I like to tinker. Over fifty percent of my guitars and amps are modified in some way or another. One of my favorite modifications to make is changing the sound of a guitar by putting in new/different pickups. I’m constantly on quest to achieve some tone or another. Having said that…
Although I don’t remember exactly, I’m going to say the year was somewhere around 2003 or 2004. My brother had relocated to the West Coast from the East and was visiting. We were playing Project Gotham Racing 2 on my newly-acquired Microsoft® XBOX©. I was slightly behind the times regarding gaming consoles so my brother was showing me how to personalize my XBOX©, even to the extent of setting up custom soundtracks to play along with the games. He explained that he and a friend had a favorite “soundtrack” for playing this game that included a couple of songs I’d never heard before. They were both melodic rock songs and both had a driving rhythm that lent itself extremely well to the idea of going really fast, even if it was only on a video game. Not only were the songs extremely catchy, but the guitar tone in the songs was excellent. It had an excellent mid-range grind while still having a full sound all over the EQ. The tone was something fuzzy without being wooly or muddy. I had to know…
Google is a wonderful thing. I jumped on and started searching. What I found was something surprising, yet at the same time made perfect sense. Both songs were recorded by a band called “Hardline” and included Neal Schon of Journey fame on guitar. Now, I know from videos and such that Neal usually plays a Les Paul of some sort, but I couldn’t reconcile in my head that the tone I was hearing was coming from a Les Paul. There HAD to be something else...
Being a strong fan of Dimarzio® pickups, I went to their web site and began looking at all of the pickups to see if I could possibly match one to this sound I was hearing. It’s probably worth noting that I have a good number of different Dimarzio pickups in a variety of guitars. Everything from the staple “Super Distortion®” to the “Super 2™,” “Super 3™,” “Evolution®,” “Breed™,” etc.; I’ve got just about every high-gain and mid-gain humbucker pickup Dimarzio® makes in one guitar or another, and even a good number of their low-gain humbuckers. Among the “guitar” world it’s well-know that artists Joe Satriani and Steve Vai have their own “signature” Dimarzio® pickups. However, none of those pickups seemed to produce that sound I was hearing on the Hardline songs.
Then I found something extremely interesting. Tucked neatly away towards the bottom of the “Medium Power” humbucker section of the Dimarzio® web site was a pickup simply called “Norton®.” The actual Dimarzio® copy for the Norton pickup reads:
The sound of a Norton® is right between FRED® and The Tone Zone®. It’s got some FRED®-like harmonic overtones that can only be described as nasty, with more of the power and mid-range of the heavyweight Tone Zone®. The same patented dual-resonance design used in FRED® and The Tone Zone® delivers a sound that’s hotter and “bigger” than any vintage model, but not as loud as a distortion-class humbucker. Norton® might be our most versatile bridge pickup. Combine it with a wide choice of neck pickups like the Air Classic™, PAF®, PAF Pro®, and Air Norton™.
Tech Talk: Norton® was originally designed to extend the tonal range and power of standard output humbuckers without going over the top. It's more modern than a PAF® sound: the benchmark Les Paul/Marshall combination yields more midrange crunch and high frequency pick harmonics than vintage-style pickups were capable of putting out. Really good for opening up the sound of mahogany set-neck guitars.
The sentence that stood out most in my mind was, “Norton® might be our most versatile bridge pickup.” I immediately wondered, was this a marketing blunder? How is it that such a versatile pickup isn’t advertised, pushed, evangelized? Why is it that this is the first time I’ve EVER heard of this pickup? Norton® has 352 mV of output—not extremely hot—somewhere about halfway between a PAF PRO® and an Evolution® with 12.62K DC Resistance, Alnico 5 Magnets, and a B/M/T EQ curve of 6.5/7/5 favoring the mids and the bass almost like a Dimarzio® Tone Zone®.
I kept going back to the fundamental question, “How is it that I’ve never heard of this pickup?” I follow gear fairly well and have heard of most of the staple Dimarzio® and Seymour Duncan® pickups, even if I’ve never actually heard them played. Needless to say, I was both confused and intrigued, especially in light of the fact that I’ve been a fan of the Air Norton S™ and Air Norton T™ pickups for some time. It never occurred to me that there might be just a plain old “Norton®” pickup out there. Looking through the “artists” section of the pickup’s page confirmed that Neal Schon does indeed use the Norton pickup.
I decided to get a Norton® and see if I could replicate the sound. I didn’t want to change the look or sound of any of my Les Paul guitars. Luckily, Norton® is available with factory-installed Nickel pickup covers. Next, I figured if Neal Schon was playing a Norton® through a Les Paul I was going to need some sort of mahogany-bodied guitar. However, I didn’t want to shell out for a new Les Paul just for this experiment. Luckily, I found a sale…
I already had an Ibanez ARX300 that I really enjoyed playing. It’s what I call a budget Les Paul double-cut. I picked up an Ibanez ARX320 on sale and decided that would be my Norton® guitar. I ordered the pickup and stood ready with my soldering iron. When the pickup arrived I literally installed it as soon as I could get the box open. (As a side note, I put an Air Norton™ in the neck position and a coil-splitting push-pull potentiometer.) I was flattened by the result. This is a great pickup. I mean REALLY great. I plugged this guitar into every different setup I could find. I played this Norton®-equipped mahogany-bodied Ibanez ARX320 through Marshall (JVM410H, Vintage Modern 2266, DSL401, 1974X, Class 5, JMP-1+EL84 20/20), Hughes & Kettner (TriAmp MK II, Trilogy, Switchblade), Mesa Boogie (Mark V Combo), Crate (V33, V5), headphone amps (Pocket POD, KORG Pandora PX4, POD 2.0), and computer plug-ins (POD Farm, Amplitube). The Norton® sounded great with all of them. The best way I can describe the tone is being full, crisp, and having a great “growl” sound. I picked up the term “growl” after owning an ART SGX2000 Express preamp/processor—this processor had a 6-band parametric EQ with knobs on the front for quick adjustment, but rather than being labeled with frequencies, each knob had a different adjective such as: Drive, Thrust, Growl, Warmth, Crunch, and Edge. Given that this pickup slightly favors mid-frequencies and Growl is towards the low-mids of the ART parametric, I think the term fits nicely and is accurate in describing the tone. As a bonus, the Norton® sounds great clean, in split-coil mode, and when overdriven cleans up nicely by rolling off the volume.
Now, Norton® has become a staple of my “tonal arsenal.” While I haven’t yet tried it in something other than a mahogany body (Ibanez ARX320, Ibanez S470) I have no doubt that Norton® is going to sound great. The copy above (taken directly from the Dimarzio web site) states that this pickup is, “Really good for opening up the sound of mahogany set-neck guitars.” I don’t think anyone has any doubts about what guitar they’re referencing and I can’t wait until my next Norton® pickups arrive so I can try it in that application and in other guitars as well. Not only is Norton® a great bridge pickup but I can see it working extremely well in the neck position with a more powerful bridge pickup like a Super 3™, Super Distortion®, or even D-Activator™. Another great thing about Norton® is that if you ARE intending to put it in a “mahogany-bodied set-neck guitar” you don’t have to give up your classic looks, as Norton® is available with factory-installed Nickel pickup covers.
So that’s the way it really happened. A video game led me to a great-sounding rock/metal pickup that I’d been overlooking for the longest time. Norton® might just be one of the best not-so-secret pickups on the market today!
You can read my review of the Norton® and check out sound clips at:
Sound clips and official specifications are available at:
If you want to hear the Norton® tone for yourself, pick up a copy of the Hardline album Double Eclipse.
Play it cuz you love it!!!