For all the variety available in replacement pickups today, very few that offer “traditional” electric-guitar performance stray from the formula of coupling a wire coil to a magnet. According to Fishman, a company best known for making acoustic pickups and amplifiers, all of that changes with its Fluence Open Core Classic Humbuckers. Each Fluence Humbucker is made from 48 thin layers of “traces” (similar to what’s found on printed circuit boards) laid on a robust substrate, which makes them impervious to variations in wire gauge and insulation, fluctuations due to heat and humidity, and other anomalies. At the same time, it allows for consistent sonic results from one pickup to the next. While this might imply that they can’t sound like the conventional PAF-style pickups that zillions of players have come to know and love, Larry Fishman declares that this iconic electric tone was the benchmark for Fluence R&D and absolutely non-negotiable.
Another benefit of the Open Core Classic Humbucker set is that the technology enables the player to access three distinct tones from each pickup via the push-pull tone pots included in the set. The bridge pickup switches between vintage PAF, hot-rodded humbucker and clear vintage single-coil (the latter, Fishman claims, is much more convincing than split-coil sounds from traditional humbuckers). The neck switches between vintage PAF, a more-scooped setting Fishman calls “clear airy chime” and vintage single-coil. Note that the three sounds per unit is achieved with only two switches. The push-pull tone control for each pickup activates that unit’s second voice, and to achieve each pickup’s third voice, the push-pull tone control for the other pickup is used. This is possible because each switch is a DPDT (Double Pull/Double Throw) capable of two simultaneous functions. Clever!
The pickups require either an internal nine-volt battery or an optional lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack and cover plate ($99 extra), but Fishman emphasizes that these totally analog units shouldn’t be thought of as “active pickups.” Rather, it’s simply a new means of achieving a classic pickup sound and performance, even though the active nature does mean they can drive longer cable runs to your amp or pedalboard without signal degradation. The Open Core Classics come in zebra coils (pictured), double-black and double-white, while other Fluence Classic Humbuckers come in a range of covers. All include the Fishman logo and “swoop line,” though, and it isn’t recommended that other covers be installed on the Open Cores. Guitarists seeking to add Fluence pickups to aged or vintage-look guitars will need to take this into consideration.
I tested the Open Core Classics loaded in a 2014 Gibson Les Paul Traditional Pro II supplied by Fishman, and played it into a Friedman Small Box head and 2x12 cab as well as a tweed Deluxe-style combo, using a variety of overdrive pedals. I was immediately impressed by the pickups’ excellent clarity and characterful depth and body. Their baseline personality is definitely within the PAF-inspired wheelhouse — and this from a self-confessed PAF snob who has owned several real examples while having three LP-style guitars with different sets of highly regarded repro PAF pickups in them. But while they sound respectably like their late-’50s target tone, these Fluence humbuckers also seem to offer a little more of everything: more transparency, more fidelity, more range and, of course, more switching options. Fortunately, the clarity and fidelity come without ever straying toward the cold or clinical that we often associate with active or new-tech pickups.
The only thing they have less of is feedback (although the single-coil settings still exhibit some hum). For all the fun and utility of having usable single-coil sounds on both pickups, my favorite switched position was probably the hot-rodded PAF sound on the bridge, which delivers a thicker, creamier, more rock-certified tone than the standard Vintage PAF setting, without being muddy or dark. Ultimately, the Fluence Open Core Classics sounded about as genuinely PAF to me as the majority of respected boutique repro PAFs (which can all differ anyway), while offering other noteworthy performance benefits. Great stuff and deserving of an Editors’ Pick Award.
Fluence Open Core Classic Humbuckers
PRICE $249 (street) for a set of two, including potentiometers, tone caps and all necessary wiring components
SOUNDS Vintage PAF, hot-rodded PAF and slightly-overwound single-coil
POWER 9-volt battery or optional lithium-ion rechargeable battery pack ($99 extra)
KUDOS Genuine boutique-repro PAF-style tone. Three distinct sounds from each pickup
CONCERNS Tone pots feel a little stiff