Switching pickups, literally

in Guitar2 years ago

As a fan of the guitar I sometimes wonder at the lack of adoption of new technology amongst players. Okay, so we have guitars made from exotic materials like carbon fibre and you can get digital modelling amplifiers that can sound like anything ever made, but a lot of people use gear that could have been made sixty years ago. I guess innovators like Les Paul and Leo Fender got things pretty good right from the start. I speak as someone who has a valve/tube amplifier and guitars that are classic designs, although my Telecaster has innovative noiseless pickups from Kinman and I have some digital effects.

Something that has been tried at various times is guitars where you can change the pickups. I just saw this story on I Heart Guitar about a guitar designed by Wild Customs in collaboration with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top that has a pickup module that rotates to expose different units, so you can change between a single coil and a humbucker in a flash. It is a mechanical system that must have some neat engineering to connect things up properly. This is a demo of their standard model. This is neat, but the Billy Gibbons model costs $9999 and the two pickup version $16000. You could buy a lot of guitars for that. I am not sure how often I would want to change pickup sound within a song.

Of course there have been ways to change the sounds for ages. Many humbuckers can be split by a switch to emulate single coils, but it might not be quite the same due to their construction. The Seymour Duncan P-Rails has two different types of pickups in one module that you can use separately or together.

Ampeg had a model years ago where you can swap the pickup without removing the strings, but it would take a minute or two.

I was long fascinated by the Line 6 Variax guitars that have no visible pickups, but emulate various types of guitar. I think my friend @stav still has one. Purists will not accept modelling though even if most people will not hear the difference.

Personally I am open to using whatever technology does the job, but then I am only really playing music for fun. I am sure some session musicians might have a use for something like the Wild Customs guitar if they cannot take many instruments with them. Others care more about the looks and will want something like a Gibson Les Paul as it suits their image.

I could happily have more guitars, but I will go for what inspires me to play. That could be a classic design or I would go for something more radical if it is usable and affordable. Despite all the innovation the classic designs are probably still the biggest sellers by far. Lots of alternatives just did not last long. It seems a little like us driving 1950s cars when we can have something more efficient with all sorts of gadgets. Both will get you to your destination and maybe the driving experience feels better in the old one for some people.

What is your favourite innovation in guitar technology?


That's very interesting!

I knew about this pickup switching system:


But this one is very ugly! The one you shared is a lot better looking. Still not something I'd install in one of my guitars, but it's still a cool contraption.

I'm guilty of being a bit technology-resistant when it comes to guitars. I understand that modern tech can sound as good as any kind of vintage gear you can think of but I still not ready to part ways with my good old tube amp and analog pedals!

I gotta say though, that the impulse-response technology for amplifier simulation is something I find incredible!

They just need to motorize it and have it spin while you play to get a tremelo chorus effect going.

Hahaha now that would be something interesting to see!

I would imagine it would sound like when you try singing or talking through a fan.

I had forgotten that one. I think that was more of a demo to show the differences in the pickups as they can be subtle.

We guitarists know that a good guitar and a tube amp can sound great, so why use anything else? I think image is a factor though.

I've not really played with impulse responses. I probably should.


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That is an interesting idea with rotating pickups, I know musicman made a guitar that would let you wire the guitar via a chip to any infinite possibilities call the game changer, but the sound was so subtle especially when recording digitally. Now you can just take a bottom of the barrel pickup and make it sound good with software.

I've heard about Billy Gibbons that he uses some EQ system so all his guitars sound much the same, so you wonder why he has so many. There are lots of ways to change the sound, but you need to start with a good signal and so pickups do matter. A lot of us don't even use the tone controls much.

I have put quick disconnects in so I could swap out differently loaded ibanez blazer pickguards with efficiency. I like the idea.

It seems logical to have standard connectors on pickups, but someone has to set the standard. I knew a guy who made pickups and he had some guitar with the back cut out so he could swap them without taking the strings off. The rotating thing is neat, but a bit expensive.

I don't have to remove the strings, but I do have to loosen them as much as I can without taking them off.

I still have it and recently gave it a good clean and new set of strings. It's still one of the nicest guitars I've ever played. It has a lovely thin neck which is great for my unusually small hands.

I have to admit, I'm kind of old school when it comes to amplifiers and guitars. I like the simplicity and the sound of the more vintage amplifiers. It took several decades to develop a solid state guitar amp that sounds as good as a tube amp. Even now, new amps are designed with a tube in the preamp for that certain sound...

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I get that. I think the change to solid state was driven a lot by cost, but before that tubes were the only option and they happened to have a good sound. I know there have been some recent innovations in tube technology, so maybe they will just keep going, but some will use digital stuff for the convenience. It's good to have all this choice.


Hmm, I can't say as though I understand too much of this. It might make more sense if I didn't just have an acoustic guitar and I actually knew how to play! I need to try and get some ambition some day...

Well there are lots of kinds of pickups with different sound. Generally you are stuck with what is in your guitar, but people have tried to give you more options. It's like different tyres on a car :)

Is that the main reason musicians switch guitars so frequently at concerts?

It's part of the reason. How a guitar feels can affect how you play as well as the sound. Some players seem to base their career on one guitar, e.g. Brian May, but others like to mix it up.


I have always fancied a variax. I was looking at pickups a while ago to refresh one of my old guitars but the soldering put me off!

I can't know exactly what difference pickups will make. You would think they would just have standard connectors to plug in a new set by now, but it still seems to be a soldering job.

It would be nice if they had those little connectors you get when you are putting in PC components. Something like that. I can solder (not well) but wouldn't want to do a shoddy job on one of my guitars

Exactly, but that means companies agreeing a standard. It's another aspect of guitars being stuck in a past era. I think things like straplocks and locking machine heads should be standard now. I had those included for my custom Tele. Could have electronic tuners built in too as playing in tune is quite important. I'm all for tech that makes like easier.

Same here, I saw the new Evertune guitars and thought that would make life so much more awesome when playing a guitar. Never having to worry a jot. I remember I had a little clip on polytuner which was great, still, it would be better not to have to twiddle with the tuning at all. It was a total black art when I was learning as a teen. I hated it and couldn't even afford a tuner, I bet I sounded amazing :OD

You could use the tuning tones on the flexidisk that came with some magazines back in the day, but with others you had to imagine how the lessons were supposed to sound. I used to have some lesson cassettes from various places, but those have all gone. What I would have given for Youtube back then...

Youtube would have made killer guitarists of us all!

I used those! Not very well but I tried. My very first lessons I bought were tapes from some little ad in a magazine. Blues something or other. Looking back I think they were very amateurish! But I did learn position 1 of the pentatonic from them!!

I've still got a book I ordered from a magazine ad and there is stuff I still play that I learned back then. I still have a load of the magazines that I have been mining for ideas. The online offering can be overwhelming.

the truth is that Technology has touch every hemisphere and has cut across different kinds of all profession which include the music that you are talking about in this case.

i wonder if you will know anything like guitar if technology is not even known by the world.

thanks for the post.

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