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!