There are plenty of benefits to be gained from using active pickups, not the least of which are low noise and high signal integrity over long cable runs. But not everyone loves the sound of typical actives. EMGs are well known for their killer metal tone – they’ve driven the tones of players like Metallica’s Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield, Zakk Wylde and Devin Townsend to name just a few – and their single coils were long used by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Seymour Duncan seems to be especially good at spotting holes in the market, and there was a pretty glaring one in the active sector: players who want the benefits of active pickups but would prefer a more organic tone. The Blackouts series of pickups do a great job of this, but the Blackouts Modular Preamp is another very clever approach to the issue.
Available separately and in the Blackouts Coil Pack and Gus G FIRE Blackouts System signature set (which is featured in some of Gus’s signature ESP and LTD guitar models), the BMP-1s replaces your existing volume pot, throws in a 9v battery, and allows you to get a high gain active guitar sound from any passive four-conductor pickup. In Gus’s case, the BMP-1s is combined with a matched pair of low-out Alnico 5-loaded passive humbuckers. Gus explains: “This system combines the massive tone, kick, and distortion of Blackouts with the rich tone and expressive feel of my favorite passive pickups. It responds perfectly to all my picking techniques, and more of my personality comes through than with any active pickup I’ve tried.” Naturally Gus needs plenty of sonic versatility within the rock/metal realm, since he does double time in Firewind and as Ozzy Osbourne’s guitarist.
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I installed the Gus G. FIRE set in my old HSH Ibanez RG370 (leaving the middle single coil disconnected). The set comes with one BMP-1s as well as a stereo output jack, a battery clip and three 25k pots (compared to the 250k or 500k commonly used with passive pickups) with corresponding capacitors, so you can wire up compatible volume and tone controls for anything from a single volume knob up to two volumes and two tones, as you wish. In my case the installation was a little tricky: I had to locate a three-way pickup selector switch, remove my guitar’s tone knob and find a place to wedge the battery. Of course, if your guitar is already routed for a battery or if you have more electronics cavity space than my guitar, you’ll find this a lot less work. Once the BMP-1s is installed you don’t need to ever solder anything ever again: just insert the pickup’s wires into the corresponding tabs on the BMP-1s and you’re good to go. The idea is very similar to Seymour Duncan’s very clever Liberator system for making solderless pickup connections.
Once the pickups were installed, I introduced them to my Marshall DSL50. The first thing I noticed was that these suckers put out a huge amount of output. Even though I was going direct into my amp’s overdrive channel, the sonic effect was more akin to running into a cranked Ibanez Tube Screamer first to drive the Marshall’s preamp tubes. I backed the pickups off a tad to find the perfect sweet spot balancing high gain and clarity, and suddenly the set really came alive. The bridge pickup has a smooth attack with a fat body – again, not dissimilar to running some kind of overdrive pedal in conjunction with a distorted amp channel, but with lower noise levels. The low end is full but tight, and the treble is definitely there but seems to round off before becoming too harsh. Combined with a thick midrange, power chords sounded almost oversized – a great sound for single guitar bands but equally suitable for creating huge doubled guitar parts in the studio. And the ear-friendly treble range translates to an easy transition from rhythm to lead as well. Solos really jump out thanks to plenty of available harmonic overtones, especially around the 9th to 15th frets, while pinch harmonics are easy to achieve, which I guess is pretty important when Gus plays Zakk Wylde-era Ozzy material live.
One thing the bridge pickup does especially well – and which is usually difficult for a pickup to do – is to sound really killer on those “chugga-chugga-stab!-chugga” riffs. You know the kind: when you alternate between a fast alternate picked open E or A string with higher chord inversions in between. While we’re in the Ozzy realm, think of “I Don’t Know,” “Crazy Train” or even “Bark At The Moon.” This pickup seems to balance the contrasts and ‘sames’ of this technique in a way that’s unlike any other pickup I’ve played.
The neck pickup’s tone is full and thick, rather than the noodly, more single coil-like voice that some neck humbuckers give, and it balances particularly well with the bridge, tonally and in perceived output. Switching to the neck pickup feels like getting a different sound out of the same guitar, rather than switching to something totally different altogether. Big bluesy or Euro-metal-inspired bends slice through the mix quite clearly indeed. Fast alternate-picked lead lines, and especially string-skipping and sweep-picking licks, are compressed quite nicely, flattening out the dynamic response. This is great news for metal players, but maybe not so much for blues-rockers who need a little more volume variation from their neck pickup. You can open up the dynamic response a lot by lowering the guitar’s volume control though – in fact, think of the volume pot as a gain control rather than a volume one, and suddenly the lower dynamic range at full volume starts to make a lot of sense. Throw on some analog chorus and you have a great modern take on those early Ozzy album clean tones.
I guess the only thing working against the Gus G. FIRE set is its distinctive look – either you dig it or you don’t. And it’d be nice if the Blackouts modular preamp system supported HSH pickup configuration. But especially if you rock a HH guitar, or if you can live without a middle pickup, there’s plenty of flexibility and tone on offer here.