My Favourite Pickups of all Time?

Quite Possibly!

I’ve been a pickup whore for a number of years, having had expensive and boutique offerings from Seymour Duncan, Vintage Vibe, Kinman etc. They are all great pickups and I was happy with the sound they all made. I tried all sorts of after-market pickups in various guitars:

  • Jazzmaster (Seymour Duncan)
  • Strat (Kinman AVN Blues, Vintage Vibe SP90’s, Custom Shop 50’s that came stock with my ’56 Time Machine Strat)
  • Tele (Kinman 60’s, Fender Custom Shop Nocasters)

I wasn’t disappointed with any of them in terms of tone, but recently I had a bit of an awakening and I’ve come to the conclusion that expensive pickups are not necessary at all for getting great tone. My favourite of all the pickups I’ve had up to this realisation were the stock pickups in my ’56 Custom Shop Strat. They were sublime. The VV SP90s were cool too. Beautifully made and not too expensive. The Kinmans sounded good, but had no soul and were stupidly expensive. While they are a good product I don’t think I’ll be spending money on Kinman again. Just not necessary.

My findings regarding pickup selection are subjective of course, but that’s mostly the point of my conclusion. With tone being so subjective, isn’t it feasible that some players will prefer the sound of cheap, supposedly inferior pickups? After all, pickups are not a complicated technology and tone is tone. Bad tone is only bad to someone who doesn’t like it and a so-called bad tone may be the perfect tone for a particular guitar part in a particular song. Many players think Neil Young’s guitar tone is awful. I happen to think it’s one of the most beautiful sounds to come from an electric guitar in all of time!

So further to my discovery that pickup voodoo and hype is rife in the guitar forums I have settled on what, for now at least is my favourite brand of pickups – Duncan Designed that ship stock with most of the guitars in the Squier Vintage Modified series.

I took delivery of a black Vintage Modified 70s Strat last year and it’s just so much guitar for the money. Expecting to be replacing the pickups immediately and after researching tirelessly for noiseless options I was shocked to realise that I didn’t need to replace anything. That was a relief because I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy noiseless pickups, despite the convenience of less hum, I was still a bit afraid of losing the mojo, which was lost with the Kinmans I used to have years ago.

So the Duncan Designed SC101 single coil pickup is a bit of a gem in my opinion. The SC101’s are shielded for a start, which helps cut down on interference and tames some shrill top end. That is not desirable to many guitarists who want the most vintage-correct tone, but I happen to think it’s perfect for Strat pickups. I shielded my Custom Shop Strat pickups when I had that guitar and it worked very well for me.

The SC101s then are very quiet for a traditional single coil pickup. I play in venues where grounding is often poor and the electrical supply is pretty dirty and noise/hum has never been a big deal. After falling in love with the Squier guitars, mainly because of the huge bang for the buck, but also because they remind me of the Japanese Fenders I have owned from the 90s, It’s a huge bonus that the perfect pickups for me are included in the stock guitar.

I’m always scouring Ebay looking for more SC101s to keep as spares of ready for if I pick up a cheap Strat-type guitar any time. Another sign that these pickups are good is the fact that it is quite rare to see these pickups on Ebay. People seem to keep them. The middle pickups are more plentiful than the neck and bridge versions it seems. I’m not sure why. I recently picked up a neck version, which hasn’t arrived yet, but it’s going in the neck position of my Classic Vibe Strat which I have already modded beyond recognition. I prefer the SC101s to the Classic Vibe pickups.

OK, so here’s an admission:

I have a Seymour Duncan Twang Banger (Tele-voiced pickup) in the bridge position of my VM 70s Strat! Do I prefer it to the stock pickup? No – to be honest they don’t sound worlds apart to my ears. I got the Twang Banger because it was an absolute bargain on Ebay (2nd hand, but never used). It is a bit brighter than the SC101 bridge, but because the SC101 bridge hasa little more output, being a pretty hot pickup. Seymour Duncan describe the SC101 tonally as somewhere between the SSL2 & SSL6 (which are the flat pole versions of SSL1 & SSL5 respectively). What I make of that is that they mean the neck and middle are similar to SSL2s and the bridge pickup is similar to the SSL6. Being similar in output I’d say then that is you want a Dave Gilmour typr strat on a budget then you can get close with these pickups.

The bad news? They are not available to buy as a stand alone set, but that’s a great excuse to to go buy a new guitar like a Squier Vintage Modified Strat for example! If and when I come across a Bridge SC101 on Ebay I’ll be getting it and then I’ll have two complete SC101 sets for both my Strats.

One thing I have done is completely replace the wiring on both the VM70’s and the CV60’s Strats. This was mainly because I wanted a 7-way switching configuration, where I can activate the neck pickup with a push/push switch, giving me the bridge+neck or all 3 pickups in addition to the stock positions. I use those 2 additional settings for a lot of clean stuff. I can’t imagine a Strat anymore without having the neck+bridge together. It’s such an amazing sound, it should be standard on all Strats these days.

All hail the SC101 pickup!

14 Replies to “My Favourite Pickups of all Time?”

  1. Hey, I got these pickups on my strat but I don’t like them at all, they’re not awful but to me their sound is kinda fat and dark, not the bright sparkly sound that single coils are known for and not only the vintage ones.. even my texas specials that are pretty hot have sparkle and a good amount of quack, the sc101 only have quack on the. 2 and 4 positions

    I’ve been messing with the height but still kinda dark and fat, should I replace them or rather mess with the electronic
    Thanks

  2. Hi Daniel. I don’t find them fat sounding, but they can sometimes lose some clarity. I find they work great for very clean or cranked, overdriven tones, but less impressive in between where the sweet spot usually occurs for most players. Not the best pickups for hovering around the “just breaking up” zone, but incredibly good for a standard pickup on a budget guitar.

    I still have my set, but they’re currently not installed in either of my Strats. Thanks for the comment.

  3. Hi. I’m trying to find out about the wiring on these – they have three wires, and as far as I know, the white is hot (goes to the switch) and the other two would go to ground in a normal setup. Am I right?

    Thanks, Sam.

    1. Hi Sam.
      Yes that’s right. The 3rd wire is the shield. Yes, these budget pickups are shielded… Very cool. Connect it to ground along with the black wire (or whatever colour it is)
      Good luck.

  4. Ah, well done! Thanks. I did try to find diagrams on the SD website, but they weren’t quite the right ones for these pickups and my configuration. Thanks again for your clarification on this. Cheers, Sam.

  5. I own a 1995 Fender US Lone Star Stratocaster – teal green metallic – that I absolutely LOVE. I loved it from the moment I picked it up brand spankin’ new and it’s been my main gigging guitar since then. For the past year, I’ve been playing country music and my Lone Star Strat does quite well. I’ve wanted a bit more “spank” and “quack” in my tone for certain tunes. So that led me on a quest to find a good Telecaster. For the life of me, I just couldn’t find a Tele that I liked. I’m a Strat guy… the five way switch and the actual feel of the guitar is just something I can’t find replicated in the Tele world.

    Aaaaaaand then I came across a Squier Vintage Modified Surf Stratocaster. The look of the instrument was intoxicating to say the least, but the sound? Let’s just say it was everything I was looking for. EVERYTHING. The pickups in this guitar are exactly what I was hoping to find and I’m not replacing my beloved Strat. Rather, I’m able to expand on the sound of my Texas Specials and chime in with the crisp, defined tone of the Duncan Designed SC101 with great satisfaction. Both guitars play excellently and it’s really a pleasure to be able to switch back and forth between them to capture the sounds I hear in my head.

    I’m a happy camper.

    1. Great story Ken. I’ve often wondered about the surf Strat, but I think I should try something other than a Strat for my next guitar.

      I’ve got my eye on the Squier Tele Deluxe. Sort of a cross between a Tele and a Strat.

  6. Hi there. I use sc101 on my strat. It sound like what i want with that budget. But i wonder what capacitor to make sc101 sound better. I use orange drop 0,1uf. How if i choose some new 0,05??? Thanks mate!!!

    1. Hi Abi,
      The 0.1uF will cut off more frequencies than a 0.05uF (more commonly you’ll find 0.047uF capacitors).

      The 0.1uF is what was used in early vintage Fenders with the lower wound and therefore, brighter-sounding pickups. I would recommend, to go with the SC101 pickups that you try a 0.05 or 0.047uF to cut off less treble when using the tone controls and also that will make them sound slightly brighter overall with the tone controls on “10” too.

      I have Jupiter 0.05uF caps in 3 of my Strats. I’m not a big believer that the type of capacitor makes that much difference, rather the value. However I do like the sound of my Strats that have the Jupiter cap in them (but they’re not cheap).

      I’m actually planning on installing a cheap ceramic 0.1uF in a guitar soon that has some low-output alnico 5 pickups in to tame some brightness.

      Hope this helps!

  7. Hi, I just stumbled upon your site by doing some SC101 research and it seems you rate them highly. I wonder how the neck pickup will compare to my Texas Special which I love the tone of, the buzz however can be an issue. As you point out, the SC101s are shielded and they have to be worth a go for $20!

    1. HI. I found the SC101 to be pretty quiet, but it all depends on the environment you’re in as to how much buzz you’ll hear.
      I think the shielding helps, but I couldn’t be sure you won’t have the same noise problems playing in the same place as you do with the Texas Specials.
      As for tone. I think they may be simnilar, seeing as the SC101s are a relatively high wind, like Texas Specials are.

  8. Rob, Thanks for the reply. I will certainly will give the SC101s a go before long..a pity the main ebay dealer charges so much for shipping, I wired an SX alder strat up for the 7 way using a Texas Special in neck posn and combined with the bridge pup was surprised by how much it sounded like a Tele equiv middle position. If you did a blind test and asked somebody is that a strat or tele, they would say the later. All 3 pups together is maybe a sound that grows on you, Sounded a tad too bloated? upon first listen.Maybe you need a Tele in your axe collection, no harm in that..

    1. Certainly no harm in having a Tele! I have an SX Tele (STL-50), which is actually a great guitar. I’m also planning on building a Strat-shaped body with entirely Tele guts.
      A friend of mine has a Classic Vibe Custom Tele (the one with the binding on the body) and it’s a fantastic guitar.

  9. SX are value for an alder or ash body. The saddles and tuners need to be replaced along with pickups. The easy way to get the neck and bridge pup combo happening is to swap the Bridge and middle wire positions on the 5 way switch, as I found out after doing the mini toggle mod, which gives

    Pos. 1 neck
    Pos. 2 neck plus bridge
    Pos. 3 bridge
    Pos. 4 bridge plus middle for quack
    Pos. 5 middle

    The 2nd tone is now on the bridge pickup as many folks like it, pos 4 still gives you Dire Straits quack and you are only missing the old position 2 quack

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