Well over fifty sets of pickups have been reviewed in these pages and while that may be a lot to digest, we have barely scratched the surface of the entire range of pickups being built as OEM and aftermarket alternatives in the USA, and yes, we do often wonder who is buying all of this stuff, and why? Will your audience connect with the music so much deeper because you have changed pickups, and if not, why bother in the first place?
Well, of course it does matter to the most important person in the equation — you. The audience need not know that you have slavishly pursued the tones that inspire you with endless auditions of new and old amps, guitars, effects, speakers, tubes and pickups, but they are ultimately the beneficiaries of your labor. When you feel that you sound your best… when due diligence has been paid to insure it despite the uncertainties that changing venues present… the chances of turning in an inspired performance are enhanced. The greatest challenge in discovering new sounds through gear is that there is simply too much of it to be sampled within a reasonable timeframe, and at a reasonable cost. In an effort to winnow the wheat from the chaff, the prudent explorer notes the experiences and opinions of other like-minded players, puts his hands on as many different instruments, tools and gizmos as possible, and places more than a little value on longevity and staying power in an industry where the next great thing is often just as quickly forgotten.
For anyone pondering a pickup swap, it would be impossible to overlook Lindy Fralin. A guitar player who responded to a simple urge for better tone by learning how to repair and wind pickups through trial and error, Fralin was among the first to expand on the work of Larry DiMarzio and Seymour Duncan. Lindy still personally winds pickups today with the assistance of six employees, and their approach has remained entirely hands-on, answering the telephone and handling inquiries and special requests. Fralin can also be credited for adopting a unique “menu” from which specific pickups and sounds can be selected based on “stock” specifications, and variations from stock that are underwound or over-wound in increments of 2% – 15%. While the range of choices can be daunting, it does give guitarists the freedom to incrementally select variable levels of brightness, warmth and output that create distinctly unique voices, and you can do so while consulting with Fralin’s staff when necessary. The fact that Lindy Fralin has continued to play in his band, The Bop Cats, throughout the growth of his company is telling as well, and recently inspired the development of the Fralin 1×15 amplifier reviewed here in December 2006. Faced with the desire for a sound, feel and portability none of his vintage amps alone seemed to provide, Lindy partnered with Vintage Vacuum Tube Amps to create a signature model that fit the bill. What better way to shop for tone than to do so with an active player and builder that speaks your language? Enjoy…
TQR: How did your initial interest in playing the guitar swerve into pickups, specifically?
When I was in 5th grade my cousin and I were grounded for being on the roof of my grandparents house in the middle of the night. We were stuck in the house all day and spent it playing a couple of guitars we had found in the attic. By the end of the day, we could play some crude Chuck Berry riffs. I was given the guitar, which turned out to be a mid ‘40s Gibson LG O – a small-bodied guitar with a big soundhole and a massive neck. The label on it said “Only a Gibson Is Good Enough” and I learned songs on it for years. But even then, I was more into cars and motorcycles until I heard Hendrix. The tones on “All Along the Watchtower” and the whole first album blew me away. Then everything changed and the guitar became the most important thing in life. I saved up for an electric ( a Mustang) and began getting into Clapton, Stevie Winwood and Johnny Winter, and I also listened to a lot of Beatles, Stones, Steppenwolf and Jethro Tull. I still like all of them. Then like every other blues player, you start going backwards from Clapton and Hendrix to the guys that were still alive like Freddie King, Muddy Waters and especially B.B. King and Albert King. Lately, I’ve been listening to even earlier players like Fats Waller and Louis Jordan and all the finger-style blues players. But I think it was the sounds Hendrix got out of a Strat that made me pay attention to tone.
TQR: Did you have an innate curiosity that drove you to tear things apart and see what made them tick?
I tore everything apart. I would bring old TVs and radios home that had been thrown out and take them all apart and then leave it to my parents to get rid of them. For years the only guitars I could afford were guitars that were broken when I got them, refinned, or something was wrong with them. The first pickup I put in a guitar was a Duncan that went into the bridge of a ‘65 Strat and it was a huge improvement. I had a friend who built a pickup winder out of a dentist’s drill motor, and after winding two pickups on his winder, I built a winder out of a sewing machine motor. You could buy wire then for about $6 a pound, so you could afford to just wind coils and put them into your guitar and listen to them, experimenting. After a few years I wound something I liked better, between the 5.7K of the original and the 14K of the Duncan.
TQR: But at that time, you weren’t working from any historical reference point that told you what the targets were for vintage pickups…
No, not at all. All my guitar heroes were playing old and new instruments. I just heard amazing sounds. I’ve never taken an engineering course, although I’ve read lots of books about AC circuits and inductance and impedance, but there were no really good books on pickups, specifically. Strat pickups were the first ones I wound, and from there I wound some pickups for an anemic ‘70s Thinline Telecaster. The original pickups were not potted, and I couldn’t play my Silvertone Twin 12 without getting feedback in the neck or bridge. The drummer in our band had an early ‘50s Fender lapsteel laying around and we put that pickup in the Telecaster and it sounded huge. But then he needed it back, not wanting to rob his uncle’s lapsteel, so at that point I got the idea that pickups really did make a difference. But it wasn’t until I was in a band working four nights a week that I had the money to buy decent instruments. I had a refinned ’61 SG that I would play, but only for B.B. King and Clapton and Cream stuff. I loved Stevie Winwood, and I was also always drawn to Hendrix’clean sound, like “May This Be Love” and “Little Wing.”
TQR: So what happened to light the fuse on the pickup business?
I was a self-taught guitar repairman, just learning on my own guitars when a local guitarist named Keith Gress showed me his home-made winder. After winding two coils on his machine I bought the parts to make my own. I was making pickups just for myself and a few friends, not ever thinking I would do this for money. And because I had no money, I could only rewind dead pickups, and at that point it was all Fenders. I couldn’t count turns yet when I was winding pickups – I would only go by ohm readings, which is only an indicator of how many turns you’re putting on. I was going for more power back then and trying to get the bridge pickup to not be so thin. I wanted it to sound like Roy Buchanan’s first album, and now I think I know that the guitar I was working with just wasn’t a very good-sounding instrument. Certain pieces of wood just don’t work as well, and you can’t make a guitar something that it isn’t. Then I met a guy named Steve Melkisethian (Angela Instruments), and we began raiding this 3-story music store. Steve was one of the first guys I knew to really get into vintage parts – real Klusons or PAF pickups. The guy that owned this store was so bizarre that he never sold anything. You’d walk in and he’d say, “Kid, do you have any money? Get outta here.” When he died, his two sons started liquidating stuff and I helped Steve buy truckloads of stuff. He let me advertise pickup rewinding in the back of his catalog, and one of his early partnerships was with César Diaz… César actually rewound a pickup for me before I got my winder. It was only $25 “while you waited,” and he definitely understood electronics. If you can build an amp…
TQR: Back to the ads that Steve Melkisethian ran for rewinding… did that kick it off for you?
Yes, I started getting pickups in the mail, and when you’re doing it all the time you really start to learn. I listened to everything I did. If I didn’t like the way something sounded, I would do it over again. That’s when I started to learn about things like winding tension, and understanding that you had to have the right kind of wire. Fortunately, I was able to invest half the money I made back into the business for supplies, since I had no one to support at the time. Also, I hunted down a music store where this guy had a barrel of old Danelectro lipstick pickups and a ton of old Danelectro parts. I bought those pickups for $10 each, sold them through Steve, and that paid for me to tool up for Strat pickups that I was selling new for $45. By then I had more interest in winding good sounding pickups instead of “hot” ones.
TQR: So somewhere there are early Fralins with no identifying marks on them in circulation…
Yes, and to this day there are no identifying marks on our pickups, although whenever they come back here, I can tell if they are ours. The piercing tools are always a little bit unique, and I spray them with lacquer rather than dip them. We also bevel the magnets a little differently.
TQR: Why bevel magnets at all?
Partially because they stick through the cover and the sharp edges might bother people. Also, to avoid causing a separation in the fibreboard when you push the oversized magnets through the hole in the flatwork.
TQR: Back to the beginning – you were winding Strat pickups and stamping out your own bobbins…
I had invested in tooling for Stratstyle parts and was selling them for $45 – about $5 under a Duncan. By then I had experimented enough that I knew about scatter winding and how important tension was. Also, I had peeled enough old pickups to see how they were layered, to see if there was any magic in there, and I noticed that they were very randomly layered.
TQR: And despite the efficiencies Fender developed in manufacturing, he stuck with random, hand-winding for a reason.
I firmly believe that, because by then Leo Fender had so many patents on machines for making guitars, yet he was still hand-winding coils until CBS took over.
TQR: It sometimes seems that you can hear a certain sterile sound in mass-produced pickups and a more open, musical quality that exists in those that are scatterwound. Why is that?
Everything you do in the manufacturing of guitar pickups makes a difference. Anything you change in pickup making, (magnet type, wire type and gauge, turns per layer and tension) will also affect the sound. The simplest way to describe it is that the number of turns govern the voltage output. It doesn’t matter what the ohm reading is, because 8,000 turns of #42 wire is 6K and 8,000 turns of #43 is 7K, but they both have exactly the same output. The tone is shaped by capacitance, inductance, and what kind of magnetic field you have. There is a term for a magnet’s resistance to change that can be graphed, and it’s called hysteresis.
This is why one magnet sounds different from another. The power is in the number of turns, and the treble and bass are derived from capacitance and inductance. I often say when you do something wrong winding a coil, it’s either missing bass, mids or treble. There is an audible loss of some frequency or range. That’s what I’ve always tried to learn… no matter what output our pickups might be (and there is no right or wrong there), we strive for a flat frequency response. Guys like Bill Lawrence who are true engineers may be able to tell you with mathematical formulas why this or that happens, or why a sloppy coil sounds different.
TQR: Let’s talk about “vintage tone” in regard to vintage Telecasters, Stratocasters, PAF’s… How do you arrive at a repeatable definition when actual examples are so dramatically inconsistent?
They were all made very quickly and nobody cared about turns, so there is a huge disparity in PAF’s or Strats or Teles. Teles may be the worst… There are documented Teles with 5.3K bridge pickups, all the way to 11K. Part of that was that they sometimes used #42 wire and at other times #43. I don’t think there was a reason – it was just what they had. They used #43 on all their Tele neck pickups with very few exceptions, and they used #43 on many of the lapsteel pickups before they ever made Telecasters. For some reason, they used #42 wire in Tele bridge pickups and those are the ones that range from 5.5K to 8K. From 8K to 11K it has to be #43. PAF’s ranged from 7.3K to (theoretically) 10K. I’ve seen one side of a PAF that read 5K but never a whole pickup that went up to 10K. Seymour Duncan told me that they had turn counters, but they didn’t stop the machine at zero like a modern one. It was just a rubber band running a turn counter, so half the employees didn’t even watch it – they just filled them up and didn’t worry about it. Because I’ve done rewinds for all these years, I get to listen to the 1 in 25 old pickups that we are able to repair without actually rewinding.
TQR: What’s your interpretation of “vintage tone?”
I know what I like… fat, strong treble strings, bright, clear wound strings. I want power and clarity. I want to hear the wood of the guitar, and I want control with my fingers or pick. I’ve owned Strats where the wound strings were dull, but the treble strings would hurt your ears. I know that’s not what I want. I’ve learned just how important the wood is, and “vintage tone” seems to me to be as much about the wood as the pickups. Here I am in the pickup business and I’m telling people that wood is as important as the pickups, but I think it’s true. In recent years I have bought swamp ash boards for Strat and Tele bodies from a wood supplier in Pennsylvania and I would put those guitars up against any vintage ‘50s Fender. I also used big (deeper not wider) maple necks. The treble strings are very solid and the wound strings are brilliant.
TQR: Yet it still comes down to your subjective interpretation of what constitutes a very desirable sound based on your preferences, doesn’t it?
Yes, I would say that is true. Some guitarists want power for longer sustain and a faster “grind” and others want clarity to cut through a loud stage volume. Some like bright tones and others like darker tone. “Vintage tone” exists to some degree in people’s heads. They’ll hear a PAF and think its magic, but if you sent them a new pickup that sounded like that, they might not like it at all. “It’s dark and dirty,” or it’s “overly bright.” Sometimes people just go nuts over something because it’s old. I have four Strats and they are so different… One of them was so bad that I had to turn it into a test guitar, because if you can make that guitar sound good, you’ve really done something.
TQR: You’re having conversations every day about what people want in pickups. What do you ask them?
First, what do you want this guitar to do? Then I ask them if they consider their guitar to be really bright or dark sounding? Asking those two questions usually gives us a head start on what to recommend. Some people might want a really dark Tele pickup that they are going to play through a Marshall amp, while other players may want a typically bright pickup, so we’ll recommend a stock Tele. The problem is, a stock pickup can sound really bad in a bad guitar. I come back to resonant frequencies of specific guitars, and my guess is that a “bad” guitar is going to be really resonant at 2K and not nearly resonant enough at 3K. The other factor that really matters in a Fender is the fundamental of the note. I learned that the low E string on the guitar is at 82.4Hz and the A string is 110Hz and the high E is 329Hz. So, if you have a guitar in which the treble strings are real thin, something is soaking up the frequencies between 200Hz and 450Hz. You cannot have a guitar that is going to sound good unless it is resonant between 200Hz and 450Hz – the fundamental of the three treble strings. Of course, we’re hearing thirds and fifths and octaves as well, but you really want the fundamental to be present.
TQR: And that’s where the perceived “fatness” comes into play…
Right. The graph of a pickups output is a very smooth curve, while a guitar or a human voice has multiple peaks and valleys. That’s why one guitar may sound better than another. If you have a guitar that is absorbing frequencies at 300Hz that’s a bad thing, as is absorbing frequencies at 3K (the Fender “sparkle”).
TQR: You’re familiar with the idea of mismatched coils in a humbucking pickup…
Yes, most real PAF’s were not matched coils. We make a model that also utilizes unmatched coils called an “Unbucker.” There are advantages in either side being stronger, but our purpose was less to make a different sounding humbucker, but to make a pickup that tapped better. An 8K humbucker tapped to 4K is really almost unusable. Or if you wind both sides strong enough to tap, you’ve got a very strong, over the top humbucker. So our main reason was for the guys that were going to tap it.
TQR: You are also selling the Suhr Silent Single Coil System. Is that the ultimate answer? We’ve always missed something when we’ve lost the noise.
Well, most noiseless single coil style pickups employ a dummy coil to cancel the hum, and that’s a lot of additional wire to send the signal through, since coils have capacitance and inductance and impedance, so it eats up tone and power. The Suhr system is beautiful in its simplicity. All he did was make this dummy coil much larger, which let him use far less turns. Plus, when the coil is larger, it has very low capacitance and inductance. The coil goes around the outside edge of the back plate cover, and they have created a circuit board with a couple of trim pots that automatically adjust for when you have one or two pickups on. The trim pots also adjust for pickups with anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 turns. It works with the entire range of Strat pickups we make, and I don’t notice any difference in the sound while getting rid of 85% of the hum. John Suhr sent it to me for an unbiased opinion and I liked it so much that I asked if we could sell them.
TQR: With all the time you’ve spent dealing in pickups, why don’t you offer pots with tighter tolerances, and tone caps?
Well, other people have done a good job of it, and I have yet to hear the difference between different types of caps in a guitar. It matters so much more in an amp where your signal is going through coupling caps. In a guitar, the only part of the signal going through that cap are the high frequencies you are trying to get rid of. Also, I rarely use the tone control and when I do, it’s only to get that wah wah effect at the end of a song sometimes. I do have a guitar that has a .001mf and a .1mf cap on a push/pull tone pot so that I can hear either cap, and they are the highest and lowest values that make sense in this circuit. One does the least and the other the most. The .1 cap is almost like a wah wah and the .001 just takes the sting off the higher strings. It thickens the treble strings.
TQR: Jason Lollar commented that he had to constantly watch and measure things like magnets and wire to insure consistency. Is this true for you as well?
We buy magnets from what may be the last magnet foundry left in America, and they are very good. I hope they can continue to survive and compete with the companies overseas. The wire we use is also made in America. Magnet wire is very hard to make and it varies in diameter. You have to compensate for this with technique and tension.
TQR: Tom Holmes pointed out the importance of how covers are made – both the materials used and the fit, and that most people still miss that aspect.
Well, he’s so right. I benefited from both Tom’s and PRS’ knowledge because they both looked at old PAF’s and understood that the original covers weren’t plated brass – they were solid nickel silver, and solid nickel silver is a more transparent material, while brass is darker. So we are able to buy solid nickel silver covers for both humbuckers and Telecaster necks pickups and they truly sound better. And another thing I want to mention is that potting and covers don’t have to be bad for the tone if you know how to compensate for them.
TQR: We didn’t see any Firebird or mini-humbucking pickups on your site…
No, because I’m not a big fan of them. I have never really been a fan of humbuckers in general, because the wound strings are always so muddy. Although the humbucker is still very good for single note soloing or aggressive, dirty playing, because at that level you don’t hear the muddiness on the wound strings. I’ve have had mini-humbuckers and Firebird pickups in guitars and they were brighter and clearer, but the wound strings were still muddy. We’ve come up with a P92 that is basically a split P90 that drops into a humbucking route, and it works really well for any kind of jazz, blues or mildly distorted tone. The humbucker is still best pickup for aggressive or dirty playing, because at that level you don’t hear the muddiness on the wound strings.
TQR: I’d guess you sell more Strat pickups than any other types, followed by humbuckers, Teles and P90’s?
Good guess,but we also sell a tremendous number of bass pickups.
TQR: Why don’t you build acoustic pickups?
Well, there is no good answer… there is nothing you can do with a magnetic pickup that is going to capture the sound of an acoustic guitar. It has to be miked from two feet away to sound like an acoustic. You can’t cram a microphone in the soundhole, you can’t put a piezo under the bridge, and a magnetic pickup is going to sound like a magnetic pickup. A magnetic pickup picks up the signal at a certain point (neck middle or bridge) so its location is so much of its tone.
TQR: But a great neck pickup on a Telecaster can also produce the most amazing clean, hollowbody tones…
I agree. My present Tele has a 2% overwind in it and it’s my favorite of all our pickups. I can use it for jazz, rock or even clean Hendrix stuff. I love that sound, yet so many people tell me that they hate the sound of their Tele neck pickup. They are notoriously microphonic – both Tele neck and bridge pickups. At least we can solve that.
TQR: Who came up with the idea of attaching a steel plate beneath a Stratocaster bridge pickup to mimic the plate beneath a Tele bridge pickup?
I think we did, but of course we’re just copying Teles. It’s a way to make the pickup louder without adding more turns, and we sell it prep ped and ready to attach to a bridge pickup.
TQR: What’s in the future for you?
We’re still learning every day. I’m endlessly fascinated with sounds, from percussion to the up-right bass. I want to bring new ideas to the market and refine the one we already make. My dream is to one day play more music and maybe travel around promoting our products.