Alnico and ceramics have different magnetic and inductive properties. In the early sixties, when ceramics became available and some guitar companies used them (probably for their cost savings, which is approximately 30 percent the cost of Alnico), they left the overall pickup design the same and did not bother to accommodate for the difference in magnets. The sound was thinner and overly bright with less dynamic range.
Of course, you can make good sounding ceramic pickups; I have one stock model that uses them – the Chicago Steel. I sometimes use them on custom items also if there is some size restriction. I would like to point out your questions are really quite good and I could go on and do a whole tech geek article on ceramics and Alnico and how their properties differ.
What about players that evaluate pickups strictly by their output levels? Is there a problem today with people buying replacement pickups that are entirely too hot for their setup?
You can’t always compare resistance between pickups and expect the higher resistance to have more power; all that tells you is... well, not much. If you know the diameter of the wire, the resistance will tell you how many feet of wire are on the pickup. The amount of turns around the pole pieces is primarily what increases output – more turns equal more output. Of course, the magnetic field strength and the core material used also affects this, but if one pickup has a longer coil than another – let’s say a Jazz Bass and a Strat – the Jazz Bass will read higher because it has a longer coil of wire, but it may not have more output. There are other technical points we could go on about – thicker or thinner wire, how air temperature affects resistance – but more importantly is how the pickup couples with the amp. There are a lot of technical points about this but let’s keep it simple.
One thing you’ll find occasionally on cheap guitars are really hot pickups. For the uninitiated buying their first guitar, imagine plugging a $5000 Gibson into a cheap practice amp and then plugging in a Brand X with a hot ceramic pickup. “Wow, this one is louder, it’s got to be better, right?” Really though, if you listen to old Fender amps, like a Tweed Deluxe for example, when you plug in a Tele or a Strat and crank it up, it will sound fat and really detailed at the same time. Plug a Les Paul in and it gets overly muddy and distorted – maybe you like that, but it makes it really hard to hear what you’re playing from the audience’s perspective. A better Fender amp for a Les Paul would be a Super Reverb – much less midrange from the amp. Your Les Paul already has plenty of mids, so why add more to muddy up the tone? Also, the Super Reverb has more treble available, which humbuckers often lack, plus the amp can handle the extra bass the humbucking pickup generates, so it stays tighter and clear on the bottom.
Most people are hip to how different amps will match better with some pickup designs than others, but often people just getting into electric guitar tone don’t know how to get good tone. The number one rule of thumb is don’t overload the amp too much. Everyone likes at least a little distortion, but if you go too far it becomes muddy. I see a lot of guys in clubs, usually humbucker players, that need to turn the bass down on the amp, turn the volume down a notch because they have a little too much distortion and bass to be heard clearly, and turn the reverb down because there is too much hashing. My idea behind pickup design is if you can’t get a good clean tone, you won’t get a good distorted tone.
Your selection of replacement options for lap steel players is fairly notable; how did you discover the lap steel? Do you find a kind of historical lesson in examining lap steel pickups?
I first noticed lap steels when David Lindley came on the TV wearing spandex and a Japanese flag headband with a power trio playing eighties hair metal butt rock – ripping it up sounding just like Eddie VanHalen. It was hilarious and at the same time so odd to hear that sound coming from that instrument. The next time I saw Lindley was at an El Rayo- X concert, which is more of a reggae/ska kind of tight rock band, and the sound he was getting was almost as fat as a Hammond organ. I ran out to the shop the next day and built a lap steel within that week; that would have maybe been 1987? Later on I played in a roots country band on a Fender Triple 8 Stringmaster. So by the time my pickup business started to take off, I was into playing a non-pedal steel.
The Steel Guitar Forum became my regular hangout for some time. The people on that forum were great. If I wanted to see a 1939 [Gibson] EH-150, I would post it on the forum and someone would ship one to me on loan! At one point I was making pickups for all of the newer lap steel builders and making custom pedal steel pickups to retrofit into new steels to give them that old sound. Steel guitar was half my business – the rest was repairs, new pickups and P-90s.
The interesting thing about old lap steels is the pickup designs are often quite different than what you commonly see now. Often they used a similar coil for instance, but they would substitute an entirely different magnet from one year to another. Also, Gibson made pickups for other brands – I don’t recall all of them offhand, but externally the pickup would look very similar; internally they would usually have some cost cutting measure. You can see some really odd designs that seemingly wouldn’t work if you only read about conventional pickup designs like in the Brosnac book [Guitar Electronics for Musicians
]. Sometimes you’ll notice features on older pickups that resemble more modern pickups, in a crude sort of way and are probably intended to function quite differently. At any rate, [lap steel pickups] are interesting to examine and they can throw your conventional thinking a curveball. You might also come to the conclusion that it’s all been done before at some time and place.
I understand that nearly every pickup you make goes through a wax session in a classic Crock-Pot. What are the pros and cons of wax potting, in your mind?
I could go on about this for some time but let me start by saying I was once adamant about not potting anything I made, but that attitude has been tempered through experience. For instance, on Fender style pickups—Strats, Teles and any variation using that type of construction—the wax actually helps hold the pickup together, preserving it from becoming more microphonic over time. If your guitar gets bumped, the coil can shift and become loose if the pickup is not potted. This happens on vintage pickups quite often. I get calls all the time from people complaining about how their vintage pickup all of a sudden became too microphonic to use.
I use the Crock-Pot you mentioned, actually I have two and they are outfitted with a gasket so I can hook them up to a vacuum pump. Each pickup design I make is put under vacuum for a specific amount of time at a particular wax temperature. The time varies from ten seconds to two minutes, depending on the results I want. I like to have a particular level of microphonics for each pickup design—too much microphonics makes the pickup difficult to use for most players and too little makes the pickup less lively sounding—so at the least ten seconds if only to hold the outer layers of coil in place. Potting a pickup longer than two minutes can make it sound dull. Often on imported pickups you’ll see so much wax they can’t clean it all off. If you don’t allow the excess wax to drain out before it cools, then if your guitar gets left in the car on a hot day the wax will come out and wind up all over the guitar. A well-cleaned potting job should look like the pickup hasn’t been potted at all.