#TeleTuesday: Bridge Pickup Comparison – Part 2: The Reveal

#TeleTuesday is my occasional series where I share my own feelings and experiences with Fender’s original solid-body electric guitar … warts and all.

Last time, I ran a blind test: seven demos of bridge pickups, but only four were Telecasters. Now it’s time for the reveal, and to share my thoughts on each bridge pickup.

Table of Contents

What Was Your Signal Chain?

My signal chain for each demo was:

  • guitar
  • into Axe-FX 3 (mostly for the tuner)
  • out to the King of Tone on my pedal board
  • back into the Axe-FX 3 for amp, cab, delay and reverb
  • out to my audio interface

I did no post-processing in my DAW at all.

The King of Tone (KoT for short) was on the red side (the right-hand side) in overdrive mode, with all the knobs in the Mick Taylor position (everything round about 2 o’clock). I kept the same settings for each demo, just because that’s where this pedal sounds the best I think.

The Axe-FX 3 was running my usual demo patch. I’ve got an amp & cab setup that does a good job of mimicking how my Marshall DSL20HR, Celestion Blue and Celestion A-Type cabs sound. For delay, I’m using the new Aurora delay. It’s basically Fractal Audio’s nod to the Robert Keeley Halo delay pedal. For reverb, I’m using a spring reverb emulation.

I did make adjustments to the Axe-FX 3 patch to suit each guitar, as well as playing around with each guitar’s volume and tone control. That’s something I don’t normally do in my demos. I wanted each guitar to sound as good as I could make it.

The King Of Tone Sounded Fantastic

Those are words that past-me never thought I’d write!

For me, the King of Tone has been the real star of these demos. It has just the right amount of drive and character for this kind of piece, without colouring each guitar’s own sound too strongly.

I’ve been edging towards it as my go-to Tele pedal since I got the VS Audio Royal Flush last year. That deal was sealed, as they say, when I first heard Mirage (my new Telecaster) through it in the shop. It just worked, in a way that it never has for me before.

Now, onto those demos …

Demo A: Bare Knuckle Pickups True Grit In Squier 60s Custom Esquire

For the first demo, I used my Fender Squier 60s Custom Esquire (known as Hedgehog), fitted with a Bare Knuckle Pickups True Grit Telecaster bridge pickup . Hedgehog also has Callaham compensated brass saddles, Fender locking tuners, and Bare Knuckle 280K pots.

I believe it’s the least expensive guitar in the blind test.

Here is demo A again:

BKP True Grit > King of Tone > Axe-FX 3

This one surprised me a lot.

You may recall that, when I first got it, I thought it sounded nothing like my other Telecaster bridge pickups. I also thought it sounded weak; so much so, that I went out and bought an MXR Timmy pedal just to boost this guitar. (I did not use the Timmy on this demo. Maybe I should have?)

Those differences are there, but they don’t come across as strongly as I expected. That might be because I’ve just restrung it with 10s? I’m not sure. Whatever the reason, I think it holds its own pretty well against the other pickups in the blind test.

I think this track also has the shortest sustain at the end? It’s certainly got the shortest running time. Just goes to show: heavier gauge strings don’t automatically make for the longest sustain times. (Spoiler alert: that went to a guitar with 9s on it …)

Oh yeah, it’s also the lightest guitar in this roundup. Maybe heavier guitars do make for better sustain after all …?

Demo B: Fender Twisted Tele In American Deluxe Telecaster

For the second demo, I used my 2015 Fender American Deluxe Telecaster (aka Spot) fitted with Fender Custom Shop Twisted Tele pickups. Spot is otherwise all-stock.

Here is demo B again:

Fender Twisted Tele > King of Tone > Axe-FX 3

I keep having to remind myself just how good this guitar is, especially with the Twisted Tele pickups. It definitely sets the standard that I measure all of my other Telecasters against.

Spot doesn’t come out of its case anywhere near as often as it should, simply because the ‘aged cherry’ finish is far too close to a clown burst for my liking. If it didn’t have a bound body, I’d have stripped it back to a wood-oil finish long ago.

And yet … it sounds great. I think that the Twisted Tele bridge pickup is one of Fender’s best-sounding vintage-voiced Tele pickups. As an added bonus, the neck pickup also does a better Strat impression than your average Fender Stratocaster. (I’ve been known to describe Spot as my best-sounding Stratocaster on occasion …)

It also plays great. The 9.5-14″ compound radius neck is a joy to play. The neck carve is comfortable without being too chunky or too thin. It sits right in the middle, I think. The neck has a lovely satin finish, so it’s not grabby at all. It’s no surprise to me that Fender brought these necks back on the American Ultra series.

It’s got an unusually pretty neck for a USA factory model. There’s some light figuring in the maple, along with hints of birdseye action too. I’m definitely a sucker for pretty wood!

I just wish it didn’t have that clown burst finish …

Demo C: Seymour Duncan Antiquity I In A Squier 50s Esquire

For the third demo, I used my Squier 50s Esquire (aka The Squirrel) fitted with a Seymour Duncan Antiquity I Telecaster bridge pickup . The Squirrel has been modded with Fender locking tuners, a Callaham Telecaster bridge plate and Callaham steel compensated saddles.

Here is demo C again:

Seymour Duncan Antiquity I > King of Tone > Axe-FX 3

Just … wow. Is it me, or does this sound even better than demo B (the Twisted Tele in Spot)?

I think there’s a little more note separation and a little more clarity too, without losing any of the punch, power, or riffage of the Twisted Tele. I also love the low-end this pickup produces. It brings a nice solid foundation, which really appeals to the rhythm player in me.

Are the steel saddles contributing to a bit more top-end than any of the other guitars? When Kristi did this blind test, she lumped this demo in with demo F – another guitar with steel not brass saddles. There could be something to that, perhaps.

The Antiquity I is a very special pickup, and I think that it helps this cheap Squier happily hold its own against a guitar that would cost 4 times as much today.

The one big advantage that Spot has over this Squier is with intonation. Even with the Callaham compensated saddles, The Squirrel just doesn’t intonate quite as well as Spot with its American Deluxe / Elite / Ultra six independent bridge saddles.

Of the two Esquires, Hedgehog is my favourite to play because of how light it is, but The Squirrel is definitely my favourite to listen to.

Demo D: Fender Loaded Nocaster Pickup In A Postmodern Journeyman Tele

For the fourth demo, I used my Fender Postmodern Journeyman Telecaster (aka Mirage), fitted with a reverse-mounted Fender Loaded Nocaster bridge pickup. Mirage is all-stock, but only because Fender’s own-brand tuners don’t fit their own guitars (sigh).

Here is demo D again:

Fender Loaded Nocaster > King of Tone > Axe-FX 3

Recording this, I was very worried it would easy to pick out.

The bridge pickup itself is quite different to the others in this roundup. It’s reverse-mounted (treble poles are closer to the neck, while the bass poles are closer to the bridge), giving it a richer tone with smoother top-end. This pickup is also has the most compression out of the bunch. I’ve mentioned that before, and I was expecting it to be a dead giveaway.

On top of that, it’s the only guitar that didn’t get fresh strings for this roundup. Partly because I hate changing strings on guitars with these vintage tuners, but mostly because I didn’t have a spare set of 10s to hand. Bad planning on my part!

I need not have worried.

While I thought it sounded very different in the room, I don’t think they’ve come across that strongly in the final recording. Voicing-wise, I think it’s pretty similar to the Twisted Tele, just with even better note separation. I think it does sound richer and more complex, but these are characteristics that are easily drowned out in a dense mix.

I bought this guitar because I fell in love with the unusual sound of its middle position. Doing this demo, though, has helped me learn to appreciate the bridge pickup on its own. I’m really happy with it, which is a good job, because I’ve started selling my other Telecasters.

Demo E: PRS Split Narrowfield Pickup On A PRS Paul’s Guitar

For the fifth demo, I threw in the first of the non-Telecaster guitars. I split the narrowfield bridge pickup on my PRS Paul’s Guitar (aka The Earl). This guitar is all-stock, apart from some cavity shielding work I’ve had done to it.

Regular readers might remember hearing this guitar before. Back then, it had NYXLs on it. This time around, I’ve restrung it with Ernie Balls – the same strings that I use on my Telecasters. I think that switching brands has made a difference to the sound.

Here’s demo E again:

PRS Split Narrowfield > King of Tone > Axe-FX 3

Did it sound like a Telecaster enough to fool you? Or could you clearly hear that this is a very different kind of pickup?

I threw this in because the Paul’s Guitar is kinda competing with Fender’s Telecaster for your money. I wanted to find out how good a job it can do of standing in for a real Tele – and whether I actually prefer it or not.

Listening to it against the other guitars, I think it does alright at sounding like a Tele. There’s all those extra low-mids that a real Tele’s bridge pickup doesn’t have, and they do give the game away. They could probably be EQ’d out. (They probably should be EQ’d out. I decided not to try for this demo.)

The thing I like most about it is that it’s a little different to a real Telecaster. I think it’ll make a great recording pairing with Mirage in particular. I hope to find out!

Demo F: Bare Knuckle Pickups Split Polymath In My 80s Charvel

For the sixth demo, I used another non-Telecaster. I split the Bare Knuckle Pickups’ Polymath pickup in my 80’s Charvel. This guitar has the original Floyd Rose, a Warmoth wenge neck with ebony board, and a custom wiring harness with no tone pot in the circuit.

Here’s demo F again:

Split Polymath > King of Tone > Axe-FX 3

When I got the Polymath last year, I said that I’d ran it through my Tele rig without even realising it. I was curious to hear for myself whether or not the Polymath worked for me when I did this deliberately.

First thing I’d say is that it needs new strings, and a setup. The action’s a bit too low atm, and the strings are definitely starting to die.

That said, I’m quite pleased with how well it acquitted itself. With fresh strings, I think it would hold its own with the other guitars in this roundup. Could it sub for a real Tele? I know at least one person who did the blind test thought so.

Demo G: Bare Knuckle Polymath Humbucker In My 80s Charvel

For the seventh and last demo, I went back to the full Bare Knuckle Pickups’ Polymath humbucker on the same 80’s Charvel that I used for demo F.

Here’s demo G again:

Polymath Humbucker > King of Tone > Axe-FX 3

Well. That’s a surprise. To my ears, it sounds like a bigger, fatter True Grit. Seriously. Listen to demo A, and then come back and listen to demo G once more.

I wonder … if I used the Axe-FX 3 to slightly reduce the signal going into the King of Tone, could I get this sounding really close to the True Grit? While still having all the benefits of a humbucker pickup? I need to go away and try that some time!

Did you notice the extra sustain on this demo? It’s not there when the Polymath is split in demo F.

Final Thoughts

These demos have given me a lot to think about.

  • Personally, I thought that the two Squiers came out very well. They’re both great to play, and thanks to the upgraded electronics, I think they can both happily hang with the other guitars that I used. They’ve both brought me a lot of joy since I got them.
  • At the other end of the scale, I don’t think there was a huge gap between the Postmodern Journeyman, my Paul’s Guitar and the rest of the pack. I heard big differences in the room, but I didn’t think they came across on the recordings to the same extent.
  • I keep having mixed feelings about the True Grit pickup. There are days when I absolutely love the option that it gives me. There are also days when I wish I had a great Broadcaster-style pickup in Hedgehog instead.

Finally …

I want to give a big shout-out to both the Bare Knuckle Pickups’ Polymath and the Seymour Duncan Antiquity I. In full humbucker mode, I thought the Polymath did a great job at getting into that Tele ballpark. The Antiquity I pickup had the edge over the two Fender Custom Shop pickups, to my ears at least.

What did you think? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below.

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