What's The Big Deal About High-Output Pickups?

If you want to rock, you’ve just got to do it with a high-output pickup right? After all, if you generate that hot-as-possible signal from the guitar you can slam the front end of the amp to kick it all into overdrive right from ground zero.
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If you want to rock, you’ve just got to do it with a high-output pickup right?

After all, if you generate that hot-as-possible signal from the guitar you can slam the front end of the amp to kick it all into overdrive right from ground zero. It seems to make sense, and yet there are plenty of instances where lower-output (aka “vintage-wind”) pickups might yield preferable results—even when scorched-earth rock action is your objective.

By “high-output,” I’m talking pickups wound with considerably more wire than standard for their particular type—whether the standard is a Gibson-style humbucker or P-90 singlecoil, a Fender-style Strat or Tele single-coil, or a single-coil-sized humbucker. More turns of coil wire means in higher resistance readings and higher output (all else being equal). Keep in mind, however, that impedance readings don’t always tell you how a pickup will sound or potent it is, because there are many other factors involved. Very often, high-output pickups are made with ceramic magnets rather than the alnico magnets found in most vintage-style pickups. That said, not all pickups made with ceramic magnets are necessarily hot, but these are the baseline factors found in common in many high-output pickups.

There are plenty of uses for high-output pickups, and they serve many players very well. The craze for high-output replacements started around the mid ’70s, most notably with DiMarzio’s Super Distortion humbuckers and singlecoils, when players were looking to drive some of the (admittedly rather lackluster) amps of the era into overdrive. The high-gain amp was a new and rare thing, juicy vintage tube amps of the ’50s and ’60s were often seen as “yesterday’s model,” and overdrive pedals were in their infancy. Add it up, and the super-hot pickup looked like the way to go.

Once the honeymoon was over, though, many players found that while they could get the big crunch and singing lead tones that were initially so exciting, some high-output pickups didn’t give them a whole lot else. Harsh highs, over-abundant midrange, and murky lows can be characteristics of these pickups, along with occasionally a lack of dynamics: an all-or-nothing response that leads to a “brick-wall” playing feel.

Dig into the most revered rock and bluesrock tones ever created, however, and you’ll find that many of them were achieved using lower-output, vintage-spec pickups. The original PAF and Patent Number Gibson humbuckers in the Les Pauls, SGs and ES-335s used by Eric Clapton, Paul Kossoff, Alvin Lee, Mike Bloomfield, Gary Rossington, and others were all relatively low-wind humbuckers, even if they were at the upper end of the scale for PAFs (which could vary considerably in output).

Likewise, the Fender single-coils in Jimi Hendrix’s or Ritchie Blackmore’s Strats, and in the Telecaster that Jimmy Page used to record the “Stairway to Heaven” solo and other classics, were all lowoutput pickups. Explore further and you’ll find the DynaSonics in the Gretsch Silver Jet that Billy Zoom used to crank out raw proto-punk riffs with his band X, or the Filter’Trons in Billy Duffy’s White Falcon with the Cult were also low-output pickups.

While many of the earlier tone crafters used these pickups because that’s all they had, later generations of players have learned that you can always add gain to a guitar’s signal, but you can’t take it away. An important point, because a signal tends to retain greater clarity, more dimension, and broader dynamics if it isn’t too hot coming out of the guitar. Hit the amp’s front end or your favorite distortion pedal with the electronic maelstrom of a high-output pickup, and your tone might kick off with some over-baked characteristics that you can’t dial out further down the line.

Start off with the juicy goodness of a lower-output pickup, on the other hand, and you can add all the gain you like to that rich, sweet, dynamic foundation. You need to try any set of pickups through your own rig before you know for sure whether they’re right for you, but don’t assume that heavy rock requires high-output pickups, whatever the apparent logic might seem to tell you on paper.

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