a single coil with the flip of a switch (Seymour Duncan JB Model humbuckers have four conductor leads, so you can use them with a coil splitting switch). Either way, you can get the best of both worlds.
Among single coil pickups and humbuckers, there are many variations in how they are constructed and how they sound. Basically, a pickup is a row of magnets wrapped in copper wire. So changes in the magnets and the wire affect the sound. Alnico V magnets are commonly used in single coil pickups, like Fender’s Texas Special pickups for Stratocasters and Telecasters; they are stronger magnets and have a sharper sound. Alnico II magnets are more common in humbuckers, like Gibson’s Classic ’57 pickups; they are softer magnets and they have a smoother tone.
As for the copper wire, “overwound” pickups tend to sound louder and have more midrange and bass; pickups with less windings tend to sound softer and brighter. One of the reasons humbuckers sound the way they do is because it takes more wire to wrap the two coils. The thickness of the wiring and the type of insulation that is used are additional factors that affect the sound (e.g. Fender’s early Strat pickups had Formvar insulation instead of enamel; insulating them that way gave them a clearer tone). Today most humbuckers are also wax potted so they won’t squeal at high gain, but the wax potting hurts the clarity a little too (Gibson’s modern Burstbucker pickups and Seymour Duncan’s Seth Lovers attempt to reproduce the clearer tone of early humbuckers by eliminating the wax potting).
Another thing to consider with single coils is how the construction will affect the way the pickup responds to electrical interference. You may love the way a big, fat single coil like a Gibson p90 sounds, but you may also find the extra wiring that makes the pickup sound so good makes it hum louder too. So there is a trade off if you like that sound (more wire = louder, fatter sound = more hum).
The other primary factor in determining the tone of an electric guitar is the strings. Electric guitar strings are made of nickel and steel. The more nickel, the warmer the sound; the more steel, the brighter and louder the strings sound. Also, the thicker the strings the more volume they will produce. That’s why some players like to use heavy strings; they have more tone. If you try them and find they are too hard to play, you can always tune down a half step or more to compensate.
Keep in mind though the nickel is only on the wound strings. The thinner, higher pitch strings are all steel. Also, with the wound strings, it’s not just the nickel content that determines the tone, it’s also the shape of the windings. Roundwound strings are brighter, but flatwound strings have much more bass response, and so- called “rollerwound” strings, like GHS popular “Nickel Rockers,” have a tone that is somewhere in between the two (i.e. they sound darker than roundwounds).
So what you can do by pairing different pickups with different strings is try to get a nicer, balanced tone from the guitar. For example, you might find that rollerwound strings go well with brighter, vintage style single coils, like Fender Custom Shop ’54’s. But the same strings would probably be way too dark for a Gibson Les Paul equipped with ’57 Classics or Burstbuckers (i.e. roundwound strings would sound better). On the other hand, if your Gibson is something like an ES-175 with the same classic humbuckers, and you are looking for a smooth jazz tone, you’ll probably like flatwounds better.
Here are some suggested combinations of strings / pickups / amplifiers / speakers that I think work well:
1. Roundwound Strings / Humbucker Pickups / Tube Amp. (6l6 tubes) / 15″ JBL Speaker (clean sound)
2. Rollerwound Strings / Single Coil Pickups / Tube Amp. (6l6 tubes) / 10″ Jensen Speakers (blues tone)
3. Roundwound Strings / Humbucker Pickups / Tube Amp (el34 tubes) / 12″ Celestion Speakers (distorted rock and roll sound)
4. Flatwound Strings / Humbucker Pickups / Solid State Amp. / Eminence Woofer (jazz tone)
It’s all about the combination and the way the components work together. If you put flatwounds on a Gibson and plug in to a Polytone, you’ll see why so many jazzers love those amps. But if you try the same amp with a Stratocaster and a set of roundwounds, you’ll wonder why anyone would ever buy a Polytone. An amp that sounds good with one guitar may sound terrible with another guitar. And the reason may have nothing to do with the amp. The pickups and strings on the guitar may just not be a good match for the components of the amp.
Another thing to consider is the wiring harness (i.e. the tone and volume controls, and the pickup selector) inside the guitar. You can swap out cheap pickups to improve the tone of your guitar, but you won’t be able to get the most out of the change if you have a cheap, low quality wiring harness connecting the pickups to the output jack. The harness consists of two or four potentiometers, one or two capacitors, a switch and the wiring connecting them all together (and any shielding inside the control cavity or around the wires). The best components are US-made CTS pots, Sprague caps, Switchcraft switches and jacks, etc. The controls reduce volume or treble by introducing resistance and capacitance into the circuit. If the quality isn’t there, the tone will be negatively affected even when the controls are turned all the way up; and the pickups may hum more or less depending upon how well the harness is shielded. So if you are replacing your pickups to improve the sound, it usually makes sense to also check the wiring and see if it needs to be upgraded or additional shielding needs to be added.
And, last but not least, any effect pedals you use between the guitar and the amplifier will also tend to dominate the final tone. Some pedals are more transparent than others, but obviously if you rely heavily on pedals for the tone you want, then the type of pickups and strings you use will have less of an effect.
II. Electric Guitar Tone: Speakers
There are basically three types of vintage speakers: (1) Jensen speakers, (2) JBL and Electrovoice drivers, and (3) Celestion speakers.
Alnico Jensen speakers came standard in Fender tweed amplifiers in the 50’s, including the famous Tweed Bassman, which had four (4) Jensen P10R speakers (Jensen labeled alnico speakers with a “P” and ceramic speakers with a “C”; the “10” refers to the speaker size (10″) and “R” means the speaker is low powered, while “N” would refer to a higher powered speaker). Ceramic Jensen speakers are sometimes associated with the later Fender tolex years, but the alnico speakers were included in those amps too. If you have ever heard anyone talk of an “American” sounding speaker, it’s probably the tone of Fender (i.e. the tone of Jensen speakers in an amp powered by 6l6 or 6v6 tubes) that they are referring to. Jensens are generally bright sounding speakers (they have smaller voice coils and resonance frequencies around 100 Hz), and they have a very clear tone with great sensitivity. As a result, they work especially well with single coil pickups, like those found in a Fender Stratocaster.