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Hands-On Review: Gibson USA-Made Guitar Pickups

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Transform your great-playing axe into a great-sounding axe!

By Mikey Lank

Gibson's USA-made pickups provide a broad range of tones that share one characteristic--they're all good. For a whole lot less than buying a new guitar, one of these magnetic marvels can transform the guitar you have into a much sweeter and more powerful instrument. I tried out six of Gibson's finest pickups for this review and was amazed at the quality of sound. In keeping with its seminal role in pickup development, Gibson magnetizes its own magnets and offers a limited lifetime warranty on all USA-made pickups. Gibson pickups feature such boutique-quality touches as nickel baseplates with threaded holes (not stamped), snug-fitting machined pole shoes, German silver or 24k-gold-plated covers, maple spacers, and wax potting. Inimitable tone makes it clear that the extra effort is well worth it.

Got an Epiphone that you'd like to hot rod with Gibson pickups? The process is simple following my step-by-step guide: How to Install Gibson Pickups In Epiphone Guitars. For a modest investment, you can transform your Epi into a tonal titan.

What's in a pickup?

Any veteran player will tell you that electric guitar tone depends on a lot more than just a pickup. But only an idiot would tell you that the pickup is not a critical factor. While design, manufacturing techniques, and woods are very important to a guitar's tone, a good pickup is a whole lot more important.

Gibson '57 Classic Humbucker Neck Pickup Gibson '57 Classic Plus Pickup Gibson 490T Original Humbucker Pickup
'57 Classic'57 Classic Plus490T Humbucker

This fact combined with the advent of extremely capable woodworking factories in Asia has resulted in a unique opportunity for underfunded players. Nowadays you can pick up something like an Epiphone Les Paul Junior for a few days worth of minimum wage and find yourself with a decent-looking, fine playing guitar. Save up a few days more to score a genuine Gibson humbucker to drop in it, and you've got a brand-new guitar that plays real nice and sounds great for a phenomenally low outlay. It won't make your low-end Epiphone into a high-end Gibson, but it will close the gap by more than half.

And even if you already have a high-quality instrument, you might be amazed at how much better it can sound with a truly premium pickup. Very often (almost always with a Gibson or Epiphone), you can install a new pickup without modifying anything else on your guitar. If you don't like it, just pull it out and Gibson will let you exchange it for another (within 60 days of your purchase). For home recording, you can even use a single instrument and put in different pickups to get different sounds. Usually it's a matter of two simple solder connections.

What's so great about Gibson pickups?

When you score a Gibson humbucker, you're buying from the people who invented humbuckers in 1955. They're the same people who have been winding pickups since 1935 and pioneered the use of alnico magnets and adjustable pole pieces in pickups. Their concern with quality is obsessive, to the point that they magnetize their own magnets so they can be sure of the proper magnetic field and longevity. The pickups are wax-potted and their machined pole shoes (the metal tunnel into which the pole piece fits) are very snug to avoid microphonics (eardrum-piercing screeches). The adjustable pole pieces are threaded right through the nickel baseplate for complete structural integrity.

Gibson 498T Alnico Humbucker Pickup Gibson 496R Hot Ceramic Humbucker Pickup Gibson 500T Super Ceramic Bridge Humbucker Electric Guitar Pickup
498T Alnico Humbucker496R500T

I actually got to tear apart one of these pickups--a Burstbucker 2--and was amazed at the precision workmanship, from the miles of hair-thin enamel-insulated wire wrap to the maple spacer and through-body adjustable pole pieces. But the real proof is in the pudding.

I thoroughly checked out six of Gibson's greatest pickups by putting them one-at-a-time into the Les Paul Junior I bought for my stepson last year. I was actually surprised by how good the original Epiphone humbucker already in the guitar sounded when I played it through my Gibson Super Goldtone GA-30RV amp. But it was night and day between that very respectable pickup and the USA-made Gibson pickups. Every one of them amazed me with its tonal integrity and sheer inspiring musicality.

Epiphone humbucker

I'll start with the original pickup that was in the Epi Les Paul Junior as a basis for comparison. As I mentioned, it sounded way better than expected when I actually played it through a good amp (OK, it's a great amp). Previously, I had only played it through an inexpensive practice amp. Microphonics showed up occasionally when I was playing through my wah and rack effects. The sound was slightly distant and a little shifted to the highs for my taste, but it was still a very good sound, plenty punchy for most rock gigs. Playing crunchy rhythm, it was full and ballsy but lacking presence. Playing clean/jazzy tones (where the naked inherent tone of a pickup is most audible), it had a nice round sound but not much depth or clarity.

Burstbucker Type 2

Gibson Burstbucker 2 Humbucker Pickup

The difference between this Gibson pickup and the Epiphone humbucker was immediately, dramatically apparent. It had way more personality, in-your-face bite, and organic response. As with all the Gibson pickups, this one generated a certain natural core of tone, a ringing bark that scratches some subliminal itch for me. I can't define it exactly but I can tell right away whether a pickup has it or not. All of these Gibson pickups definitely had it. This Burstbucker is a historically accurate reproduction of the first "Patent Applied For" humbucker that originally appeared on the Les Paul in 1955. The Alnico 2 magnet and unbalanced coil windings produced an airy tone with a bit of extra edge as compared to a '57 Classic. Played clean, it had the depth and punch necessary for a good vintage jazz tone.

Distorted, the Burstbucker rips, bites, and tears. Its ample high end got the most out of the wah. It made the instrument sound much more like a classic LP Special, bringing out the character of the guitar and giving the amp a lot more to work with. The rhythm chunk was full without being too dense. It was thick in upper mids and lighter on the bass, making the tone knob more responsive.

Tony Iommi

Gibson Tony Iommi Guitar Pickup

This was definitely my favorite of all the Gibson pickups. It's rounder with more midrange than the Burstbucker. You don't expect a pickup in the bridge position on a low-end LP Special to crank out bold, full jazz tone, but surprisingly the Iommi pulls it off with a well-defined and pronounced bass. Distorted, the Iommi was spookily Black Sabbath sounding. "Iron Man" came out of my guitar of its own accord with that sizzling sustain Tony loves. It made my Goldtone sound like a Marshall--big, bold, and fat, but not without edge. It definitely brought out the heavy rocker in me.

The Tony Iommi made the treble knob more usable, giving me a gentle mix rather than the typical on/off effect I get from most pickups. In rhythm crunch mode, it's tighter and cleaner than the Epi pickup. Higher output pickups like this one generally don't do as well on the treble end, but the Tony Iommi had plenty of highs when I wanted to dial them in. I liked it so well I also tried it out in my Charvel Fat Strat copy and fell completely in love with it there. The Tony Iommi is a real winner for old-school guys like me who are after pure, versatile tone.

Dirty Fingers

Gibson Dirty Fingers Humbucker Pickup

The super-high output of the Dirty Fingers was evident from the first note. When I played it clean I could feel it really pushing the preamp, which broke up a little even at low gain. With a lot of high end, its clean sound was great for Les Paul (the man)-style country jazz riffs. The mids were somewhat scooped with bold bass and very hot treble. I could feel it just itching to get down with some serious distortion.

When I did switch to the lead channel it knocked my socks off! Get ready to have your scalp peeled when you spark this baby up. It had a throaty and commanding tone with lots of presence that sounded kind of like a wah set part way up. It loved those pinch harmonics. When I ran it through my wah, this thing screamed with loads of bell-like harmonic overtones combined with a gritty kick. The attenuated mids gave it phenomenal definition when highly distorted while the bold highs and presence added a lot of high-end sparkle. My amp loved this pickup.

P-94

Gibson P94R Neck Pickup

Since humbuckers have always held my primary allegiance, I was surprised to find I liked this humbucker-sized replica of the original Gibson P-90 so much. On the clean channel, it produced fuller bass and a better jazz tone than any single-coil I've ever played (on a solidbody). It generated a really thick tone for a single-coil but still delivered brilliant single-coil clarity. When crunched, it gets a very vintage Beatles-style tone. It also gets a nice country twang without the piercing edge. Its fat, clean chunk is great for vintage blues leads as well.

Distorted, the P-94 produced a tight, bright, articulated sustain that's clean without being anemic. With a little hand technique, it's glad to pump out whistles and bell-like higher harmonics. This pickup is definitely not for the player who wants to hide out in the distortion. Every note you play is right out front, which is a big advantage in a song that has a lot going on already. Aside from a minor bit of hum, the P-94 provided all the things I like about a single-coil and none of the things I don't like.

'57 Classic

I was already familiar with this pickup, as I have a pair of them on my ES-335. It is without a doubt my favorite pickup for jazz tone and for general versatility. Until I played the Tony Iommi, the '57 Classic was by far my favorite pickup for everything. When played clean, its balanced coils and Alnico 2 magnet generated the warmest, roundest, and most substantial jazz tone you could hope for, with plenty of midrange punch and solid bass that's not boomy.

Mounted in the LP Junior and crunched, the '57 Classic generated full rhythms that were never muddy and cut through the mix while providing a substantial frame for the rest of the song. As a distorted lead pickup, it rang out full and true with fabulous sustain and plenty of high-end sparkle without being too edgy. The bold midrange made it a tone that could carry the melody to new heights without assistance.

Burstbucker Pro

Gibson Burstbucker Pro Bridge Humbucker Pickup

This is a wilder cousin to the Burstbucker. With an Alnico 5 magnet, it generated bold bass, fat mids, cutting highs, and a complex tone with lots going on. In a distorted lead mode it produced more high harmonics than the regular Burstbucker. Combined with the mids, the result was an effervescent river of tone--a huge anthemic stadium sound with amazing sustain. It responded eagerly to picking dynamics and every subtle hand technique. The trebles came right out when I picked harder and expressive bends didn't get lost in the sauce.

When I turned the treble up, there was tons there to work with--plenty of grist for my effects mill. It made for a particularly rich chorus. In crunch mode, the Burstbucker Pro was very bright but not lacking in bottom end punch.

And that's not all . . .

Well, that's it for the pickups I tried out for this review, but Gibson has still more pickups to choose from. The Mini-Humbucker is an exact replica of the one found on the '70s LP Deluxe with a bright and focused tone that provides a little crisper edge than the wider humbuckers.

The 490 (in bridge or neck versions) provides the quintessential sharp but meaty modern Les Paul tone that can be heard on zillions of recordings. This is a perfect choice to enhance the sound of an Epiphone Les Paul. The 496R is an aggressively high-output neck-position pickup that makes a perfect complement to the 500T, which is an extremely hot bridge pickup with lasting sustain and great definition. The 498T is a very modern-sounding Alnico 5 humbucker with high output and enhanced highs and mids.

Gibson's only other USA-made signature pickup is the Angus Young, which generates a hot signal with lots of tonal warmth. It's got plenty of attitude and pounds of punch for those about to rock. Last, but certainly not least, is the classic P-90, an exact replica of the pickup found on the original goldtop Les Paul. It sounds just like the P-94 I reviewed above, but mounts differently.

Winners across the board

I couldn't be more impressed with Gibson's USA-made pickups. They made a very inexpensive LP Junior sound like a serious pro instrument that I would like to have in my collection. And there's enough variety to suit the tastes of almost any tone freak out there.

Tags: Gibson Pickups Guitar Accessories & Parts

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