When I first heard the new Dream Theater album, Black Clouds and Silver Linings, I could hear something different about John Petrucci’s sound. It was warmer and rockier than recent albums, kind of like his tone on Scenes From A Memory but with more dimension and chunk. Well it turns out part of the reason for the shift in tone is that Petrucci has been working with DiMarzio on another signature pickup set, which DiMarzio says was used extensively on the new CD. But unlike the humbuckers that are exclusively available in his Ernie Ball Music Man signature guitars, the Crunch Lab bridge pickup and LiquiFire neck pickups are available to everyone – without having to buy an admittedly incredible EBMM axe to get them.

Over the years loyal DiMarzio user Petrucci has used a wide variety of bridge pickups: the Tone Zone (Images & Words), Steve’s Special (Awake through to Scenes From A Memory), a custom-designed pickup for his Music Man guitar, and in more recent years the D-Sonic. And let’s not forget his used of the Blaze model in his Ibanez Universe on Awake. His neck pickup of choice has been the Air Norton or a custom-wound derivative thereof for most of his career.

So cut to 2009. A day after my birthday, a brand-spankin’-new set of pickups arrives at my door: The DiMarzio Crunch Lab 7 and LiquiFire 7. Happy belated birthday to me! That night I had a little soldering party, installing the pickups in my black Ibanez RG7620 7-string, a basswood-bodied guitar with a twin humbucker pickup configuration, 24-fret neck and an Ibanez Lo Pro Edge 7 bridge. This is my main stage guitar purely because it’s very solid and reliable, but I’ve struggled with its tone for years. The stock DiMarzio New 7 pickups sounded great for metal, but were too dark for rock. I eventually replaced them with a Blaze in the neck – a sound I still think of as the ‘For The Love Of God’ tone thanks to Steve Vai’s use of it on that classic track – and an Evolution 7 in the bridge position. The Evo is one of my favourite pickups but it’s very loud and powerful, with a distinctive tonal curve and screaming harmonic overtones that make it perfect for lead guitar and very upfront rhythm trakcs but maybe too forceful for some more restrained styles. Can the Crunch Lab and LiquiFire fulfil my requirement for a warm yet powerful bridge pickup and a neck pickup which is simultaneously bluesy and shreddy? And can it make me fall in love with my RG7620 which has been gathering dust for a while due to my love affair with my Blaze-loaded Ibanez Universe? Let’s see. (By the way, you can read my interview with Petrucci about the Crunch Lab and LiquiFire here).

Crunch Lab 7

The Crunch Lab 7 is visually identical to the D Sonic 7 – both feature one coil with adjustable pole pieces and one with a solid metal bar – so you could be tempted to think the Crunch Lab is just a slightly tweaked version of the D Sonic voiced to work perfectly with Petrucci’s Music Man/Mesa Boogie setup. Wrong! While both pickups are based on ceramic magnets, the specs are quite different. D Sonic 7 has an output of 390 and a DC resistance of 12.03k. DiMarzio describes its tone profile as Treble: 5.5, Mid: 6 and Bass: 6.5. In contrast the Crunch Lab 7 output is a whopping 410, with a DC resistance of 11.07k. Its tone profile is Treble: 4.5, Mid: 5.5 and Bass: 6. So what we’ve got here is a D Sonic-like pickup but with higher output, smoother treble and a more open bass and midrange response. And unlike the D Sonic, which sounds softer and more vocal when you orient it with the metal bar closer to the neck, and harder and chunkier when it’s facing the bridge (better for lower tunings), the Crunch Lab’s voicing is such that Petrucci prefers to install it with the metal bar towards the neck regardless of the tuning. So that’s what I did too.

The Crunch Lab 7 retains some of the tight bass of the D Sonic but it’s more restrained and less boomy, making it ideal for fast, alternate-picked thrash riffs on the lower strings because each note has space to breathe while retaining enough punch to really feel it. The softer treble also helps to make palm-muted riffage sound tighter and more defined because the high end isn’t diverting the listener’s focus to the fizzier frequencies, while the midrange seems to emphasise all the ‘right’ harmonic overtones – especially important in lead playing. In fact the Crunch Lab is an ideal soloing pickup because it never gets harsh. DiMarzio says it’s not a screamer, and that’s certainly true – it has more of a sonorous, voice-like quality where overtones shift around depending on your pick attack and fretting-hand phrasing. While some higher-output pickups seem to impose their own stamp on your sound, maybe covering up a little bit of clumsy technique along the way, the Crunch Lab rewards you for carefully crafting each note.

LiquiFire 7

The LiquiFire is much more than just a tweaked Air Norton. Let’s compare the specs. Air Norton – Alnico 5 magnet, output of 270, DC resistance of 12.58K. Treble: 5, Mid: 7, Bass: 6.5. The LiquiFire 6 and 7 string models are a little different to each other so let’s look at each: the 6 string version also has an Alnico 5 magnet but is rocking a huge (for a neck pickup) output of 300 and a DC resistance of 10.75K. The tone profile is Treble: 4.5, Mid: 7.5, Bass: 6. LiquiFire 7 is tuned slightly differently to get the most out of the low B string, so it has a harder-sounding ceramic magnet, output of 270 and a DC resistance of 11.48K. The tone profile is the same as its 6 string brother with Treble: 4.5, Mid: 7.5, Bass: 6.

What really attracts a lot of players to the Air Norton is the distinctive quality of its midrange, which maintains note definition even when picking every note at ultra high speed. The LiquiFire cranks this midrange up further while reducing the treble and bass, which gives the pickup more space to breathe within a mix. To my ears it almost sounds like a cross between an Air Norton and a PAF Pro, with the former’s clarity and smoothness, and the latter’s slight aura of sizzle around the edges when you pick soft. Unlike most neck pickups, pinch harmonics really scream through the LiquiFire, and it’s kind of liberating to play a pickup which responds equally well to alternate-picked and legato techniques. The ‘noodle factor’ of the Air Norton is still there in great quantities, but there’s something extra which makes the pickup speak even more clearly and distinctively when you play slow and soft.

When used in combination via split coil wiring, the LiquiFire and Crunch Lab maintain the sparkle and clarity of the Steve’s Special/Air Norton combo but with an organic smoothness. Gone is the hi-fi coldness – which some players love – but in its place is something more musical and full-bodied. I haven’t gigged with these pickups yet but I imagine that the split coil combo will be a great asset to live clean sounds, while the reduced treble and increased beefiness when overdriven create a very useful vintage rock tone. I love the sound of a neck and bridge single coil in unision – I’m a big Telecaster fan – yet I’ve always felt it was a bit of a compromise on humbucker-loaded guitars. But the LiquiFire and Crunch Lab combine in such a unique and musical way that I no longer feel that way. It finally feels like all three settings – bridge humbucker, bridge+neck single coil combo, and neck humbucker – are exactly where I want them to be.

But don’t just take my word for it: have a listen to this little demo I whipped up.

Sure, the Crunch Lab and LiquiFire were designed for John Petrucci – and it sounds a lot like their particular tonal splendour on ‘A Nightmare To Remember’ and ‘The Count Of Tuscany’ on Black Clouds and Silver Linings – but these aren’t ‘Dream Theater pickups’ – they’ll get you in the ballpark of that sound, sure, but there’s a lot more to them than that. They’re warm, rich and very responsive, and are equally well suited to rock, shred, metal, and even blues and fusion. I like these pickups so much that I’ve already earmarked two more of my guitars for them – I want the 6 string version in my 1993 jewel-blue, Japanese-made Ibanez RG370, and believe it or not I’d even put them in my beloved Ibanez UV777BK Universe 7 string, because even though I love the Blaze pickups in that guitar, the tones I’m getting from my RG7620 just feel a little more ‘me.’ And that’s a pretty rare thing for pickups designed for a specific artist.

Extra special thanks to DiMarzio for providing the pickups for this review.

[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]DiMarzio is distributed by Australasian Music Supplies.[/geo-in]

[geo-out country=”Australia” note=””]Buy Crunch Lab & LiquiFire at Musicians Friend.

DiMarzio Crunch Lab (Black, F-Spacing)

DiMarzio Crunch Lab (Black, Regular Spacing)

DiMarzio Crunch Lab 7 (Black)

DiMarzio LiquiFire (Black, F-Spacing)

DiMarzio LiquiFire (Black, Regular Spacing)

DiMarzio LiquiFire 7 (Black)[/geo-out]