Joe Barden pickup review

Want great singlecoil tones without the hum? We discover how well Joe Barden Engineering offers this ultimate sonic package.

What do Bruce Springsteen, Nils Lofgren, Keith Richards and the late Danny Gatton all have in common? They've all favoured Joe Barden pickups in their guitars. Certainly, Danny Gatton had stated these were "the best pickups on the planet" for his Telecaster and expansive playing style. Furthermore, the dual blades on the neck pickup offered him an unusual benefit; an additional high fret! As the company's headlining product, the Danny Gatton T-style pickup set remains popular to this day.

Joe Barden pickups were first created over 25 years ago and today they're manufactured by JBE pickups based in Manassas, Virginia. Always handcrafted, the ceramic pickups range from singlecoil, soapbar and humbucker sizes through to pickups for J-style, P-style and Rickenbacker basses.

Keen to see what they offered sonically, we opted to try out two S-Deluxe singlcoil sized pickups and one HB two/tone humbucker in a Fender Stratocaster HSS swirl. Via a push/pull (or push/push) 250k pot, the bridge HB two/tone pickup offers either full humbucker or single coil tones. Each pickup has a dual blade (the HB two/tone has four) and available in black or white. They fit without any scratch plate alterations and come with 4-conductor shielded cable to allow various wiring combinations.


Having fitted the pickups, the first tone sought is a clean amp setting using a two-channel valve amp. Selecting the neck pickup and trying out a few barre chords, results are pleasingly transparent. With chords, every note is clear and tight without sounding compressed. Unlike some traditional neck singlecoils that can seem underpowered and/or shrill, there's an assured, piano-like breadth to the frequencies with a punchy quality that impresses. Furthermore, they don't suffer from excessive muddiness that some dual blade pickups exhibit in this position. Playing single note phrases the sound is round and bell-like, making slides and bends really come alive.

Moving onto the inbetween positions of neck/middle and bridge/middle, the iconic Strat quack is there in abundance. Cutting without being too hollow, it's a sound that countless rhythm players will love either raw or with some processing courtesy of compression, chorus or univibe. From funk to country styles, you're well covered here.

As all Strat players know, opening up a guitar's tone is never bettered than with the bridge pickup. Here, the HB two/tone pickup is a revelation; a thick and chunky humbucker tone (great low mids) and with only a little volume reduction when tapped, a killing singlecoil tone. Both options come with zero hum. It's an ultimate sonic combination from one humbucker-sized pickup that you're hard pressed to find from pretty much any other manufacturer.

Moving onto amp and pedal derived overdrive sounds, the transparency of these pickups is outstanding. There is power here but not the type that pushes the mids up to excessive levels (a common tendency with hotter pickups). Furthermore, if you're a player that loves to caress the volume or tone controls to get variations, these clean up well. One favourite tone is amp overdrive set to one third gain (10 o'clock) using the neck pickup for bluesy solos then pulling back on the guitar's volume to clean up for chords. Another is strong distortion paired with the bridge pickup; reducing the guitar's volume to around half creates a killer rhythm tone. As maybe expected the full-on humbucker is a punchy powerhouse, dark but clear, while splitting it creates a tighter and brighter rock tone that could easily grace countless AOR classic songs. Pleasingly, the volume change when splitting isn't too obvious but the lack of hum most definitely is!

Dialling in even more distortion (setting at 3 o'clock), the clarity makes soloing very responsive. Notes sustain for ages, pinch harmonics scream out and the changes between, say, legato and picking approaches are admirably mirrored.

The tonal openness on offer here had us reflect on typical areas of sonic compromise; low string riffing with the neck pickup (can be too muddy) or soloing beyond the 15th fret with the bridge pickup (can be too shrill). We can gladly report neither compromise is apparent here; in short, what you put into guitar is mirrored accordingly by the pickups, just how it should be!


Of course, great pickups are rarely cheap. That said, the Joe Barden's are similarly priced to others of high quality so the cost shouldn't put you off. As always, you get what you pay for; if you hanker to get more tone out of your favourite S-type guitar, these should to be very high on your 'to consider' list. With crisp definition, great tonal variety from the 5 way pickup selector, impressive versatility with the HB two/tone pickup and zero hum, what's not to like?

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S-Deluxe pickup - £129/$159

HB Two/Tone - £135/$189

Audio examples

Track 1 - Soul Chords

6 clean tone examples; neck pickup through to both bridge pickup options

Track 2 - Rock and Roll riffing

6 overdriven tone examples; neck pickup through to both bridge pickup options

Track 3 - Rock Ballad demo

Rhythm guitars; neck and middle pickups with either chorus or univibe effects.

Lead guitar: Free The Tone Red Jasper pedal plugged into a Fender Twin amp with the neck pickup, then the bridge pickup selected.