5 Pickup and Pedal Matches Made in Heaven

The signal path to tonal glory has so many tributaries, roundabouts and detours that us tonehounds sometimes sniff our way into dense jungles of confusion. Sometimes infinite options can blockade creative ventures or even put us off a potentially great tone tool forever, and it can happen to anyone. The first time I plugged a Strat into a vintage MXR Distortion+, I was met with untamable squealing feedback, unpleasant extraneous noise and a shrill top end spike that punctured my tone tires, leaving me stranded by the roadside wondering how my heroes made the classic golden box ride so smooth.

In the spirit of trial and error, I plugged in my faded Gibson Flying V loaded with vintage DiMarzio Super Distortion Humbuckers and it was a whole different ball of wax and wire. Thick gobs of sizzling, searing classic rock crunch and harmonic feedback oozed out of my 1978 Marshall JMP half stack. I knew immediately how my early heroes Randy Rhoads, K.K. Downing and Michael Schenker achieved such sinewy muscular tones. I also realized how dramatically different a pedal can sound with different pickups loaded into it. Today’s feature is all about my personal perfect pickup and pedal pairings that I have discovered through years of experimentation. Some are new, some are old, some are eccentric, some are conservative, but all are sonically supportive and complementary.

P-90s and Treble Boosters

Who doesn’t love the juicy midrange crunch of a good P-90 pickup? Soapbars, dogears and even stacked P-90 humbuckers all smoke out the beast in every guitar player. But sometimes the P-90 pusher wants a little high-end sizzle with the smoke. This is when the germanium treble booster comes into play. My personal favorite pairing is the near peerless Lollar P-90 jacked into the Homebrew Electronics Germania. Similar to the iconic DiMarzio DP100 and MXR D+ pairing I mentioned earlier, the HBE Germania scoops out a bit of that P-90 mud and adds a sparkling grind of swirling harmonic top-end to the sonic equation.

The HBE Germania is easily my favorite Rangemaster variant for subtle tone sweetening or full-on Sabbathian bloodbaths of vintage gain. It compliments the P-90 perfectly and comes in two flavors. HBE offers the purple sparkle original—which is more scooped in the midrange—or the more mid-heavy black version armed with the fabled OC44 transistor. Speaking of OC44-armed treble boosters, Swart Amplifiers makes a seriously juicy and delicious pedal called the Atomic Boost. I have jacked my Lollar P-90-equipped Reverend Hotshot junior into the Atomic Boost pushing a Swart SST 30. I can attest to hearing God speak with this top shelf rig. Joey Santiago also utilizes the Swart Atomic Boost to enhance his beautifully vocal bee-drone leads. What a buzz…

Jazzmasters and Hotcakes

While it is known that Fender guitars and pickups cut through dense distortion jungles as if they were sonic machetes, without the help of a good overdrive pedal or healthy dollop of preamp gain, a Fender can sound anemic for rocking purposes. Even though the Jazzmaster has a bit more heft than its cousin the Stratocaster, the Jazzmaster can do with a little lower midrange boost to fill out the tonal spectrum. I have found none better for this purpose than the proto-boutique classic fuzz overdrive—the Crowther Hotcake.

The Crowther Hotcake is a buffered beauty of a pedal that can speak the languages of completely transparent clean boost, tube-like, full-fat overdrive and corpulent squidgy fuzz with equal aplomb. The Hotcake-and-Jazzmaster combination has been utilized and immortalized by Sonic Youth, J. Mascis, and Nels Cline for a reason: The Jazzmaster is wiry and articulate, while the Hotcake is heavy and brutish. Like the wily guitarists that wield them, this pair is equal parts brain and brawn.

PAFs and Percolators

Besides the Crowther Hotcake, the Harmonic Percolator is my personal favorite fuzzy overdrive pedal. Much like the Hotcake, the Harmonic Percolator is a characterful 1970s cult classic circuit that was boutique before the buzzword. Unlike the Hotcake, the Percolator is a zippy, noisy pedal that benefits from a quieter humbucker as a signal generator. I have found that a good low-output PAF-style humbucker works magic with Percolator variants. This combination gives me all the crackling, haywire even-order harmonics that only the Percolator can achieve, without the annoying extraneous noise that plagued the original circuit.

I was first introduced to this combo when I worked on Denmark Street in London. Seymour Duncan had just released a limited, UK-only run of PAF-type pickups that he dubbed Whole Lotta Humbuckers in honor of his custom winds he did for Jimmy Page back in the ‘60s. Boy did those reissues sound amazing. My Irish mate Damien wired them into my cheapo Shaftesbury Les Paul wannabe and turned a budget guitar into a tone machine instantly. I didn’t have a tube amp at the time and used to jack straight into my Chuck Collins Harmonic Percolator and ratty little solid state Hiwatt practice amp. That was one of the most hideously beautiful tones I ever achieved. When I want my PAF and Percolator fix these days, I plug my Duesenberg Fullerton TV into a Fredric Effects Utility Perkolator and couldn’t be happier.

Goldfoils and Brassmasters

Now let’s talk about two of the more esoteric pickups and circuits out there. Both the Gold Foil pickup and the Maestro Brassmaster command extortionate prices on eBay for a reason—they sound like nothing else. Luckily, Mojotone Pickups and Malekko Heavy Industry make incredible modern day versions of these unorthodox tone machines. The Gold Foil pickup and its rubberized magnet soul are microphonic by nature. It is a small price to pay for the crystal clear, gorgeous blooming sound, but it can be a nuisance nonetheless. Most fuzz pedals will simply add to the extraneous hum, but the Malekko B:Assmaster certainly cannot be lumped into the category of most fuzz pedals.

The B:Assmaster is a demonic octave fuzz pedal based on the Maestro Brassmaster. The Brassmaster was someone’s no-doubt weed-addled attempt at trying to turn a bass into a brass instrument via silicon transistor clipping and analog octave-up ripping. The result is a heavily gated touch sensitive destructo-machine capable of summoning Satan at a stroke. I love ramming the Gold Foils into it, because the crystalline nature of the harmonic content gets mangled beautifully through both the fuzz sensitivity and clean blend alike. What’s more is the heavy gate of the Assmaster slams shut after every note and chord release, cancelling out the hum of the Gold Foil between passages. A match made in Heaven and a signal sent straight to Hell.

Mosrite and The Wave Cannon

Like the Gold Foil, the Mosrite pickup has a tone all its own. The Mosrite pickup was one of, if not the first, super high output pickup. Listen to The Ventures’s Live in Japan ’65 and be privy to some of the greatest guitar tones ever recorded. Listen to that monstrous mid-cut with over 10K of single coil slice bleeding those vintage Fender amps to overdriven death. Or, duck under a tattered American Flag for cover from Fred Sonic Smith and Brother Wayne Kramer’s Strat-and-Mosrite MC5 attack. I love the distinctive Mosrite tone and what better way to honor an American classic than to blast it out of the Caroline Wave Cannon for a 21-gun salute.

The Wave Cannon adds a buoyant bark to the woody Mosrite core tone at lower gain settings and starts pumping pure doom when the wave shape control is dialed from sine to square. I like to set the controls all just past midnight and go from Johnny Ramone to Kurt Cobain and Tad Doyle in the click of a footswitch. It is like a steroid injection of pure Mosrite muscle tone.

Opposites Attract

Ah, I am starting to see the pattern here. For me, pairing up pedals and pickups is all about filling out frequency gaps and compensating weaknesses. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules and this is all subjective. Just look at Rowland Howard of The Birthday Party—he accentuated the top end of his Fender Jaguar with a Distortion+ into a cranked Fender Twin for God’s sake. All the guts hung out creating a torturous trebly cacophony that was seductively evil and beautifully chaotic.

Next time you pair up a pedal and a pickup and don’t like what you hear, just remember to plug in a few different guitars before you exile the stomper to eBay. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Over and out.

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