People love the Les Paul Melody Maker pickups...but why?
The obvious answer is they like the sound. Well, so do I, but that doesn’t satisfy my curiosity as to what makes these pickups tick. So, it was time to start playing and testing.
There are already some audio examples of the Les Paul Melody Maker that show what the pickups can do in a musical sense, but playing for testing purposes is a bit different. I wanted to check out the frequency range the pickups covered, but also, their balance as it felt like there was a smooth level transition when going from neck to bridge. People generally don’t pay a lot of attention to volume transitions between pickups, but when the levels are balanced, I find it a better playing experience because if overdrive is present, then the effect will be quite similar—only the timbre will differ. If I have to adjust the volume when going from one pickup to another, I can cope but would prefer not to.
The audio example is an E chord played repeatedly with the same approximate amount of forcefulness. The clip’s first half is the bridge pickup, the second half the neck. The transition certainly seems smooth—but the ear is less sensitive to level variations than pitch, so let’s see what the numbers say.
Fig. 1 shows the audio example file in WaveLab. The red line is the dividing line between the two sounds. The top pane shows the average level, while the lower one shows the waveforms.
Fig. 1: The top pane shows the average signal level, the lower pane the waveforms.
The bridge sound is a tiny bit more dynamic, which is in keeping with pickup designer Jim DeCola’s comments regarding the greater touch sensitivity from the Alnico V magnets and slightly lower coil inductance. The neck pickup also has good dynamics, but this is less noticeable in practice because the low frequencies dominate more; there’s not quite the same kind of dynamic “snap” that’s more noticeable with the bridge pickup’s higher frequencies.
Fig. 2 shows the spectral character of the two pickups (neck on the top, bridge on the bottom), as analyzed by the mastering program Hal-Bal.
Fig. 2: The neck pickup’s spectral response is on top, and the bridge pickup’s response on the bottom.
You can see the neck has a pretty flat, consistent response with plenty of low end, a slight bulge in the midrange (hence the “fat” sound), and a little bit of a peak around 2.5kHz—this gives a shade more definition than you’d hear otherwise. (Note that the peaks toward the low end are the fundamentals of the notes themselves, so imagine them smoothed out a bit to see the overall response.)
The bridge pickup clearly ramps down the low end, with most of the energy happening in the 500Hz to 1kHz range. Also note that the bridge pickup has a slight bump at 4kHz compared to the neck pickup; the ear is particularly sensitive in the 3-4kHz range, and even this little extra bit of energy comes across as a subtle brightness that augments the midrange “fatness.”
Speaking of fat, despite the Les Paul Melody Maker pickups being single-coil one of the design goals was to have a fat P-90 sound as opposed to the thinner sound normally associated with coil splitting, which turns a humbucker into a single-coil pickup. Compared to the single-coil mode in the Futura, the traditional single-coil doesn’t have that same beefy midrange bump as the Les Paul Melody Maker’s P-90ST and P-90SR. In particular, the Futura bridge pickup has a fairly flat response but with the high-frequency extension that creates the traditional single-coil “sparkle.” The single coil neck pickup is closer to the Les Paul Melody Maker’s response, but without the midrange “fatness.”
So the bottom line confirms that indeed, the Les Paul Melody Maker pickups do what they’re intended to do—provide a fatter sound than traditional single coil pickups, while maintaining excellent level-matching between the two pickups which can be tweaked even further by adjusting the pickup height, since they are a calibrated set.