Warning: The following is not a thorough test, nor a fair comparison. The setup I used is not appropriate for any scientific conclusions. In fact, this “versus” is simply my own subjective experiment with these two awesome pickups by Seymour Duncan: the JB SH-4 and the Custom SH-5. But then again, in the world of guitar and tone, as much as we may strive for scientific accuracy, in the end it all comes down to player (and listener) preference. I don’t intend to praise either of the pickups, I’m not trying to get anyone to buy the one or the other, and most importantly, I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, so please don’t come at me for merely expressing subjective opinion, labeled as such. Remember that your guitar and rig may sound completely different than mine, with these same pickups – this is part of the disclaimer Seymour Duncan themselves have for the tone samples they offer over at their website.
I own a beautiful looking Schecter C-1 Classic guitar that plays like a dream, but always seemed a little muddy to me (I’m talking low frequencies, of course), especially with high gain. Since the JB is supposed to sound anything but muddy, I have obviously tried everything, from pickup and screw pole height, to different strings.
There’s a little catch here, too: I am forced to use modelling technology, therefore no amazing real amp to try things on. However, muddy is muddy, no matter what you use. In my mind, good tone can either be achieved on almost any technology, or not at all. Sure, a modern modeller might not sound as amazing as a real, great amp would, but it should put out usable tones.
Since I have a Duncan Custom in another guitar, I decided to swap the JB with the Custom, and record some tones, to have a comparison for future reference – and this is what you shall have the pleasure (or perhaps quite the opposite) of auditioning here.
The Schecter is a neck-through (maple/walnut, rosewood fingerboard) mahogany guitar, it has a 25.5” scale, and it is factory-equipped with the Seymour Duncan Jazz (SH-2) at the neck, and the Seymour Duncan JB at the bridge – this is, apparently, Seymour’s own favorite pickup combo. Both mine have gold covers. The electronics consist of two push-pull audio-taper Bourns potentiometers, 500K, a 0.01 uF Russian PIO capacitor, a Fender Original Parts 5-way superswitch, ’50s wiring (capacitor wired to volume pot output lug). Strung with GHS Santana signature 0.0095s (now discontinued, probably replaced by the GHS Big Core Nickel Rockers 0.0095).
The other guitar is a beloved Frankenstrat that plays quite horribly, but has been known to put out some very, very nice tones. Its wood is at least 20 years old, and I use it for recording and guitar experiments. Possibly Alder body, but I wouldn’t bet on it, and maple neck. It has two single coils, at the neck and middle positions, possibly some cheap Schaller ones, or some Asian pickups, I really don’t know. At the bridge, there is a Seymour Duncan Custom SH-5, uncovered. This guitar has 500K pots (brand unknown), one global volume, one tone for both middle and neck, and the other tone was used in a “spin-a-split” mod for the Custom at the bridge. Strung with Ernie Ball Regular Slinky (0.010s).
I have put both pickups in both guitars, and played various bits, using both clean settings and (too much) high gain, respectively. I used an Amplitube 3 ENGL Powerball preset of my own devise, on the clean and dirty channel, respectively, and that’s it. I used Reaper as the DAW, and I recorded through a an Edirol UA-25EX audio interface, 44.1KHz/24-bit. I went a bit over the top with the gain, to be able to better assess muddiness.
I have adjusted the pickup height so that I didn’t get any clipping on clean, and still get a full-bodied tone, and kept the screws flush with the pickup. I did not change the settings on the amp model between guitars and pickups, and this alone instantly disqualifies my experiment as being scientific – different pickups need different amp settings to give their best tone. Luckily, I started this article with a nice, juicy “Warning” section, just to cover myself.
Tone and volume knobs were kept on 10 the whole time (tone did not matter for the Strat, the bridge pickup is not connected to the tone circuit).
My playing is erratic, mostly improvised, I never played the exact same thing twice, over the few days it took to do it all. I tried to play some faster lines in order to better assess note definition (my sloppiness aside). I had some grounding problems, and at some point I was playing with the Schecter control cavity open, with wires dangling out, holding the guitar away from myself so as no to get really nasty noises (which I got anyway). So you won’t be listening to a Top 100 guitar performance, especially since I’m no Steve Vai, even on a good day. This further makes my experiment unsuitable for any “scientific” conclusions.
There are 24 recordings, all with the JB and Custom, respectively, mounted in the bridge position. I need to further expand on the recording names:
- Clean Pos 2 STRAT xxx means the respective humbucker with the single middle coil, in the Strat guitar
- Clean Split Neck Parallel SCHECTER xxx means the respective humbucker split to outer coil in parallel with the Jazz inner coil (a very sweet sound, would you agree?)
- Clean Split means the bridge outer coil, in both guitars
- where there are no other mentions, you’re listening to the full humbucker
My advice is to listen to the pickups in the same guitar (the default playlist order, below), than to the same pickup in different guitars, for each of the recordings.
I was mainly interested in high gain (the only way I normally use the bridge, save in clean combinations with other pickups), but I thought I’d do clean samples while at it.
My main goal was to ascertain whether or not the JB in full humbuxking mode really is unsuited to the Schecter (getting too muddy under high gain), and if the Custom is better in this area (i.e., it maintains better bass clarity, has a tighter bottom end).
Without further ado, check out these recordings and form your own opinion of them:
(if you cannot see the Soundcloud player, try this link)
First, I would invite you to revisit the warning at the beginning of this piece. Then, I must say that, to my ears:
- The Frankenstrat sounds more open, brighter than the Schecter, more volume and definition (Is it the old wood? The larger “chamber”? The maple fretboard?) in most recordings. The Schecter is noticeably darker.
- I lean towards the Custom, both clean and with high gain. It does have a tighter bottom and significantly better low note definition. The cleans are more defined, in both guitars, than the JB’s, perhaps some would describe as “sterile” or too “hi-fi”. The JB is looser in the bottom, and I personally don’t much enjoy that, it makes me “dig in” more by default while playing, and I don’t want that – I want to “dig in” when I choose too, preserving my dynamic range, not simply for achieving better note definition.
- The JB does have something somewhere in the upper midrange/highs, I think, that gives it its unique, notorious character – a somewhat smooth, singing quality, clean and with high gain. My only complaint about it is that it’s “loose”, for want of a better word.
- Overall, except for Custom’s bottom tightness, I really can’t say I radically prefer one pickup over the other.
- Both pickups split quite well, I especially like the parallel modes.
My favorite setup is the Custom in the Frankenstrat guitar. Next would be the JB in the Frankenstrat, and next, the Custom in the Schecter. Since my first two preferences don’t involve the Schecter, I am beginning to believe that a) neither of these two pickups do it justice, or b) it really is not the guitar I want for my tone.
Should I try moderate output bridge pickup, I wonder? Perhaps based on an Alnico 2 or Alnico 4 magnet? Or something on the lines of a PAF clone, maybe, vintage output? I probably won’t be able to resist doing such an experiment, anyway. Until then, the JB stays in the the Schecter, if mostly for cosmetic reasons (the gold cover).
Finally, I must declare that both these pickups are great in their own right. They both have body and character, and I can see them used (as I have) in virtually any possible application, save for some truly extreme or very particular genres.
There you have it. I hope this was something you’ve enjoyed at least as much as I did (among soldering frustrations), and that it provides yet some more tone samples to showcase these famous pickups. Your opinions are welcomed as comments, below (but please make sure you’ve read the “Warning” at the beginning of this article before commenting).