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The Tesla and Niwa have very wide, flat knobs. What’s the
design philosophy behind those?
I use the Tesla volume pot for swell sounds in the opposite direction. So the swell direction of movement goes down with the stroke of the playing hand. The larger diameter makes the swell sound more scalable. The Niwa selector knob continues the design of the volume and tone knob.
Your pickups tend to have a hot and somewhat hi-fi sound to
them. What sounds were you going for when you designed them?
Most of the players who write reviews of my guitars describe their tone as quite vintage, but I know it is always difficult to get the same opinion on the same guitars. My sound vision is more a Fender tone than a Gibson tone—quick attack with a warm pop. In order to get this—and keeping in my mind that my guitar bodies are mostly from red alder—I design my pickups in a way that they achieve the Strat-like tone but with more volume.
My major pickup type for the Tesla and Niwa is a split coil that has one bobbin with three magnets for the treble strings, and one bobbin with three magnets for the bass strings—similar to the Precision bass pickup. No pickup can exactly paint the sound of a vintage single-coil except a vintage single-coil, but this is not my ambition. I evolved the split-coil design for the particular tonal needs of my guitars. The Tesla has to have a Hendrix-like neck sound, but louder and without hum—and sharper, too, because it’s a noise-cancelling single-coil. The split coil is perfect for this demand. The Niwa’s pickups use another type of split coil—different magnets, different wires, and a different number of windings. The guitar should sound like a fat, full Strat, with a hotter, Teletype bridge sound. The Tesla bridge pickup is a humbucker made in a more standard way. Since 2009, I’ve used the same configuration I made for [Metallica’s] Kirk Hammet.
Of course, I also make custom pickups for my clients. The Birdfish has three different humbuckers—from a very hot, PAF-like version to a P-90-like version, and two real single-coils that have more of a vintage tone. I haven’t built active pickups or circuits since 1995.
Watch Editor in Chief Shawn Hammond demonstrate the Tesla, Niwa, and Birdfish:
Most pickup aficionados are familiar with alnico 5 and alnico 3
magnets, but you use both alnico 5 and alnico 8 in the Tesla and
Niwa pickups. Why?
I use the alnico 8 magnets for the inner magnets of the split-coil pickups, where the north pole and the south pole are facing the D and G strings. Alnico 8 has a stronger field power, and this compensates for the partial elimination of the field. When I work with alnico 8, I don’t load the magnets up to the full saturation. I usually go up to 85 percent of the magnetic saturation. To do that, I use an adjustable impulse magnetizer. After that, I measure the magnetic field strength of each magnet. This is very important, in my opinion, because it plays a major role in the harmonics of the tone.
I also have other magnet types—alnico 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8—but I only use alnico 2 and 3 for custom pickups. My job is not to rebuild classic vintage guitars. I believe the fact that everyone is looking for vintage pickups isn’t based on the fact that they are the best-sounding pickups—people are looking for very early pickups that were designed before instruments and players evolved [to where they are today]. But of course, these pickups and guitars were big parts of [some of ] the most important [guitar] recordings. In the ’50s, you had to play a ’50s guitar—there were no ’60s guitars yet. In the meantime, I try to stay away from all the tautological phenomenon of perception and try to find out about and improve what is in the system—from magnets to wire. Because the look of my guitars is so different, I don’t have to copy the look of old pickups. This gives me the freedom to work on my own sound nuances.
The Birdfish is named after two aluminum tone bars that support
the main components. Your website says you used aluminum
because it transfers vibrations without adding tonal coloration.
Is it really possible for a part to have no effect on tone?
I just realized the translator of my website didn’t translate that part correctly. You are absolutely right. Of course each single element and material has an influence on the tone—the pick, the string, bridge, timber, etc. Aluminum transduces the vibrations almost without a filter influence. When I made the first prototypes, I experimented with brass, steel, and different sorts of aluminum and hardwood. The sound of the aluminum joint came extremely close to hardwood.
Since 1995, you’ve overhauled the Birdfish in four stages. What are those stages?
How do those different aluminum-shaping methods affect the final product?
You even make your own screws sometimes. Why?
The screws for the locking nut are small but rigid. Regular stainlesssteel screws aren’t durable enough for that purpose, so I had to use a stainless-steel alloy that can be hardened. But they have to be custom made, because you can’t buy screws made of that material.
Do you ever plan to unveil new designs—and, if so, when? Or
do you find yourself spending most of your time building the
existing ones and thinking of ways to improve them?
I am very busy with building the current models, but I am working on a new model for next year.
What can you tell us about the new model?
The new model is my journey back into guitar history. It will be an electric guitar, but it will deal with elements from classical guitars and elements of my own work history. The project name is Antonio, and it will be finished for the 2012 Montreal Guitar Show.
What do you say to traditionalists and naysayers who think your
designs are inspired more by a desire to be unique and artistic
than to address practical musical needs?
I once had a talk with David Torn exactly about that, and he said some people say his music isn’t music. Some people say my guitars are not guitars. And some people visit museums of modern art and say “This is not art.” I have a deep respect for traditional guitars, and I have spent many years building them and learning from them. My newer models are founded on this tradition. But guitar playing now seems to mean something akin to taking part in a kind of reenactment—as if you are role-playing the battle of Gettysburg. You could call this the Stradivarization of the electric guitar. But if you don’t see yourself as the role-playing type of guitar player, you might be attracted by the freedom that my guitars will give you— because they don’t lock you into the scenery of a reenactment.