First Impressions: Kinman Impersonator 54 Noiseless Pickups For Stratocaster

Back in November 2019, I picked up a set of Kinman pickups from Knighton Music Centre. I’d taken my wife there so that she could look at their impressive range of acoustic guitars, and while I was there, I spotted a promo poster for Kinman pickups.

I didn’t even know you could get these in the UK.

I bought a set, brought them home with me … and then they sat on the shelf here for several months. I’ve finally had them put into my Strat. What do I think of them? Read on to find out.

tl;dr

The Kinman Impersonator 54s are a truly noiseless pickup set for Stratocasters that sounds even better than true single coil pickups.

To my ears, they’re very similar in sound to Bare Knuckles’ 63 Veneers, except even better. They offer the best clarity and string separation that I’ve ever heard from a set of Strat pickups, and when it comes to noise, they’ve been completely silent for me.

If you don’t like your existing Fender noiseless pickups, give these Kinman pickups a go. And if you’re looking for your first set of noiseless pickups, I doubt you’ll find a better sounding noiseless pickup than these.

Why Did You Wait So Long?

The long and short of it is that I’m a big fan of my Strat’s stock N4 noiseless pickups, and I didn’t want to give up that sound.

What Are N4 Noiseless Pickups?

I bought the Kinman pickups just after Fender released the new American Ultra range of Strats, Teles and the like. The Ultra range replaces the short-lived American Elite series, and one of the big features is that the Ultra includes a new design of noiseless pickups.

I’ve had an Elite Strat since they first came out, from back when they had rosewood fretboards and cost less than an American Professional does today. One of the big features of the Elites was that they came with Fender’s new N4 noiseless pickups, replacing the N3 pickups on the American Deluxe series.

Spotting the pattern? New top-of-the-line factory model, new pickups. Why? Because the N3 pickups were (in my experience) simply terrible, and the N4 pickups still didn’t sound like a Strat should.

The whole point of noiseless pickups is to reduce (or, preferably eliminate) the hum and other noise that true single-coil pickups produce. They typically use what’s called a ‘stacked’ design, where the pickup includes a second coil to do the hum cancelling.

Unfortunately, whether it’s the effect of the second coil or other design compromises, stacked pickups end up sounding different to true single coil pickups. It’s one reason why many players still prefer to use single coil pickups today, despite the noise problems.

Why Do I Like The N4 Pickups?

I’m not going to pretend otherwise: if you’re after iconic clean Strat tones, you’re probably not going to like Fender’s N4 pickups. The clean sound isn’t bad – I think it’s very usable – it’s just not that sound.

Switch to an overdrive pedal or a dirty amp, though, and I think the N4 pickups start to sound sublime. They take gain really well. To my ear, it’s because there’s not quite as much extended top-end, and there’s something extra in the mid-range right where you want it for lead tones.

If you’re someone who stays away from a Strat’s bridge pickup as much as you can, because you think it sounds brittle and weak when you throw on some dirt or fuzz … try an N4 pickup in the bridge.

Why Did I Make The Pickup Swap?

I made the change because I was feeling guilty. As soon as I got the Kinmans, I asked my local store AStrings.co.uk to get a new scratch plate, pots and switches for the new pickups. The parts arrived just before Christmas, and then were sat on their shelf for a couple of months.

I didn’t feel good about that.

So, as much as I didn’t want to lose what the N4s give me, it was past time to make good on my obligation, and take the guitar in to have the Kinmans installed.

Why Kinman Pickups?

I first heard of these from Brett Kingman’s YouTube channel. He’s been playing guitars fitted with Kinman pickups for many years, and they’ve always sounded amazing.

Like Brett, Kinman are over in Australia. It’s not easy at all to get Australian-made gear here in Europe. Heck, even Thomann – which seems to sell just about every piece of gear ever made – only stocks a couple of sets. And Knighton – where I bought these from – doesn’t even turn up in Google searches for these pickups.

I figured it was possibly my one and only chance to try out a set of Kinman pickups for myself.

Which Set Did I Get?

I picked up a set of ‘Impersonator 54s‘, according to the box.

There’s a bit of confusion, because the pickup covers are stamped ‘Kinman Hx’, and Kinman also sell a ‘Hx-85’ set. These pickups do not sound like how the ‘Hx-85’ pickups are described. It looks like the pickup cover branding isn’t matched to the actual pickup set.

I went for the Impersonator 54s because I’ve got a (mismatched) set of Bare Knuckle 63 Veneers in one of my other Strats. I love the sound of those Bare Knuckle pickups. I was hoping that the Impersonator 54s would give me a different Strat sound again; another option for when I want something different.

These Pickups Are Silent

The first thing I noticed is just how silent the Kinman pickups are. I don’t mean quiet. I really do mean silent. So silent, that I could switch my tuner on and off (which cuts out the signal from the guitar to the amp), and hear no difference at all.

I’ve got guitars with humbuckers in that aren’t as silent as that.

I’m just a guy who plays guitar at home for a hobby. The only reason I need noiseless is because I live in the Valleys, and our electricity supply is noisy AF. With these Kinman pickups, I don’t have to worry about electrical noise on any home recordings that I make.

They’re worth it for that alone.

They Pass The Piano Test

For me, one of the most important characteristics of a good Strat is the way that the open low E string sounds. I call it the Piano Test, because I’m looking for that piano-like “boooong” when the string is played. It’s got a lot to do with the nut, the bridge saddles and the trem block. None of that matters, though, if the pickups lack authority.

No problems here at all. These pickups have a lot of clarity and power.

If you’ve ever wished that your Strat produced more low-end, especially on the neck pickup, I reckon you’ll love these pickups.

Go Yosemite For Quacky Tones

Position 4 – neck and middle pickup together – isn’t the quackiest Strat tone I’ve ever had. There’s still a lot of low-end, as if the pickups aren’t phase-cancelling each other all that much.

If you’re someone who needs those classic 70s quacky / funk tones, I’d recommend you look at the Yosemite pickups from Fender’s American Performer line. Especially if you’re someone who lives in Position 2 (middle and bridge pickups) on a Strat.

Personally, I’m in love with the Position 4 sound that I’m getting from these Kinman pickups. I used to own a set of Abigail Ybarra pickups a very long time ago, and these pickups in Position 4 remind me of that sound.

They also remind me of another sound.

These Are Better Than True Single-Coil Pickups

I grabbed the Strat that’s fitted with the Bare Knuckle 63 Veneers to compare the Kinman’s against. They’re in my Fender Player Strat. Yes, it’s Mexican-made, but don’t let that fool you. With upgraded electronics, these Strats sound every bit as good as any Fender USA factory-line model.

I’m a huge fan of these 63 Veneer pickups. They have a richness and fullness to them that makes me smile every single time I play this guitar. As much as I like and recommend the Yosemite-equipped American Performer Strat (I’ll do a blog post about that soon), this is the sound that I want from a Strat.

Switching back and forth between the two Strats, my jaw hit the floor. I’m not kidding.

To my ears, the Kinman pickups sound very similar to the 63 Veneers – but better. There’s more clarity, and there’s more top-end. Honestly, the Kinmans are making my other Strats sound dark – and they’ve got true single coil pickups in them.

Noiseless pickups aren’t supposed to have more top-end than true single coil pickups.

Slight Softness At The Bridge

In Position 1 – the bridge pickup – the Kinman pickups have a slightly softer attack compared to the other two Strats. When you dig into a string, it’s not quite as stabby as the 63 Veneers or (especially) the Yosemites can be.

I only noticed it because I was testing out the Golden Brownie pedal at the time. Through other drive pedals, it’s pretty hard to hear, partly because the Kinman pickups are a little hotter than the other sets that I have.

These pickups certainly can rock out, and it doesn’t feel like the pickups lack dynamics at all. If you’re after a smoother-sounding bridge pickup, the Kinman pickup might just be what you want – but it’s subtle compared to how smooth the Fender N4s sound.

And that leaves me with a dilemma. Well, two dilemmas actually.

Final Thoughts

I like having options. The Fender N4 pickups certainly gave me that. They take gain superbly well, especially for lead work. Inadvertently, I’ve lost an option tone-wise.

With the Kinman pickups, I’ve now got two guitars that sound very similar – only the Kinmans sound the best, they’re completely noiseless, and they’re in the Strat that hands-down plays the best. Why would I pickup my other Strat any more?

That’s how good these pickups are.

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