Here at Northwest Guitars we talk about pickups a lot, and that’s because they’re such a critical part of your signal chain. There’s an abundance of pickup makers right now with options that go right through from ‘take out a second mortgage’ to some that cost less than the price of your Friday takeaway. We only stock pickups we think are worth the money and Tonerider have fast become a firm favourite of ours. But before we get into the nitty gritty of the pickup sets on offer, we need to have a talk about stock pickups.
You’ve probably heard guitarists talking about stock pickups, generally followed by a proclamation at how utterly rubbish they are, but why is that? The term ‘stock pickups’ usually refers to the pickups you’d find on a beginner or intermediate level guitar. They are typically Chinese or Korean made and have been bought in bulk and re-badged for the purposes of cost saving. Keeping costs down is critical in the beginner and intermediate market to ensure that the guitars remain affordable but there’s also a second consideration at play here. Guitar manufacturers need to appeal to a wide range of players from Blues lovers to Death Metalheads, so getting pickups that are as middle of the road as possible is crucial to ensuring that newer players return to the instrument.
Stock pickups have a bad rep but this doesn’t mean they are bad pickups, more that they’re not doing what you want them to. I played stock pickups on my Ibanez RG for years and had no issues with them, using them for a tonne of gigs and recording sessions. They were great for Metal riffing which is what I started out doing, but as I got wider into the world of rock guitar music, my ear developed a taste for prog and I began to find them flat sounding, lacking the definition and clarity I needed.
As a guitarist your needs and wants change, which is exactly why we all get the bug to swap out our pickups for something different! The caveat is changing out your pickups for the sake of it can be a potentially pointless exercise if you don’t actually know what it is you want from your guitar. So before you purchase new pickups ask yourself, what am I missing? What sound do I want and which pickup has that characteristic I'm looking for?
So does this mean you need to swap your stock pickups out for a £500 set of boutique, hand-wired, all the bells and whistles set of humbuckers or single coils? Not necessarily, you just need to find what’s best for you and luckily Northwest Guitars is here to give you a helping hand. We offer the full spectrum of guitar pickups from cheap and cheerful to boutique and big-budget but, we’re not going to tell you you have to buy a particular brand. We’re just here to give you our tuppence worth on the brands out there and let you make an informed decision.
Tonerider began life in the UK making all kinds of electronics, from amp circuit boards to guitar effects pedals, but nowadays they focus purely on making great-sounding pickups. Utilising great design, superb machining and world-class assembly, Tonerider gather the best materials from across the world to make their incredible-sounding pickups.
Every Tonerider pickup is scatter wound, a technique that makes every pickup ever so slightly different. With typical hand-wound pickups a machine spins the bobbin and the magnet wire goes through the operators hands who evenly distributes the wire. With scatter wound the same process occurs, except the operator purposefully distributes the wire in a random or scattered fashion. This tends to result in more treble-y pickups, because there is more air space in the coil. This doesn’t mean that every pickup is random, as there is some tailoring of the wind depending on what the tonal goal of the pickup is, and all these designs are based on Andrew Cunningham’s early hand-wound coil designs.
At Northwest Guitars we love Tonerider pickups so we’ve put together this guide to their most popular designs to help you get an idea of the sound before you purchase, so in no particular order, here they are…
The Tonerider AC2 is a PAF style humbucker that delivers warmth, fullness and plenty of sustain. Based upon the legendary Gibson Patent-Applied-For pickups, these humbuckers have the Alnico II magnet, a classic construction that holds a place in many a guitarists heart.
These pickups are perfect if you’re looking for that vintage, 50s era guitar tone, delivering buttery smooth distorted tones and chiming cleans that are often described as more single coil than humbucker. Tonerider winds these pickups with less than 30 turns per layer to stay in line with the vintage PAF design, making them great for those seeking the sweet, warm sounds of the past.
These pickups are designed for players who want to make their Tele a bit edgier, so be warned they aren’t the usual twang-y Tele pickups. They are a lot hotter, giving you plenty of grit when you need it. They’re constructed with Alnico III magnets that give excellent articulation when playing chords, even when using drive and distortion pedals.
The Hot Classics Tele pickups have a strong midrange and a thick bass response whilst retaining plenty of upper register clarity, making them spot on for Rock and Blues players who need some extra edge from their Telecaster style guitar. They’ll still give you plenty of clean clarity so rest assured they’re not just for players who like things dirty.
Modern Strat pickups for the most part tend to be overwound as it seems contemporary players prefer the hotter output, so there’s something to be said for these low output Pure Vintage Strat pickups that buck the trend. They use a mix of Alnico V and III pickups to deliver tones that will help you emulate the sound of guitar greats like Clapton, Gilmour and Knopfler.
This adept set of pickups does a great job of both rhythm and lead tones with excellent clarity across the board and less harshness from the bridge pickup in particular. The Pure Vintage Strat pickups really deliver that super smooth, vintage tone sought after by so many guitarists across the world and will get you a classic Strat sound without a hefty price tag.
As we’ve discussed in our Wilkinson Pickup Guide, the P90 is seeing a surge in popularity in guitarists that want something different to a typical single coil or humbucker tone. The new Fender Noventa range for example features a lineup of pure P90 equipped Strats, Teles, and Jazzmasters, but you don’t need to spend just shy of a grand to get that tone in your own guitar!
Made with Alnico II pickups the Vintage 90 gives you incredible clarity of tone and excellent sustain, sitting nicely between single coil and humbucker. They’re equally adept at pristine cleans as they are articulate distorted tones and they’ll give you more girth than a standard Tele or Strat pickup, making them great for those looking for a hotter sound than that of a standard single coil. With a tone profile all of their own, the P90 could be the pickup that helps you stand out from the crowd.
Tonerider also does the super useful and awesome sounding Rebel 90, a humbucker sized P90 that will fit in place of a humbucker. This is great if you can't fit a standard P90 in your guitar and don't want to make modifications to the routing of the body.
Tonerider pickups are amongst the best bang for you buck pickups we’ve encountered here at Northwest Guitars and deliver spectacular value for money. There’s a great range of pickups in stock at the moment to cater for pretty much any need or want in the guitar community. So if you’re looking for an upgrade that doesn’t cost a bomb, you’ll be hard pushed to find anything else that delivers as well as these pickups do!
Check out the full range of Tonerider Pickups here.