Exciting New Pickup Acquisition!
I was given the opportunity recently to try out the latest Strat pickup set from Tonerider: The Alnico II Blues set, model designation – TRS4. The pickups came through the newly appointed distributor for Tonerider in Thailand – Cheap Elite/Legend Music.
I have recently waxed lyrical about the stock Duncan Designed pickups that come installed on the Squier Vintage Modified and Deluxe Strats. I got a VM 70s Strat last year and I felt no need for any other Strat pickups, so I took the opportunity to test the TRS4s expecting to install them, review them and then give them back.
Things often do not turn out as expected though and this is one of those cases. These pickups are staying!
I wasn’t aware of the Alnico 2 Blues set and became intrigued when I was faced with the prospect of testing out some pickups which were not fully in the public domain. This set is a prototype and there are precious few of them currently in circulation. That got me really interested!
So on with the review…
Minimal Confirmation Bias
All tests are influenced greatly before they are even conducted by expectations of the tester. There are no published specs of these pickups at this time, so I am conducting this review without any kind of bias as to how these pickups are supposed to be voiced or what type of Strat pickup they are inspired by, if any.
The only thing that has set up my expectation a little is the fact that they have grey bottoms! To those who know, this may give a clue as to the era of Strat pickup that these are based on (late 60s “Hendrix Era”), although I think those pickups originally sported alnico V pole pieces instead of alnico II. Of course, the material used in construction of the pickup may have nothing to do with anything. I’m not an expert pickup builder.
As with all the other products in the Tonerider catalogue, the TRS4 set is made from quality materials and appears to be constructed faithfully to vintage Strat pickups including cloth-insulated wires, like vintage spec pickups normally do. They’re clearly labelled for ease of installation and come with rubber tubing for the height-adjustment screws. The middle pickup is RWRP and the set I have sports white covers, which look cool on my all-black Strat. I want to say now, that while I like David Gilmore, I’m not a die-hard fan who wants to emulate his tone or image, but there is something striking about that black pickguard with white pickups. I’ll leave the knobs and switch black though, just to be a little different.
Now the Important Bit (the TONE)
Without any confirmation of how hot these pickups are supposed to be or how they are supposed to be voiced, it’s refreshing to be able describe these pickups in terms of how I hear them without too much prejudice based on what they may be designed to sound like. I’m not a Strat purist in terms of tone. I am one of those players who loves Strats, mainly for how they feel and a good Strat tone for me is simply a good tone that I like, regardless of how authentically “Stratty” it is.
This pickup is smooth! It seems to have a bottom-end rolloff that has a very, sonically-pleasing effect. There doesn’t seem to be any enhanced girth that many bridge pickups seem to be treated to have, probably in an attempt to make them less shrill, but often at the expense of sounding too midrange focused and harsh-sounding. This pickup seems pretty flat in frequency response and the top end is not harsh at all, negating the need to try and increase the thump or lows/mids. I would say that is in large part due to the alnico II magnets.
My guess is that this pickup (probably the whole set) is of a moderate to low winding, therefore low to mid DC resistance, but it still seems to sound like there’s plenty of output. However it doesn’t sound like a high-output pickup, it sounds like a loud and clear pickup, which I think works very well – cleans are jangly, overdrive is smooth and clear without being too polite. It’s still got attitude and I like a pickup that has attitude. For me that comes from the attack and twang that seems to remain intact with bridge position TRS4 without sacrificing the evenness of the overall tone.
Compared to the Seymour Duncan Twangbanger that was in there before, which I imagine is a higher output pickup, the TRS4 sounds like it is at least as loud at the same height and amplifier settings. It’s more upfront, brighter and clearer, but while it has less bottom and low mids, it isn’t obviously thinner sounding. It’s just less mid-scooped maybe. In any event, it seems to be able to cut through a mix without having any sharp edges or flexing any muscles, so to speak. It’s a calm achiever!
Here’s my pretentious analogy of the comparison:
When a good public speaker wants to make an important point they don’t raise their voice, they lower it. They pause, create an atmosphere of attentiveness and clearly, calmly divulge their crucial piece of wisdom.
In comparison to the Twangbanger, the TRS4 makes it’s point in this way. It doesn’t shout at you, it makes you listen.
I normally find middle pickups on their own as being a bit muddy. They always sound nice playing clean without accompaniment, but once the band is playing it never really get heards to me, but this middle pickup, like the bridge seems to be very clear and unobstructed by low-mids, making it more useable than the pickup it replaces (Duncan Designed SC101). I deliberately tried using this position yesterday with a band where I would normally never use it at all, so I could at least hear it in context. It worked great for a blues solo I played with a healthy dose of overdrive. I would normally use the bridge pickup for that kind of thing, but it still had the clarity and sustain to hold me back from flipping the switch to the bridge position for the sake of reviewing the tone.
The neck pickup is amazing! I use the neck for things like slow blues normally and I always try to use the neck pickup for rhythm on RnB and old blues (think Bright Lights, Big City by Jimmy Reid), but it never works out as a rule because it gets muddy.
This neck pickup however is a different story. Compared to what I’ve used in the past, even the neck pickup I had in my Custom Shop ’56 Strat, it’s got all that clarity and edge without having any sharp edges. Overall this pickup impressed me the most as I always just expect neck pickups to sound nice for clean licks and not much else. This seemed to work well for everything.
I don’t use the typical Strat in-between settings that much as a rule. I’m not a big fan of them because I rarely find an appropriate use for the sound on stage. These in-between settings though are very clear, which is an improvement on many other pickup sets I’ve used for these settings. There’s normally not enough bite for me in the in-between settings. Of course, they can normally be given plenty of bite from the amp, but then everything’s out of whack when I flip the bridge pickup on and the bridge pickup is where I spend 90% of my playing time. Maybe that’s why the in-between settings don’t work best for me.
I find the bridge+middle quite pleasing for funky chops. The nicest combination setting is the bridge and neck together. I have a push/push switch on my volume control that activates the neck pickup regardless of where the switch is, so I can get the neck+bridge and all 3 pickups in additional to all the stock combinations. My 2nd favourite Strat position is the neck+bridge (after bridge by itself). I’m rarely disappointed with this setting with any pickups, but with the Alnico 2 Blues, the sound is crystal clear, full and deep, reminiscent of the tone of a Jaguar in the same pickup position, but still unmistakably “Strat” in flavour.
I’ll cover all the settings in time with some video demos.
I’ve always loved Strats for their ability to let the sound of the player through instead of making most players sound the same. The TRS4s seem to be coming from that place, where they don’t get in the way of the players expressiveness, they allow it to take the shape that the player wants to create. The Alnico II Blues set I think could be described as a tonal platform to showcase your sound and character. There is no excess colour in their tone to mask the source, which for some may make for a guitar that’s more difficult to sound good playing. However , for seasoned players with their own signature playing style defined, they make a very good choice for creating a tone that captures all the nuances of your playing and allows you to sound uniquely you.
These pickups are staying!