Gear Review:  JBE Pickups HB Two/Tone

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JBE Pickups (formerly Joe Barden Pickups) manufactures a variety of guitar and bass pickups, including the HB Two/Tone humbuckers.  For nearly 20 years, I’ve been pleased with the performance of these pickups in my Klein Electric Guitar.  When it was time to upgrade the pickups in my newly acquired Kiesel Zeus (reviewed here), installing the HB Two/Tones was a no-brainer.

The HB Two/Tone is a full-sized dual-blade passive humbucker pickup designed to deliver the full-bodied tone of a humbucker and, at the flip of a switch, the tone and output of a single-coil pickup but without any of the associated buzz and hum.  JBE accomplishes this feat by using a technique called coil-tapping instead of the more common approach of coil-splitting to expand tonal options.  Instead of turning off one of the coils (coil-splitting), a switch point is created in the coil winding from which authentic single-coil tones can be achieved.  Semantics?  Not at all.  The difference is clearly audible.  The HB Two/Tone has a 6 conductor wire and requires either a DPDT mini-switch or push/pull potentiometer to activate the switch point.  Cosmetically, the only visible difference between my vintage HB Two/Tone and the new is a subtle JBE logo.  The pickups are still handmade in the USA, and the overall fit and finish is excellent.

The HB Two/Tones fit perfectly in my Zeus without requiring any routing.  Although the factory installed Holdsworth humbuckers were mounted with three screws, the guitar was also drilled to mount pickups using only two screws.  On the Zeus, the pickups are direct mounted, and I had to use a 1/8” drill bit to drill out the mounting holes on each HB Two/Tone.  If the pickups were installed using a mounting ring, I doubt this would be necessary.  I also replaced the standard volume and tone pots with push/pull pots and, as it was no longer needed for coil-splitting, the 5-way pickup selector switch with a 3-way switch.

With the HB Two/Tones installed, the Zeus really came alive.  Don’t get me wrong, the Kiesel Holdsworth pickups sounded good, but over time I just couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing.  In particular, the single coil tones, delivered via coil-splitting, lacked definition and sounded hollow and flat.  In contrast, the HB Two/Tones, even when coil-tapped, have excellent clarity and a noticeable fullness to the tone…and a ton of vibe.

The bridge HB Two/Tone delivers some of the smoothest distorted tones I’ve ever heard and is equally at home with my favorite ProCo Rat or Voodoo Lab Superfuzz.  Choose your favorite adjective to describe the midrange - thick, meaty, rich or warm - it’s all there.  The highs are creamy and smooth, and the lows are tight and defined.  When coil-tapped, the pickup effortlessly dishes out glassy clean tones reminiscent of a Tele or Strat without sounding edge-y or harsh.

The neck HB Two/Tone in standard mode sounds wonderful with distortion and produces an incredibly thick tone.  Bypass the distortion, and it yields excellent jazz tones.  When coil-tapped, the pickup delivers my favorite clean tones and is ideally suited for tones reminiscent of Andy Summers, Jamie West-Oram, and Robert Fripp.

Some players may be put off by the non-adjustability of the dual-blade design, but I have never found this to be problematic.  String-to-string balance is excellent and notes within complex chords, even with heavy distortion, are clearly distinguishable.  Touch sensitivity is superb, and the pickups respond equally well to picked or plucked notes.

The HB Two/Tones deliver superb and consistent tone in both of my guitars.  True, they are pricey at $190 each (or $326 for a set), but for serious tone chasers, it’s an option worthy of serious consideration.  Well done JBE!