Single coil versus humbucking

Back in 1988 or so, I was reading an article in BAM, a local music magazine, and I noticed an announcement that G&L, Leo Fender’s new guitar company, was selling some demo guitars.  Leo had sold Fender to CBS because he was in poor health, then got better, started Music Man, had a falling out with his partners, and then started G&L, which originally stood for “George and Leo” because his partner was George Fullerton.  Anyway, G&L turned out to be located in the old Fender factory.  I played several ASATs and other guitars, through Randall amps.  I saw the prototype of the Commanche with its weird “Z” shaped pickups, and learned a lot about what they were doing from Dale Hyatt, who had been working with Leo Fender since the old days.  I bonded with an ash-bodied natural finish ASAT signature model with the P-90-like “Magnetic Field Design” pickups.  Mr. Hyatt didn’t really want to sell that particular one, but he saw that I was in love, and he gave me a good deal.  I played the heck out of that guitar, and I still have it, but there was one thing that always frustrated me.  ASATs with the big pickups look like Telecasters (Leo’s original solid body electric guitar, one of the first ever), but they don’t sound like Telecasters.  I was always trying to make it sound like a Tele.

So, about a year and a half ago, I dropped into the Guitar Center in West Covina and played some Teles.  There was a white one with an ash body that I liked (Made in Mexico, otherwise known as  MiM), but I didn’t buy it.  However, it got stuck in my mind (any guitar player will understand) and the following week I went back to try it again, and perhaps take it home.  It turned out that it had been sold, but I found another MiM ash body Tele in natural finish,  a used 2005 Guitar Center “Special Edition”  that played really nice.  I thought it sounded good too, but I was sitting next to a shredder kid playing a Les Paul at enormous volume, so I couldn’t really tell.  Anyway, I bought it.  I pointed out that the jackplate wasn’t stock, so they threw in a gig bag.  I had one problem though.  It was natural ash with a white pickguard, just like the 1988 ASAT.  It was the same shape as the ASAT, although it had a maple fretboard instead of rosewood.  To my family, they looked exactly the same!  I had some unproductive conversations about this.  Here’s the two guitars:

1998 G&L ASAT and 2005 Fender Telecaster

1988 G&L ASAT and 2005 Fender Telecaster

Anyway, now I had a Tele, and I could appreciate my ASAT for what it was.  Ah, but guitar players are never satisfied.  The pickups were a bit generic sounding, and they were noisy.  Here is where we finally get to the actual topic of this post: single coil pickups versus humbucking or noise canceling pickups.  It’s a conundrum.  Single coils are bright, snappy, sparkling, and complex.  Gibson-style humbuckers, which have two magnetic coils with opposite polarity side by side, are mellow, darker, and maybe even muddy.  But single coils hum and buzz, especially around computer screens, fluorescent lights, light dimmers, and bad power.  The buzz is annoying, and can ruin a recording.  How much tone can you trade off to get reduced noise?

Of course, every pickup company has designs that are supposed to give you single-coil tone in a noise canceling package that fits into a single-coil space.  The most common are stacked humbuckers with one coil on top of the other, and rail humbuckers with two really narrow coils side by side.  There are also exotic models that use different magnet material in the different coils.  The verdict in all of these cases ranges from “sounds like a humbucker” to “close but no cigar.”  After a lot of research, I chose GFS “Cool Vintage” Li’l Punchers from Guitar Fetish.  These are rail-type humbuckers that are supposed to give you “vintage Tele tone.”  You can pay hundreds of dollars apiece for boutique pickups.  GFS pickups are cheap, made in Korea.  However, they are highly regarded, at least on guitar discussion boards.

I installed the pickups myself.  The neck pickup was slightly too large to fit in the pickguard, and I got a little impatient when I enlarged the hole, so it was a little uneven.  Impatience is never a virtue when doing guitar repairs and upgrades.  The pickups turned out to be very sensitive to height adjustments, so it took a while to get them sounding good.  They were quiet when your hand was on the strings, but surprisingly noisy when not being touched.  In general, the pickup transplant worked.  However, now I had a problem again.  It didn’t really sound like a Tele.  It sounded good, but like something in between a Tele and a Les Paul.  I was back in Telelessness.

The Li’l Punchers have been in for about a year now, and I am about to take them out.  I’ve got a set of Tonerider Vintage Plus pickups that are going in, plus a black pickguard and a shielding kit.    Hopefully, the guitar will sound like a Tele, not look like the ASAT, and not buzz too much.  I’ll post about this transplant operation soon.

Update:  Here’s a link to a clip demoing the GFS Li’l Punchers.  The rhythm guitar is the neck pickup, and the lead for the first go around is the neck, the second is the middle position with both pickups, and the third is the bridge.  To me it sounds more like a psychedelic Gibson SG than a Tele.  Not bad, but not Telecaster.

Clip of Li’l Punchers

About guitarsophist

I'm a guitar-playing rhetorician professor.
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