by Lincoln Smith
Writing any article requires a bit of research, regardless of the topic. Throughout this process, I kept coming back to one common thought: Pickups are a bit like people. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are flashier than others. Some are louder, and some just like to make a lot of noise. Like people, pickups have their own voices, and every once in a while, you’ll find one that you can really bond with.
Photo: Mosrite-inspired Valco 'EoC' Custom M-90 Pickups
The pickup is the true heart of an electric guitar. Without it, it would be – well – not an electric guitar at all. Its invention and first application in the 1930s opened the door for a new category of instruments, but its true Renaissance came in the 1960s: the decade of pickup innovation diaspora.
In this article, I’ll highlight what are arguably the two most under-celebrated manufacturers of original pickup designs and mention several more one-off uniquities; but before we discuss innovation, we must start at the source. How did the pickup come about, anyway?
THE MAGNETIC PICKUP - FIRST STEPS
Perhaps the earliest recognizable magnetic guitar pickup was produced by the DeArmond company in the early 1930s, designed for installation in acoustic and archtop guitars. As the magnetic pickup gained popularity, DeArmond supplied their pickups to several early solid body electric guitar manufacturers – notably Gretsch, who branded their DeArmond alnico pickups as “DynaSonic.”
By the electric guitar explosion of the early 50s, two preeminent pickups were introduced to the market. One is now known as the Fender single-coil pickup, first used on their lap steel guitars before being applied to their first solid body model, the Esquire, in 1950. The other is the P-90, introduced by Gibson to provide a warm tone with plenty of mid-range response. Gibson employee Seth Lover soon developed the first “hum-bucking” pickup, patented in 1955, and with that, the race to develop the next industry-shaking pickup innovation was on.
Photo: DeArmond's DynaSonic
Throughout the Fender & Gibson lovefest that was the 1950s, our old friend the DeArmond company was producing pickups all the while. In addition to their soundhole pickups for acoustic guitars and the DynaSonic pickups for Gretsch, they were introducing new models, and making headway as the only company at the time focused solely on the manufacture of pickups.
Throughout the 1960s, a customer could find DeArmond pickups on guitars from Airline, Harmony, Silvertone, Guild, Hofner, Ovation, Microfrets, D'Angelico, Epiphone, Fender, the Italian manufacturers Eko and Galanti, and more.
Photo: DeArmond "Gold Foil"
Since DeArmond's pickups were manufactured affordably, they were most commonly found on affordable guitar models. As a result, they were often a guitarist’s first pickup.
Vintage DeArmond “gold foil” pickups found renewed popularity in the early 2000s and are now in high demand. At Eastwood, we’ve recreated this (once-cult) classic with our Valco Argyle Pickups.
As these new pickup designs were dominating the US, a whole world of bizarre styles were popping up on the other side of the globe.
TEISCO & GUYATONE
Vintage Japanese guitars embody some of the most eye-catching, and truly unique approaches to the craft of instrument design. Separated from, but vaguely interpreting and imitating the booming field of solid body electric guitars in Europe and the US, these Japanese designs shared some features, but represented a new category of tonal and visual design and flair.
Chief among these Japanese manufacturers were Guyatone and Teisco, whose name became almost a shorthand for any Japanese guitar of unique design.
Together with hundreds of other Japanese brands, these were imported across Europe and the US in large numbers. American consumers in the 1960s who took the time to do a deep dive into this category of "Teiscos" were introduced to a dizzying array of crazy colors, angles, switching options, and pickups.
Photo: Teisco's "Gold Foil" seen in Teisco model ET-300
Along with the aforementioned DeArmond “gold foils”, vintage Teisco and Guyatone “gold foil” pickups have also found popularity in the 21st century and been recreated by several boutique pickup builders. Although they share the same generalized title, owing to the inclusion of gold foil behind the pickup cover's grill, Japanese “gold foils” are very different in construction and tone.
Many Teisco models sported Fender-esque single-coil pickups that have been described as sporting the chime of a Strat, with a thicker low end and bold mid-range expression. You can find these square-pole single coils recreated in several Eastwood models such as the California Rebel, TB64 Six-Stringed Bass, or the Doubleneck 4/6. Guyatone had their own spin on the popular single-coil, as recreated for the Eastwood LG-50.
Arguably one of the most unique pickups that you could expect to see from this era are found in the Teisco Spectrum 5: a model beloved and played by artists such as Eddie Van Halen, Adrian Belew, and Nils Lofgren. This model truly had a space-age look with 5 color-coded toggle switches, letting the player explore a full “spectrum” of tones. Not only could a player select the pickup, but there was also a switch for phase selection and a switch to split the output to stereo. Always one of our favorites, we at Eastwood launched a reissue of the Spectrum 5 in 2018. You can find the Eastwood Spectrum 5 Pro on our site here.
Of course, this article must eventually end. Books and books could be written on the subject of guitar pickups in the 1960s. We’ll never have time to list and discuss all of the stunning and uniquely expressive designs. Nevertheless, there are some that must be mentioned.
Photo: Kay Speed Demon equipped with "Tissue Box" pickups
Kay “Tissue Box” Kessel Pickups - These eye-candy pickups are found in several models from American manufacturer Kay, such as the Swingmaster K763 and the Barney Kessel K6700. They’re lovingly referred to as “Tissue Box” pickups due to their Kleenex-esque appearance. Pickup guru Curtis Novak’s site describes the Kay Tissue Box’s tone as: “P90-like with more midrange and slightly greasy tone.” True vintage examples today sell for over $150 a piece on the used market.
Wandre Davoli Pickups - While we spent the majority of this article on American and Japanese designs, Italy had a thriving community of brands and designs in the 1960s that are just as worthy of celebration. One such brand is Wandre, founded by builder and designer Antonio Vandrè Pioli. These models sported Wandre’s Davoli pickup, celebrated for its bright and crisp clean tones and its striking cover, embossed with star-shaped designs. You can find them recreated for the Eastwood Wandre Soloist 2P.
Mosrite Hi-Output Pickups - Nothing screams 1960s like a Mosrite. Now nearly synonymous with surf rock, Mosrite guitars were manufactured in Bakersfield California by Semi Moseley. They were known for their sleek german-carve body, off-kilter footprint, and their minuscule frets. Their pickups, similar in appearance to P-90s, were notorious for having an extremely hot output, making Mosrites a favorite of punk and grunge bands in the following decades. If you’d like a taste of this famous tone profile without breaking the bank, MOSey on over to our Sidejack Pro DLX: the most faithful recreation of the original Mosrite Ventures Model to date.
I just threw a lot of info at you, and if you’re a pickup nerd like I am, you probably have some strong thoughts – bones to pick about how your favorite pickup was not included or was described differently than how you would have. To me, that’s the beauty of guitar pickups. It’s not an exact science. There is no right or wrong, best or worst.
Ears are different from person to person, so if I can leave you with a message, let it be this:
Life is short and there are a whole lot of pickups. Get to trying them, form your own opinions and see which ones you really bond with.
Check out our selection on the Eastwood Guitars site as a great place to start.
Reader: Stop shouting into the ether about your favorite obscure Greco pickup. You can make your voice heard! What should be Eastwood newest pickup reissue undertaking? Let us know about your favorite pickup designs in the comments section.