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…
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: