First Impressions: Bare Knuckle Pickups Polymath Bridge Humbucker

I recently bought the newly released Polymath pickup, to go into my old Charvel. I’ve been looking for a bridge pickup that suits both the guitar and me for a long time.

Have I found it?

What Did You Buy?

I bought a Polymath bridge humbucker direct from Bare Knuckle Pickups.

The Polymath is the signature pickup from Adam “Nolly” Getgood. Nolly was originally the bassist in Periphery. Today, he’s known both as a music producer and one of the driving forces behind GetGood Drums. As the pickup launch video shows, he’s also quite the guitarist too!

Why Did You Buy It?

I needed a new bridge pickup for my old Charvel Model 3. I’ve had this guitar since ’91. I bought it second hand, and it was completely stock.

It was my first “proper” electric guitar (Marlins do not count, as anyone who suffered one in the 80s will attest to), and it was my main guitar for about 15 years. It was with me through university, joyful romances and painful breakups (it was the cause of at least one of those breakups), 7 moves, toxic jobs, the last electric gig I played, three phases of music writing, and more. There’s a good chance that it’s the possession I’ve had the longest. While I have objectively better instruments, it’s part of my soul, and it’ll be with me until the end.

It was originally a super-Strat (HSS pickup configuration) squarely aimed at the hair metal world (pointy headstock, and a Floyd Rose trem).

But despite a reputation for hot bridge pickups, mine was never good at chugging. I read somewhere once that sometimes they’d escape the factory with low-wind humbuckers. If true, that would certainly explain my experience with this guitar.

That was a big problem back in the early 90s, trying to play metal covers and write (bad! so bad!) metal music of my own. Why was it a problem? Go and listen to original classic rock recordings: there’s a lot less gain there than you probably realised. Amps just weren’t fire-breathing monsters, and back then those of us who didn’t know better wanted higher-output pickups to try and bridge that gap.

Thus began my long search for the right (to me) bridge pickup for this guitar:

  • original Jackson bridge humbucker
  • passive EMG bridge humbucker
  • Seymour Duncan Custom Custom hand-wound by MJ
  • Bare Knuckle Pickups Mule

… and now the Bare Knuckle Pickups Polymath. Will it be fifth time lucky?

Why Have You Found It Hard To Settle On A Bridge Humbucker?

Three things together have made this quite challenging.

First off, the guitar’s a basswood body and (imho) this particular guitar got a great sounding one. This guitar has always had serious mojo. It has a full and rich sound, and (alas) that’s never gelled well with pickups voiced for alder or mahogany bodies.

Alder’s quite a neutral wood, and (imho) often the pickups have to do all the work to get those guitars cooking. In this guitar, such pickups just didn’t sound like my Charvel’s original sound. Mahogany guitars are mid-rangy beasts, often with a denseness to the tone that pickups have to be voiced to overcome. In this guitar, I felt those pickups took away some of the punch and power that it has.

Secondly, the guitar itself has had a lot of changes over the years:

  • The original neck twisted (my fault for leaning it against a wall for too many years), so I’ve replaced it with a Warmoth wenge neck w/ ebony board. Tonally, it’s similar to having an all-maple neck, only with even more snap to the sound.
  • The original single coils have been replaced with a pair of passive EMG stacked single coils. For ultra-clean clean tones, these are killer pickups. I can’t say enough good things about them. The originals were probably even better, but if I recall correctly I wanted stacked single coils to eliminate electrical noise.
  • It’s had at least 3 different wiring setups in it (including the original from the factory), and the tone pot is completely out of the circuit. I couldn’t tell you what the values on the original pots would have been, or whether changing the pots has materially changed the tone. Having the tone pot disconnected gives me a top-end from the single-coils that I value highly.

Finally, both my playing style and rig have completely changed. I don’t play metal any more, and my rig is now firmly voiced for low output, vintage voiced humbuckers – the very world that superstrats were the antidote to 🙂

So while I’ve had some very special bridge humbuckers in this guitar, they either weren’t right for the guitar itself or they weren’t right for me at the time.

Why Did You Try The Polymath Bridge Humbucker?

If you’re familiar with Periphery, or you’ve seen Nolly’s guitar playing online, it’s quite technical playing, it’s heavy, and it’s all about those crushing modern tones. As a home player who’s technical ability is best described as ‘none’, I couldn’t be any more opposite.

So why try this pickup? In the launch video, at around the 1:29 mark, Nolly explains that he set out to have a pickup that was capable of a lot more than just the heavy stuff:

Two things in particular caught my attention:

  • He talks about the Polymath being a balanced pickup. I figured that had a good chance of suiting both the richness of the basswood body and the brightness of the wenge/ebony neck.
  • He also talks about the pickup being responsive and dynamic without being fussy to play. From his description, I guessed that would translate into a pretty fast attack with more natural compression than a PAF-style pickup typically has … but not a heavily-compressed modern metal pickup.

That sounded like it had the potential to be the ideal pickup for a superstrat.

(I absolutely love low output, vintage voiced, PAF-style humbuckers. I’m also well-sorted on that front. I’m looking to make my superstrat into a great superstrat, not into a Les Paul competitor!)

I had to take a bit of a leap of faith: it’s a brand new pickup (launched last month), so there were no independent / community reviews of the pickup to try and learn from. In fact, looking at Google as I write this blog post, there’s a good chance that this blog post might well be the first such review published. *gulp*

Who Fitted The Pickup For You?

Kris, the resident guitar tech over at AStrings.co.uk, fitted the pickup for me. If you’re in the South Wales area and need any work done on your guitar, he’s now there full-time. (Disclaimer: I’ve been a customer of theirs since the shop first opened, and the owner’s become a good mate who now lives just round the corner from me.)

Kris also did a wiring mod for me. He fitted a push-pull tone pot, and when the tone pot is pulled out, the neck single coil pickup is also engaged. It’s a wiring scheme from Fender’s American Performer Stratocaster. I’ll talk some more about that later on.

What Is Your Signal Chain?

The signal chain is:

  • My Charvel
  • into one of: VS Audio Royal Flush, Analogman King of Tone, or the Keeley / TPS D&M Drive
  • into a pair of Neunaber Slate for emulated spring reverb and tape echo
  • out into my Marshall DSL20HR
  • out into a pair of Victory 1×12 cabs, fitted with 16 ohm Celestion Blue and A-Type speakers

All of the pedals are in separate loops on an old Gigrig G2, so that I can switch them out of the signal chain altogether when they’re not being used.

Why these three similar drive pedals? I was just starting to look at how the Royal Flush compares to its two main alternatives (the KoT and D&M Drive). The pedals and amp are dialled in to suit The Squirrel (my Squire Esquire with the Seymour Duncan Antiquity pickup). FWIW, it’s also a killer rig with P90 pickups.

This is a long long way away both from the hair metal tones that my Charvel was originally made for, and from the kind of tones that Nolly is associated with: bluesbreaker-circuit pedals, vintage-voiced speakers, and a budget Marshall amp that arguably sounds nothing like their famous tones. I think the only thing I could do to get even further away would be to break out the Tweed Deluxe amp!

How Does It Sound?

Put it this way: I ran the Charvel through my Tele-voiced rig, and it took me at least an hour before I remembered that I hadn’t dialled in the rig for humbucker guitars. The only adjustments I ended up making was to turn the tone controls down slightly on the pedals (that’s probably due to the tone control on the guitar being out of the circuit, as mentioned earlier on).

Remember how old Les Paul PAF pickups are described as sounding like Telecasters on steroids? The Polymath is the first humbucker I’ve tried that fits that description.

In this guitar, through this rig, it sounds like a Telecaster bridge pickup, only … bigger. Definitely not the same, but definitely in the same ballpark. Not just my home rig either: in the shop, I ran it through a Mesa Boogie that I’d dialled in for a killer blues tone using a Custom Shop Nocaster, and it sounded great there. And not just my ears: Kristi stuck her head round the door, and confirmed that she was hearing the same thing too.

I need to try the Polymath through a few more pedals, to see whether or not the “Tele bridge on steroids” take holds up or not.

Something Special When Paired With The Neck Pickup

Remember that wiring mod I mentioned earlier? There’s a reason I mentioned it 🙂

I don’t know the exact details of how it’s wired up: whether the neck and bridge are in series or in parallel. To my ears, when both pickups are engaged, the Polymath output drops a lot, as-if it is split. I’m hearing mostly neck pickup, with the bridge adding a bit of extra snap and re-enforcement to the sound. It doesn’t sound like the stock wiring in the Performer, where both the neck and bridge pickups can be clearly heard.

The result? A clean tone that gives a fantastic edge-of-breakup tone through the exact same pedals mentioned above.

The mod was a spur-of-the-moment request. It wasn’t something I was expecting to make any real use of. It’s turned into one of those happy accidents that’ll keep me playing this guitar for a few more decades to come.

Final Thoughts

Have I finally found the right bridge pickup for my Charvel, after 30 years? Objectively, it’s too early to say. I need to spend a lot more time with it, and I need to try it through a few more pedals.

Kristi said it’s the first time she’s seen me this happy with the Charvel in such a long time. She’s had to put up with the decades of disappointment I’ve gone through, trying to get this guitar to the point where it lives up to my inner expectations.

If the Polymath does hold up as a Tele-bridge-on-steroids, I’d be very curious about trying one in a Les Paul or McCarty 594 too. If I ever had the opportunity to do that, I think I’d ask for a custom wound version to reduce the output a bit.

Maybe if 2022 is a spectacular year …

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