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Brittany Howard: why you should never clean your pickups

(Image credit: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard is an avowed Gibson SG electric guitar player, but there’s one SG in particular that holds pride of place in her heart – her early ‘80s Custom in Inverness Green.

As for what makes it so special? Among other things, its grime-covered pickups.

As she explained to the Guardian (opens in new tab), “My number one thing for my guitar techs is: do not clean the pickups. I like the sound of pickups that are worn down and kind of degraded – it’s just more interesting sounding.

“That is why my SG is so unique, because of how the pickups were wound, and how long it has been since they were cleaned up.” 

Howard further discussed what she loves about her SG.

“This SG is one I was instantly comfortable with, and it just stuck,” she said. “If I break a string halfway through the set and they pass me a different guitar, it just plays different.

“It’s hard to describe if you’re not a guitar player – it fits perfectly in your hand, and your hands know what you’re doing, because you’ve worked with the instrument for so long. That way, you are comfortable expressing yourself, and of course the easier an instrument it is to play, the easier it is to express yourself.”

Which is why, she continued, when she travels for gigs, the SG stays close by.

“It comes with me on the flight, or it’s shipped to meet me in a protective case,” Howard said. "That’s my right.

“Everyone else gets to bring their laptops and their work; I can bring my guitar.”

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Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.