|Creators of both Lace Sensors and the Alumitone pickup, Lace Music has long been on the forefront of pickup technology. We talk with brothers Don and Jeff Lace about what it takes to innovate.
Actodyne General, Inc. may sound more like a defense contractor than a rock n’ roll pickup maker, but the company’s Lace Music division has played a significant role in musical innovation since its inception in 1979.
The company’s founder, Don Lace, Sr., had first been exposed to the guitar building scene in the late-sixties while helping with some speaker issues for a little outfit called Fender. Shortly after setting up Actodyne, Don began experimenting with his own unique pickup designs. By the late-eighties, Don had achieved his design goals of reducing rejection rate, increasing fidelity and reducing hum, dubbing them Lace “Sensors.”
The circle completed itself when Fender became one of the first companies to embrace Lace’s designs by featuring his pickups first on the Strat Plus, then later on the Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck signature models. The Sensor pickups became widely known for providing many of the benefits of active circuits – low magnetic pull and a transparent, hi-fi tone – coupled with the simplicity of passive designs, i.e. no batteries or complex switching circuits.
Although Don Sr. passed away in 1992, his legacy literally lives on, with his sons, Don Jr. and Jeff, now at the helm. Not content to simply offer small, evolutionary changes to the existing product line, the next generation of Laces have developed the equally radical Alumitone pickup design, billed as delivering “huge top and bottom end.” We were fortunate enough to sit down with both Jeff and Don Jr. to discuss Lace’s past, present and future.
How did you get into the pickup business?
Don: Well, we started the business out of the family garage in 1979. It was my brother, my dad, Don Sr., who originally started the business and myself. We started out winding coils for the solenoid industry, but my father had been in contract with Fender in the sixties, working with Don Randall, Red Rose, Seth Lover and all of those guys. He would consult with the pickup manufacturers to reduce their rejection rate during production. What transpired from that was he came up with the Lace Sensor – which works differently than a passive pickup – and things kind of just went rolling from there.
How are the Lace Sensors different from other pickup systems?
Jeff: The great thing about Lace Sensors is that they are true single-coil pickups. As opposed to a humbucker, which quiets [hum] due to the second coil, this is a single-coil that keeps its single-coil tonality throughout. My father engineered the magnets to create a compression field around the actual coil itself, which makes them much more efficient. It also gives them more harmonics and blocks electromagnetic interference, such as power line hum.
Those are some pretty obvious benefits, but are there any situations where the added harmonics might not be appropriate for some players?
Jeff: We think that we’ve developed a pickup where everything under the sun is covered, from crunchy, overdriven sounds to pure, acoustic sounds, all based on the Sensor design.
Could you touch on the differences between the various Sensor models and the range of sounds that are available to players?
Jeff: On our original Lace Sensor series, the first four “flavors” that were developed were gold, silver, blue and red, of which gold has the most classic, fifties bell-like tone. Silver has that early-to-mid seventies fat Strat moan, while the blue is more akin to a warm P-90. The red version had the highest output, and is more like a humbucker, tonally.
How did your company’s connection to Fender come about? We’ve already kind of touched on it, but the first guitars I recall seeing your pickups on were the Clapton and Beck signature models. Were those the first instruments that came from the factory with your pickups installed?
Don: The first one was actually the Strat Plus, but I guess they all kind of went off at the same time. They sent some extra Strat Pluses to Clapton and Beck to see what they thought, and they got them both to sign up to be endorsers for the new Fender – the post-CBS Fender. I think Eric was the first one to really play them.
Jeff: Yeah, one of his biographies has a picture of him from 1985 actually playing some of the first hand built prototypes.
How did that make you guys feel?
Jeff: We felt tremendous. Having players of that caliber accepting the product so quickly was amazing.
Was this fresh out of the starting gate, or had you already been playing around with pickups at that point?
Don: We were probably four years into pickup development at that point. We’re in Huntington Beach and Barcus Berry was just down the street, so we talked with them about building it for us. We actually had a letter of intent signed with Kramer Guitars prior to the Fender deal – who knows where that would have taken us – but they were a little too busy to follow through on it. So we took a step back and regrouped to see where we really wanted to go, and low and behold Fender had the buyout. This enabled us to get in with Fender and sign an exclusive arrangement with them. Everything kind of happened at the right time for everyone; they were looking for something new and we had it – the acceptance was huge. I think this combination helped launch both companies.