The 9 Best Guitar Pickups for Country Music
Country music is an expansive genre with roots that stretch far and wide. Mixing blues, Southern folk, and bluegrass, among other genres, the distinctive vintage tone can be heard in classic country hits like Willie Nelson’s fingerpicked outlaw tunes or in Merle Haggard’s bold runs.
Modern artists like Brad Paisley and Vince Gill add virtuosity to the mix and always keep things interesting on the guitar.
Country is a very personal genre, and the great artists put a lot of themselves into their songs. This creates many unique sounds and styles, lending diversity in a way that’s not usually appreciated by country-haters.
If you have a gun rack on your bicycle, you might be a country guitarist.
This article will cover what makes a guitar sound country, and then we’ll check out the best guitar pickups. These are all Telecaster pickups. This is pretty traditional, but it makes comparisons easier and really shows the stellar options available for this instrument.
The first successful Spanish electric guitar, the Gibson ES-150, was released in 1936. As this was right in the middle of the Great Depression, country music sales were down, along with the sales of almost everything else, I guess.
But radio was extremely popular, of course, and this new kind of electric guitar really improved the natural sound quality on radio and records.
Artists were slow to adopt this technology. It’s almost like guitarists figure out what they like and refuse to change. But once the power and flexibility of electric guitar became apparent, people jumped on the bandwagon.
Country still had a lot of growing up to do, so guitarists were all over the place stylistically during this period. Fingerpicking, interpretations of jazz concepts, and lots more.
You might be a country guitarist if you’re too drunk to fish.
The next major development in country electric guitar came when Fender released the Broadcaster in 1950, which, due to legal issues, was renamed the Telecaster in 1951. This simple instrument was, and is, supremely versatile. The Telecaster has never gone out of production.
The Telecaster was influential in the development of country music, and country music helped fuel the success of the Telecaster. Is this a good place for the word ‘symbiotic’?
The use of a guitar as a lead instrument really flourished. Some artists that brought the Telecaster great acclaim in the 1950s and 1960s include Johnny Cash, Luther Perkins, Ricky Nelson, James Burton, Buck Owens, Chet Atkins, Don Rich, and Roy Nichols. There is a fair amount of talent there.
And things kept moving along from there through dozens of famous pickers right up to the modern Nashville scene.
You might be a country guitarist if you use car wax on your house.
The Telecaster Sound
Since we’re focusing on Telecaster pickups, let’s examine what makes the Telecaster sound so important to country music. The term you often hear is ‘twang.’ What the hell does this mean? Does it involve the neck pickup?
Don’t discount the solid body. The Telecaster was the first commercially successful solid body electric guitar. The problem with hollow body guitars was that they were prone to feedback at high volume. The drunk rednecks at roadhouses were very loud, so the ability to crank-up a guitar was a welcome development.
Another element is the bright, clear, and cutting clean tones that emerge from the Telecaster’s pickups. The slanted bridge pickup boosts the Tele’s treble response and emulates the lap steel sound everyone went apeshit for back then. Early amplifiers didn’t have the best treble response, so any high-end enhancement was welcome.
Low-to-mid output pickups are key to the traditional country sound. Not to get too technical, but too much output kills the smooth tone. While a clear clean sound can be juiced with pedals and EQ, it’s hard to gain the desired clarity from ultra-hot pickups.
Low gain with boosted treble is the name of the game. Medium-low levels on the mids and bass frequencies will give you a clean starting point from which to begin adding effects.
You need compression to make high output pickups sound smooth and dynamically even. Compression balances the sound between finger and pick while hybrid picking, and prevents heavy picking from causing tonal spikes.
Compression is placed first in the signal chain to maximize sustain and create as clean a tone as possible before introducing additional effects.
Compression shouldn’t add too much noise to a clean tone, but adding a noise gate to the end of the signal chain can mitigate any issues and keep everything quiet when you’re not playing.
You might be a country guitarist if your mom walks with you to school because you’re both in high school.
Adding some tube distortion is a good idea to give your sound some body. Ultra-clean electric guitar tone can sound weak, so having a point where some overdrive kicks in adds warm tones to your leads.
You won’t need a crazy powerful tube amp, just something to add accents. Fender amps are classic choices. Deluxe Reverb, Princeton Reverb, Mustang.
Your overdrive pedal should be sensitive to adjustments, so you can really tweak the tone to the appropriate point. You may use several different levels of distortion, but they’re usually subtle, so the fine tuning is necessary.
A delay pedal is essential. Like the distortion, this effect will be subtle, so go for a quality pedal. The space that quality delay adds is an essential part of the country sound.
Short slapback is used for chicken pickin’ and longer repetitions are often used with longer leads. Most players use an analog delay to add warmth and avoid the pristine sounds created by digital delay.
You might be a country guitarist if you wash your paper cups.
Technique is a huge part of executing famous country sounds. The double stop is two notes – one is bent, one is not. This gives a lap steel sound that hardens nipples.
Chicken pickin’ is a combination of several techniques. Guitar strings are muted and combined with fast picking to create staccato elements.
Hybrid picking combines fingers and pick. Chicken pickin’ is a type of hybrid picking. The pick is generally used to play bass notes while fingers are used on higher strings.
You might be a country guitarist if you use toilet paper as napkins.
Additional techniques to master include hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. You should go practice!
I hope you found this article helpful, and that it has given you the knowledge to make an informed decision about which pickup will best suit your needs.
You should hopefully have a solid understanding about what types of electric guitar pickups are best for country music. You can click on any of the 9 pickups in the table to see more information and pricing. I’ve included demo videos below for each pickup set.
|Pickup (click to check price)||Notes|
|Fender Custom Shop ’51 Nocaster|| |
|Dimarzio Twang King|| |
|OC Duff Guardsman ’52|| |
|GFS ’63 Overwound|| |
|Bare Knuckle Country Boy|| |
|Budz Purebred|| |
|Seymour Duncan Antiquity ’55|| |
|Lollar Special-T Series Tele|| |
|David Allen Specials Set|| |