The history of single-pickup guitars
Limiting or liberating? We explore the world of electric guitars with only one pickup.
A 1958 Les Paul Junior photographed at ATB Guitars. All images: Eleanor Jane
“I’ve heard a million times that people believe single-pickup guitars are too limiting.” So says Jared James Nichols, the blues phenom whose work underlines how wrong those people might be. “A ton of folks think more is always better,” he adds, “but in reality, these guitars push you to be creative.”
Before we dive in, though, let’s take an excursion into the past to see how all this began. When the early pioneers were putting together the first electric guitars, they would not, and probably could not, have thought beyond one pickup. Electric lap steels paved the way, and if you look at Rickenbacker’s steels, or indeed any lap steels from those formative years, you’ll see lone pickups everywhere.
And that single pickup will be right near the bridge. Not only is this the spot that generates most cut and top to the resulting tone, but also, for a steel, that location provides plenty of room for the slide player to get to work.
Moving on a little, we come to the early Spanish variety – those electrics known as Spanish in the early days to distinguish them from steels. Gibson was also focused on steels for its early electric experiments, probably not least because it was steel players who seemed at first to understand the value of electric guitars and were willing to buy them. So the firm waited a while before it made commercial sense to introduce a Spanish electric. That was the ES-150 archtop, which Gibson first sold at the end of 1936.
Walt Fuller at Gibson designed the single pickup for the 150. It was mounted in the neck position and became known as the Charlie Christian pickup after the pioneering jazz guitarist used it. At the neck, a single pickup will provide a big, fat, round sound – which is exactly what jazz players came to love about that arrangement.
National was probably the first with a two-pickup Spanish electric. The Chicago firm introduced its Sonora model in 1939, with pickups at the bridge and neck, promoting it as an “unusual electric guitar” with “exclusive tandem individual pick-up units [that] afford rippling free power without the sacrifice of tonal fidelity”. The idea that two might be better than one gradually caught on.
Gibson stuck for some time with a single pickup in the neck position, and its first two-pickup guitars were the updated ES-300 and ES-350, launched in 1948. The following year the ES-5 appeared, probably the first three-pickup electric, and it was a model that threw Gibson’s catalogue compilers into overdrive as they hailed “the instrument of a thousand voices”.
Leo Fender started out in the mid-40s with a modest line of steels, each with a single string-driven pickup conventionally located at the bridge. By the end of the decade, Leo and his small team were considering a solidbody electric – and we all know where that led. In the early ’50s, Fender’s single-pickup variant was introduced as the Esquire model, with a bridge-mounted unit, and the Telecaster added a neck pickup. The Esquire lasted a while alongside its better-known stablemate, in its first run until 1969 and since then in a few revivals and reissues.
Leo and his pals had looked at their existing steels when they thought about the kind of tone they wanted for the new solidbody guitars. They knew the hollowbody electrics of the day delivered a warm, woody tone, in part a result of their construction but also due to that accepted position of the pickup near the neck.
Fender had something different in mind. Not for them the Gibson and Epiphone jazz voice. Their steels had a cleaner, sustained tone, and that’s what they wanted for these new instruments, something like a cross between a clear acoustic guitar and a cutting electric steel. Leo once explained that he wanted to get the sound he heard when he held the head of an acoustic guitar against his ear and plucked a string.
Early magnets were big and clunky and hampered pickup design, often dictating that strings ran through enclosing magnets – as with Rickenbacker’s and Fender’s first steels, for example. Following World War II, though, alnico rod magnets became available. Tim Shaw, who today is Chief Engineer – Guitars at Fender, reckons there was probably post-war surplus about. “Southern California was a hotbed of the aircraft industry,” he says, “and I think Leo found that surplus. He quite liked his steel pickup, but he got these alnico rod magnets and said to himself, ‘Well, I’ve also found this vulcanised fibre material, I know how to run a punch press – I bet a fella could do this.’”
And he could. Tim points out that the original Esquire pickup retains some of the idea of strings through a magnet, even if it’s not as evident as on Fender’s early steels. “If you look at an Esquire pickup in its original environment, it’s got that bridge cover on. Well, the bridge plate is steel, there’s a plate underneath the pickup that’s steel, and the bridge cover is steel. So what Fender essentially did at that point was to duplicate 95 percent of the structure of that lap steel pickup, and make it produceable. The fact that you couldn’t mute it? Well, Leo didn’t play guitar. He was going hey, this is a swell idea. And the guitar players are going oh, thanks – does this thing come off?”
Fender tried to compensate for the limitations of a single-pickup guitar by providing the Esquire with a control system that offered alternatives to the relatively straightforward sound of a bridge-located pickup. As with the Tele, the Esquire had two knobs and a three-way selector switch, and the front knob always controlled volume. On the Esquire, the selector in the rear position offered the pickup direct and the rear tone knob disabled. The middle position offered what you’d expect from a simple single-pickup guitar, with regularly functioning volume and tone controls. And with the three-way clicked into the front position, you got a preset bassy tone, again with nothing happening from the rear tone knob.
“Leo did the resistor-capacitor combination there,” Tim explains, “which essentially wipes out all the top end – and, again, I’m sure a lot of people went, ‘Oh, thanks Leo, won’t use that one!’ I’ve done versions of that in the last few years where we’ve re-voiced that third position so it essentially sounds like a tone control on about 7, which is a civil, pleasant, and semi-useful preset.” An example of this in most recent form was Fender’s 70th Anniversary Esquire. “It’s a more useable way to make that circuit work,” Tim adds. “It’s going to give you low end, sure, but it isn’t going to sound like it’s got a neck pickup, because magnetic pickups are not particularly good at putting things in that they don’t hear. And that’s really the crux of a single-pickup guitar.”
Following Fender’s popularising of the solidbody electric idea in the early ’50s, Gibson set to work creating its own line, and among the models was the single-bridge-pickup Les Paul Junior, later recognised as a great little rock ’n’ roll workhorse. Unlike Esquires, which shared a common body with Teles and so were routed ready for a neck pickup, the Junior had no such neck rout, which some argue enhances a single-cut Junior’s sonic abilities. There is also the magnetic pull of a second pickup to consider, notably whether it affects the sound much compared to a single-pickup guitar.
Tim, who worked at Gibson before he joined Fender in 1996, says that without the drag of a second pickup, for example in a Junior, the timbre of a single pickup will be different. “Getting rid of that drag changes the envelope of the string, because we’re not slowing the string down by having it interact with magnets at two points.”
He cites an example from the pre-history of the Les Paul, where as an experiment Gibson mounted a string on a length of metal railroad track. “If you strike that thing, it’s going to ring a long time, until friction with the air eventually stops it. And, theoretically, a string in a vacuum would sustain a really, really long time, whether or not you put one or two pickups under it. But,” Tim adds with a laugh. “who cares? So yes, not having that other pickup does matter. And as for the Junior – or the Esquire, for that matter – yes, it really only does one thing. But it’s a pretty darned good thing!”
The templates for single-pickup positioning were set simply and early. Broadly speaking, that’s near the bridge for cutting thrust, and near the neck for woody warmth. And this is what almost every maker of one-pickup guitars since has reckoned with. You can name your favourites, vintage or new, I’m sure. Some makers, keen on the inherent minimalism but striving for a little bit more, have toyed with modifications. Perhaps a single sliding pickup, as on the 60s Framus 5/130 Hollywood. Maybe a ‘bigger’ single pickup, as with the three-coil-bucker on the 80s Hamer Prototype. Or why not try both those ideas, as Ibanez did in the 70s with the Iceman 2663SL.
Tim Shaw’s most recent encounter with the requirement for a single pickup came with Fender’s Acoustasonic acoustic-electric hybrid series, which have an under-saddle piezo, an internal body ‘sensor’, and a magnetic pickup up top. In other words, considering their conventional electric capabilities, one-pickup guitars. Their layout precludes anything more.
“The Acoustasonic Strat’s pickup is at the same angle and the same location relative to scale length that it would be on a Strat,” Tim explains. “The Tele’s pickup ends up a little bit closer to the neck, because we found it was better there. And on the Acoustasonic Jazzmaster, the back poles of its humbucker are at 95 percent of scale length. When I need to put a pickup somewhere on a new project, I’ll always start by putting it where it will traditionally sound pretty good – generally at 75 percent and 95 percent of scale length for neck and bridge. If I then listen to it and think well, maybe not, then I’ll mess with it. But I will always at least start at one of those locations.”
It’s impossible to talk about one-pickup guitars and not mention the effect that Edward Van Halen had on the notion that one pickup is somehow limiting. Many more players since have discovered the attraction of a solitary pickup, from Jack White’s influential slides on an old Kay to Fredrik Thordendal’s massive eight-string efforts on a signature Ibanez.
The first guitar Jared James Nichols ever picked up was a Les Paul Junior. “When I started to woodshed and find my musical path, I kept going back to that feel and simplicity of the single pickup,” he says. “It honestly spoke to me and inspired me to play.” Jared notes that this simplicity in single-pickup electronics forces you to coax out all the tones in your head with the way you attack the instrument.
“Between where you pick on the string, your dynamics, and how to manipulate the simple volume and tone controls, it forces you to focus on the biggest part of all of this – connecting with the instrument. My biggest guitar hero is Leslie West of Mountain. His approach, tone, and physicality to the guitar inspired me beyond belief. He showed me how far you can go by just being inspired.”
Jared’s signature single-pickup Epiphone Les Paul Custom, plus his ’56 Junior and his two Les Paul Models, Ole Red (an oversprayed late-’53) and Dorothy (early ’52), underline his love for P-90s. “Nowadays,” he admits, “I have come around to a great neck pickup – my two original Les Pauls both have insane neck-pickup tones. So it’s a fun dynamic now, switching between single-pickup guitars and my originals. I get inspired in a different way.”
How about that idea we began with, that single-pickup guitars are just too limiting? “They force you to use a different side of your musicality,” Jared argues. “You will sound like you. It’s fun to see people try out my signature models – no matter what, everyone sounds different. They sound like themselves. I guarantee you’ll be blown away by the results of a great single-pickup guitar through a loud tube amp. For me, it’s one of the best sounds in the world.”
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