22 January 2013

Guitars: Testing Bareknuckle Mother's Milk pickups - First Contact


Note: this entry was already published in my old Spanish version of this blog, around March 2010. I am revisiting it here, with some corrected or added info.
I've started to test some Bareknuckle Pickups (from now, just BKP) when I was in the search of that PAF tone I had in my very first guitar. The closest production pickup I tried till that time was the Seymour Duncan '59, a really nice pickup, with growling complex harmonics but, that can go blurred in mid-basses and basses under certain gain level. I still think they are a very good option for practically everything.
In concept, SD's '59, Gibson's '57 and BKP's The Mule are somewhat similar but, the 3D definition note-by-note, even under high gain of the BKP one, is one or two steps over the rest. The Mule offered to me exactly what I was looking for so, I thought... would it work for my wanted strato sound?.

My main guitar is a Fender American Deluxe HSS Stratocaster, that I left stock while having no other alternative (to cover more ground) but, since I've got already a Charvel SoCal Type 1, with Floyd Rose and a couple of humbuckers, it's time to get my wanted pure Strato sound.
After discussing my needs with Tim Mills, he recommended me a set of Mother's Milks and, that's all about. Did they worth the change?.

First try

As the HSS was really versatile, I wanted to preserve certain versatility level in my Strato but, preserving the classic Strato positions. So, I've designed my own wiring (called Hermetico' Stratosphear 3), with two different modes. First mode corresponds to normal SSS strato positions, while the Alternate mode brings some new combinations to the axe.

  1. Neck in parallel with Bridge (like center position of a Tele)
  2. Neck in series with Middle (Virtual neck humbucker, a bit dark)
  3. The 3 pickups in parallel  (Weak, very acoustic, even and round sound)
  4. Middle in series with Bridge (Virtual bridge humbucker, a bit brighter)
  5. Neck in serie with Bridge (Like the 4th position of a modded Tele)
That design includes some other additional characteristics: a no load tone pot, '50 tone wiring...
I've prepared a brand new pickguard, with new components and the new BKPs so, I just had to swap the old pickguard with the new loaded pickguard.
I went with a friend of mine to test the changes. I've left the amp and pedal settings as they were last day, when playing the HSS Strato, plugged the guitar and... FFS!, everything sounded really bright and piercing, even removing all the trebles in the amp side.
Rolled off a bit the tone pot (to remove the no-load thing) and, no way.
There wasn't any way to make it sound right. Piercing trebles everywhere!.

Back at home

I went back home really disappointed. How can this sound so bad?. What's the issue?.

I wrote Tim, asking about if the kind of sound I was obtaining was the expected one. Tim was really surprised since, the way he describes Mother's Milk tone is as "woody", dark instead of bright.
So, I've down the pickups, at pickguard level and started to raise them 1/4 of turn each time and, I've realized that the far the pickups were, the less trebles. So this pickups want to be far away the strings and, closer to your pickguard.

I changed the wiring, substituting the no-load pot with a regular CTS pot, and with modern volume wiring, since I know the other options increase the brightness of the sound.

Second Try

With the modded mod (now, Hermetico's Stratosphear 4), I've tested this pickups just some hours ago.
Just in the same moment I've plugged it, it started to sound really good.
I've took this time a while to fine set pickup highs, beginning with the bridge pickup (that has a less range of sweet spot) and, from there, middle and neck one to balance output levels.

And, how did they sound, after all?

In standard mode, each traditional positions sounded as expected and clearly different of the other 4, with its own character. The sound is extremely detailed, each string sounds very clear during chord, even under high distortion and with hard chops. Attack is nice, not piercing but explosive, so it remembered me that micro-explosions that The Mule seem to produce in amp's tubes.

I've tried the alternative mode, with following comments:
  • Neck in parallel with Bridge: Very nice, bright but not piercing, delightful, crystal clear. Very useful for acoustic-like parts.
  • Neck in series with Middle:  Dark and powerful. Very interesting for Palm Muttings. Total destruction with a distortion of type Mesa Boogie. Infinite sustain, with powerful basses.
  • Three pickups in parallel: Weakest of the combos. Light quack, well balanced, clear and round sounding.
  • Middle in series with Bridge: Like a Bridge humbucker but, without going so sharp. Awesome under distortion. Cuts as a knife with a distortion type Mesa Boogie. Infinite sustain, powerful basses and big trebles..
  • Neck in series with Bridge: The cleanest of the three virtual humbuckers. More defined and clear sounding. Not so powerful as the other two but way more detailed and useful when you want just a touch of controlled power.

Gear used in the Test

Guitar was the Fender American Deluxe HSS Stratocaster, modded as described above.
The amp was a Vox Night Train with it's paired 1x12 cab (Celestion G12H speaker).
In the pedal board, following chain of pedals:

  1. MXR MC-401 boost/line driver
  2. Vox 847 re-issue Wah
  3. Voodoo Labs Vibe
  4. AMT California
  5. Korg Pitchblade+
  6. Fulltone OCD V3
  7. Line 6 Verbzilla
Of course, first I've tried the guitar directly plugged to the amp, until I had the pickups' heights to my taste.

This second try, finished with myself being very satisfied so, thanks Tim for your recommendation. I've got what I was looking for my Strato.

My own learnings

I've learnt something, during this mod:
  • Makes no sense to do mods to increase brightness or high end to a guitar that is bright by nature. No-load pots add some high end; they work fine with humbuckers or darker guitars but, didn't liked in my Strato. '50 Style tone increases high end also, as well as a treble bleed mod.
  • BKP pickups like to stay far from strings. This is my second BKP set and, I've realized that, if they are close enough, they catch everything is happening around. While other pickups seem to go darker when you move them up to the strings, BKPs seems to increase their high end.
I've also went for some pre-amp swapping, during this session but, that's something I will talk in a new entry.

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