Ok... Bit of a long post, but I've been looking for the right singlecoils for the neck and middle position of my Strat for a while now. This is the story of what I've tried and why they didn't quite cut it, and I'm hoping someone who's had some experience with these pickups can give me some suggestions. I'm also going to give Dimarzio a call and see what they suggest, as well, but I figured asking here wouldn't hurt either.
So, my Strat is my pride and joy, a 1997 American Standard bought brand new back in '98 that I saved up forever to afford, and that I've completely bonded with over the years. For the first decade or so, I had a set of Fender Lace Sensor Gold noiseless pickups in there - they sounded rather good, but I eventually got a bit bored and wanted to try something new. I'd been blown away with Andy Timmons tone, and he and I seem to dial in our amps in similar manners so I thought I'd try an AT1 in the bridge and a pair of Cruiser Bridges in the neck and middle.
Exhibit A - Timmons pickup set.
Pros - they sounded great, probably 95% of the way there to "traditional" singlecoil tone but maybe a hair more contemporary, which worked pretty well for me. Nice and chimy in the in between positions, and very Stratty in the normal modes. They also nailed the "Texas" blues sound way better than one would expect. (The AT-1, meanwhile, was such an instant success for me that my search ended there)
Cons - output. Dimarzio ranks these as a 140 on their scale, with 100 being "normal" for a singlecoil, so theoretically they should have been fine. However, they were really height-sensitive. Too close to the strings, and the pick attack got really brittle and icepick-y. T was very "non-linear," if that makes sense - a good Strat pickup changes in sound as you dig it, getting a brighter and punchier pick attack the harder you hit. For the cruisers, when they were close enough to the strings to balance the output with the AT-1 in the bridge, that attack was somewhat unpredictable. You went from quiet, to somewhat less quiet, to a little less quiet, to HOLY **** WALL OF ICEPICK TONE as you dug in. With the pickups balanced for optimal tone, my guitar actually had less output than off-the-wall Mexican Standard Strats, which was a little bit of a problem. So, I read the Dimarzio site a bit, figured the Heavy Blues 2 would be a good darker, hotter compromise, called up Dimarzio, confirmed this, and did an exchange.
Exhibit B: Dimarzio Heavy Blues 2
Pros: These certainly had enough output to balance with a bridge humbucker. And tonally, they weren't bad at all - in fact, they were exactly what I thought
I wanted - hot, punchy, with a strong, authoritative midrange and a lot of growl to them. As a neck singlecoil they actually had a bit of a Jimi-plays-the-blues vibe to them, which I kind of liked. My issues with the attack and the playing response of the Cruisers cleared up completely - these responded exactly like I wanted them to.
Cons: As it turned out, what I thought I wanted wasn't actually what I wanted, and I missed the brighter, chimier sound of a "traditional" singlecoil. I'm kind of a "bright guitar/dark amp" guy, and this is a pickup that's happier with an amp brighter than my Roadster. So, I figured I'd try an Area '61 in the neck, a pickup with almost the same output as the Cruiser, but from the Virtual Vintage series.
Exhibit 3a and 3b - Area '61 neck pickup
(not the greatest example - I should have spent a little more time on finding a better mic position)
(quite a bit better, but Area '61 only)
Pros: It's a much more tradtional sounding singlecoil than the Heavy Blues 2, a bit more scooped, brighter, and reasonably chimey, with still enough output to keep up with the AT-1. In fact, full disclaimer, this is my favorite so far.
Cons: I wasn't sure if it was 100% there. It didn't feel quite
right, the response seemed a hair compressed. At this point I started wondering if maybe noiseless singlecoils just weren't for me, so I put the HB2 up for trade, and ended up working out a deal for the pair of them for a Fender Texas Special neck and middle.
Exhibit 4: Fender Texas Specials
Pros: These things are gorgeous
clean. The in between sounds are to die for, and the dynamic response through a clean amp is great, with a noticably more bell-like chime to the tone than the Area '61s, which are Dimarzio's noiseless take on this same sound. In particular the low strings are awfully crisp. Disclaimer, these really should be used with 250k pots, so they would be a hair warmer and thicker with the lower pot value.
Cons: Two, really - output and the polepiece stagger. They're probably related - they have a vintage pole stagger, which means the magnet for the G is very high off the top of the pickguard, which limits how close you can get it to the strings before sustains tarts to suffer on that string. Meanwhile, the B is a bit weak by comparison. They also don't take to higher gain quite as well as the Area '61s, which do sound a little fatter and more balanced by comparison. Really, though, this swap left me most impressed with how close the Area '61s get to the Texas Specials. Clean they aren't too hard to tell apart, but with some gain they're remarkably similar (and I'd be curious what putting the TS on 250k pots would do - they might sound even closer). Also worth noting - the middle Texas Special just rules for blues playing. For the first time ever I can see why SRV used the middle pickup so often.
So, right now, I have a Fender Custom Shop '69 neck on the way on loan that a friend thinks I really need to try paired with the Texas Special in the middle. I'm also curious how the Dimarzio Area '67 would fare in the neck slot, with the Area '61 in the middle - it's a little lower output (120 vs 140) which worries me, but it might be a little more bell-like and chimey in the neck than the Area '61 is.
So... What else should I be considering here? My preference is to stay noiseless, but the hum with the TS's wasn't too bad so for the right set I'd live with it. Stylistically, I'm a huge Satriani fan (and play a ton of legato with moderate amounts of gain, so playing response is definitely important), and tend to veer into Timmons and Gilmour territory as well. My Strat's body is alder, and I play through a Mesa Roadster head. I'm looking for something hot enough to keep up with a bridge humbucker, but without sacrificing TOO much chime in the neck and middle positions. Any other suggestions?
EDIT - and I'm starting to come to the (perhaps inevitable) conclusion that what I really need are two strats, one with traditional "vintage" pickups for clean and lower gain stuff, and another more hot rodded one that sacrifices a bit of chime for output for more contemporary stuff.