Recently, I purchased an Ibanez RG550 Genesis Collection reissue in timelessly understated Desert Yellow. I bought it for it’s flamboyant looks and floating trem, but the beautiful banana of a guitar ended up changing how I think about pickup selection and amp EQ in modern metal.

When I pulled out the offensively yellow superstrat, the band balked:

Barend: “I thought you bought a 7 string?”

Dave: “It’s only 25.5” scale.”

Gav: “Those are old-school pickups.”

Tim: “Pretty colours!”

 

I had a very smug smile on my face at the end of rehearsal that evening 🙂

“You there, peasant- witness my tone!”

If you’re not obsessive about string tension, the scale length and number of strings are obviously fine. It was the pickups that were the talking point, though- they moved so much air, and had massive character to them. Not as bright as my other guitars, but more balanced in their capabilities.

I tried out a pair of Dimarzio D-Activators in the guitar, and while they did retain more clarity at low-down chugging, but they were still honest, well-rounded pickups.

I then fell in love with a sweltering pink pickup (pinkup), and snatched it up without even knowing what it was- it packaging simply read “Seymour Duncan Shop Floor Custom”. I installed it into the guitar and wept with joy.

It was a Duncan Distortion- an extreme-output passive with an oversized ceramic magnet. Aggressive, but universally acknowledged (and bemoaned) as an overly trebly, harsh pickup.

In this guitar, however, it sang- it had the output I needed, it cut through the mix, but it comfortably satisfied the entire tonal range of the instrument, and seemed to mellow out during soaring leads. It still managed to move a lot of air down-low, and admittedly boasted blistering highs, but all that meant was I turned down the bass and treble on my amp, resulting in less scoop in the process.

How could this be? The internet told me this pickup was way too harsh! Surely dropped into a basswood RG with a floating trem and a maple fretboard, this should be the sonic equivalent of squirting lemon juice in your audience’s eyes? And yet, it was distinctly less harsh than my other guitars,  with their pickups purpose-built for extreme downtuning, and their lack of tone controls, which sap treble even when wide-open. 

Yes, this is the first pickup that I actively manipulate with the tone control. I take it to 7 or 8 most of the time, and push her to 10 to give some punch to single-string rhythms or to highlight a lead run. The presence of a tone pot plays some part in the more tasteful aggression, but it’s not the entire story.

The pickups are old-school. My recent pickup purchases had been carefully considered, pickups specifically made for high-gain extreme-downtuning. These pickups forgo round tones and lower frequencies to help avoid the dreaded flubadub you can so easily stumble into when being a child with your tuning. My new pickups, pickups from a time before we became obsessed with cutting out entire chunks of the frequencies at our disposal, represent themselves more evenly in the audible spectrum.

While I do tend to go for less bass and more mids in my tone, this means that what bass I do bring to the front is full-bodied and warm, represented yet calmed by my amp’s settings. My treble is not exaggerated, and if I need more, the amp does the work for me.

As an upshot, these pickups don’t gouge the audience’s eardrums out when I lose lucidity and go into flat-out shred-whammy-apocalypse mode. They’re sweeter, more palatable, and I rarely have to use my neck pickup as of late unless I really want to ensure audible chocolate.

In short, this was just me saying that taking a more holistic approach to your tone is important. We have guitarists like Dimebag completely forgoing mids, or modern downtuners crafting pickups with very little low-end; these can result in signature sounds that work for the right player in the right band, but as I find my own understanding and preference of tone, I’m settling on the notion that the guitar should perform evenly across the spectrum, and once it hits the amp, you should then tighten it up to your requirements.

Essentially, we need to cater our tone to our needs, and are presented with two schools of thought:

  1. Giving the amp no bass and then asking the preamp to drag what malnourished bass there is to the fore, or:
  2. Giving the amp a (roughly) even spectrum, and then cutting or boosting what is needed.

Much like in sculpture, you can always remove what is not needed, but adding on what was never there doesn’t produce as pleasing a result.