Why vintage pickups are generally (considered) better?

dewey decibel

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10,563
Maybe there is the same topic somewhere, but I couldn't find it.

In the old times pickups on Gibson or Fender factories were manufactured by cheap workers, who could go smoke outside in the middle of the winding process and those pickups were all over the place in terms of specs. Manufacturers chose components trying to make it as cheap as possible. And yet we hunt for those old pickups. Or there are companies like Throbak who sell their recreations of vintage pickups not for cheap at all.

So why then today only boutique winders can recreate those pickups like PAFs, P90s and others, when factories today have access to more consistent components like magnets, wire and all this stuff and also have quality control?

Probably I'm wrong, but this is the impression I have on this question.
Consider that while Fender and Gibson may have been using cheap, off the shelf materials in the '50s and '60s, those cheap components of yesteryear were of much higher quality than even premium components of today. I mean, that's what started the boutique market, because the off the shelf stuff wasn't up to snuff. Hold a Gibson tailpiece from the '50s in one hand and compare it to a stock Gibson tailpiece from 2020, it's going to feel completely different in terms of weight, density, finish, etc. People tend to think these metal parts don't matter as much as the wood (let's not even get started on old growth mahogany) but I actually think they matter more, and a pickup is made mostly of metal. The magnets have been mentioned already but even the wire, it was of much higher quality back then. And it all adds up, sum of the parts being greater than the whole and all that.

My point is; what was a cheap part in 1959 was of much higher quality materials than even some of the premium parts being made today. They don't make 'em like they used to....
 

xmd5a

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Consider that while Fender and Gibson may have been using cheap, off the shelf materials in the '50s and '60s, those cheap components of yesteryear were of much higher quality than even premium components of today. I mean, that's what started the boutique market, because the off the shelf stuff wasn't up to snuff.
This is all marketing magic.

The boutique market started with Fender et el replacing vintage spec pickups with plastic molded pickups, and pickups with ceramic bars and steel pole pieces. People with American Standards wanted vintage looking pickups, and people with MIM Fenders wanted actual AlNiCo pickups. It has nothing to do with higher quality materials, it has to the with the material itself, AlNiCo versus ceramic, fiberboard versus molded plastic. And who's to say it was about sound? People like vintage for it's own sake, they can say it sounds better, but that's not objective anyhow, it's not provable or disprovable.

In the case of Gibson and T-tops, the T-tops were consistently underwound by today's standards. That gave way to wanting high output pickups in the 80's. The love for PAF pickups, again, the idea that they sounded better is probably a myth, there's just no proof, it's something people say to justify the act of doing something that doesn't make logical sense otherwise, chasing vintage specs for the sake of it.
 

xmd5a

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2,406
To keep the prices of “vintage” gear artificially inflated and protect their “investments”
It's sort of like a pyramid scheme. If you get duped into buying a crappy old guitar for $5k, it will only remain a $5k guitar if someone else get's duped also, a potential future buyer. If the total number of dupes falls, the prices will fall, too. This is what is happening with bitcoin, someone buys a little, the next thing you know they've become a philosopher.
 

xmd5a

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2,406
People swear they can hear all kinds of stuff (and some probably can), but for most, it's all about the hunt for some vintage tone they imagine they hear in their head. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not how I'd choose to spend my time, effort, or money. What's comical to me is when people install these "grail" pickups and then run their guitar through a litany of effect pedals.
I don't think they're hunting for a sound so much as an experience. The experience is "installing luxurious boutique pickups", it's like an event unto itself. Is it hard to imagine that installing a set of Lollars or Fralins feels more special than install some OriPure $20 pickups from Amazon? They even put a branded guitar pickup in the box, and a little note "Thank you for buying our pickups, we hope you enjoy your musical journey." How customer judges the sound probably owes almost entirely to how they rate that experience, because on a technical level, these boutique pickup makers aren't doing or making anything overly special.

This same sort of psychological game happens all throughout pro audio, with expensive speakers, amps and cables. The guitar world is no different, if it's not pickups, we're pretending that cap dielectrics affect the tone.
 

Surfreak

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2,247
Here’s a hopefully liberating thought: there are no better or worse pickups.
There are different pickups. Decide if price is or isn’t a factor, then choose the ones that sound better to your ear
 

xmd5a

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2,406
They allow the best dynamics
Guitar pickups don't have dynamics. Dynamic range is the loudest potential above the noise floor. It could be argued that humbuckers are more dynamic for the fact of having a lower noise floor, but the upper bound is only limited by how hard you can hit the strings.

and a more neutral EQ curve and are more open/airy sounding.
There is only one way for a guitar pickup to have a neutral EQ curve, and most people don't like it,. The way to do it is to have the pickup be so underwound that the resonant peak is in excess of the operational range of the speakers. Such pickups sound thin, because that's the true tone of a neutral EQ. In fact, most all pickups, including vintage ones, are set up to roll off somewhere between 2 and 4kHz, because that softens the highs and favor the lows and mids, or they say, "sounds warm". VIntage pickups are no differnt from modern pickups in this respect.
 

xmd5a

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2,406
then choose the ones that sound better to your ear
There's the rub, it's not possible to audition many guitar pickups. Even if the vendor has a favorable return policy, installing them is enough of a hassle that it's easier to simply change the way you feel about them, perhaps decide that you really like them, than to actually remove them and send them back. Since it's all arbitrary, not having a committed opinion about a given set of pickups is a simple matter of will power.
 

OM Flyer

Senior Member
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6,081
I don't think they're hunting for a sound so much as an experience. The experience is "installing luxurious boutique pickups", it's like an event unto itself.
Truthfully, I think the event is telling people you installed luxurious boutique pickups, and receiving compliments and encouragement.
 

mschafft

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1,642
Because they are few and far between. They are the exact specs some very famous songs were recorded with. Also they often get slightly demagnetized over time which weakens the treble response a bit and people think it's true "warm" vintage tone eventhough they didn't sound like that back in the day.
 

RicOkc

Member
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2,217
Maybe there is the same topic somewhere, but I couldn't find it.

In the old times pickups on Gibson or Fender factories were manufactured by cheap workers, who could go smoke outside in the middle of the winding process and those pickups were all over the place in terms of specs. Manufacturers chose components trying to make it as cheap as possible. And yet we hunt for those old pickups. Or there are companies like Throbak who sell their recreations of vintage pickups not for cheap at all.

So why then today only boutique winders can recreate those pickups like PAFs, P90s and others, when factories today have access to more consistent components like magnets, wire and all this stuff and also have quality control?

Probably I'm wrong, but this is the impression I have on this question.

Smoke outside???

In the good 'ol days they smoked at their work stations.
 

rockabilly69

Silver Supporting Member
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1,902
A lot of the people here poo-poo-ing vintage pickups haven't owned a guitar with vintage PAFs, P90s, Tele or Strat pickups, or haven't played a guitar with them in there. There is something special about those pickups, if you can't hear it, don't waste your money, but there are many that can hear it! It's not snake oil, it's a fact. It may have been slightly accidental, but many of those those late fifties, and early sixties designs were great! And the tones from these vintage pickups, mated with the right guitar and amp can be magical.

It doesn't make a difference if the employees went out and took a smoke break while winding, the early production processes were good, and most pickups fell within a certain spec. As others have said, many of the earlier pickup designs were made with better materials but as the cost cutting bean counters got involved many of the materials cheapened up quite a bit, especially as we hit the seventies.

And music was changing, rock was getting harder and the boutique pickup market was started because people wanted hot enough pickups to get non-master volume amps to distort, which led DiMarzio in the 1970s to build the Super Distortion which guitarists bought in record numbers. And as rock and roll got heavier and heavier, so did the outputs of these pickups.

And as the pickups got hotter, they got more compressed and more mid focused, which is fine for heavy tones, but really doesn't work well for other more rootsy types of music. And it didn't help that many guitar manufacturers were putting these hot pickups in their guitars!

But as time went by, many amplifier builders started incorporating master volumes in their amps so hotter pickups weren't really needed as much.

So boutique manufacturers did a 180 and starting offering lower gain pickups shooting for the quality of the original vintage pickups. But the recipe for the right magnets, wire, and winding techniques, really wasn't that easy to come by. And many of the original materials weren't being made anymore. So many of these boutique companies had to exhaustively analyze these parts and produce a lot of their own parts! Research is expensive, so the prices went up.

I have to say I've tried some boutique pickups that for me really do bring the feel of vintage stuff back, so I'm glad we have these boutique companies. I remember the first time I tried a set of Throbaks in a Les Paul, it was a game changer for me. The guitar was just so much more harmonically interesting compared to when I had other pickups in it. And two days a week, I had a little business of guitar repair going. so I did a lot of pickup installs with most every brand pickup available, and the Throbaks consistently were head and shoulders above every other brand of pickup I installed in bringing the vintage tone. Yes they are expensive, but there are still some smaller companies out there that are reasonably prices. Some are my favorite PAF Style pickups are Tyson Tone Labs Precious and Grace and they are reasonable priced for a set. And there are many other small companies with pickups that bring vintage style tone.
 

Stookie

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62
My point is; what was a cheap part in 1959 was of much higher quality materials than even some of the premium parts being made today. They don't make 'em like they used to....
This is an interesting point of view, I didn't think about that. Is it the same with pickups?
 

xmd5a

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2,406
Modern microphones and speakers are a lot better than the vintage equivalents, why the bias in favor of vintage pickups when it comes to component quality?

A lot of the justification is that it was less perfect, the flaws gave it character, we'll they make pickups with all the same flaws today, but still people will have a dubious belief that the old version is better.
 
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xmd5a

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2,406
A lot of the people here poo-poo-ing vintage pickups haven't owned a guitar with vintage PAFs, P90s, Tele or Strat pickups, or haven't played a guitar with them in there. There is something special about those pickups,
Talk about how people who own vintage gear talk it up to increase it's worth, this language screams of that. Want to know the magic of vintage? Visit a vintage guitar dealer today! Salesmen are standing by!

A lot of the people here poo-poo-ing vintage pickups haven't owned a guitar with vintage PAFs, P90s, Tele or Strat pickups, or haven't played a guitar with them in there. There is something special about those pickups, if you can't hear it, don't waste your money, but there are many that can hear it! It's not snake oil, it's a fact.
When people use terms like "something special" to describe sound, that should set off an alarm bell. And that points towards a judgement about something, it's special. That's not the same same as saying it has more mids, or more treble, etc. It suggests that you're possibly conflating how you feel about the thing making the sound, with the sound itself. It's not crazy, it's been shown to happen with wine. People think it tastes better if they think it's more expensive. It's the same idea but applied to hearing rather than taste.
 

rockabilly69

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Modern microphones and speakers are a lot better than the vintage equivalents, why the bias in favor of vintage pickups when it comes to component quality?
The term something special I used because I didn't want run on adjectives that I could have went on and on with. Have you owned or used any vintage gear?

That maybe your opinion....

But many any of the finest recording engineers and musicians in the world would seriously disagree with this statement. Some of the best amps, speakers and microphones made are vintage. Such as 50's Jensen speakers, 50's tweed Fender amps, early 50's VOX amplifiers, late sixties Marshall amps, 60's celestion speakers, Neumann , Telefunken, AKG microphones! These are just a few of MANY examples!
 

xmd5a

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The term something special I used because I didn;t want run on adjectives that I could have went on and on with. HAve you onwed or used any vintage gear?
Things that are genuinely better than another thing, never lack for adjectives. Prius vs Pinto. iPhone vs flip phone.

That maybe your opinion....

But many any of the finest recording engineers and musicians in the world would seriously disagree with this statement. Some of the best amps, speakers and microphones made are vintage. Such as 50's Jensen speakers, 50's tweed Fender amps, early 50's VOX amplifiers, late sixties Marshall amps, 60's celestion speakers, Neumann U47 microphones! These are just a few of MANY examples!
Right, they always sound "warmer" of course. A description of temperature.
 
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Average Joe

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11,712
it's all about conditioning imho. If the golden age electrics had been equipped with EMGs or very overwound passives, everybody would go on about how Seths, MHS, ssl1, etc didn't sound as good.
 

rockabilly69

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1,902
Things that are genuinely better than another thing, never lack for adjectives.



Right, they always sound "warmer" of course. A description of temperature.
I said... I could have went on and on with adjectives, as in, there was no lack of them! And as for your "warmer" statement, now, I can see you just like to hear yourself talk, ramble on, I'm sure you'll have no lack of ridiculous statements.
 

rockabilly69

Silver Supporting Member
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1,902
it's all about conditioning imho. If the golden age electrics had been equipped with EMGs or very overwound passives, everybody would go on about how Seths, MHS, ssl1, etc didn't sound as good.
If people made the music that inspired us with those parts in golden age electrics you may be right. It's not about conditioning, it's about chasing the tone of the music that inspired you.
 

xmd5a

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2,406
it's all about conditioning imho. If the golden age electrics had been equipped with EMGs or very overwound passives, everybody would go on about how Seths, MHS, ssl1, etc didn't sound as good.
Nobody needs vintage gear to get that, though. A Strat or a Les Paul are already vintage instruments. People get so wrapped up in the minutia that they overlook the fact that there's no meaningful difference between an American Standard and an actual vintage Strat.

In the quest to make sure the value of vintage gear remains high, it's an ever moving goal post. No matter how true they stay to vintage spec, someone will come along an complain that the new one has a different decay rate in the nuclear isotopes, and assure us that this decay rate does something special for the sound, something you can't hear unless you yourself gamble some of your money on overpriced, outdated crap.
 




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