This is my fitness related blog. I created this on the day I start training for my first marathon, just a few weeks short of a year after I found myself in the worst shape of my life. Something had to change. Me. So I did. And I am. I want to see what this 1974 vintage body is capable of. Hence, my Mantra (courtesy of Tool): Push the envelope. Watch it Bend.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
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…