The first Seymour Duncan pickup I ever bought was an Alnico II for a Strat, back in the 1980s. Before trying the Alnico I’d had a Super Distortion Strat type single coil in my Tokai Goldstar for a couple of years. Not a genuine one - it was essentially a cheaper copy of an early ‘80s DiMarzio SDS-1, made by Federico. I’d always been disappointed with its nasal sound, and didn’t like what it did to the two-pickup bridge/middle combo tone. However, I’d damaged the original Tokai pickup in removing it and so, at that stage, didn’t have any choice but to leave the Federico in. I moved the Federico from its intended bridge postion to the neck position (which I didn’t use much at the time), and basically tried to pretend it didn’t exist.
When I finally got some spare money I thought I’d approach a trusted sales guy down at the guitar shop, and ask his advice. I just wanted to return to the classic Strat sound, but, if possible, better. He recommended the Seymour Alnico. I fitted it, plugged in the guitar, spent about four hours buzzing from the excitement of the new sound, then threw the Federico in the bin, where it belonged. I’d learned what a minefield replacement pickups could be, having felt the impact of the worst, and then the best results. I was inspired to learn about pickups from that point forward, even winding some of my own in due course. In fact it wasn’t long before I had enough knowledge to repair the original damaged Tokai pickup, which merely had a severed coil connection near the solder point on the bottom plate. I realised then that I needn’t have bought the Seymour Alnico. I was still very glad I did, but not every Seymour Duncan pickup I've subsequently bought has been such an unmitigated bundle of joy...
With that, I turn to the subject of this retrospective – a set of 1990s Seymour Duncan Hot Rails pickups, for a Stratocaster. I suppose I could have chosen to look at one of my favourite Seymour pickups for this piece, but I don’t like articles which read like adverts, and that’s what I’d have ended up writing. The Hot Rails, however, was a good choice, because it's a pickup with which I've had a love-hate relationship over the years. Whether it's love or hate really depends on what sort of music I want to play. If I’m looking to blast out seamless hammer-on rock solos and endlessly sustaining chords with rich, densely-saturated distortion, I love it. If I’m aiming for pretty much anything else, I can’t stand the thing.
This pickup was designed for hard distortion and it has no subtlety whatsoever. It’s all about packing as many coil windings as is humanly possible into the space of a Strat single coil, marrying that with a viciously strong ceramic magnet, and stepping into some spandex, basically. Despite the slim profile, this is a true, side-by-side humbucker. In fact it’s sonically bigger and hotter than most full-sized humbuckers. The bridge-calibrated version tests up with staggeringly high resistance on my multi-tester – more than double the resistance of a vintage Gibson humbucker. With all other factors equal, the higher the resistance, the hotter the pickup, so this, as you might imagine, is a monster. The neck-calibrated unit is significantly ‘cooler’ in resistance and output, but it’s still a fair bit hotter than the average Gibson PAF. The much wider profile of the PAF helps fatten the tone, so the Hot Rails doesn’t really sound more than twice as fat as a Gibson pickup. But clearly, given its spec, it’s gonna sound very thick and bombastic, and it does.
When you employ the Hot Rails in its intended role, it’s hard to beat. The tone is geared up to distort very sympathetically. Distortion can be fuzzy, or it can be smooth. The distortion you get with the Hot Rails is startlingly smooth. But for things to really work you have to use heavy distortion. Try it with mild overdrive and it just sounds synthetic. Crank the drive high, though, and the magic starts to happen. Often with distortion, chords with more than just roots and fifths can be ill-defined, with their character obscured by the fuzz. But with the Hot Rails there’s no obligation to stick to power chords. So efficient is this pickup’s integration with distortion, that there’s a noticeable improvement in definition within complex chord voicings. Sustain is most impressive, and single note lines feel as effortless as they ever will. Hammer-on and tapping stuff is undeniably much, much easier with this pickup than with a regular Strat type unit. Fundamentally, if you overwhelmingly or exclusively work with a heavily distorted tone and play hard rock or metal, I imagine you’ll be thrilled with the Hot Rails.
Used clean, however, the Hot Rails is not what I’d call a pleasant-sounding pickup. There’s a very nondescript element to it, which has you wondering: what on earth am I supposed to do with this? There’s no cutting edge – it’s just like a blob of sound, and you don’t even get the rounded ‘blap’ of a trad Gibson humbucker used clean. You can coil-tap a Hot Rails, but whilst this restores some much-needed treble for cleaner work, the synthetic quality is still there. You can’t really remove the clumsy and insensitive personality whatever you do. Your only option is to give in to the pressure, take the pre-amp gain to 11, and launch into your best widdly-widdly solo.
Most things in life are a compromise, and that applies to pickups. Some units aim for maximum versatitlity, and there are some that are pretty damn good at nearly everything. The Hot Rails is the antithesis of that ethos. It does one thing exceptionally well, but it’s absolutely useless for more or less everything else. Jack of all trades it ain’t. But it’s certainly a master of one.