Colorless writings, part 10 – The Pup

This Colorless Writing episode marks one milestone for me. It is the tenth writing in the series, which also means that there are now exactly 100 (one hundred) pedal posts on this blog. Every ten pedal posts is followed with one of these. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you, my readers. With around 75 page views per day, i do feel quite honoured. I’ve set up a Twitter account too, so users (and/or FB-emigraters) can easily follow my posts through that service too.

Enough with the jibber jabber. The Pup.

The pickup?

Yes. From electronic point of view, the guitar pickups are nothing more but a simple AC current source made of permanent magnets and a coil wire. In all the simplicity, the frequency of the vibrating string will be transferred to AC current. The current isn’t very high, but it usually ranges from 100 millivolts to around 1 volt. The basic idea of electric guitar is to send this low voltage AC signal to the guitar amplifier that is made of two (actually three, but the third one doesn’t apply here) parts. The preamp amplifies the guitar’s signal voltage, usually to about 12 volts and the power amp amplifies the current to the extent that the signal is strong enough to drive the speaker. Now, think about the AC current generated by the pickups. There is a huge difference between 100 mV and a full volt. The work that the preamp needs to do will be strongly affected by the level of the pickup output.

Got it. But what about the pedals? How do they react to different pickup levels?

If we look at guitar pedals from electronic point of view, we may see that most of your pedals act like preamplifiers. Bigger the signal input voltage, the less the pedal can do with it.

This is the point that flamed up the idea of writing about it. I was recently repairing a bunch of pedals and couple of the simply sounded like crap. I was pretty certain that one EHX LPB-1 Nano was broken as it sounded like overly saturated, bad sounding distortion instead of a clean boost that the circuit is – and has been since the nineteen sixties. I then decided to try it with another guitar, as the one next to my bench was Hagström F200 with original Custom 60s humbucking pickups. Took my Fender Baja Telecaster and tried the same circuits with it. Baja is from Fender’s Classic Player series and it has original Custom Shop pickups with vintage style output. First of all, i had to crank my bench amp way higher to get any sound out of it. Then i engaged the pedal.

You guessed it. Clean. No trace of the distortion. I then took the Hagström back to the equation, but lowered the volume pot setting on the guitar. Clean. So as a conclusion, the “hotter” the pickups, the less there is that a 9V operated effect can do with it. Some of you may have noticed that i’m somewhat biased when it comes to the superiority of a Tubescreamer overdrive. If you’re using it with high output pickups, it will sound horrible (cold dead hand slapping you on the top of your head), but with low, vintage output pickups the TS9 comes alive and sounds like it is supposed to. TS9 with modern high output humbuckers sucks.With vintage output singles – that’s where the magic kicks in.

There is  a chance you’ve run in to issues when you’ve tried to use some of your overdrive pedals with your  synth or keyboard. The signal pushed by those instruments are usually at line level, meaning that the AC signal voltage is closer to five volts. It is a rare pedal that can operate well with that kind of signal without becoming choked sounding. No. It is not a fault in the pedal, but simply a feature. But there is a simple workaround for these situations. Just build yourself a simple, passive volume control in a mini box and use it to bring the synth’s signal down before pushing it to the pedal. You can always push it back up to line level with something like MXR Microamp if you need to get the signal back to your synth.

But you’ve written before that all the pieces of the gear puzzle affect each other? Isn’t that the same thing that applies here?

Partially yes. Some pickups won’t play nice with some pedals. So if you check youtube demos for the unit you are interested and buy the pedal based on that information, there is always a chance that the unit won’t sound even remotely the same with your gear. With high gain distortions the issue isn’t that big. Mainly because anything that goes in comes out totally scrambled. But how about creating a mild overdrive pedal that works and sound great on any pickup configuration? Now that’s not as simple as one might think. And what about active pickups? In essence the active pickups simply mean that there is impedance changing preamp built insinde the pickup. Sometimes those preamps boost the signal too. If you don’t have experience with active pups and a Tubescreamer, you can imagine what that will sound like. That would be pretty much the same thing as you were driving your TS with a Super Hard-On. True, hot (as in high output) pickups tend to sound bigger and better. But some pedals may not reach their full potential with those pickups.

Is it better to have vintage, low output pickups than modern, high gain output ones?

You tell me. Former is definitely the way to go if you want to use your Tubescreamer as the main overdrive. But once again, we would need to define “better” before jumping to any conclusions. Big, fat heavy metal mush sound  isn’t going to be happening with vintage output pickups. There are tons of different sounding pickups out there. Which ones work for you and your pedal rig? I guess you’ll just need to try a few sets out to find it out.

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