Sunday, March 9, 2014

Let's Talk Pickups!

Let's Talk Pickups.

I spoke a bit about pickups in a previous blog, but barely scratched the surface on this incredible 'vast' subject.
I always admired Fender for their pickups. The original ceramic magnet single coils used to have a sound that was very unique, and because they eventually aged and lost their tone due to the magnets 'fading', I have to say, they still actually gained a tone unlike any other.
Single coil is basically where it all started. Jazz and blues players in the late 40's and early fifties could not be heard over the orchestra, so they incorporated the use of a single coil pickup mounted as close to the neck and fretboard as possible. This gave them the real tone and sound they were looking for and still didn't compromise the dynamics of the orchestra. Though, by today's standards these pickups would have been flat, thin and all mid range, they didn't feed back like the live microphones did, and were a great solution at the time.
Leo Fender dabbled with different pickup configurations until he came up with the ceramic single coil that was used on Fender's lap steel guitars in the day. These were a full rounded single coil, that provided a nice bottom end as well as some mid characteristics, and a superb top end, unlike anything else on the market. Leo was so successful with his lap steel guitars, he basically redesigned them to become the first Telecaster guitar, though it wasn't called that then. It actually went from the Lap Steel, to the Broadcaster, to the Esquire and finally the Telecaster. Most important of all, Leo continued to use his patented Fender pickup in all of these models.
The country crowd raved about the Esquire. One pickup, with a three position tone selector. Basically a three way switch utilizing a different capacitor in each position.
Fender sold a lot of these guitars. There are still a few of them out there, but for some reason, nobody wants to part with them.
The Telecaster was a hybrid Esquire that incorporated a lipstick style DeArmond neck pickup. This made the blues and jazz players happy because they were able to get away from the twang of the Telecaster. The neck pickup just seemed to make all the difference in the world. Again, many were sold. In fact, there were a few years that demand, far outweighed supply. The Fullerton plant was not equipped for the volume of guitars ordered at that time, and one might wait a year or two before you saw your guitar.
The original Telecasters incorporated the same three way switching as the Esquire, but Fender had different switching options than what is standard on the current model Telecasters.
The Stratocaster was a completely different style of guitar than the Telecaster at the time. Originally three pickups, (single coil ceramic) the rear, or bridge pickup staggered slightly to cover all tonal variance coming off the bridge. This was a feature that Fender would again patent, based off of the success of the original lap steels, Esquires and Telecasters designs.
The Stratocaster originally featured only a three way switch, only allowing the pickups to be selected individually. There was no blending of the pickups back then. Fender later changed this to a 5 way selector. This allowed for two pickups to be selected at the same time, though never allowed all of them to be selected at one time. Still, to this day, that is not an option at Fender. I am not sure why, as I personally believe that would be a great option. In the past several years, Fender has started to use 'noiseless' pickups. These are a great bang for the buck. They incorporate a second winding in reverse polarity, still using the same magnet and poles. This 'stacked' single coil also features an Alnico 5 magnet, different pole configuration and height, and slightly smaller frame than the original pickups. This allows for more winding, therefore more tone and a fatter sound, and all of this relatively noise free.

Let's move along to Humbuckers

When you think of this design, you would automatically think of Gibson right? Well, it's true that Gibson does use this style of pickup. They even came up with the name 'Humbucker'. Still, they were not first to use these pickups. Truth be known, like the original design of the Les Paul, this wasn't Gibson. It was Gretsch. At the Gretsch company, they were dabbling with a solid body guitar which used a two coil 'Dyna-sonic' pickup a few years before Gibson came out with the first Les Paul. Gretsch called these guitars the 'Jet' and the 'Corvette'.
The original Dyna-sonic pickup came in a choice of two, single, and twin coil. The original Gretsch designed twin coil was basically two single coils placed side by side and tied together in the pickup cavity.
What Gibson did that was different, was that they tied together the two separate single coils on the same frame, alternating their respective magnets from north-south to south-north, and wound each single coil separately.
There was a lot of 60 cycle hum prevalent in the day from things like lighting ballasts, transformers, toasters, irons, frying pans. Anything that featured a heating element. This factored in with the fact that most facilities were still using knob and tube wiring, where phase reversal was a common occurrence, and there were no grounds on amplified equipment.
So Gibson created their own spin on a pickup that would virtually eliminate this amplified noise. They called it the Patent Applied For, or PAF pickup. Not sure if they ever did get that patent finally.
Nonetheless, this pickup put Gibson on the map.
The first PAF pickups were used by wrapping enamelled wire around 4-6 poles on a magnet, then tied two wrap wires together. One to the switch, the other to ground. Problem was that in the day, Gibson, and Fender found it difficult to properly coat the wrap wire with varnish so as to isolate the wraps. Eventually, they would break down, and this, coupled with the use of ceramic magnets and the fact they would lose their magnetism, would completely change the sound of the instrument in time.
This was either a plus, or a minus, depending on what the instrument was used for. Some would claim these pickups are still desirable, though I am not sure as to why.
Today, the single coils and the PAF's are still in use, though the technology to build them has changed drastically.
The Fender, Gibson, and Gretsch original designed pickups are still being installed in their respective instruments, but they are a better all round pickup. The magnets will take many years to fade, due to the fact they are Alnico 3's and 5's. Man made magnets, far superior to the original rare earth, or ceramic pickups.
Still, one would argue, there is nothing like the sound of a 54 Telecaster or a 56 Gibson Les Paul.
Everybody has a different ear, and everybody is entitled to their own respective opinion about this.
Personally speaking....I am glad we live in the age we do. Technology is a remarkable thing.
More, next time on pickups. We'll discuss Seymour Duncan, DiMarzio, Lace, Fender, Gibson, and much more. We'll also talk about EMG and their 'active' line of pre-amplified pickups.
Until then. Play your best...and be your best!!

Brett McNaueal

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