Answers to Your Questions
I believe a pickup should not be thought of in terms of output, but rather of input. The function of a pickup is to sense the string and send as wide of a tone band as possible to your rig.
Contrary to the way pickups have been marketed for the past 20 years, a pickup is an input device, not an output device. Measuring, or rating a pickup in terms of output is like rating a mouse in terms of screen resolution, or pixels per inch.
A pickup is a sensor and its job is to sense the strings vibration and send that signal to an output device, your amp. The objective of any sensor is to have the greatest dynamic range and fidelity to capture whatever it is designed to sense. You can then decide, as the end user, to accentuate or eliminate elements at your discretion. You cannot post process and accentuate what your sensor did not pick up!
It is far better to think of a pickup more in terms of the input level for recording. Like with pickups, in recording there is a sweet spot you want to find where you are not restricting input volume and fidelity by having it too low, but you also do not want the input level so high that the needle is pegged in the red. Just like in recording, if you make a pickup too hot you lose much of the dynamics, richness, and the fidelity and are stuck with a sound you can not ever recover from.
When you have a pickup in that sweet spot you can choose to saturate it and simulate the sound of having the record level high with a pedal or your amp. You also have the freedom to choose to pull it back and have other tonal options. With an over wound pickup, you have no ability to pull it back to any other tone options, and you are stuck with a one-trick-pony guitar. This drastically limits your tone possibilities.
Leo Fender and Hand Winding
Personal attention to quality and hand winding is what makes a pickup sound great.
One of my favorite quotes from Leo Fender is, “No machine can wind a better sounding or tighter wind than a well trained person,” and I agree.
I built our coil winders like the one that Leo designed & built for Fender and we wind our pickup the way he did… by hand.
Do “aged magnets” really give that vintage tone?
I get this question a lot. My response is: Buddy Holly’s guitar sounded great brand new, Blackie and Brownie sounded awesome when they were 10 years old. If it is true that an “aged magnet” has any real effect on tone, then these same models from the 80’s should be sounding pretty good by now.
Why do you feel a hand scatter “slop” wound pickup sounds better than a precision machine wound modern pickup?
I’m no Dr. Science so I don’t have the definitive answer. I think winding pickups is more of an art than science so my production theories are based on that. With a cam driven machine-wound pickup each wrap lays next to the previous wrap, causing what I believe is a lot of signal bleed. With a hand scattered winding pattern you get a more random pattern which reduces the bleed.
Flat vrs Staggered magnets: Do staggered magnets help give that “Vintage Tone”?
In a simple word no.
Staggered magnets came from a time when string technology was not that advanced, and there was not good string to string balance so they compensated for this by staggering the height of the magnets to the strings. That was their sole purpose.
I get a lot of vintage pickups in for repair because someone broke the coil trying to push a high magnet down. If you use a staggered magnet nowadays you are only making the strings unbalanced again.
How to determine optimum pickup height
Each pickup and each guitar is unique and I do not feel there is a one-size-fits-all for determining pickup height. The best method I have found is to get yourself a small cheap amp that overdrives easy—the Smokey Amps are best.
Lay your guitar down on a flat surface, Plug in your guitar, select a single pickup, and fret your low E at the 12th fret and play the note. Just like with an out of tune string, you will hear an oscillation/wave rather than a clear solid note. Now adjust the Low E side of the pickup up or down until that oscillation stops. At that point adjust the high E side of the pickup to match.
This will give you a clearer note without the oscillation so your notes and especially chords will ring clear.
Potting a microphonic pickup
Contrary to most advice given, it is not the coil that needs to be potted to stop the microphonics, but rather to isolate or fuse the 2 or more rigid parts that are in contact with the coil that are resonating independently. This resonance is exciting the coil which is sending that resonance frequency to the amp which is amplifies the frequency creating the feedback loop.
Think of it in terms of a Jew’s Harp. As long as the metal frame is against your lips the harp is allowed to resonate as it was designed. If any part of the metal harp touches your teeth, the rigidness of your teeth gives an undesirable tone. Yeah, you could dip the entire harp into some plasticoat and it would no longer have the undesirable resonance when it came into contact with your teeth, but you will lose much of tone of the harp. The better solution for a microphonic pickup that does not sacrifice tone is to either isolate or fuse the rigid parts so they are not allowed to resonate independently.
The easiest home remedy is to remove the pickup from the guitar, flip it over, drip some candle wax on the bottom (anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon amount), then heat it up with a hair dryer and let it melt into the pickup. Try to get the wax to flow into all the seams and holes evenly. Before you put it back in the guitar, test it by plugging it into your amp and place it in front of the speaker, tap it or talk into it. it is best to turn the treble up a little high. If it still does it repeat the above steps. This method will coat the parts without saturating the coil.
As a side note Fender is one of the only companies that potted their coils, most companies, Gretsch, Gibson, Ric, Dearmond, Rowe, Mosrite, Kay, etc. were all not potted as a general rule. Some of the most loose coil are Gretsch, often an old Filtertron bobbin, the wire is almost falling off the coil and they surely were not microphonic. Nowdays in the age of mass production almost all pickups and coils are potted. This masks their poor assembly and speeds things up, along with killing much of the overtones.
What value of Pots and/or caps are best with my pickups?
I get this question all the time, it is generally followed with… “I read on the internet that x is what everyone says I should use, what do you recommend?”
First off there is no electrical requirement, and there is no wrong answer, and lastly it is one of the cheapest decisions you could make. Pots and caps are a very personal decision much like how spicy or salty you like your food. The hard rules that have been spread around the net, are simply based on a decision made 50+ years ago way before most of the modern amp and recording technology, and the music style was much different as well, these companies bought their parts in mass quantities and it is just what they used.
I find hard rules such as this to be very limiting in creating your personal tone. What I recommend doing is to take the blinders off, throw out the “rules”, and find out for yourself! It is very informative and very tailored to your ears, best of all it is very simple to do yourself.
Here is what you do to test caps, you can adapt this for pots as well.
- Buy a pack of alligator clips from Radio Shack, preferably the ones that have rubber ends.
- Order a bunch of different values, and brands of caps.
- Cut 2 pieces of hookup wire 1 foot long.
- Solder the alligator clip to one end of each of the hookup wires.
- Solder the other end of the 2 hookup wires to the solder points in your guitar where the cap would be soldered.
- Reassemble your guitar, and go to town clipping in the different caps.
- When you find the value you like, solder that one in your guitar.
- Lastly remember to listen with your ears and not your eyes.