Most of my customers are inquisitive by nature, so here’s a humble FAQ section to help them better choose a pickup that is right for them and a chance for me to pass along a useful tidbit or two. This data is by no means comprehensive or impervious to debate, but merely some hard, fast rules about the properties of magnets, wire, bobbins, and pickups. But, if you don’t feel like reading, no worries, I can still make a recommendation for you.
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Frequently Asked Questions
There are a lot of questions that one must answer before they can answer this one. All of us have a different tonal palette, so what to one person may sound bright, to another may sound dull. The most important thing to know is your own ear, after all, that is what lead you here, right? If you are treble shy, choose a pickup that doesn’t emphasize the high end and vice versa. If you prefer the brighter Blackface Fenders to the earthier Narrow Panel Tweeds, take that into consideration when choosing a pickup. That is, is your amp and speaker loud, full, and bright (’65 Fender Twin)? Or is it dark, midrangey, and mellow (TV Front Pro)? Or do you play distorted or clean, rhythm or lead? Do you use lots of pedals, do you use heavy flatwounds, or thin chicken pickin’ roundwounds? What frequencies are you trying to emphasize in your setup? These are all questions that need to be answered before making your decision, so keep reading.
The term hand-wound is actually a bit of a misnomer, because the wire isn’t actually wound onto the bobbin by hand, and the bobbin isn’t turned in the winder’s hands. There are over 8000 turns to make a stock Strat pickup, so the concept of actually “hand” winding is a bit unrealistic, though perhaps a fine way to spend your time should you have a 30-day stint in county lock up. A hand-wound pickup is wound on a pickup winder, as are machine wound pickups, however, in a hand-wound pickup the wire is guided and tensioned onto the bobbin by the hand and eye of the winder. It takes a lot of patience and skill and a lot of trial and error to get it right, but some of us think it is worth it. Just check out the prices on pre-CBS Fender guitars and you’ll get the idea. It’s not a mojo thing with those guitars, nor necessarily the age of the pickups (as they sounded good back then too, didn’t they? – but more on the “aging” thing later) – the pickups were hand-wound by skilled workers, and they sound really alive and complex. Even though the automation was available to Leo Fender in the 1950s, he thought hand-wound pickups sounded better (I’ll footnote that paraphrase when I find it in my sources). Machine wound pickups are set into an automated machine that has a preset tensioner and traverse that guides and lays the wire – it makes for an electrically “perfect” coil. They are easy to make consistent and cheap to produce, and some of them do sound really good. But chances are, if you are curious about hand-wound pickups then you are not satisfied with “perfect” machine wound pickups anymore, as are many of us. This is where you must trust your ears and not a bunch of technical mumbo jumbo or sales hype, which I’ve tried to spare you of here.
The more wire wound on a coil, the “hotter” a pickup will be. This means it will have more output than a stock pickup, more midrange, and less treble. You may like this sound if you are playing lead solos, but for rhythm work, it lacks the definition of a “stock” coil and may lower your ability to crisply slice through a rhythm mix. That is not to say that a hot pickup won’t cut through a mix well, it’s just that a brighter pickup, even though it is weaker, may have a more knifelike quality. But keep in mind that a stock Tele pickup sound, I believe, is around 6.65K and a stock Strat bridge pickup sound is around 5.9K, though my measurements are by no means based on factual data, I think they are a good “middle ground” and reference point. A “stock” or underwound pickup will have a more shimmering rhythm quality, a clearer note response, as well as more complex overtones. It may sound bright and thin to those who like a fatter-sounding pickup. A hotter pickup, in contrast, will have a big-shouldered sound, a chunky rhythm quality, and thicker lead tones – but it will not lose those nice overtones. There is so much misinformation out there about vintage pickups that it is futile of me to try and refute any of it. From the vintage guitars I’ve owned and my own measurements of other vintage pickups, I’ve come to that conclusion. For example, 50’s Strats, more often than not, had the stronger pickup in the neck and the weaker one in the bridge. Slap on a set of flatwounds and it makes a little more sense. But most players today want a hotter pickup in the bridge, which is not at all a bad thing. Keep in mind though, it is not imperative that you try and match the volume of your neck pickup to your bridge pickup. I’ve measured healthy old Strat bridge pickups anywhere from 5.3K to 6.1K, and old Tele/Esquires from 6.1K to 7.8K. So, when choosing output, think of the application. To what use shall you put your pickups and through what amp, in what style, and in what venue? Chances are, a stock, or slightly above stock output will please most players 90% of the time.
Magnets and pickups do not have sounds, a magnet’s sonic result in guitar pickup application depends primarily on the strength of the magnet. Ceramic magnets are usually stronger than their Alnico counterpart, therefore they sound brighter. The magnets and output, and wire for that matter, can all be used to balance each other out. I offer Alnico II, III, and V. This chart shows the respective magnets’ properties: MGOe kJ/m3 kG mT Oe kA/m Oe kA/m %/°C %/°C °C °C g/cm3 Alnico 2 1.6 12.8 7.0 700 580 47 600 48 -0.03 -0.02 810 450 7.0 Alnico 3 1.2 10.0 6.0 600 480 38 500 40 -0.03 -0.02 810 450 6.9 Alnico 5 5.0 40.0 12.5 1250 640 51 640 51 -0.02 +0.02 860 525 7.3
Flat poles are great for guitars with radii equal/greater than 9.5. Staggered magnets are great for the curved radius, 7.25. There is no reason to put a staggered pickup on a flat radius guitar except for aesthetic reasons, which is not wrong, however, those high D and G poles will make it a little difficult to make your Strat sound totally balanced. Of course, Tele players don’t have much to worry about as the stagger on Tele pickups is so slight, only on the D and G. But Strat players have to be a little more careful to select a pickup that suits their guitar.
I doubt if I was blindfolded that I could ever hear a difference between the two. Bevelling may have an effect on how directional a magnet is upon the string, but that’s about it. I bevel and polish my magnets upon request mostly for aesthetic reasons. Fender used to bevel their magnets so they’d slide into the bobbins better and also to grind off any chips in the magnets. Those old Fender pickups sure are chipped up though.
Take it to a luthier, or look up your guitar’s specs online. Or just eyeball it. Is it heavily curved, or is it flat?
Fender used 42 Gauge Formvar wire for Strats up until 1964. Tele bridges had 42 Gauge Plain Enamel wire (43 gauge on early 50’s Teles). After CBS took over, they all were wound with Plain Enamel. Formvar is a reddish-colored wire and is a very warm-sounding wire and is part of a Strat’s tone. Also, old Formvar wire tends to get brittle, which may be a reason those old Strats sound so good. Plain Enamel wire is a dark purple, brighter sounding wire. Of course, a Strat pickup with Alnico III magnets and Plain Enamel wire would give you a nice Strat Hybrid sound.
There’s an expression, “A washed car runs better.” It’s true in a way, but only psychologically. I’m not saying you should wash your guitar, but a clean fretboard, fresh strings, a pickup height adjustment, a capacitor change, radius adjustment, and a clean guitar can work wonders for your tone. I’ve given up on some guitars, only to perform some simple setup tasks, and discovered that the guitar had slowly and surely gone out of sync with itself. Usually, I think that higher string height means better tone, but there is such a thing as taking that too far, which I have done on occasion. Again, string height is a very personal thing for most of us. But by performing some of the aforementioned adjustments, you might discover that your guitar, after all, isn’t to blame. Also, I highly recommend George L cables.
A good rule of thumb here is to trust your ears, once again. You want to get the maximum output out of your pickups, meaning you want them as close to the strings as possible without the magnets’ strength pulling the strings out of tune. You also don’t want the strings to bottom out on the magnets when you fret high up on the fingerboard. The bass side of the pickup should be lower than the treble side, and the bridge pickup should be higher than the neck pickup. The exact measurements here are not going to be really helpful but you don’t want to sink the pickups into the pickguard. I haven’t found that there is exactly a right way or a wrong way to set up the pickups, and I find myself turning the adjustment screws often which I think illustrates the fact that pickup height has a large part to do with how the pickup sounds. So experiment and get them so they sound nice and strong, but not unbalanced.
There are several reasons. Microphonics in a guitar pickup is actually the pickup wire vibrating at the same frequency as another sound in the room, usually your amp. Eventually, this vibration could harm the pickup, and potting solves this problem. I use a Paraffin and Beeswax solution that works very well for me as it did for Pre-CBS Fender (later they dipped the pickups in lacquer). Potting also reduces hum. Wax, though more difficult to do than lacquer, won’t break down in our lifetime and it is also easier to work with a pickup that hasn’t been hardened by lacquer.
Reverse winding does not affect tone. Potting may have a slight effect, but it is really insubstantial. If a player wishes, I will not pot their pickups.
Again, trust your ears. .022 uF is the brightest, .05 uF is a good balance of brightness and midrange, .1 uF will mellow things out if you are having problems with brightness. The latter two caps are vintage correct for the 50’s and 60’s. Try them all with 250K pots and see what you like best. Those are just my impressions upon trying them.
Aging is meant to reproduce the look of a gently pick worn, but well-used 50-year-old pickup pulled out of an original guitar. Expect darkening of the magnets, pick wear, and overall wear. In these instances, only the top part of the pickup has been exposed, and the rest often looks fresh. This is the look I aim for, which isn’t rusted or oxidized with soiled leads, as if pulled from a dirty parts drawer. Additional and heavy aging might be extra.
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