Mini-Humbuckers vs. Firebird Pickups: A Head-to-Head Comparison

Man, I’ve been wanting to do this experiment for ages — and largely because it’s been a black hole off ignorance for me. As mentioned in the video, I used to think they were the same pickup. But as you can hear, they’re quite distinct, and the differences are far from subtle.

Polly’s Firebird is a 1960s original.

Until now I’ve never owned a guitar with either pickup type. My chief experience with mini-humbuckers was when I demoed a set in this sane Strat for my Strat replacement pickups comparison. I liked them there as well, though I was using a set of Seymour Duncans, while these are Lollars. (I’d be cautious about making tone comparisons, since the two videos were recorded using very different tone chains.)

Annie Clark designed her own signature guitar.

I once played Polly Harvey’s original reverse Firebird on a gig, and I wasn’t that blown away at the time. (Though there were many other variables at play.) But I adored the way the Firebird pickups in Annie Clark’s Musicman St. Vincent model sounded, and I gave the instrument a rave review for Premier Guitar. I was struck then, as now, by their extraordinary dynamic response. Small variations in touch yield big tonal contrasts. My hope was that they’d sound like Fender pickups on steroids in a Strat, and to my ear, they do. (By “steroids,” I don’t mean high output — I generally recoil from extra-hot Strat pickups. Tones are simply fatter without neutering the high end as super-hot single coils tend to do.

I liked both pickups sets a great deal, but the Firebirds are a better match for my fingerstyle playing. What do you think?

20 comments to Mini-Humbuckers vs. Firebird Pickups: A Head-to-Head Comparison

  • Michael Kay

    Thank you for this comparison! I’ve been interested in mini-humbuckers and Firebird pickups for a while, as I suspect they might be the most versatile thing for my playing style. I haven’t committed to anything yet, so this video is extremely helpful. As always I love your playing.

    One small potential correction: I believe the St. Vincent signature model from Music Man has three mini-humbuckers (now they also make a version with two full-size humbuckers as an option). In your review in PG you say “3 mini-humbuckers” – shades of Gibson’s Firebird VII. And on the Music Man website it indicates the 2018 St. Vincent comes with 3 Dimarzio mini-humbuckers. The model you reviewed most likely had mini-humbuckers, not Firebird pickups. Same confusion!

  • Fabulous as always Joe, what an interesting comparison!

    It seems to me that perhaps this illustrates the difference between magnets at right angles to the strings and magnets in parallel. With the magnets at right angles I think you get a more focused and dynamic response.

    The whole sustain debate is full of misunderstandings. Acoustic sustain (for an electric guitar un-amplified) is not the same thing as the sustain from an amplified electric guitar in a room. If you have enough loop gain (for example with a compressor or overdrive) any electric guitar with any pickups in a room with an amplifier will sustain forever, even at low volume. Humbucker equipped guitars (therefore almost by default with glued tenon necks) tend to do so more easily because humbuckers generally have higher output than single coils and therefore the system loop gain is higher.

    • joe

      Thanks as always for your insights, Terry! Wow, it never even occurred to me that angle of orientation might be a factor, along with proximity to the strings. Your feedback comments makes sense as well. I should note, though, that while the distorted tones in the video sound loud, I’m actually running my Carr Skylark amp at 1.5 watts, and the volume is quite restrained — more or less at conversational level.

      Your comments about sustain tie in to the ongoing debate about whether guitar wood type makes a major difference as conveyed through the medium of the electromagnetic pickup. Two great experts who I trust independently expressed the same opinion on this. They said, in essence, that the wood type hardly matters at all except in ultra-high-volume cases where what you call “loop gain” becomes a more significant factor. I’m DYING to do a test on this.

      • Terry Relph-Knight

        Joe, I’ve just read through this again including your reply and it occurs to me that perhaps with my comments about magnet orientation I might clarify that its the shape and direction of the magnetic field that probably matters, which of course is a consequence of the magnet orientation. With magnets at right angles you get the fairly intense narrow field from the top of the magnet. If that top pole happens to be north them the bottom of the string becomes a south and the top a north. With the parallel magnet you get the magnetization along a longer length of string with a pole towards the neck and one towards the bridge. The distance of the magnet from the string in the case of the parallel magnet doesn’t result in much reduction of the field because of course the field is guided and focused by the pickup poles.

        I think you are right about the nature of the body and neck of the electric guitar having a greater influence as the volume increases. It also seems to me that the body and neck of the guitar are a mechanical construction to support the strings at tension. The woods used have to be strong enough to do that without being ridiculously heavy. That constrains the vibration characteristics of the guitar within a fairly narrow range, such that there isn’t much audible difference between types of wood. I think changing the construction of the guitar has a bigger influence – hollow versus chambered versus solid for example. And that again these differences become more pronounced as volume increases.
        Those that argue that the pickups only sense string vibration so the body and neck can have no effect, are using faulty logic. Very small vibrations of the string, too small to see, can still be heard coming out of the loudspeaker. The body and neck quite plainly do vibrate when the strings are plucked, you can feel them vibrating. The pickups are not anchored to an immovable point in space, they are anchored to the body. If the body vibrates then the pickups move in relation to the string, so there is always a component of the guitar output signal that is a result of body vibration.

        • mwseniff

          I used a pair of lip stick pickups on my electric cello they run parallel to the strings one under the C+G strings the other under D+A strings. I wired them in a parallel hum-bucking arrangement. They pickup both arco and pizzicato style but I still mix in a cello contact mike under the bridge. This pickup arrangement works so well I wonder that it wasn’t used in guitars.

  • Ian Mason

    I heartily concur with your findings here Joe – I recently put some Firebird clone pups (made here in Australia), in a Strat clone, complete with a 5 way super switch giving me both in, and out of phase options. I have OOP available both in series (no volume drop), and in parallel. Certainly pushed my limited soldering skills to the limits! In opposition to your suggestion regarding more than one volume pot, I installed two volumes, and one tone, after hearing Kid Andersen showing off ThroBak Vintage PAF style humbuckers (in a 335), and the tonal variations avaiable with subtle volume level changes, a la Peter Green in out of phase setting – if you haven’t seen it on youtube, it’s well worth a watch/listen. I’ll be getting more of these babies for sure, for future builds. I’m also toying with the idea of putting one in a neck position on an old Maton Premier (Jazz style F-hole archtop) I’m intending to buy soon.

    • joe

      Oh, cool! You never see Matons in the States, unless Tommy Emmanuel is touring with one around. You might also check out Lollar’s humbucker-sized Charlie Christian pickups in that archtop — another cool sound.

      • Ian Mason

        Cheers for the thought – I was thinking a P90, or Firebird clone, but I re-watched your demo of the CCs, and you’re probably onto something. I thought they’d be too clean, as I want to use it for some jump blues types stuff, getting a lower wattage amp power valve saturated gristly tone (think Junior Watson), but the CC might be a good bet for that too, retaining the note clarity, but deep fried in the gristle…

  • Oinkus

    Been beating on my Strat with the Duncan SM 1 set in it for over a year now , pretty sure there was a build pictured on the forums but they went away. Think those are some pretty great sounds all around and now I think I have to put firebird pups in my semi sort of Vox SG that is routed for 3 minis! Actually have ordered a new neck for the Strat too and it should be finished fairly soon , betting there won’t be any change in how the guitar sounds. I really find that I get a lot of difference with the tone knob , brighter Strat all the way up and much darker the other way. There is a lot of texture to the mini humbuckers and I really like them if you hadn’t noticed. Actually revisited Jeff and Rod doing “People Get ready ” recently and I instantly went to the Strat with minis to play along. Crowd is cheering again Joe , very interesting info for me at least !

  • Blake Cooper

    The Firebird pups win hands-down for me–I love their clarity and body in your video, so much so that I’m starting to have thoughts of a Warmoth Tele built around them.
    I’m curious: what value of volume and tone-control pots are you using? If 250k, then I wonder if 500k would be a better match for the mini HBs?
    Also, I hadn’t heard of Annie Clark (St Vincent), and am really enjoying becoming acquainted with her fantastic music.

  • woah, I love the sound of this. Joe, question for you. Say you had a 2 pickup guitar with 1 volume and 1 tone plus a three way switch…PLUS you had room for a 9 volt and the guts from one of your CULT pedals…is there a path one could take to make things happen?

  • Hi Joe, thanks for responding! Do you happen to know the dimensions of the ‘guts’ of this pedal? I’m super interested in going for it with an onboard Cult circuit. Wondering if the version you stuffed into your guitar is the same one in your frankenstrat? i.e. should I buy a cult pedal and take it apart? Or do I need to make my own (I have no skills, so I really mean give up the dream or at least postpone it)

  • Dagnabit! I really ought to read my posts before pressing send! What I meant to ask was “is the version you stuffed into your guitar the same size and shape as the one available for purchase as the Cult pedal? Thanks Joe.

  • Pete M

    Hi Joe, ditto your findings. I found the Firebirds more responsive than the mini humbuckers, play softly and you get a full mellow jazz style, then play harder to get more sparkle and snap – very Jekyll and Hyde. The mini humbuckers were more subtle in their dynamic changes. If I were to place a Strat single coil and a full sized PAF humbucker at either end of a scale, I’d say the Firebirds were closer to the single coil end, whilst the mini humbuckers were closer to the PAF end. I was surprised how both pickups can easily drive amps despite their lower number of coil windings due to smaller bobbins. The Firebirds I tried (Wilkinson, Oil City Winterizer, and stock Dillion Phoenix) generally sounded louder than the mini humbuckers (Axesrus). I put the loudness differences down to a Firebird having 2 magnets (one for each coil), whereas in a mini humbucker both coils share a single bar magnet. Thanks Joe

  • Dan Hall

    I’ve listened carefully to the demos and came away convinced that I really want the firebird neck pickup in my spruce telecaster. I read with some interest those comments asserting that the wood from which the guitar is made makes little to no difference in tone. Interesting. There are a couple hundred years of acoustic guitar building experience out there that might lead one to conclude otherwise. Personally I think I can hear those differences in electric guitars as well. But these arguments go on forever and ultimately end up being matters of taste or delusion. I’m deluded I think.

    Question. You’ve tried the Duncan Firebird sets and the Lollar sets. What would one order from either Duncan or Lollar as the case may be?

  • David Currie

    Two years later, and there are many other options than Lollar and Duncan CS for Firebird pickups, which come in many mounts. Mine were made by “Magneto Design Labs”, which I chose because they cost approximately half as much – they are made for a full-sized humbucker mount, for my 2001 LP Special. I ordered the pickups last year after watching this video, they finally arrived recently, and haven’t mounted them yet – need to buy a bridge for my LP Special to make it work. I’ve got two other Specials, a 1999 with humbuckers, and 2000 with P-90 pickups, which is my favorite. I had forgotten about this channel, just remembered it tonight, think I left a comment at youtube? This Joe Gore is my kind of fiend……..!

    • joe

      Thanks for the info, David! I’d like to check out that humbucker-sized FBs you mention. I love the general design so much that I’d love to try those in lieu of humbuckers on some of my DIY guitars. Take care!

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