For the guitarist keen on replacing pickups on their electric guitar there are a wealth of choices. Well known names such as Seymour Duncan and EMG are hugely popular with musicians looking to improve their instruments.
However many of this pickups can be very expensive and if you’re working on a budget, or trying to improve a cheap stock guitar these pups can seem like overkill. Is it really worth putting £200 of active pickups in a £100 guitar?
What’s needed in cases such as these is a range of pickups that vastly improve on the tone of cheap stock pickups yet at the same time doesn’t break the bank. Such pickups do exist and some of the best are made by IronGear.
These pups are inexpensive yet of a high quality and I’ve recently been able to try four different pickups from the wide range on offer. I originally looked at the pups while restoring my first electric guitar to workable condition after 20 years of abuse. The 1989 Epiphone HSS was in a sorry state and I felt that if I was going to fix it up I’d also rewire the guitar and replace the pickups.
I chose an IronGear Steamhammer – a high output humbucking pickup, and two IronGear Pig Iron medium output single coil pickups. These two pickups really punch above their weight, The Steamhammer is a fantastic pup for metal players, offering an articulate yet heavy crunch. What really impressed me was the definition in tone the Steamhammer affords – sure it grinds out metal power chords with the best of them, but you’ll still hear each string. Played clean there’s plenty of midrange and depth in the tone so it’s a good all rounder and not just a mere metal pup.
The Pig Iron single coils were a beautiful addition to the neck and middle positions on the guitar. Both positions reward the player with beautiful clean tones with plenty of body and with some dirt you can find those classic Clapton or Hendrix tones. I was so impressed with the Pig Irons on my Epiphone HSS I decided to try out a full set on a cheap Squier Stratocaster.
The stock bridge pickup on the Squier was just plain unusable with the amp on anything other than clean. Adding dirt brought out horrible dynamics and nasty transient tones. I know bridge coils are hard to get right – but this one was probably the worst pickup I’ve ever heard. So, step forward a set of three IronGear Pig Iron single coils – each wound to match the correct guitar position, all low noise and wax dipped – like all IronGears.
Ten minutes with a screwdriver and a soldering iron and I had the new pickups fitted. Now there’s a limit with what you can achieve with even the best pickups on a cheap Bullet Strat made of poor quality woods, but adding these IronGears has gone a long way to making this budget guitar very playable indeed. Just as on the Epiphone project the bridge and middle single coils offered beautiful round cleans, with those classic rock tones when pushed.
However it was the bridge pickup that was the revelation. Clean it is sparkly with plenty of treble. There is a little lack of body in the sound, it can sound a little thin clean, but some EQ tweaking events that out. Played with some dirt though the pickup really sings and I’ve been enjoying putting it through its paces. With a metal pedal before the amp I even managed to coax some convincing chugging rhythm riffs from the pup – not often easy with a single coil.
My final project was a little more ambitious. I love my Epiphone Les Paul Standard dearly, it’s a fabulous guitar – but could these inexpensive pickups improve it? I decided to try an IronGear Hot Slag in the bridge and a Rolling Mill in the neck position. For both I chose the chrome finish option to match the originals – and both pickups are beautifully finished and solidly made. It’s also worth noting that IronGear humbuckers are four-wire pups, enabling the use of coil splits/taps. In fact I fitted a coil tap on the Steamhammer pickup on the Epiphone HSS.
The Hot Slag is a high output pickup, but think heavy rock rather than the metal of the Steamhammer. The tone from this pickup is solid and cutting, yet full of body and articulates each string very well. Played clean or dirty it’s a lovely sounding pickup and definitely a step above the one originally fitted to the guitar.
The Rolling Mill in the neck is more subtle, more given to blues or classic rock stylings. While not as high output, I found I got better crunchy ruthym tones from this neck pup than the Epiphone stock. Played clean there’s lots of depth in the tone – and sometimes capable of tones you thought you’d only get out of the bridge position.
The only downside to the Rolling Mill in the neck position though is I find it harder to get a typical LP neck sing-song flutey woody sound when rolling off the tone pot. Those tones are there though – just seems to take more gain to achieve them than the stock pickup. However with some EQ and trying different options on my amp/M13 pedal board I found them.
So I’ve tried IronGear pickups in three relatively inexpensive guitars and have come away rather impressed. It’s replacing pickups on cheap guitars like this that seems the obvious prime use of Iron Gear pickups – the price being no risk. However I’ve come to see the Iron Gears as good pickups in any situation. They shouldn’t be viewed as merely a cheap option that’s a step above cheap stock pups, they are of a high quality full stop, ignore the price.
You can view the whole range of IronGear pickups and buy from Axetec, a company I would highly recommend due to excellent stock, prices and exceptional customer service.
Update: I’ve also had chance to try out the Jailhouse Rail now, which is a humbucker the size of a single coil. I am really very impressed with this pickup – it might even be my favourite of the ones I’ve tried. I put it in the neck position of my Epiphone project and it’s lovely and thick and warm. Again a real bargain.