Cheap one-pickup electric guitar options
There's a funny thing about one-pickup electric guitars...
...and that funny thing is that for the most part, it's seen as a "custom shop only" thing. But you absolutely shouldn't have to pay several thousands of dollars just to have a one-pickup guitar.
The cheapest one-pickup electric I'm aware of is the Epiphone Les Paul Junior, seen above. This is a guitar priced at well under $200 at the time I write this.
The only other cheap one-pickup electric I knew of was the Kramer Baretta Special, but it was discontinued years ago. The Kramer Baretta is still made, but it's not cheap like the Special was.
Is there anything besides the Epi LP Junior for a cheap one-pickup electric? There may not be. Sure, you can find one-pickup guitars made for kids, but the Junior may stand alone as the only cheap adult size one-pickup electric.
Why would anyone want a one-pickup electric guitar?
There are some guitar players who only use the bridge pickup. That rear pickup is where they live. The front neck pickup isn't used. Ever.
People who only use the bridge pickup on an electric will sometimes physically cut the wires and take out the front pickup to allow for easier play. When no neck pickup is present, a player who plays in that area won't constantly be hitting the pickup with a pick.
What is the easiest way to get a one-pickup guitar for cheap?
Take a guitar with 2 or 3 pickups and convert it to just one.
Get a guitar where most or all of the electronics are mounted in a pick guard, then just swap out the pick guard for one where the other pickup locations aren't present.
The easiest guitars to convert over to one-pickup are Stratocasters and Telecasters (even if not made by Fender or Squier) because a) there are so many of them out there, and b) because the pick guard conversions are available inexpensively right now.
Esquire pick guards are dirt cheap and is arguably the easiest one-pickup conversion to do. The Telecaster and Esquire look identical to each other, save for the fact the Esquire does not have a neck pickup.
And yes, technically the Esquire has different pickup wiring compared to a Telecaster, but if you don't bother with the Esquire wiring, nobody is going to notice.
Stratocaster single-humbucker conversion
While there are tons of Strat pick guards out there, when going with just one pickup, one of the more popular conversions is a single-humbucker guard.
This conversion requires slightly more work, because if converting from 3 singles to 1 humbucker, the volume pot needs to be changed from 250K to 500K (otherwise there won't be enough treble response out of the humbucker and it will sound "muddy".) Fortunately, one 500K volume pot is cheap to buy.
Other guitars without pick guards?
The above guitar, a cheap Ibanez GRX70, does not have a pick guard.
If you convert over one of these to a single pickup and take out the other 2, what you're left with are ugly holes.
How can you make those empty holes look better? Fill the holes with black foam. Get yourself a pack of black foam sheets, cut the foam to the size of the pickup cavity and use as many layers as needed until the hole is filled.
Yes, there is white foam available, but I don't recommend using it. In a very short period of time, that foam will start discoloring and turn brown just from regular play and there's really no way around that. Black foam is a much better choice, even if the guitar you convert over to a single pickup is a lighter color.
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Once upon a time there was a great war.
This war was a marketing war, all based on the quantity of a guitar’s equipment. Up until late 1953, the two major players were tied with two pickups, when one side introduced a three pickup guitar. Things were again tied between the major players at three in 1957 and have remained the same since.
In my view, the silent winner of this war, is the single pickup guitar—the hotrod of the guitar world. While maybe not jacks of all trades like the guitars with more pickups, they’re still versatile tone machines with advantages over their more well-endowed variants.
Probably the most obvious advantage to a single-pickup guitar is simplicity. Guitars, such as the Gibson Les Paul Junior and the Fender Esquire (Jeff Beck’s is pictured below) give you that one pickup with not a lot of controls to muck about with (volume and tone and, in the case of the esquire, a preset bassy setting and a control bypass setting).
Some guitars are even simpler, with just a volume control, a la the trend started with Edward Van Halen’s Frankenstein.
Another advantage that many feel single-pickup guitars have is increased sustain and harmonic content. With no neck pickup, there’s not an additional magnetic field pulling on the strings. That leaves the strings able to vibrate more freely with no harmonics being dampened.
Many a player over the years has sought out this hotrodded tone and/or the simplicity. Below are some of the most famous examples.
Charlie Christian most-notably played a Gibson ES-150 with a single neck pickup. In fact, that Gibson-designed pickup has become so associated with Christian that it now bears his name in all of its forms, including those offered by Seymour Duncan. In these early days of the electric guitar the ES-150 was notable for having the pickup closer to the neck than Gibson’s preceding lap steels and guitars from other manufacturers, giving the guitar a mellower tone appropriate for Christian’s jazz and swing.
Luther Perkins was the man behind The Man In Black from 1954 to 1968 known for his “boom-chicka-boom” style of playing. Journalist Allen St. John had the opportunity to play one of Perkins’ Fender Esquires, a 1955 model, at Christie’s while the guitar was up for auction. He discovered that the guitar was just born to play in Perkins’ signature style, with its raised up pickup, heavy strings, and the Esquire’s ability to bypass the tone control.1
Jeff Beck also wielded a Fender Esquire, this one from 1954, to effective use and influence. The influence of that guitar’s tone and Beck’s playing was great enough that even Gibson published an article on their site about a Fender guitar, saying “What Beck and his battle-scarred Esquire accomplished in 1965 alone established the roots of everything from psychedelia and heavy metal to punk and jam bands.” Beck acquired the instrument in 1965, already modified by its previous owner with contours mimicking a Stratocaster, but with a white pickguard on it which Beck replaced with a black one. Eventually Seymour Duncan himself came to possess Beck’s Esquire, saying that he had the choice between that, a ’51 Telecaster, and a mid-‘50s Strat, but said, “I picked the Esquire because Jeff used it!”2
Malcolm Young of AC/DC is most often found defining what rock rhythm guitar is with a ‘60s Gretsch Firebird Jet that’s seen many changes over the years. It didn’t start out as a single-pickup guitar. In fact, at one point, a THIRD pickup was added in between the two stockers. Since then, the guitar has seen the removal of the neck and middle pickups, the original red finish, as well as some bridge changes. In Malcolm’s case, his Jet became a single pickup simply because he didn’t use anything but the bridge pickup (which was actually the original neck pickup) and he removed what he wasn’t using.
One guitar cobbled together from parts back in the late ‘70s because nothing on the shelf did what its homebrew builder wanted ended up setting a trend that permeated the ‘80s. Edward Van Halen built his Frankenstrat out of second-quality parts he bought from Lynn Ellsworth of Boogie Bodies for $130.
Over the years it went through a few different paint jobs (all black, then taped up in stripes to leave some of that black visible under a new coat of white, then red over it all with the same treatment), a couple different bridges (originally a six-screw Strat trem, then a couple Floyd Rose prototypes, then a proper Floyd Rose), but it almost always featured just a single humbucker set in the bridge, screwed straight into the wood of the body, and wired with only a volume control. While it doesn’t seem to be what drove Eddie to install only one working pickup, it very likely affected his masterful use of harmonics and his much sought after tone.
Nobody can actually nail down every single detail of the guitar due to secrecy and lost memories over the years. That hasn’t stopped people arguing about body woods, paint types, trem sustain block composition, and the placement of the 1978 quarter. However, it’s certain that a few different pickups have lived in Franky, including an old Gibson PAF that Eddie potted (and almost MELTED) himself, possibly a pickup rewound by Seymour Duncan, and finally the pickup which ended up in the guitar around 1983/84. Nobody with official knowledge is saying what it originally was, but it’s believed to be a pickup that Seymour Duncan originally created.
Eddie also played several guitars made by Kramer, a lot of these subject to the same speculation of specification as the Frankenstrat. His main Kramer was the 5150, which was likely loaded with a single Custom Custom.
While guitar marketing does still try to impress with pickup quantities, it’s evident that there’s a good deal of magic that can be derived by distilling a guitar’s configuration to a single pickup, as exemplified by the above examples.
What do you think about single pickup guitars? Sound off in the comments.
Single Pickups – The Power of One
To me, it was a tree with a microphone. It was very simple, it could do everything I needed it to do.’ Leslie West’s description of the no-frills, single-pickup Gibson Les Paul Junior he used to find fame and fortune with ’60s hard-rockers Mountain says it all. If you’re a guitarist with talent, you should be able to achieve your goals with the simplest of instruments.
Not everyone would, of course, agree. The fact the big three – Telecaster, Stratocaster and Les Paul – have two, three and two pickups respectively attests to that. And Fender’s recent Jim Root signature takes the Tele into active pickup territory, a long way away from its utilitarian country-and-western beginnings. That said, the first variation on the Tele formula, the Esquire from 1950, was in its most famous form a single-pickup job. But more of that later…
Let’s wind back two decades to 1931, the year Adolph Rickenbacker unveiled a basic six-string instrument with a small circular solid body. This was known as the ‘frying pan’ due to its shape. As the first production instrument with an electro-magnetic pickup, designed by partners Paul Barth and George Beauchamp, it is now considered the forerunner of the modern guitar.
When two successive patent examiners questioned whether the instrument was ‘operative,’ Adolph Rickenbacker sent guitarists to perform for them at the Patent Office in Washington, DC, to prove it was. By the time the patent was finally granted in 1937, others had caught up. Even so, Rickenbacker – who only started to enjoy major success after Adolph sold the company in 1953 – had made an impressive mark.
Their Model B electric guitar made in 1935 looks amazingly futuristic even now. It was made using the advanced injection moulding process but abandoned when the Bakelite – the plastic material used to construct early radio sets – was found to expand with increased temperatures, resulting in tuning problems. Eldon Shambin of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys was, legend has it, not allowed to use his on stage because, in his boss’s unenlightened words, ‘When I hire a guitar player I want him to look like a guitar player’
If the Gibson ES-150, introduced in 1935, isn’t the granddaddy of all electric guitars, then it certainly has the most grandchildren. It was endorsed by jazz player Charlie Christian, of Benny Goodman’s band, who found electrification transformed his playing. No longer was the guitar a part of the rhythm section, it could now punch out solos that, on record, were sometimes mistaken for a saxophone.
Gibson’s advertising patter was seductive. ‘You hold it, tune it and play it just as you would any guitar, and in appearance it is only slightly different. But strike the strings lightly and you have a tone that can be amplified to whatever volume you desire. Adjust the tone control and you change the tonal colour from a rich bass to a brilliant treble.’ All this, remember, with just one pickup.
While Rickenbacker’s horseshoe-shaped pickups had encircled the strings, Gibson’s was designed by Walter Fuller. The man attributed with pioneering the pickup as we know it today joined Gibson in 1933, and soon afterwards the straight-bar pickup was introduced on a Gibson Hawaiian steel guitar.
On the ES-150 this bar directed the power of two magnets, bolted below the guitar’s arched top, towards the strings. If one string was found to be louder than the rest, Gibson corrected it by simply cutting a notch underneath it in the protruding bar. Though crude by later standards, the ES-150 was a pioneering concept matching old and new technology that established itself as the premier inter-war instrument. At $77.50, the ES (for Electric Spanish) 150 was not within the range of every would-be guitar hero. Another 75 dollars would be needed to buy an amplifier, plus $13.50 for the hard case.
Paul Bigsby, whose name is associated with the vibrato tailpiece, is credited with building the first ever modern solidbody electric guitar for country picker Merle Travis. The guitar had a Bigsby ‘blade’ pickup, and a walnut fiddle tailpiece with a string-through-body design. Travis contended that Leo Fender borrowed his Bigsby guitar for a week in 1948, and it is thus said to have influenced the creator of the Strat and Telecaster – though Fender denied this.
What is certain is that things hotted up when, soon after, Fender entered the electric guitar market with the single-pickup and then twin-pickup Esquire. The twin-pickup version would be renamed first the Broadcaster and then the Telecaster in 1951, and it would set the standard for mass-produced electric guitars for decades to come. The Esquire, now offered only with one pickup, stayed in the range for almost 20 years and it would later find favour with the likes of Jeff Beck (who used a ’54, bought from the Walker Brothers guitarist John Maus, with the Yardbirds) and Steve Cropper. The Esquire retained the three-way selector switch which, instead of offering pickup options, now functioned as a pre-set tone control or bypass switch, offering great versatility for a single pickup guitar.
Fender’s next single-pickup product, the Musicmaster, also enjoyed two decades in production, from 1956 to 1975. An entry-level effort, its body was an uncontoured slab of wood, while the neck, at 22.5″, was shorter than the standard Fenders to which the student could graduate when skills and savings had grown. (A 24″ scale version, introduced in 1964, was named the Musicmaster II.)
Ads extolled the virtue of an instrument ‘specially designed for old and young players with small fingers’. It also proved a hit with female players for that reason. The Musicmaster was also made available with a simple vibrato unit as the Bronco, while two-pickup versions were known as the Duo-Sonic and Mustang respectively.
Price-wise, the Musicmaster ($119.50) was almost half the price of the Telecaster ($199.50), but Fender, being first and foremost an amp manufacturer, had a masterplan. The guitar was marketed alongside ‘plug in and play’ combos like the Princeton and Champ, combining both speaker and amplifier in one portable package.
As you’d expect, Gibson were not about to stand by and leave the student market to their biggest rivals. They grabbed a piece of the action with the launch of the Les Paul Junior in 1954, copying the outline of the original Les Paul to create an uncontoured mahogany body. The pickup was a P90 single-coil, the tailpiece a version of the bar that replaced the trapezoid unit on Les Pauls that same year, and the price a modest $99.
The Les Paul TV was similar to the Junior but boasted a natural ‘limed’ finish similar to that of the Telecaster.
By 1958, the Les Paul Juniors and twin-pickup Specials had become double-cutaway instruments. All, incidentally, had ‘dot’ fret markers in place of the ‘full-fat’ Les Paul’s prominent inlays, and simpler volume and tone knobs.
Gibson’s next ‘cheapie’, the Melody Maker, went into production in 1959 and was again priced at 50 cents below the magic $100 mark. Retaining a single-cutaway outline, but with a thinner body (35mm to the Junior’s 44mm) and a narrower headstock, the Melody Maker had a single-coil pickup mounted with the controls and output jack on its scratchplate to save money. The body felt less substantial and more SG-like compared with a Les Paul Junior, and the single pickup was no match for a P90.
Its introduction came at a time when Gibson was struggling to shift Les Paul Standards, but, with rock’n’roll mania now taking hold post-Elvis, the company was targeting youngsters flocking for guitar lessons or teaching themselves in their parents’ garage. The cut-price Gibsons of this period were all of a very high standard, a Brazilian rosewood fretboard making them more than a mere ‘student’ guitar.
The Melody Maker never quite achieved the classic status of the Junior; the latter adopted an SG outline in the ’60s when all the Les Pauls were revamped and the model was discontinued altogether in 1971. That same year, the SG-100 was introduced as a cheap variant of the (usually dual-pickup) SG with pickguard-mounted controls for affordability, but didn’t last long.
The budget Gibsons then endured two decades out of the spotlight until the new wave’s utilitarian ethos led to players appreciating their affordability and durability anew. Pre-’76 exceptions proving the rule were, inevitably, Leslie West and his biggest UK fan, Mott the Hoople’s Mick Ralphs.
Many of the cheaper Gibsons have been used over the years by slide players to great effect – as has the single pickup Dan Armstrong-designed Ampeg ‘see-through’ guitar of 1969. These were expensive to make and lasted little more than a year in production, though they have since become collectors’ items. Players included Keith Richards, Tom Petty and Leslie West, who was given the prototype. Keith played his on the Stones’ ’69 world tour, Bill Wyman toting a matching bass.
Epiphone, founded in 1903, sold out lock stock and barrel to Gibson in 1957 – but, while most famous for their ’60s semi-acoustics, their thin-line solid-bodies, most notably the Crestwood, were more than ‘poor man’s SGs’. Humble Pie man Steve Marriott was an enthusiastic devotee.
Meanwhile, back at Gibson, their range of semi-acoustics that began with the ES-150 had continued in 1949 with the ES-175. Traditional in looks compared with the Fender Broadcaster, it was the company’s first electric guitar to be designed as such from the outset and its use of pressed maple laminate would become standard on Gibson semis.
It is still being made today. The ES-175’s combination of single cutaway and P90 pickup was one Gibson would repeat in the LP Junior and elsewhere, but the simplicity of the original design, with just a volume and tone knob, twin f-holes and Gibson’s trademark back-angled headstock was attractive in itself. Other single-pickup variations on this theme have been the ES-330T thinline, with a single P90 halfway between neck and bridge, and the ES-125/225.
The instruments manufactured by Fred Gretsch provided the most radical alternative to the Gibson-Fender duopoly in the early days of rock’n’roll. His products were favoured by pioneers like Duane Eddy and Eddie Cochran, and Gretsch offered his guitars in a wider range of colours than his competitors. Pickups – humbucking units named the Filtertron – were usually numerous to match. A ‘student model’ was offered in the shape of the cheaper single-pickup Chet Atkins Tennessean and Anniversary models, offered in 1958, and the Gretsch 6119 of 1961 with stripped-down electronics. Nashville great Atkins was Gretsch’s answer to Gibson’s TV personality Les Paul, and he made sure his guitars got onto the covers of his LPs (there’s a Tennessean on ’61’s Chet Atkins Workshop).
George Harrison briefly played a Gretsch Tennessean in the Beatles’ early ’60s career, but had earlier strummed the best-known ‘basic’ Rickenbacker, a 1962-vintage single-pickup 420. John Lennon had favoured a German-built Hofner Club 40 in those days before ‘name’ American instruments were either affordable or widely available. European designs offered a respectable build quality and playability for a fraction of the price of the ‘real thing’. Hofner guitars – also, of course, favoured in four-string form by Paul McCartney – were affordable but eminently playable. Shadow-to-be Hank Marvin had played a Hofner Congress ‘with a half-inch action’ until he could afford to buy his iconic Strat.
Also around in numbers was the Rosetti Lucky 7, the product of Dutch company Egmond and available in one-pickup form in the UK for 14 guineas.
The ’60s belonged to the Strat, Tele and Les Paul – but as the decade ended, Eric Clapton showed the world just what could be done with just a single pickup. The Gibson Firebird he used for the entire first show of Cream’s final Albert Hall date in 1968, a Firebird 1, the only hardtail variant, was then less desirable than its counterparts with two or three mini-humbuckers. (He used his ES-335 for the second show; the Farewell Cream movie mixes songs from both.) Joe Bonamassa currently totes a ’64 Firebird in emulation of the master.
The ’70s and ’80s saw British guitar makers weigh in with solid single-pickup offerings. Shergold’s Meteor was a descendant of the mid-’70s Hayman Comet, while Gordon Smith used the Les Paul TV as the template for their GS-1. Unlike the ‘original’, their pickups could operate in both single-coil and humbucking modes, giving sounds ranging from Fender’s cutting edge to the weightier Gibson. The result, a fine handmade guitar at an affordable price, found favour with Buzzcock Pete Shelley, while John Otway wields one to this day.
Back in the States, the confusingly named Hamer Prototype of 1981, endorsed by superstar Police guitarist Andy Summers, boasted a giant triple-coiled humbucker at the bridge, nicknamed the Motherbucker. This was in fact two pickups sandwiched together, a DiMarzio PAF nearest the bridge and a single-coil from the same maker. A three-way switch selected bridge humbucker, single-coil or both simultaneously. Paul Hamer claimed it was possible ‘to get anything from a sharp Stratocaster tone to a richer Les Paul sound,’ while Summers was credited with design input.
The ’80s saw the Japanese, when not engaged in copying classic designs, stirring the single-pickup pot. The Westone Paduak I boasted an early attempt at active circuitry, while later in the decade Washburn’s Japanese-made G40V had a triple-coil unit with push-button selectors. Fender Japan’s Heartfield subsidiary offered the RR8D, with built-in distortion.
The most influential hard-rock guitarist of the ’80s, Eddie Van Halen, broke through late in the previous decade with a single-pickup guitar. His search for a sound meatier than a Strat to power his eponymous band led him to home-build a guitar from $130 worth of parts. With a humbucking pickup at the bridge and just one knob, a volume control, the guitar – decorated with Schwinn bicycle paint in a red and white criss-cross pattern – was simplicity itself. Father Jan was a saxophone player, and Eddie’s since suggested he was trying to create a horn-like tone.
In Van Halen’s wake would come a legion of copies from the likes of Charvel, Jackson, Ibanez and Kramer. These pointy-headstocked single-pickup items are now rather unfashionable and, consequently, can be good value on the secondhand market.
The current century has seen other new entries to the marketplace. Leslie West teamed with Dean to produce a signature guitar that improves on his traditional Gibson. Even PRS, guitar-makers to the stars, have paid homage to the LP Junior in the eastern-made single-pickup SE1.
Gibson resurrected the Melody Maker name in 2007 with four electrics – a Les Paul, Explorer, SG and Flying V – in an attempt to combat Fender’s ‘Stratocaster for every pocket’ policy. The idea of owning a US-made guitar with ‘Gibson’ on the headstock remained alluring, though the series’ relation to the original Melody Maker seemed to be their basic construction values and single pickups rather than shape or attributes. The absence of a tone potentiometer makes the variation of volume control and picking-hand position all-important.
A final tip of the hat is owed to those who take matters into their own hands. Blink-182 frontman Tom DeLonge ‘butchered’ his Strat in the ’90s, ending up with one humbucking Seymour Duncan SH-8 Invader pickup controlled by one knob. This was duplicated in a Mexican-made production model available for five years from 1999 before he moved to Gibson for the DeLonge Signature ES-333 which similarly combined a humbucker, a volume control and a hardtail.
But perhaps the ultimate single-pickup axe is Seasick Steve’s Three-String Trance Wonder – a guitar that resembles a Fender Coronado. Its three strings are tuned to G, G and B, and he bought it for $75 in Como, Mississippi from a man named Sherman Cooper, who had it nailed to the wall as a decoration. The pickup? An old Harmony… taped to it.
So is a single-pickup guitar for you? If you need to vary your volume or tone within your band’s set by swapping pickups, or you use a blended sound like the Strat’s out-of-phase tones, then maybe not… but a single pickup has a uniquely purposeful look, and if it’s placed in the sweet spot then it can give a sound of unbeatable character. Are you ready to strip down and get real?
The Secret to Single Pickup Guitars
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Single pickup guitars have their secret, their magic. The effect of the neck pickup affects the audio. Thus, many guitarists have opted for these guitars with more pure and direct audio.
Famous guitarists with single pickup guitars
Keith Richards, Billy F. Gibbons, Eddie Van Halen, Marty Friedman, Allan Holdsworth, Joan Jett, Johnny Thunders, Phil-X, Billie Joe Armstrong, Jared James Nichols among many other players, have opted for single pickup guitars. Probably some for simplicity and practicality, that is, they only use the bridge pickup. But other guitarrists do it by tone, by audio. They affirm that the guitar with a single pickup has something special, something magical in its sound.
Simplicity, an attraction of single pickup guitars
There is something incredibly liberating about playing a Gibson Les Paul Junior, a Gibson Melody Maker, or a Fender Esquire. So, you just plug it into your amp and play, without any preamble, with nothing else you need.
Many heavy styles like Glam Rock from the 80’s, Hard Rock (ZZ Top, Van Halen, etc.), Punk Rock or Garage Rock, which almost exclusively use the bridge pickup. Thus, many guitarists like Billie Joe Armstrong are attracted to the sexapile -Sex-appeal- of the Gibson Les Paul.
Do single pickup guitars really sound different or better?
Yes, hard to believe, single pickup guitars sound better. Although, everything is a matter of taste, we can affirm that they do.
This has its scientific explanation for why they sound and respond differently to two- or three-pickup guitars. The pickups are made with a magnet, which generates a magnetic field regardless of whether it is connected or not. This affects the vibration of the string.
Probably, you have ever felt that the sixth string of your Strat had an out of tune overtone, which you solved by moving the pickups away from the strings. This is because Singlecoils have a stronger magnet and it affects the vibration of the string more obviously, distorting its audio. This example is a good way to see how the magnetic field generated by the pickups influences the vibration of the strings and the tone of the instrument.
Why do guitars with a single pickup sound different or better?
The absence of a pickup in the neck or middle means that less magnetic force is exerted on the strings, allowing you to get more sustain, more resonance, and fewer tuning problems.
Phil-X, a great lover of single-pickup guitars, explains why he takes the neck out of some of his guitars, such as his black Yamaha SG: “Why a single pickup? (…) You mainly use the high pickup – Treble Pickup is called the bridge pickup – unless you are a jazz guitarist. ” And he continues explaining: “I have a test recording the same guitar with the two pickups and later with one. And I found that without the neck pickup it had more harmonics and more tone overall because you have more string vibration.”
If you want to check it yourself. You can do it like Phil-X. Since taking out and putting in a pickup is complex and time consuming, there is also another simpler but less precise way. You can test it by seeing how an Esquire sounds and feels vs a Telecaster or a Les Paul Junior and Special.
Guitars with a single pickup also have a simpler circuit, since they have less wiring, they do not have a pickup selector, which reduces the risk of faults, noise and interference.
There are those who believe that this also makes a difference in tone. Presumably, by reducing the length of the cables and not going through a pickup selector, this would reduce the level of signal degradation.
The reality is that the few centimeters – maybe less than 10 cm. on a Telecaster or 20 cm. in a Les Paul? – and going through a selector has no impact on the tone, at least audible to the man. To check this, try seeing the difference in tone between a 3 meter cable and a 6 meter cable, where the cable difference is 300 cm. You will see that the difference in tone will not be perceptible, with which a difference of a few centimeters, less.
Another way to verify that the tone change is due to the absence of a pickup and not due to the simplicity of the circuit, is to do the test without connecting the guitar. It is logical that the differences are more noticeable when connecting it, since all frequencies are amplified which makes it easier for the human ear to perceive them.
The magic of a single pickup guitar
Beyond the objective factor which is that the string vibrates more and more freely, giving more harmonics and sustain. That it is worth clarifying that perhaps for a poorly trained ear it can be very subtle or even imperceptible.
There is also another reason that makes single pickup guitars special, and that is a subjective factor. The guitar with only one volume and tone pot invites you to develop new ways of obtaining different audios, thus stimulating the use of the volume and tone control.
Also, it helps you develop a touch with more dynamics, work the attack, try different ways of playing the string to achieve different tones and textures. Attacking the string closer to the bridge gives you more snap, attack, shine and less body, while moving away you achieve warmer tones, with less pronounced highs and more body. The difference between playing hard on the bridge and softly near the neck with your fingertips is remarkable.
All this expands your technical resources and enriches your tone as a guitarist, and that is probably the best and most important virtue of a guitar with a single pickup.
You can share opinions or also chat about this and more with other musicians in our comments section.
Related News: Fender’s Failures: Ugly, Weird, or Misunderstood Guitars and Best Years of the Gibson Les Paul.
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Pickup guitar 1
Review round-up: single-pickup electric guitars
You don’t need this review to persuade you that a single-pickup electric can produce some of the most divine tones ever committed to tape.
Just dig into the record bag and pull out some Mountain, whose Leslie West wrung so much tone out of his Gibson Les Paul Junior it ought to have been seized from him and West tried for witchcraft. We’re not saying that you’ll nail West’s tone here - though the Gordon Smith GS-1 60 is spec’d to do so and the Godin Summit Classic plays a similar field - but you might find a guitar that has the tone you’ve been looking for, and that nothing else comes close.
Shredders looking for a guitar as classically American as a glass bottle of Coke might never find anything to usurp the EVH 5150; with that hellacious finish and period-appropriate spec, it’s surely irresistible to Eddie Van Halen’s disciples, even at that price.
And those practising the dark arts, demanding the harshest metal tones and supreme playability, might well discover that the LTD EC-BKM Black Metal is their Excalibur. All four are different, but each one is testament to the idea that a neck pickup simply isn’t for everyone.
Gordon Smith GS-1 60
I’ve seen this available cheaper online. What’s the deal?
Gordon Smith specs a number of stock instruments for retail while offering a build-to-order service online. A 2018 entry-level stock GS-1 retails for £629, but has a poplar instead of a mahogany body. Spec options are many but include body material and thickness, single or double-cut (Standard), fingerboard material (add AAA flamed maple for £100).
It looks old-school.
Yup, and with a solid mahogany body, a single P-90 pickup, not to mention the shorter 625mm scale that was used by Gibson in the 1950s, it’s an instrument whose design takes much of its inspiration from the Les Paul Junior.
What is the benefit of the brass nut?
Oh, you don’t see them so much these days but the brass makes it super-durable, and helps lend the GS-1 a bright and resonant tone that will make big, open chords ring out. The downsides? Well, the brass is heavy, and it adds a little weight to the headstock, and the tone can be a little unforgiving, accentuating the treble - and your mistakes!
At a glance
Key features: Mahogany body, mahogany neck (set), 625mm (24.6”) scale, 22 frets, brass nut, rosewood fingerboard, 1x P-90 pickup (bridge), 1x volume, 1x tone, chrome Wrap-over bar bridge, spec options available online, includes gigbag
Finish: Vintage White
Godin Summit Classic SG P90
This looks like it’s going for the Les Paul Junior vibe, too?
It sure does. The Vintage Burst is similar to those of some classic Juniors - there’s the single-cut, the P-90, too. But the Summit Classic SG has a contemporary feel. Its neck has a satin-smooth finish, and a basswood body is preferred over mahogany.
That bridge sounds pretty impressive.
It sure is. The beauty of this guitar lies in the simplicity of its construction. Sure, no doubt a lot of metallurgical voodoo went on in the GraphTech R&D department to come by their ResoMax alloy (“Designed to maximise harmonic content and richness in every note,” says GraphTech) but its design happily makes string changes a cinch and offers a neat and comfortable station for your picking hand.
What can you tell us about the Kingpin P-90?
Besides the fact that it’s got a lot of attitude, chewy hot mids and brightness, clarity and is hugely responsive in that volatile territory between mid and treble? Well, the fact that Godin also deploy it in their 1950s-inspired archtop series, 5th Avenue, shows that they’re happy with its vintage bona-fides.
At A Glance
Key features: Laurentian basswood, maple neck (set), 628mm (24.75”) scale, 22 frets, rosewood fingerboard, 1x Godin Kingpin P90 pickup (bridge), 1x volume control 1x tone, GraphTech nut, GraphTech ResoMax Sonic 1 one-piece wrap-around bridge, includes gigbag
Finish: Vintage Burst
EVH Striped Series 5150
There’s a lot of EVH guitars - what makes this one special?
The 5150 is based on Eddie Van Halen’s custom 1984 Kramer, which is one of the most iconic hot-rodded S-style electrics ever. Here, those graphics are applied to a basswood body, with a quarter-sawn maple neck bolted onto the body. The hockey stick headstock, the Floyd Rose locking vibrato set to divebomb, the D-Tuna… this is the holy grail for Van Halen fans.
What the Hellmann’s is the EVH D-Tuna!?
We’re glad you asked! The EVH D-Tuna is a little engineering gizmo that replaces the locking screw on the sixth string’s saddle, allowing you to switch to drop-D tuning on the fly. Just pull it out. Return to standard tuning by pushing it back in. Trust us, it’s a pretty ingenious addition.
Do you have to love Van Halen to want this?
We understand that it might be hard to get by the graphics, but the tone and feel is guaranteed to please any shredder. That said, the 5150 is pretty pricey and alternatives, such as the Jackson Pro Series Soloist, might speak louder to those who feel Eddie’s style may cramp their own.
At a glance
Key features: Basswood body, maple neck (bolted on), 304mm - 406mm (12”-16” ) compound radius fingerboard, 647mm (25.5”) scale, 22 jumbo frets, 1x EVH Wolfgang Alnico II humbucker (bridge), 1x volume, EVH-Branded Floyd Rose locking vibrato w/ EVH D-Tuna
Finish: Red, Black and White Stripes
ESP LTD EC-BKM Black Metal
Isn’t this a little too minimal?
That’s exactly the point. This is a high-powered electric that saves all the pyrotechnics for its tone. Let’s face it, you’ve got to admire the message discipline in its design. The LTD logo is three-dimensional, embossed as though it were a badge on a car; of course, there’s no tone knob; even the Seymour Duncan logo is blacked out; and judging by this guitar, the evil have no use for fretmarkers. Glow-in-the-dark sidemarkers will help you find yourself on the ebony fretboard - and believe us, there’s plenty of dark to glow in.
Is the Seymour Duncan pickup active?
No, the Blackened Black Winter is passive, but it is a fierce, high-output humbucker that will have no trouble eating up the gain you dial into your tone. It is vacuum wax potted to kill any squeal and has a similar output to the Seymour Duncan Invader.
Is this just for metal?
While we’d absolutely concede that the clean tones are surprisingly engaging, and rolling back the volume knob offers a little more range, this was definitely built for high-gain scenarios. It’s just too morbid for jazz.
At a glance
Key features: Mahogany body, mahogany neck (set), 628mm (24.75”) scale, 22 extra jumbo frets, macassa ebony fingerboard, 1x Seymour Duncan Blackened Black Winter humbucker (bridge), 1x volume control, locking LTD tuners, TonePros locking tune-o-matic bridge and tailpiece
Finish: Black Satin
Head to head
Let’s start with the EVH 5150, a guitar of such luminous shred appeal it could be seen from space.
Its EVH-branded Floyd Rose locking vibrato will divebomb only, as per Eddie’s setup, but it helped execute a minor tuning miracle as the 5150 came out of the box in tune. Locking vibratos are a faff to down-tune so slipping this in and out of drop-D with the D-Tuna comes in handy. Wound for classic rock and 80s metal tone, the 5150’s Wolfgang Alnico II humbucker is an absolute belter, delivering livewire crunch that’s harmonically resonant and begging to be partnered with an MXR phaser and a Hawaiian shirt.
For gain saturation, please refer to the LTD Black Metal. Its mahogany neck and body construction brings out a warmth that belies its being marketed as an Arctic misanthrope. We love the playability on both. Sure, the 5150’s clunky heel obstructs access up past the 15-fret but that never slowed Eddie down. The Black Metal, meanwhile, has a contemporary feel, a neck that has just enough fat on it to be comfortable.
We could say similar about the Godin; the satin neck, its profile none too clubby, feels of a piece with a modern instrument. Built in Canada from Laurentian basswood, which comes in a little heavier than the basswood used on the 5150, the Summit Classic is well balanced, with plenty of trebly shimmer, perfect for blues squeals or biting rock licks. Rolling the tone back smooths off that sharpness, making it a viable option for jazz.
The Gordon Smith GS-1 performs a similar trick. There is a lot of play in that tone control and players looking for that nasal bass response of their bridge pickup won’t miss it. The GS-1’s natural voice is bright and punchy. Through a Vox AC30 it could cut through brick. But there’s an authority and liveliness to the GS-1’s midrange. Leslie West would surely dig it. We certainly do.
With the EVH 5150 and LTD Black Metal designed for a very particular player, this feels like a shoot-out between the Godin’s tastefully appointed and quite beautiful Summit Classic and Gordon Smith’s tastefully appointed and quietly awesome GS-1 60.
The latter will definitely take the Les Paul Junior fans. That you can spec your own online is a big plus, but this review model was a lovely piece of mahogany, and while that P-90/brass nut combo will expose any sloppy playing it also facilitates some truly soulful tone in the sweet spot between its mids and highs.
The Godin is more forgiving, more fun. It can similarly do scratchy blues, bright classic rock tones, and maybe even has more of an identity than the GS-1, a little more vintage chic.
Those looking to play the Atomic Punk have got to go with the 5150 but it’s a lot of Van Halen and for a lot of money. It really is a guitar with an identity; for casual fans or those just looking for a high-spec S-style to go bananas on, there are better options out there. For super-fans? Well, you’ve already placed a deposit.
And so to the nuclear option, the LTD Black Metal. Ostensibly an Eclipse model with the colour taken out of it and a custom Seymour Duncan to supply the fire, it’s impeccably built, plays great, sounds fearsome, and if you’re playing extreme metal, this’ll do brutal.
Best all-rounder: Gordon Smith GS-1 60
4.5 out of 5
Best for blues: Godin Summit Classic SG P90
4.5 out of 5
Best for shred: EVH Striped Series 5150
4 out of 5
Best for metal: ESP LTD EC-BKM Black Metal
4 out of 5
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