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This article was originally published in issue #15
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There's only ever going to be one 'Pearly Gates', the legendary '59 Les Paul made immortal by ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons. But the wizards at Seymour Duncan have cloned the pickups. Gibson even used them on their Pearly Gates replica, but will adding a set to your Les Paul clone make you sound like a million dollars? Michael Casswell finds out.
Seymour Duncan pickups have for a long time set the bar in the pursuit of good tone. Other pickup manufacturers have been known to go to Seymour for advice on their products and manufacture - he's very much the grand master of the pickup replacement business. If you're not happy with the sound your guitar pickups are giving you, then the vast choice that Seymour gives you with his product range should solve your tone problems. And it's not just about replacements. Many guitar manufacturers choose SD as their pickups of choice, and if you are lucky enough to score a Gibson Custom Shop Billy Gibbons 'Pearly Gates' Les Paul, then it's a pair of Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates Humbuckers that will come supplied on that guitar. According to Billy, Gibson sent their best custom shop team to measure, weigh and generally pour over his original '59, in the hope of reproducing as close as possible, a clone of the original. Gibson and Billy's pickup of choice was to be supplied by Seymour Duncan, and the Pearly Gates humbucker is also the pup that Billy has favoured in many of his stage guitars, so he must feel they have some of the 'mojo' his 'original 59 'PAFs' possess.
The trouble with talking about a guitar pickup are the variables. A guitar's tone is the combination the pickup, how it's wound and with what type of wire, the guitar's construction, design and wood quality, string gauge, pickup height, amp make and specs, the type of plectrum striking the string and mainly, the player. Billy Gibbons will sound like Billy Gibbons no matter what guitar he is playing, or what pickup he is using, so you installing a set of Seymour Pearly Gates humbuckers in your favourite guitar does not guarantee that ZZ sound - but does guarantee a tone-full, controllable and musically responsive pickup.
Our chosen guitar to hear these pups in action is the same Chinese-made Hagstrom twin humbucker, single cutaway that we used to test a set of Seymour Duncan Slash Alnico II pickups in, back in issue 11. The Hagstrom is a middle range guitar, far removed from the cheap and nasty Les Paul clones sold as starter instruments, but it's not a top of the range Les Paul, obviously! Still we had a £400/$900 Hagstrom for review in Guitar Interactive six and gave it a four and a half star review - so these are serious guitars, worthy of a pickup upgrade, even when, like these Pearly Gates models, that's quite an expensive proposition!
The Pearly Gates are supposed to kick out an average DC resistance of around 8.65k, which is tech talk for them being hot, but not silly hot. That translates to more controllable tone (depending on the player). There are much hotter pups out there on the market, if that is your thing, but those old '58, '59 /60 'patent applied for' humbuckers were not as hot as today's Gibson burstbucker pros, for example, and part of the sweetness of a vintage Les Paul is the controllable tone you get by adjusting the volume pot on the guitar. These Pearly Gates give you that sweetness but also growl hard when you crank them through a good valve amp. It's a great combination in any pickup! Turn it down and it stays sweet clear and defined, turn it up and it sounds like a V8!
You could also fine tune your guitar via the adjustable pole pieces on the pickups themselves, which can result in a more even response across your different string thicknesses, although saying that, every time I have tweaked pickup pole pieces, I have found the differences very subjective. Maybe I have done it wrong, but in theory the option is there and most times this little trick gets completely overlooked by the majority of players. The pups are also able to be coil tapped because they come with four conductor wire, so you could switch from more of a single coil twang to the full on humbucker bark with say a push/push pot on your tone or volume. They are also potted, so no strange uncontrollable squealing when using high gain, and because they are humbuckers, no single coil noise when you are near a computer monitor or stage lighting rig for instance.
These Pearly Gates humbuckers have a resonant peak at about 6.62khz, so squeally pinched harmonics are a breeze because of the high-end and sweet mid that these pickups give you. I would be careful installing them in a naturally bright guitar, in fact. Maple bodied, maple and ebony fretboard guitars will be brighter than a mahogany and rosewood combo, which is why the Pearly Gates pups would work in a Les Paul so well.
Overall I really enjoyed these pickups but I generally like Seymour Duncan products anyway. They did a great job in the Hagstrom as you can hear on our video. Would I fit them to any of my Les Pauls? Possibly not, as mine seem fine as they are. But if you had a favourite Les Paul style guitar that just wasn't cutting it with a vintage sound, if you were having a custom guitar made, or you had, say, a really high-end clone like a Tokai, or maybe even one of the superb Vintage V100 clones that we reviewed in issue 11, or one of the better Epiphones, then, yes, a set of these fabulous pickups, would demand consideration. It's a shame they are quite expensive, as you could have good fun putting them into a cheap clone, too, but that's life. If you want quality, you have to pay for it!
Finding the perfect pickup for you can be a never-ending cycle of experimentation, once you get into the mindset that your pickups need changing. It can be a long a road, but if you are looking for a pickup change, any Seymour Duncan pickup is a good place to start and if you are after that definitive vintage Les Paul sound, these will take you there.