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Thread: Pickup advice - HFS/VB or something similar but "better" for replacing Dragon II's

  1. #1
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    Pickup advice - HFS/VB or something similar but "better" for replacing Dragon II's

    Hello all, this is my first post here, but I have been a long time reader. I had a relatively unique question that I just have not found a decisive answer for just yet.

    I am on a quest to replace a pair of Dragon II’s which I have never really cared for. I have always been a fan of the HFS/VB pickups, and I could probably just go that route and be happy. But I want to see if there is something with a very similar tone to the HFS/VB but with perhaps some potentially better attributes for my specific uses.

    My predominant music passion is in the hard rock, alternative, and post grunge genres, but I certainly venture into the entire range of rock genres. Some examples of the music I like to play the most are Foo Fighters, Chevelle, Rage Against the Machine, Bush, STP, AIC, Muse, Incubus, and Oasis to name a few.

    The guitars that I am fortunate enough to own are a 2004 Custom 22 (original owner) with the Dragon II’s and a 2007 Custom 24 with the HFS/VB which I just picked up this week and is still in transit. The CU22 is now going to be solely dedicated to downtunings, so I am going to have it setup with heavy gauge strings and will use it for a lot of Drop C, Drop B and Drop A# tunings for Chevelle, Tool, etc. kind of stuff. I know the CU24 is technically supposed to be the more appropriate guitar for this kind of stuff, but I like the wide/thin neck so much better than the wide/fat. Standard and Drop D tuning is what I use ~75% of the time, so that is what I want to have the CU24 setup for.

    I could go two different ways here. I could look for something different for the CU22, or I could move the HFS/VB from the CU24 to the CU22 and find something “better” for the CU24. Which bring me to the real question(s) here. Is there something that will be marginally better than the HFS/VB specifically for downtuning, heavy rhythm kind of stuff? Alternatively, for standard tuning uses, is there something that has a similar more modern tone and relatively higher output as the HFS/VB but with a little more versatility and relatively better clarity/definition/ less muddy/etc.? I am considering other options besides PRS pickups, and I don’t expect price being an issue with pickups.

    Please let me know whatever thoughts and recommendations you might have. Thanks in advance!
    Last edited by Tiger1016; 01-23-2014 at 04:02 PM. Reason: slight clarification

  2. #2
    Happy Egads's Avatar
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    The new \m/ pickups seem to fit the need for the heavier stuff. I've heard nothing but raves from those that have heard them.

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    Vamanos Pest QueenCityGuitars's Avatar
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    "Dragon I pickups are what you seek." - Yoda

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    Opaque John Beef's Avatar
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    \m/ pickups
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    Just a couple thoughts there. IMHO a guitar sounds different once you do the down tuning. I liked Dragon 2s just fine until I tried DGT pickups, but for a while there a few years ago I had my CU22 in C standard tuning with the D2s and it really did that thing very well. So, IMHO, try that out first before you dismiss the D2s all together.
    The Bovine Fury <-- stream and download our album "Eleven by Twelve" for free.
    05 Custom 22 with DGT pickups ~ 07 Mira with old birds ~ 08 SE Baritone Fralin/Suhr pickups ~ 03 SE Santana

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    Thanks for the comments so far! Below are some follow up thoughts/comments that I had.

    Dragon I’s are an interesting recommendation I had not come across yet. I didn’t realize they were a higher output kind of pickup. I just watched a helpful comparison with the Dragon II’s (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKDSwMobENY). After a couple of minutes of searching, I can’t seem to find a good comparison of the Dragon I’s (description or video/sound clip) to the HFS/VB though to see if they would something better suited for the versatile all around option or the downtuning heavy stuff.

    I had noticed the \m/ pickups before, but I have not found a good comparison to hear how they sound relative to some other familiar options. The videos/clips that I have come across so far don’t seem to get me too excited though for the tone I am looking for, but I will keep looking into it.

    The Tremonti’s are something that is on my list as well. I really want to find a shootout comparison video for these as everything I have read seems to id them as a good potential fit for what I am looking for.

    FWIW I have used the Dragon II’s enough with down tunings to know that for me they seem pretty muddy and just don’t have the tone that I am looking for.

    BTW I realize that at the end of the day it is going to be tough to make an informed decision without either getting to try things out myself or at least finding some good comparison/shootout videos that can help to put things in better perspective. So it would be a huge help if anyone has already come across some good sources that provide a good A/B comparison of some of the relevant options and could share the link.

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    Tremonti does play his stuff in Drop B, and his tone has got this monstrous low end. Just listen to Alter Bridge or Tremonti's side project for a taste of his pickups. You can also pick up some SC 250 pickups, I don't see a lot of love for them but they're essentially Tremonti pickups with different bridge pickup magnets. (Am I right, guys?)

    That said, I don't see why the HFS/VB cannot be used for drop tunings. They'll work in many situations, which is how Paul designed them to be, as versatile as possible. There are also the new \m/ pickups, lots of clarity under high gain and it sounds really nice clean. If you're looking at pickups from other companies, I would never not recommend Dimarzio. *fanboy mode* I've heard great things about the rail bar pickups like D Activator X, X2N, D Sonic and the Crunch Lab if you're after low tunings and lots of chug. If you're wanting something that looks and sounds a bit more classic, the Super Distortion is where you should look at, or even the middier Super 3. There's also the Breed and Dominion, which are moderate high output pickups, maybe in the range of the HFS/VB if you're comparing output.

    edit: Oh, I personally dig the D Activators, which are Dimarzio's attempt at emulating the EMG 81/85. They scream but stays articulate under high gain, with some pretty good cleans, and also clean up pretty well when you roll down the volume. And the harmonics just jump out all over the fretboard, even when using the neck pickup. They produce a sweet sound as you go higher up the frets and doesn't "thin" out. They're really good for drop tunings. I love the way it sounds in Drop C#/C However, the bridge is really bright-sounding in standard tuning, like a humcancelling Tele bridge on steroids and may sound too shrill for certain people. I'm currently using it in my SE Custom 24.
    Last edited by maxtuna26; 01-23-2014 at 09:08 PM.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by QueenCityGuitars View Post
    "Dragon I pickups are what you seek." - Yoda
    100% agree
    2013 PRS Custom 24 - Charcoal Burst Quilt - 57/08
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  8. #8
    The tremonti's are noticably 'darker' than Dragon 1's when playing clean tones. When using distortion, the distortion usually takes over and makes the difference between the pickups less noticable. They're both really high output, so harmonics jump off the strings with ease. The only difference is the harmonics on a tremonti are a little 'deeper' sounding, while the dragon 1's sound more 'shrill' and trebley. The Dragon 1's are clearer and more articulate than the tremonti's, but the tremonti's have a fuller and smoother sound to them.

    I just did a A/B/C comparison of the Dragon 1's (CE24), Tremonti's (USA Tremonti sig), and 57/08's (USA Custom 24) last week. My bro-in-law has the sound clips, if I can, I'll try to get him to send me the audio file this weekend.
    2013 PRS Custom 24 - Charcoal Burst Quilt - 57/08
    Ibanez SR650 Poplar Burl 4 string bass
    Carvin Cobalt Acoustic
    Douglas 7 String

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    Thanks all for all of the very helpful comments to my initial post. Some things have changed over the past 6 months, and I wanted to follow up and ask if you guys think that putting the Dragon I or \m/ pickups into a Gibson Les Paul Studio Deluxe could lead to the results that I am looking for below?

    What I am trying to accomplish is to get this LP to sound as close as physically possible to covering the recorded tones from Chevelle/Pete Loeffler (note, I’ll be picking up an Axe Fx very soon which will go a long way in making this possible). Yes, that is correct, I effectively have the delusional notion of trying to make a LP sound like a freaking custom PRS baritone with just a simple pickup change. Realistically, this is not going to be very plausable. It is probably prudent to think of this more as trying to get the LP to have a relatively similar tone to a custom 24 with a HFS bridge pickup when doing some heavy high gain rhythm stuff in Drop B tuning with heavy strings.

    In my mind, in order to make the detuned LP have the tone of a double cut away PRS baritone, I would need to probably tame/tighten up the bass a bit while adding some emphasis on the mids so that it has the more modern cutting PRS tonal signature. Also, having plenty of harmonics will be important as well. BTW I am pretty sure Pete used mostly the bridge pickup in the stuff I am going for, so that is my primary concern.

    Perhaps I should be looking at other pickup options other than PRS (i.e. Dimarzio D-Activator or Duncan Distortion). I am open to hearing whatever suggestions/thoughts anyone might have. Thanks!
    Last edited by Tiger1016; 07-23-2014 at 03:09 PM.

  10. #10
    Opaque John Beef's Avatar
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    There's just no substitute for longer scale length. Believe me, I have tried. If you're going from trying a CU22/24 to a LP, you're going the wrong direction! Sell the LP and pick up a Mushok and it will be closer regardless of pickups.
    The Bovine Fury <-- stream and download our album "Eleven by Twelve" for free.
    05 Custom 22 with DGT pickups ~ 07 Mira with old birds ~ 08 SE Baritone Fralin/Suhr pickups ~ 03 SE Santana

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    Quote Originally Posted by John Beef View Post
    There's just no substitute for longer scale length. Believe me, I have tried. If you're going from trying a CU22/24 to a LP, you're going the wrong direction! Sell the LP and pick up a Mushok and it will be closer regardless of pickups.
    I really do understand what you are saying. I was really really close to picking up the Mike Mushok SE (27.7 scale) and the Schecter Blackjack SLS C-1 EX P (26.5 scale). I was going to put them up against each other at the same time and return the one I did not like as much. I had even gone as far as recently sending an email to PRS customer service to see if they could shed some light on what pickups they had installed in the custom baritones they had done for Pete, but I have not heard anything back. Oh and I had also started to looked at the Gibson SG baritone which had a 27 inch scale (the Les Paul baritone has a 28 scale) as a third potential option.

    What drove me to the LP over the extended scale options was (1) there is enough stuff in Drop C and Drop C#/Db that I would be doing, which a baritone would be overkill for and would likely be more difficult to play at that tension compared to a shorter scale guitar with the same gauge strings, and (2) the Gibson had the Tronical/min-etune robot tuners, which would be such a convenience considering the back and forth I would be doing with tunings. BTW the convenience and efficiency of the robot tuners was the bigger factor in this for me because I just don’t have much time to play anymore now that I have a 3 month old at home. Given that the robot tuners are not available for PRS yet (see note below), I had to look elsewhere and decided to go with the Gibson over an Ibanez or a Fender.

    I still have 3 weeks to return the Gibson if I wanted to (I just recently got it), so I am open to being talked back into the baritone direction. I would still need to figure out the pickup issue either way though. Based on what I could find to read, the real benefit of the longer scaled baritones was improved clarity and string tension compared to shorter scale guitars at lower tunings, but not necessarily any meaningful difference in tone, everything else held constant. Therefore assuming one could find pickups that were good at being clear and not muddy with tunings down to Drop B, then theoretically there would not really be much of a benefit with a baritone. Besides, the majority of guitar players have made due just fine using normal scale lengths for downtuning with heavier gauge strings without the need for a baritone, so I assumed I should be able to pull it off just fine as well. Is my logic perhaps flawed in any way, or is there something that I am not considering or have wrong based on your first hadn experience? Also, did you happen to have a chance to directly compare the PRS SE baritone to any of the other extended scale options that are available? Edit: I saw that you recently picked up a Clint Lowery SE with a 25.5 inch scale. I had not noticed this version before. How did it compare to the Mushok, and which would you say might be better for what I am looking for?



    Note, I have been talking directly with Tronical and they are apparently working on a system for PRS now. Apparently Mark Tremonti had talked to them about wanting the system for his signature guitar, which is what stimulated them finally getting to working on one for PRS. Also, FWIW the system currently is limited to working with tunings only 1 1/2 steps below standard E, but they are working on a new software version that can do these lower tunings, which I was getting setup to be a beta tester for.
    Last edited by Tiger1016; 07-23-2014 at 06:47 PM. Reason: Added question about the new Clint Lowery SE
    Custom 24 (HFS/VB pickups)
    Custom 22 (Dragon II pickups)
    Mike Mushok SE Baritone (HFS/VB pickups)
    Gibson Les Paul Studio Deluxe (2012)

  12. #12
    Senior Member gush's Avatar
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    First of all, I would not consider robot tuners as a solution to quick tuning changes IF you are going to change tunings a lot. I think you will see premature string breakage at the tuner from constant bending and unbending.

    As far as pickups go, I think John is right that you should try the dragon IIs detuned first before you yank them out. I have found that different tunings will change your guitar tone for sure.

    I love dragon1s and they would probably work well, I don't care for HFS but I bet they would work really well detuned too. Somebody mentioned SC250 which I happen to have a bridge model and would be willing to let you try it and buy it if you like. One thing to watch when buying pickups is that the SC250 has mounting legs that were too long to mount it in my CE24. I put a 5909 squabbin bridge in my McCarty and it just fit. The SC250 is a squabbin too so maybe non squabbin pickups aren't this way.

    Good luck.

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    I play the same type of music as you, including just about every band you mention. I've had a PRS Santana SE since they were first made, and have used it for quite a wide variety of tunings over the years, but now that is my "Chevelle" and Drop-B, Drop-C tuned guitar. I use a custom shop Seymour Duncan pickup in the bridge, which I bought from my guitar teacher, who picked it up after some artist supposedly custom ordered it for a PRS 25" scale guitar and didn't buy it (didn't know people order specifically for a scale?...). I've measured it at 12k ohms on my multi-meter, and it breaks up nicer than any pickup I've played. I think I've got a Seymour Duncan '59 (or Pearly Gates?) in the neck. It has a noticeably dark tone, which is kind of nice for covering heavier stuff. I would say the Vintage Bass is more versatile and common sounding, but still a great sound.

    The point of this whole story is that I don't think you need a very-high output pickup (15k ohm). I've have long been a big fan of the Dragon II pickups... I have one in my other Custom 24 SE. They are 12k, similar to my other pup. I don't like it as much as my S.D. custom pickup, though. I finally got my long-wished-for PRS Custom 22 last year with VB/HFS and use it for a Eb through drop-C# tunings, which fills in most of the rock bands that you mention above. I really like the HFS, but I find that it can be a bit "in your face" and that can't be dialed out. So, it's great and cuts through so well, but not going to be as versatile, IMO. Ideally I would switch those guitar's purposes, though. The HFS would probably be great for the low-tunings. I really didn't care for the PRS SC pickups when I tried them in a local store... just seemed a bit sterile. I don't care for Les Paul style guitars in general, though.

    I tried the Duncan JB pickup as well (in an Epi Les Paul), and that was pretty bad. Too harsh and overpowering. Never played or seen a Dragon I. I've definitely liked the 57/08's for something with more moderate output, but have A/B'd it once with the 59/09 and liked the latter better. I have a "Standard" treble (11k ohm) sitting around that I'll try out in the Custom 24 SE one day.

    I run this through a Mesa Single Recto with most knobs near noon, and the mids cranked to the max. Don't do the scooped V! Speakers are Mesa Black Shadow widebody 1x12's (bigger, deeper sound), and a Mesa V-1 bottle rocket overdrive pedal if I really need to saturate it. That allows to have lighter gain on the amp, and a "second gain channel" via the overdrive pedal. I think a lot of Pete's tone comes from the Mark IV, and he probably just used standard PRS pickups (Dragon IIs or VB/HFS). His sound isn't all that saturated actually. I would say go higher than 11 gauge strings, too. I've tried D'addario Heavy Gauge (EXL 145, 12-54's) for that Chevelle guitar, but find that medium top / heavy bottom are the best (EXL 116, 11-52's). I wonder how much my non-maple top SE guitar gives it a deeper sound...

    I've thought about the baritone Mushok SE, but love a 25" scale, so I just downtune a normal guitar. It's mostly about the feel that I'm used to. I know the longer scale would sound great.

    Sorry for talking about myself so much, but hopefully this helps. I thought I had to reply since we are going for similar sounds. I'm not trying to reproduce his, but am definitely inspired by it. We may have some opposite tastes though, as I love the Wide-Fat (and "Pattern") neck

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    To cap things off, I wound up have some real fun and recently picked up both a used Mike Mushok SE baritone (27.7 scale) and a new Clint Lowery SE (25.5 scale) to have a little competition for the spot as my dedicated drop tune guitar! After a couple of days of testing the Mushok won by a decent margin for what I was looking for (basically just Chevelle covers in Drop B/Drop A#), and the Lowery is going to be returned. The stock pickups in the keeper do need to go ASAP though. I wound up also deciding that I couldn’t envision anything closer to what I am looking for tonally in this situation other than the HFS/VB pickups themselves. I already have a new pair of them in zebra on the way (note, I was surprised to find the USA/core versions of these from musicstorelive.com as I could not find them in zebra anywhere else, but I confirmed with PRS customer service and they are apparently legit). Hopefully there is nothing unique about the raw acoustic tones with the Mushok that makes these pickups not sound the same as they do in my CU24 and the SE ones in the Lowery but with perhaps a little bigger/deeper given the whole baritone thing.
    Custom 24 (HFS/VB pickups)
    Custom 22 (Dragon II pickups)
    Mike Mushok SE Baritone (HFS/VB pickups)
    Gibson Les Paul Studio Deluxe (2012)

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    Opaque John Beef's Avatar
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    My Mushok also beat out my Lowery in the lower tuned stuff. The Lowery sounded good too, but IMHO you combine the long scale length with the maple neck and ebony fretboard, and you get really deep lows with clearer highs. The Lowery seemed to cut off those lower lows and higher highs tuned to B standard. I was excited about the Lowery and waited patiently during the year gap between their announcement and when they started to get to dealers, but ultimately after several months of ownership, the Mushok was just better sounding. The Lowery played better and was more comfortable, but you can't argue with tone.
    The Bovine Fury <-- stream and download our album "Eleven by Twelve" for free.
    05 Custom 22 with DGT pickups ~ 07 Mira with old birds ~ 08 SE Baritone Fralin/Suhr pickups ~ 03 SE Santana

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    Quote Originally Posted by John Beef View Post
    My Mushok also beat out my Lowery in the lower tuned stuff. The Lowery sounded good too, but IMHO you combine the long scale length with the maple neck and ebony fretboard, and you get really deep lows with clearer highs. The Lowery seemed to cut off those lower lows and higher highs tuned to B standard. I was excited about the Lowery and waited patiently during the year gap between their announcement and when they started to get to dealers, but ultimately after several months of ownership, the Mushok was just better sounding. The Lowery played better and was more comfortable, but you can't argue with tone.

    It sounds like we pretty much had the same opinion. For the benefit of others who might come across thread this and are interested in some additional insightful opinions on comparing these two options, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate some more on my experience as well.


    To start, I was a full step up from you with mostly Drop B instead of B standard. The moment I had both guitars in my hands I immediately noticed the difference in weight and resonance in the Mushok over the Lowery. The Mushok felt as heavy as my Gibson LP studio (weight relieved) and a bit heavier than my CU22 and CU24 (the longer maple neck was the likely differentiator). The Lowery was notably lighter than everything else (all relative of course). The Mushok was through and through a very solid piece of wood. The Lowery sounded a bit hollow acoustically, and knocking around the body seemed to sound like it might be cambered/weight relieved. I restringed both with .62 to .013 daddario light baritone strings. By far and away the biggest differences was the girth in the palm mutes, the harmonics up and down the neck, and the low end growl with the Mushok. Stock for stock the Lowery sounded a touch better plugged in because the HFS pickup provides the EXACT tone that I am looking for in this setup, but looking past that the string tension and raw acoustic properties of the Mushok indicated a very apparent edge that would be present after a simple pickup change. The Lowery was more comfortable to play with the shorter scale and the playing hand position (I just started another thread yesterday on this topic) and the wide/fat neck was seemingly more comfortable than the w/f my CU22. The Lowery was obviously easier to play for faster riffs as well, but I was able to make it work fine with just a little more effort with the Mushok for the music I play. The neck carve on the Mushok was about as comfortable as the pattern regular to me, which is what I prefer the most along with the Gibson 60s slim taper neck carve. If I needed a dedicated guitar just for Drop Db and Drop C, the Lowery would probably be the #1 option on my list. Also, the Lowery would be just fine going lower or higher in tuning as long as you used the proper string gauge. However, the Mushok can do up to Drop C just fine for me and I already have a dedicated Drop D and Drop Db guitar that I am happy with. Both guitars were setup very well for both the stock string gauges they came with and for what I restringed them with after just a little adjustment to the bridge height.


    A couple of less meaningful comments. A PRS is not a PRS without the freaking birds in my opinion. Unfortunately neither option offers that. However, a blank fret board on the Mushok is better than the random design on the Lowery. The flat body without the 3D figured carve kind of sucks with the Mushok, but that really only matters when it is on the wall and not being played. Finally, I had a moment years ago where I liked some Staind stuff, but after seeing them live ~4 years ago I have a bit of a grudge against them (long story). Because of this, I would REALLY like to get rid of the Mushok signature on the headstock, but I have the brown burst/tobacco burst so that would unfortunately be too much of an invasive procedure. I think a 26.5 inch scale option from PRS would have been a perfect fit for my needs. There is a Schecter option that is just that (C-1 EX), but I am a bit of a PRS snob now and am more than happy sticking with the Mushok.
    Custom 24 (HFS/VB pickups)
    Custom 22 (Dragon II pickups)
    Mike Mushok SE Baritone (HFS/VB pickups)
    Gibson Les Paul Studio Deluxe (2012)

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