A lot of people crave for a nice overdriven or distorted guitar tone. If you’re in this group, I can’t blame you!
Distortion has been a staple of electric guitars since their beginning. It’s one of the main reasons why they were able to shape the music as we know it today.
Sometimes, however, all you need is a pure and clean tone that leaves the guitarist’s talent to shine. Let’s face it: many genres are not suitable for cranked up tones.
Also, styles that heavily rely on distorted guitars often need a quiet moment, either being it a calm intro or a soulful interlude.
There’s something inherently beautiful in a clean tone. For the listener is like a mouthful of fresh air and for the player it’s a challenge to play without any added aid given by their amps.
You can play clean with any kind of pickup and, at least at the beginning of the history of electric guitar, players only had the choice to play on single coil pickup.
As nice as they can sound, however, single coils have a problem that’s even more noticeable when playing without distortion. A strong tendency to produce a humming sound in presence of any electromagnetic field.
The single coils, beside picking the movement of the strings, act as antenna. They are, therefore, able to detect and send to the amplifier all the interferences that may be caused by surrounding electric appliances.
And if you think that the worst place on Earth to avoid interferences is a stage with a lot of amplifiers and bright lights – you’re right.
The humbucker pickup was developed around the mid 30s of the 20th century exactly to solve this problem. It was basically built by putting two single coil pickups with inverted poles in series.
That way, the interference that one of the coils will pick from the environment will be almost exactly the same that the other coil will get, but cleverly inverted in phase.
Since those two signals will sum linearly, zeroing themselves, what we get is a natural ability to cancel noises.
The signal from the strings, on the other side, is not cancelled because it is generated by the magnetic field of the pickup and not by surrounding electromagnetic field.
This also comes with some tonal consequence, as the construction is so different from a regular single coil. The output of a humbucker will be higher due to the double coil and the sound timbre is very peculiar. It’s darker and with some effects of phase cancellation created by the two coils picking up slightly different vibrations of the strings.
And it’s this sound that makes the humbucker the first choice for blues and jazz players.
Let’s Go Through Best Ones
Of course, no two humbuckers will play the same and it’s a nice adventure to find the pickup that better suits a guitar. The first source of variability comes from the thickness of the copper wire used in building it.
We then have different number of windings, that will greatly affect how “hot” a pickup will be. Magnets inside the pickup can also vary and while ceramic magnets will characterise pickup with higher output, if you’re interested in a nice clean tone you’ll probably want pickups with Alnico magnets inside.
A bit more expensive, but the tone will be much more refined.
Truth to be told, many great jazz records have been recorded with guitars equipped with single coils and the artist’s taste can do wonders to move away from the old, standard tone of a neck humbucker with tones rolled down.
Still, if you want to venture into the clean side of the electric guitar and maybe sound a little like Kenny Burrell, a good humbucker is the place you want to start from.
1. Humbuckers For Clean Tone
If you listened to tons of jazz records in your life, and spent hours on any music shop drooling in front of the archtop section, you definitely miss a good chunk of the big picture. when you’re thinking about humbuckers.
The higher output and resistance to interference in front of a big stack of Marshalls made this kind of pickups a must for a lot of rock and heavy metal guitarists.
In those genres, the sound goes from overdriven to heavily distorted for most of the time, but a clean, crispy tone it’s often required.
Let’s go through some humbuckers that are great for a clean tone.
Seymour Duncan Invader
Starting from the name, you can understand that this pickup is not made for the faint hearts. Or to satisfy your desire for an extremely nuanced intimate sound.
This pickup sports three ceramic magnets and overwound coils to give your guitar lots of power and a strong, modern sound.
The resistance is 7.2k Ohm in the neck unit, and an impressive 16.8k in the bridge. That is almost twice as much as the resistance of a typical bridge pickup meant for jazz.
Despite the massive specifications, these pickups are also able to give you very nice cleans. Those cleans are reminiscent of the older Metallica sound, characterised by a round, dark tone.
The only drawback is that they are not the best in class for versatility. You’ll never be able to use your Invader-equipped guitar to play surf music, for example.
Still, if you know exactly what you want, or if you have multiple guitars, this is a nice weapon to add to your arsenal.
As an added bonus for the lovers of more exotic guitars, this kind of pickups are also available for 7 and 8 strings guitar.
Get yourself one from Amazon, here.
Seymour Duncan JB
After reading the description, you may think that the Seymour Duncan Invader may be way too in-your-face. Therefore, you may want to tone it down a little. Without loosing too much credibility on the rock department.
The JB is an overwound pickup, but instead of ceramic magnets it has an Alnico-5 magnet. This adds in character what it looses in sheer power.
This pickup has an extremely solid low end and a lot of harmonics in the mid-treble section. These settings are giving it a nice voice when you play single note melodies. And that is likely what you want to do, when you buy a pickup like this and use it clean.
Some people find that trebles are a little too present in the JB series. Still, you should remember that, while the pickup contributes a lot to the final sound, there’s always the rest of the guitar attached to it.
Pair it with a mahogany body or roll the tone a couple of notches. That way you can easily mask a little trebles and shape the sound to your tastes. It’s much easier to remove frequencies to a sound than adding them.
Versatility is vastly increased when compared to the Invader. That is something you want to take into consideration when spending your money.
The JB series has been around for almost half of a century. You have certainly listened to so much of them in your records that you’re guaranteed to know and love their sound.
Get yourself one from Amazon, here.
Seymour Duncan Invader Vs. JB Comparison
Take a look at this video to hear the comparison between clean sounds of Seymour Duncan Invader and JB. At 3:02 you can hear the clean sound comparison between those two humbuckers.
2. Humbuckers For Blues
Admit it: as a guitarist you constantly dream about BB King and his Lucille Gibson!
No wonder: blues has shaped virtually all the modern music from the beginning of the XX century. Without it we would have no rock’n’roll, no jazz, no heavy metal, no nothing…
We wouldn’t have had boy bands in the 90’s, either, but that’s a little collateral damage when compared to the great things that sprung from the roots of blues.
History teaches us that you can be an excellent blues man with a cigar box guitar and only one or two strings. Still, the right humbucker will surely help to achieve the sound you have in your mind.
Here are some humbuckers suitable for blues.
Tonerider Alnico II Classic
True to the original spirit of blues, those pickups are affordable, but not cheap. While you can have them at a fraction of the cost of some other pickups, this doesn’t mean that they can’t compete on the tonal front.
They sport an Alnico 2 magnet in order to emulate the pickups of the 50’s and are wound at 7.5k for the neck pickup and 8.3k for the bridge pickup.
The Tonerider Alnico II Classic are built to bring back the magic of the original PAF pickups. Therefore, they have a moderately low output and lot of creaminess in the sound.
Lot of low end and maybe slightly lacking on the treble side, but since these pickups are perfect for a maple bodied 335 type guitar I see no problem here.
The adoption of Alnico II instead of the more common Alnico V gives the pickup a slightly different character, which may sound a little like a P90.
Also true to the PAF they try to clone is the presence of a wooden spacer and a nickel silver base plate. Definitely not something you often find at this price point.
For the price it’s pretty difficult to find any serious drawback for these pickups. Those are without doubt something you should consider to upgrade your guitar, if you’re looking for that 50’s sound.
Heat this humbucker in action.
Check those pickups on Amazon, here.
Seymour Duncan Vintage Blues
This is the third Seymour Duncan product in our list, but it would have been frankly difficult to leave this out.
I find this pickups to have one of the best price to quality ratio, when you’re looking for blues and jazz pickups.
The Vintage Blues series is build with high quality Alnico V magnet, wax potting, 42AWG copper wire.
They are specced at 7.43k Ohm for the neck pickup and 8.13k for the bridge one, so in line with other PAF inspired pickups.
Seymour Duncan claims that the Alnico V magnet is used to compensate for lighter string gauges, when compared to the past. But I would like to challenge your fingertips to try them with a 0.13 set flatwounds to get into tone heaven.
The Vintage Blues set has a brighter tone end, when compared to the original PAF he’s inspired on, an a more compressed sound. Both of this characteristics will appeal to the modern guitarist that has a taste in classical blues but also wants a touch of modernity and freshness in his sound.
They also have a scooped mid-section that helps bringing darker woods to life.
The output of the bridge pickup is a little too low for my tastes, but you can compensate for it raising the pickup a little and playing with the volume knob. Chances are that you will use the neck pickup a lot more than the bridge one, if you’re into blues and jazz.
Hear it in performance in this video.
Get yourself one from Amazon, here.
DiMarzio PAF DP103
These are the last of the humbuckers suggested for a clean blues tone. They may as well be the first in the section of the jazz pickups.
DiMarzio sells great pickups for the money and the DP103 makes no exception. It is a very dynamic and responsive pickup that cleans very well, without any hint of muddiness.
It is always remaining very clear, defined and with a good string separation.
The DP103 sports an Alnico V magnet and are wound at 7.31k Ohm for the neck pickup and 8.60k for the bridge pickup. The pickups are also waxed to prevent unwanted microphonics.
If you’re into uncovered humbuckers and fancy looking guitars, DiMarzio offers them in a variety of bobbins colours. I’m not sure how a Gibson L5 will look like with a camo or a pink humbucker but maybe it’s your cup of tea.
The fancy colors are just a hint of the versatility of these pickups.We’ve talked about how they sound clean, but those are clearly meant to do more than that and they also sound great with distortion. You can’t ask much more to a pickup set, in my opinion.
Hear this humbucker in performance.
Check it on Amazon, here.
3. Humbuckers For Jazz
Jazz is more than a century old, by now, and if you are interested in a jazz pickup you surely know that nothing like that exists.
The guitar tone of Charlie Christian has nothing to do with the tone of Pat Metheny or Bill Frisell. And that’s why we love jazz, after all.
The following suggestions are meant if you want sort of a middle-of-the-road jazz sound, the kind you could hear from a record from the 60’s.
If you go ask any guitar teacher who’s not really into jazz for jazz lessons, the first thing that he will suggest will probably be:
“Use only the neck pickup and roll down the tone knob completely”.
That is the perfect recipe for muddy, murky sounds that don’t cut through the mix and are guaranteed to make people in the audience fall asleep in a matter of minutes.
What you really want is a very nuanced sound, with lot of low and mid ends but that keeps a sparkle of trebles to make the result fresh and lively.
A jazz guitarist plays single note for most of any solo and you surely don’t want the bass player to be more present than you are.
The following pickups will help you concentrate on the harmony and worry less about your amp settings.
Gibson Classic 57
This is another PAF clone, like the Tonerider Alnico Classic discussed above, but made from the same company that made the actual PAF back in the day and with a more refined tone.
The specifications of the Gibson Classic 57 should make all PAF lovers turn their head. Alnico II magnet, wound at around 8.1-8.4k Ohm, wax potted AWG42 enamel wire.
The sound is characterised by sweet high tones and basses that are not overly defined.
Some people also find that the mids are nothing like the original PAF pickups and that they resembles the mids of a Alnico V pickup. In the end, as always, it’s a matter of personal taste.
What it’s sure is that they pair excellently with any Les Paul or with a hollow body guitar.
To make things even better try to be true to how guitars were played back in the day and use thick flatwounds. With this kind of setup you won’t need to roll down the tone knob to get a perfect jazz sound.
This humbuckers will also accept gladly some overdrive: maybe not ideal for your intimate rendition of Round Midnight, but there are plenty of occasions when it will come handy.
They are quite pricey, but you get what you pay for.
Hear how jazz sounds like on a guitar with this humbucker.
Check it out on Amazon, here.
It’s pricey, like Gibson Classic 57, but jazz is music for refined tastes and you should definitely consider these pickups because they sound great.
They are built with Alnico V magnets and have a vintage-correct low output.
The sound is everything you may want for a clean jazz tone. Basses are present but never muddy and highs are very sweet.
This pickup is very balanced and natural sounding, with a high harmonic complexity.
The same complexity is carried on the bridge pickup. You will want to use it even during the more hardcore jam sessions. The Suhr Thornbucker just sit naturally in a jazz environment, but they are also extremely versatile.
Put them in a Les Paul and you’ll have a single guitar that can be used to play anything from ragtime to heavy metal, which is a quite impressive feature.
Hear how it sounds like.
Anyway, get yourself one from Amazon, here.
I hope this article gave you some valuable information about best humbuckers for clean tone, blues and jazz.
It’s always a pleasure to help fellow guitar brothers in choosing the best.
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