Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pickup Lines

Of everything that goes into an Electric Guitar, the component that ultimately gives the instrument its voice is the pickups. The controls (volume/tone, switches), strings, construction, and amp (as well as the musician) all matter to different extents, but for the guitar itself, the pickups are where, “You get what you pay for,” truly comes into play in the marketplace.  One of the reasons I wanted to take on the project was to see if I could actually make my own pickups. As the perpetual scientist, the idea that I could potentially turn out a set of custom-wound pickups for my Strat (or Tele… or LP Jr… or Firebird… or, well, you get the drift!), and then make a change and wind another set, maybe using alnico II instead of alnico V slugs, winding with vintage-spec wire vs. modern spec, winding with 43 gauge vs. 42 gauge, 10% over/under winding, etc. etc. etc. is stupefyingly attractive.

Part of my learning process is getting to understand as much as possible of the HOW with regard to the construction and electronics.  Beyond the very basics of electronics, I am out of my element. People considerably smarter than me figured this all out long, long ago and I’m not going to start reinventing the wheel, but I hope to learn enough to be able to make informed decisions about my pickups. At a very high level, a guitar pickup is made from a fiber (or, in cheap guitars, plastic) base & top (called the flatwork) through which metal slugs (called poles) are inserted to make a bobbin about ¾” tall and 2 ½” wide. The tops of these poles are what you see when poking out of the top of an electric guitar. In most cases, there is a cosmetic plastic cover with holes for the poles that covers the flatwork. To turn the bobbin into a pickup, there is nearly a mile (4000’) of extremely fine gauge wire (42 or 43 AWG, about the size of a human hair) wrapped around and around and around the bobbin somewhere in the neighborhood of 8000 times.

Typically when you’re wiring something small & local, you can use a multimeter to check for resistance (ohms) on the line. In most circuits that are simply a point-to-point wire (like running a line from you’re Home Theatre Receiver to a speaker at the back of the room), the speaker wire is relatively big and the run is short, giving a resistance very close to zero. Pickups, on the other hand, are a very fine gauge wire run for an extremely long distance. On this scale, the resistance is measurable and for a single-coil (one wound bobbin) pickup like you see in a Stratocaster (or Telecaster) has a measurable resistance of about 6-7 thousand ohms. This is a meaningless number to the lay person, but the resistance of the pickup is one of the key factors influencing its tonal qualities.

Having a really long wire wrapped around the poles doesn’t do anything… until the poles are magnetized. Once the pole pieces are energized to become magnetized, all the components necessary to make noise are in place. This is the point for me where ‘science’ becomes ‘magic.’ Plucking an electric guitar string over a pickup causes a disturbance in the magnetic field of the pickup which is picked up by the windings, transmitted through the controls and eventually to the amplifier and voila! Sound! (or magic).

Awful, horrible Strat-copy
body that's barely worthy
of being gutted
My project guitar won’t be ready for electronics for several months. I expect there’s going to be some trial & error in the whole winding process. If it turns out that I really CAN’T make it work, I’d like to know now so that I can start budgeting for pickups (and likely significantly altering the long-term guitar building plan).  My plan for the next few months is to see if I can snag a cheap ($20) Squire (or similar) Strat-style guitar as a test bed and try my hand at winding a few pickguards worth of pickups using a few different options, both to experiment with the tonal differences as well as seeing if I can actually make something that sounds good.

I also have a “Standard” Strat that I bought a decade ago. I swapped out the stock bottom-tier electronics with what (according to the eBay listing) were some pretty solid Fender Custom Shop Texas Specials. At the very least, they sounded considerably better (and I now have the tools & knowledge to actually make a reasonable assessment if that’s actually what they are!) That entire pickguard assembly is going to stay intact. It sounds great and there’s no reason to mess with it!  That said, what I have really always wanted is a Strat with pickups that come as close as possible to Mark Knopfler’s Red strat that he played on the early Dire Straits albums. Based on some basic research, it’s likely that the pickups are from a Strat made somewhere between 1957 and 1962. So my interim project is to

-          Strip the neck pickups out of the Standard Strat’s pickguard that’s in the basement, rip it apart, and try to rebuild it to roughly the same spec as the middle pickup and see how they compare (understanding that there is some difference solely based on the position of the position of the pickup)
-          If the neck pickup works, try a repeat on another, possibly making a change in the wire or magnets.
-          If the middle pickup works, I’ll try something different with the bridge, possibly either an underwind to (hopefully) accentuate the bark of the treble *or* overwind to (hopefully) reign in the quackiness of the Strat bridge pickup and round out the tone a little more.

Les Paul Jr. Template over a
Cherry/book-matched-Maple/Cherry body
Once I finish the rebuild of the Standard Strat pickguard, the next step is to move on to lovingly build a set of replica ’59 Fender Strat Vintage pickups and a new pickguard before moving on to wind the pickups for the Telecaster and the Les Paul Jr. project that I’ve started. 

Of course, then I’ll have one or two more pickguards than I have Strats.  Whatever shall I do then…

No comments:

Post a Comment