Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Winter is Here... A Review of Seymour Duncan's Black Winter Humbuckers

It’s been a little over three weeks since I started using the new Black Winter humbucker set put out by Seymour Duncan. Since buying my Gibson Explorer Gothic in May 2014, I’ve been actively shopping for a good set of humbuckers to replace the ones it came with. The previous owner had installed a pair of Gibson Gear Tony Iommi signatures, which, Gibson and Iommi’s reputations notwithstanding, just weren’t cutting it for me. The Iommis just sounded muddy and dark through my rig (Egnater Tweaker 15, straight in). I wanted something brighter, with more punch and better definition. 

I toyed with a few different options when considering which pickups to use in this guitar. I’d had good experiences with Duncans before, and so focused on those. Even within the Duncan line, the range of options was a little daunting, but Youtube demos, a few reviews, and the Seymour Duncan forums led me to one of their newest offerings: The Black Winter. This being a newer product, it didn’t have as many reviews as more established products like the Distortion, Full Shred, Invader, et al, but the sound samples I heard sounded promising and what reviews I could find were absolutely glowing. I opted for the Black Winter set, although they are available individually as well.

Originally marketed only in Scandanavia for black metal players, the Black Winter was brought to the US market following a flood of requests from players here. (full disclosure, I don’t play anything resembling black or death metal. My style, if I have one, is more straight ahead rock and roll for the most part, with little hints of The Sword or Coheed and Cambria here and there…) My one worry was that it would be a one trick pony- perhaps good for heavy, saturated distortion but not able to clean up well, or with cleans that sounded brittle and harsh. Some of the original Norwegian black metal bands (Burzum, Darkthrone, Mayhem, etc…) at one time made it their stated goal to have the “worst production possible”, so I wondered how a pickup marketed to that genre would sound.

Reservations aside, I ordered the pickups, and took my time installing them, since I haven’t installed a pickup in about 5 years and remember making a mess of that particular project. It was easier than I recall, and I didn’t scratch up my guitar or set the house on fire in the process. All good omens.

Enough backstory and rambling- how do they sound? At this point I could wax poetic and talk about how the sound of these pickups is like wielding the hammer of Thor himself, but that’s not terribly useful to anyone, despite being fun to write. Bottom line – they are LOUD! I did a before and after recording, running into my Egnater Tweaker 15, with the British preamp setting, clean channel, EQ all at 12 o’clock, and gain at 12 o’clock- enough that I was getting good clean tones with the Iommi pickups, with a little breakup if I strummed REALLY hard. I then played the same thing, same pickups, with the hot channel, and got some pretty good distortion. After installing the Black Winters, I played the same succession of riffs, using the same amp settings. The difference between the Iommis and the Black Winters was obvious from the first few notes. That “clean” channel that would break up slightly if I really hit hard? Suddenly, with the Black Winters, hard strums on that channel yielded a nice full crunch that made me think AC/DC or The Who. (Note: When attempting to windmill, make sure your ceiling is high enough, and avoid ceiling fans…) Rolling back the guitar volume cleaned things up as much as I could want, without sacrificing any punch. This was especially true of the neck pickup. 

Flipping over to the hot channel, things got even more interesting. The neck pickup turned out some very fluid, strong lead tones, and the bridge was an unstoppable crunch machine! No more mud- whereas with the Iommis, I struggled with my bridge pickup’s distorted tone, now I get tight, aggressive distortion that’s great for palm muted rhythm parts or ringing chords, without adding any overdrive or distortion pedals to my setup.

I remember reading a review on Amazon that described the Black Winter as having a bass-heavy EQ. I don’t feel like that is the case. At least it’s not overly so. The EQ seems pretty even to my ear, whereas the Invader I have does strike me as bass-heavy. Along with the aforementioned increase in power came increased clarity. Not to be cliché, but it really did sound like I had been playing with a blanket over my amp and suddenly took it off.

Both the neck and bridge pickups sound excellent in this guitar and have all the crunch, power and articulation I was missing. As much as I like the Black Winter’s aggressive crunch in the bridge, I find myself using the neck pickup a LOT more than I had imagined, mainly for clean passages and distorted leads. (Typically I favor the bridge pickup for both lead and rhythm work.) This neck pickup really is a diamond in the rough- the cleans are very clean (either with the amp gain down or with the guitar volume down) and with the volume up I get a really rich, defined lead guitar tone.

As entertained as I am by the spooky marketing surrounding the Black Winter pickups, I think it needs to be said that these are FAR more versatile than the packaging and marketing would suggest.  I’m torn- part of me wants these not to get too popular, because it’s fun having a secret weapon of sorts. (Kind of like the stuffed pig in RED, only in this case the pig is black and scary… and… bad analogy? Nevermind…) The other part of me wants to tell every player I know to go out and buy a set RIGHT FREAKING NOW, because they are that much fun.

Want a set of your own?

Seymour Duncan Black Winter Set Humbucker Guitar Pickup Black

Want to check out the ones I took out?
Gibson Gear IMTS-BK Tony Iommi Signature Humbucker - Black Chrome Cove

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