All guitar pickups have the same basic components: a magnet, a coil, a bobbin and some sort of base or cover. While some pickups have a single blade magnet, most guitar pickups have individual pole pieces for each string. In either configuration, the vibrations of each of the six strings are captured and converted to an electrical signal, which is then sent to an amplification unit. Whether it’s a strummed chord or a singlenote solo, the signal follows the same path. The sound produced is universally accepted as the pleasing sound of an electric guitar.
But back to those six strings. The normal output signal of our standard pickups is a combined signal of any or all of the six strings. Six pole pieces, six strings. Wouldn’t it seem like a logical next step to separate the output signal of each string? In the long and varied history of guitar pickups it seems as if nearly every combination of materials has been tried and every shape and configuration explored. So how about this six-signal concept? It has been done, for various reasons and with varying levels of success. The beast in question is called the hexaphonic pickup.
The suffix hexa means six. Phonic means of, or relating to, sound. Six sounds. Just as a standard pickup does, the hexaphonic pickup captures the individual vibrations of each of a guitar’s six strings. The difference is, rather than having a single output signal, the hexaphonic pickup has six. So who did it first, and what’s it good for? And why aren’t we all playing with hexaphonics?
In questions of firsts, I have two go-to sources: the US Patent Office and my friend and pre war-era guitar historian Lynn Wheelwright. An immediate problem in researching hexaphonics is that the word itself is a bit of a red herring in that it has not been the industry standard term. So in this particular case, I called Lynn first just to see if he remembered anything like it. He told me that the earliest pickup he had seen with anything similar to hexaphonic construction was on a Regal guitar from circa 1935–36. This particular axe had a pickup unit with six individual coils, one for each string. It was not actually hexaphonic, though, because even with the six poles the pickup produced just a single output signal. On to the Patent Office where the earliest patent I could find using the specific terms “hexaphonic pickup system” was awarded to Gibson in 1990. 1990 seemed pretty late. We know that Bartolini Pickups founder Bill Bartolini was producing hexaphonics for public sale as early as 1973. Additionally, experimentation with polyphonic pickups for the purpose of hooking up guitars to synthesizers began in the early days of synthesizer development in the 1960s.
A hexaphonic pickup can have a number of uses. The most obvious is to send separate signals to separate places. In the analog realm, this might take the form of sending the bass strings to one amp, the treble to another. That effect was achieved in the mid-1950s by Ray Butts, who designed a split-coil pickup for Chet Atkins. Theoretically, separate signals for each string could be sent to individual inputs in the same amp where each input had its own volume control, compression, etc. It’s easy to see how rapidly the complexity quotient snowballs and how a standard amplification system might not be able to handle such an increased amount of information.
The first Roland synthesizer guitar, the GS-500, was introduced in 1977. It was with the Roland series of synth guitars, which continues to this day, that the hexaphonic pickup found its most widespread utilization. As a transducer for analog-to-digital sound, the hexaphonic pickup is the only way to go. For a guitar to control a synthesizer module (thereby allowing it to make sounds far beyond the normal guitar or guitar effects palette) each string’s signal needs to be isolated. An analog-to-digital converter requires that sounds be isolated, from string to string, in terms of pitch, and note start and stop. Converted to a digital signal, the Roland systems take the information from the guitar and turn it into sounds such as percussion, keys, saxophone, etc. The latest synth pickups on the market, such as the Roland GK-3 and the Axon PU100 designed in conjunction with Seymour Duncan, represent the latest technology in the field.
Some purists may balk, but my opinion is that synth guitar and its tonal possibilities would have been very popular with the players of yesterday. Alvino Rey used to have a sight gag in his act where he would “deliver” a baby lapsteel. I’d bet he would have loved to hook his lapsteels up to a unit that could make each note sound exactly like a crying baby. Taking it in another direction, I think of hexaphonic pickups and I wonder what it would have been like if one of the gods of guitar like Hendrix had had a separate Marshall stack for each string of his Strat. Perhaps cacophony; maybe brilliance. Either way, hexaphonic pickups and their ultimate utilization may be one of the last frontiers in the quest for the ultimate electric guitar tone.
Wallace Marx Jr.
Wallace Marx Jr. is the author of Gibson Amplifiers, 1933–2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone