Buck Owens once asked Roy Clarke on TV’s Hee Haw, “Hey Roy, what’s the difference between a guitar and a git-tar?” Without skipping a beat, Clarke delivered the punch line: “Oh, about four hunnerd dollars!” At the time, the inside joke underscored the ocean of difference between cheap mass-produced instruments and hand-built masterpieces. But the line has become increasingly blurred in recent years as higher-quality instruments flow from places like Mexico, Korea, and China.
We stumbled upon great tone in a new Mexican-built Fender Telecaster Deluxe at a big-box store for $549. The playability and punch of this instrument was outstanding—in fact, we had a hard time selecting from two identical Teles that day. Nevertheless, in the ruckus of the store environment, with 13-year-olds battling for sweep-picking supremacy through 100-watt stacks, it was not immediately evident that this guitar had a problem with microphonic pickups. Back home, with the amp’s master volume nudged anywhere past 3, the Tele squealed like a stuck pig. We’re not talking the creamy, dreamy feedback Hendrix got while playing the national anthem; we’re talking the ice-pick-through-the-ear kind.
Buying new pickups and having them installed would make this guitar cost as much, in the end, as the US-built instrument it resembles. Groan! If this happens to you, there is something else you can do about it: pot your own pickups. Potting pickups with wax has been going on for a long time, and was originally intended to attenuate feedback—loose coil windings that vibrate in sympathy with acoustic sound will induce that acoustic sound into the amplified signal and create a feedback loop.
But potted pickups also have a tone all their own. It turns out that some of that microphonic energy does contribute in a subtle way to the sound of a pickup, irrespective of its tendency to feedback. Encase the pickup windings in wax, and the sound takes on more characteristics of the wood, with a rounder, fuller tone. Not that we’re saying the wax-potted tone is “better.” Tone is subjective. (Try potting a Danelectro pickup some day. You’ll singlehandedly destroy all of its mojo at one fell swoop!)
Potting a pickup is half science, and half art. With a recording date looming, we didn’t have time to earn degrees in either, but we did have a handful of aromatic gift candles and an old sauce pot that we’d just as soon do without. The worst-case scenario, short of burning down the house: a few lost hours, and the indignity of buying some new pickups? Other than the screeching feedback, these pickups sounded fine, and were worth saving.
The entire operation—removing and disassembling the pickups, soaking them in hot wax, putting everything back together— took about three hours, including extra time for cooling the hot pickups and taking photos. Much to our amazement, it worked exactly as we’d hoped, with one small hitch: the chrome-plated pickup covers are also microphonic. (Doh!) We had to go back and remove the pickup covers, inserting some flat rubber pieces (cut from a wide rubber band) between the pickup and the cover, to completely quell all the feedback. This Mexican-built Tele can now scream through the amp without a trace of microphone squeal. The tone is fat and well-burnished, the way a humbucker-equipped Telecaster Deluxe should sound.
Stuff You’ll Need
Potting your own pickups isn’t very high on the difficulty scale, but you’ll need some basic tools:
- Set of jeweler’s screwdrivers
- Soldering iron
- Rosin-core solder
- Needle-nose pliers
- Wire cutters/strippers
- Razor blade
- Desoldering bulb
- Heat-shrink insulation
- Old sauce pan
- Old candles