One of my favourite pickups ever is the Alnico II-loaded Seymour Duncan Seth Lover set. By all logic, this pickup shouldn’t be suited to metal. It’s designed to accurately capture the materials and specs of the original humbuckers designed by Seth Lover in the 1950s. It’s quite low in output too. Now, DC resistance doesn’t equate to output – it’s a bit more complicated than that – but for a rough comparison, the neck Seth Lover measures 7.2k and the bridge model is 8.1k: compare that to the Alnico V-loaded Jazz neck model at 7.72k and the JB at a whopping 16.4k, and even on paper you can get a rough idea that the Seth Lover set is going to sound less aggressive than the JB/Jazz combo, a DiMarzio Super Distortion or a Bareknuckle Aftermath set, for instance.
There are other reasons you might not consider vintage-accurate pickups for heavier tones. Often they’re not wax- potted (because they didn’t do that back in the ‘50s), which means they could feed back in an undesirable way at high volume – and lower output pickups usu- ally don’t have as much low end as hotter ones. Yet, this plays into exactly the reason I like using them for heavier tones. For starters this means your sound is very detailed from the beginning, which means that once you ladle on the high gain you’ll maintain plenty of note at- tack and harmonic richness. The sound of true 50s-style humbuckers has a lot more in common with a single coil than you’d expect, often with a similar attack and sustain profile but minus the ‘zingy’ string noise. Often they’re a little more rounded in the treble and a bit more vocal and ‘honky’ in the midrange, which gives them exceptional cut amidst a thrashing drum kit, as well as giving you a great ‘wall-of-sound’ tone when you multi-track a wall of guitar parts. Sometimes it can be pretty confronting to play with such a raw, low-powered sound without accompa- niment, but once you lay a tone like this into a track it usually opens right up and you benefit from the detail and punch.
Another great way of getting heavy, grinding tones is to turn down the preamp gain and turn up the power amp to the point where your tubes start to get angry with you. Listen to George Lynch’s rhythm tones, or Nuno Bettencourt on Waiting For The Punchline, or anything by AC/DC, to hear the difference when the distortion is being generated at the power amp instead of a bunch of fizziness applied at the pre- amp side. A cool thing about this method is that you can get these tones at lower volumes by using lower-powered amps. If preamp gain is such a huge part of your sound, you can always dirty things up from that end once you’ve hit the sweet spot on the master volume where all the harmonics and punch start to happen.
Another fun trick is to cascade a number of lower-gain sound sources to create a higher-gain sound. For instance, I have an MXR+CAE Boost/OD pedals, which sounds great when you really crank the gain on the pedal, but even better when you use it with the gain, volume and tone controls only just barely past 1, then kick on the boost function and use it to drive the input on an overdriven amp. It leads to an almost synth-like, fat, sustaining tone that I’ve never been able to attain any other way.
Of course it all comes down to personal preference and what’s appropriate to the song, and I’m not shy about piling on the distortion when the situation calls for it. Think of that great moment in Alice In Chains’ ‘Them Bones’ where Cantrell has been using a big wall-of-gain guitar sound for the rhythms, then the solo kicks in with even more outrageous distortion.