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Music Gear Review - DiMarzio Virtual Solo (DP420) Hum-Cancelling Strat Pickup
 

[DiMarzio DP420 Virtual Solo]
DiMarzio's Stratocaster replacement pickups come in two flavors: true single-coil pickups, and hum-cancelling stacked dual-coil pickups.  The DP420 Virtual Solo is a strat pickup of the dual-coil variety.

For those who don't already know - these stacked pickups do sound like single-coils, but they are alot less noisy than true single-coil pickups.  They're actually

ridiculously quiet.  With my 90's high-gain amp cranked, i can hold the strings and get no howl, which is something i can't do with the same guitar's humbucking bridge pickup - a 1980's Jackson J80 alnico.  Of course the DiMarzio pickup has a more restrained output than that J80, so that's a factor.

Two of my go-to gigging guitars had Carvin AP11 (true single coil) pickups in them.  They'd already been sounding less good to my ears over the past few years so i was on the lookout for something new.  [anybody interested in what type of material i'm using this pickup for, please scroll to the bottom of the page]
I'm already familiar with DiMarzio's HS3, which has been a great pickup for me at the bridge; but with alot of the more clean material that i'm doing i wanted a SC pickup that was a little less "bitey" than the HS3.
 


[Carvin AP11]

I have to say that the AP11s were a decent match with other high-output pickups in a high-gain rig.  Balance was perfect when switching from one to the other (and with both).  The AP11 is very warm for a single coil, which for years i did like, but i'd been wanting to get back to more of a classic SC sound.  The big problem with these Carvin single-coil pickups is that they are really noisy, especially in high gain situations.  I'd always just put up with it but then i was really looking forward to going with a stacked humbucker (in these two particular guitars) after so many years.

It's cool that i have friends who trust me enough to lend me equipment, let alone allow me to take their guitars apart!  But if you really want to know what a pickup is going to sound like when paired with another, you have to install it; and they all add up to alot of work.

Other DiMarzio stacked pickups i tried:
* Virtual Vintage Heavy Blues (DP409)
* Virtual Vintage 54 (DP408)
* Area 58 (DP415)
* Area 61 (DP416)
* Area 67 (DP417?)

The "Area" pickups all sounded good in friends' guitars through my rigs, but when paired with some of the pickups in my own guitars (i'll get into that below), they were just not a good match for what i had going on.  I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with the Area pickups; but for my taste they were actually worse than the HS3 when placed at the neck and paired with a high-output humbucker at the bridge.
The DP408 (vintage 54) was better than any of the Area pickups, but it was still not even as good as the HS3.

Before i had a chance to really try the DP409; somebody online convinced me that i really needed to try the DP420 (Virtual Solo).  Problem is, nobody that i know had one so i had to actually buy it before i could try it.  Installed it and was jamming for less than an hour before i was on the phone ordering a second one! :)
[DP420 without plastic cover]
THE GUITAR RIGS
I basically use some combination of the same three amps for just about everything i do, from jamming with friends, to playing originals, to covers, to recording.  Amps are: mid 90's high-gain boutique 60/120-watt; early 70's Twin Reverb; solid-state poweramp & modeler.  Cabinets i use are: 4x12/EV, 4x12/Vintage 30; 2x12/EV closed back, 2x12/Vin 30 open back, 1x12/Celestion closed, 2x10 closed.  I rarely use the 4x12s for live gigs.

THE COMBINATIONS
All by itself, the Virtual Solo pickup sounds equally good in either the neck or bridge positions.  I didn't put it in the middle; i just never use a pickup there.
Pairing this pickup with itself just sounds badass for super heavy rock, seriously.  [i should mention that in the bridge position i mount single-coil pickups perpendicular to the strings; not at the usual Stratocaster angle]

The problem in going with the DP420 (at the neck) for me personally was balancing it with any of the other pickups that i'm used to using (and have access to).  Here's some of what i found...
 

DiMarzio DP420 & Carvin AP11:
Tried the Virtual Solo with the AP11 at the bridge and the neck.  Results were really bad; these two pickups are just a complete mismatch for each other in every way that is important.
It's weird to say this, but honestly it was easier to dial in a good compromise tone when using a humbucker in a high-gain situation -- what sounded good for that warm AP11 just sounded terrible for the midrange-y DP420, and vice versa.

DP420 neck / higher output bridge:
This group of pickups are all the highest output pups that i have.  I do have access to other humbuckers but i wasn't looking to purchase two new humbuckers so i didn't see any point in trying them out!
Here's what i did try...


[AP11 & DP420]

1980's Jackson J80, J80c (ceramic), & J90; Carvin M22SD; DiMarzio Super Distortion.
With high-gain all of these combinations sounded great for what i was looking for.  With crunch (rhythm) the J80 alnico still sounded great but i liked the rest of the pickup combinations alot less.  Clean the DP420/J80 combo was still really good but i just couldn't get a compromise tone that was useful to me with the rest of these humbuckers at the bridge.

DP420 / Carvin M22 (alnico):
I would call the Carvin M22 a medium-output pickup but it's subjective.  This combination sounded alot better at all gain levels than the higher-output pickups did with the Virtual Solo at the neck.
 


[Carvin M22 & DiMarzio Virtual Solo]
DP420 / Carvin C22 (vintage); Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates:
These two sounded the best at all levels of gain, with the C22 being a better match with the Virtual Vintage from a standpoint of output level.
I did end up getting to try the DP420 at the bridge with a DP409 (DiMarzio vintage blues) at the neck, and oh my God what a brilliant combination!  I wouldn't say it was 'better' than DP420/DP420; just different.  But if i had to choose between these two combinations i would absolutely go with the DP420/DP409.  If i can find them (and if i'm motivated enough) i will post some audio recordings of this combination through the Twin Reverb and a closed back 1x12.  Just amazing.  I also tried the DP409 (neck) with one of the 80's Jackson pickups but i preferred the DP420 for the material i'm playing with these guitars.

So of course what i settled on is the DP420 at the neck with the Carvin C22 at the bridge.

To my ear the C22s sound most like PAFs.  They're not at all aggressive, and, in fact because of some of the harder rock material that i use these guitars for, the rhythm/crunch channel on my high-gain amp is lacking in sustain.


[80's Jackson pickups]


Solos are fine but with those rhythms it was enough of a problem that i ended up having to get an overdrive pedal, which really does the trick with both the C22 and the DP420.  The OD pedal ended up being an advantage with its High and Low eq options.

 

CONCLUSION
All of the DiMarzio hum-cancelling (stacked) Stratocaster pickups that i tried sounded great on their own.  Some of the differences between them are subtle, and this is especially true at high gain levels; as always it's just a matter of personal taste.
For my specific need, the DP420 Virtual Solo is an awesome pickup at the neck.  It's a lower-output pickup than the AP11s i was replacing, and so of course i had to meet it halfway by replacing my bridge humbucker, but the DP420 is aggressive enough for the type of hard rock material that i'm doing with it.  The fact that it's so quiet is a huge bonus.

For clean material the DP420 is outstanding in the neck position.  Very dynamic; clean but still with an aggressive punch/pop.

It's worth noting that of all the DiMarzio stacked Strat pickups, the DP420 has the highest output.  I think that anybody looking for that super super clean, thin as a sheet of ice, "Jive Talkin'" tone will be unhappy with the DP420.  Likewise, if you're looking to get some Stevie Ray Vaughan tones, you need to look at a completely different pickup.
But for those who are more into some 70'-era hard rock tones along the lines of Gary Moore, Ritchie Blackmore, or Uli Jon Roth: I promise you that you will love a DiMarzio DP420 (Virtual Solo) hitting your high gain amp, with or without ground FX.

 

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