Refinishing a guitar – the hardware

I posted about actually trying to strip and refinish an Ibanez G10 guitar a while back, but I recently found this post regarding the hardware I put into it was still in draft state. So here is the how and why in regards to the pickups I put in the guitar. They cost more than the guitar did.

When I was refinishing that G10, I realized (shortly after the first coat of blue -you know, well before it started to look really cool) that it wouldn’t matter how awesome it looked if it didn’t sound great. The stock humbuckers really sounded pretty good as far as stock humbuckers go. I wouldn’t call them ‘meaty’ but there was definitely some well-designed, whey-and-soy-based-product there which simulated meat fairly well. They sounded resoundingly okay, but okay wasn’t good enough. Now that I have a guitar that I’ve taken down to bare wood, I figure a good part of my soul lives in it, so it needs to properly capture my emotions. Stock pickups just don’t do that.

I began playing guitar in about 1989. I started to get good at it somewhere around 1991. That is not to say that I woke up one day and had the skill to play, but more to say that Metallica’s Black album dropped on August 12, 1991. That album made learning to play the guitar easy. Easy, fun-to-play, crunchy riffs came one after another. Start to play with Enter Sandman, learn to double-pick with Holier than Thou, get a feel for weird time signatures with My Friend of Misery, all the while playing some fairly simple guitar licks. The next thing you know, the bizarre 7/5 time of The Four Horsemen’ (or the parent song, Megadeth’s Mechanix -though I have to admit the Metallica version is far better in sound, scope and lyric) doesn’t seem quite so bizarre. Oh my, how that album changed me.

Metallica, at that time, played on a multitude of instruments, but Kirk and James played ESP guitars fairly exclusively. They also used EMG pickups fairly exclusively. I’ve always wanted to have a set of EMG pickups in my guitar to see if I could emulate their sound. So, when it came time to choose the pickups to put in my still-in-restoration guitar, I obviously chose the John Petrucci signature series DiMarzio pickups.

This surprised even me.

Why the about face? I have no doubt that any higher-end pickup can handle some crunchy distortion with ease. I usually can’t tell a difference between major manufacturer pickups when it comes to the low-end grind. They’re deep, they’re meaty, and every major manufacturer can do it. While I’m sure that the same can be said for the clean tone coming from the neck pickup, I can also say that someone like John Petrucci probably has a bit more direct experience with the equipment than an in-your-face metal band.

I watched Dozens of youtube videos featuring the Petrucci signature set, the Dave Mustaine signature set, and the James Hetfield signature set (I never liked the way Kirk’s guitar sounded, so I didn’t look at those). What it ultimately came down to, for me at least, was two things. One was the amount of sustain that -literally any idiot- can get out of the Petrucci pickups. The same was not evidenced in a ridiculous amount of time watching videos for the other two pickup sets. The other was the artificial harmonics. If you’ve ever wondered why Jake E lee could hit a pinch harmonic at any point on any string, while you struggled to hit one on the seventh fret, the pickups are why. The Megadeth and Metallica sets of pickups were so focused on crunch that they seemed to miss part of the high end of the spectrum (at least in the dozens of videos I watched). The first thirty seconds of Dream Theater’s song ‘Pull Me Under’ kind of illustrates what I mean.

I think what ultimately sold me on the Petrucci pickups, though, was this video of Petrucci using them:

While I hate to urge you to skip past portions of his performance … If you jump in at about 6:30 you will see everything I mentioned above: amazing sustain, crunchy low-end distortion, pinch harmonics -literally anywhere on the string- and brilliant and bright clean tone…

Basically, if I can’t make it sound good with this set of pickups, I need to put the instrument down and move on. Which I may need to do. My results with the same pickups have not been as the video above suggests. However, I can nail a pinch harmonic nearly anywhere on the neck. Often even if that was not my intention. I’m damn happy with the choice.

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