Think of a guitar pickup in the same terms as an EQ pedal placed before a distortion box. Each pickup has an overall level, and a frequency-response curve. Unfortunately these curves are not published, though they would be easy to sweep and chart for comparison, just as headphone.com has done with headphones. The guitar-gear community has become much more aware of speaker response curves, yet I have never seen a pickup response curve. Please start asking for them and producing them. Harmony Central has a pickup database filled with user comments. But it's far less usable than would be a simple collection of response curves. Sure, there might be more to a pickup than its overall level and its response curve, but these are certainly the first order of business.
People often email me asking about particular models of guitar gear. With pickups, I am most lost, because people use subjective language and not specs. Of all the guitar components, pickups particularly lend themselves to specs, in the form of a simple EQ curve. Pickups should be the component we are *least* in the dark about; but we have yet to take the systematic approach that is needed. Now that I know that pickups are basically equivalent to pre-distortion EQ, I am taking a greater interest in pickups and will spend more time reading these descriptions. But I so much would prefer to scan over a few hundred pickup response curves very rapidly, seeking the curve which I use in my pre-distortion EQ pedal.
A friend of mine who is shopping for a pickup that sounds like the one on his good guitar, was delighted after taking my advice and dialing-in a pre-distortion eq curve. This curve showed him what response curve to look for in a pickup, in order to make his second guitar sound like his main guitar. To model a pickup's curve, you have to place the eq pedal before distortion, because the pickup's curve is similarly placed, *before* the distortion stage.
There are several tone factors for pickups: single-coil vs. double-coil, non-humbucking vs. humbucking, position between the neck and bridge, and when two pickups are used together, whether they are in series or parallel and whether they are in phase or out of phase.
My favorite pickup configuration is a single-coil at the neck, a single-coil in the middle position, and a tapped humbucking pickup in the bridge position, with a 5-position selector and an in-phase/out of phase switch and a single/double switch for the bridge (humbucking) pickup. This permits a variety of classic tones, including Metal (humbucking at the bridge), or Stevie Ray (neck pickup), and Quack/Honk (in-between the middle and neck, or middle and bridge pickups, with the middle pickup out-of-phase). [Actually 'Honk' is not the correct technical term, which I don't recall at present. "Spank"?] Personally, I think of the 5 main single-coil settings as Beatles tones, from the "tonal spectrum" approach they use especially before "and in the end" in Abbey Road. The neck-and-mid, out-of-phase setting is associated with Country music.
Pickup database: user comments at Harmony Central (think of pickups as pre-distortion EQ).
For the Stevie Ray / Hendrix tone, use the neck pickup. When you have heavy saturation of the power tubes, play single notes, not chords, for clarity.
Every string has different Tone. Every way you hit the string has different Tone. Strike near the bridge, or over a pickup, and there are different overtones.
Guitarists in an altered state have a different way of striking and articulating notes. Be sensitive to this subtle hyper-creativity. Listen to the intonation (bending) of Sitar and other exotic instruments. Every note is a complex entity like a snowflake -- think of all the ways you can attack and hold and bend and play-with that note. Playing a sequence of 5 notes is an art of expressiveness. A riff is a combination of personalities, the personality of each note that you strike; on a guitar, it's unclear what a "note" means, because not only is there a C note for each octave, but there are multiple places where you can play that note.
Pluck a string. Now pluck it again, but with another string already ringing -- the original string now sounds different.
Put ultra-heavy strings on your guitar and raise the strings way up from the fretboard. Now practice hitting the strings with the pick as hard as you can. That's one approach to the blues tone. Then try the opposite, associated with shredding - lower the strings, hit them lightly and quickly, with plenty of preamp distortion -- there is less dynamics detail this way.
To minimize hum, turn your body and the guitar to the angle at which hum/buzz at any particular frequency are minimized. Also plug into a quiet, properly grounded outlet.
Custom Hand Wound Strat & Tele Pickups -- ElectroKraftPickups.com