February 2017
more... GearBuilder ProfileDecember 2008Lollar

Jason Lollar: The Pickup Artist

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“Scatter wound” shows up frequently on your website, and is a frequently used buzzword in the boutique arena. Could you define that technique for our readers and how it affects the sound of a pickup?

There are different definitions of what scatterwound means. I think most people use it as a term to differentiate between winding by hand, which means guiding the wire back and forth by hand in a more random pattern while the pickup is spun with a machine, versus a machine that automatically traverses the wire across the pickup for you. It’s argued that the machine lays the coil with each layer of the wire parallel to the next which increases the way the coil acts like a capacitor and makes it bleed off treble as capacitance increases. In practice, auto traverse machines don’t really work like that.

Scatterwound can also mean that you are using more pitch to the traverse; this means rather than going across from side to side of the coil, traversing the distance once for each 100 times the coil rotates, you go across 20 or more times per 100 rotations. Another way to look at it is if you unwind a pickup with one traverse per 100 rotations, you would unwind 100 turns before the wire changes direction across the coil and in the latter you would unwind 20 turns before the wire changes direction. Less turns per layer makes a bulkier coil with more air space in it, which normally translates to a clearer tone that can also sound fatter at the same time.

How do you maintain consistency when you’re hand-building everything?

I have a lot of experience manufacturing, mostly in small shops doing production items. We are actually fairly advanced as far as techniques for quality control, and without knowing it until recently I sort of followed a system called Total Quality Management – most of this is common sense once you get a lot of experience in a production environment, but TQM is actually a more elaborated and clear set of principals. Basically it’s a way of keeping track, working to a certain level of quality with the product and extends all the way to how you deal with your customers.

As far as the pickups themselves, we have collected and charted all of the dimensional variations, turn counts and electrical qualities. We have averages for thousands of samples. Every step of the process is compared to these numbers and we make sure they match up to within a certain percentage. If something is off then I start investigating what the variables are or I find out if there is a problem. There are times I will have to reject a product if it doesn’t make the grade – we don’t sell seconds, but anymore I have the procedures down, so any problem is usually caught early on and resolved before a number of off-spec pickups are made. Every pickup goes through about 12 different testing points that occur all throughout the building procedure. Having talked to a lot of other pickup makers, I know I have one of the most rigorous testing routines used. Having made as many pickups as I have, in some ways it makes it easier to find inconsistencies. Making 30 of the same pickup at a time instead of one makes it easier to spot a pickup that is off-spec from the others. If you make one at a time, it’s harder to tell if the resistance is off from a short circuit, wire thickness variations, air temperature differences or some other variable.

The Pickup Artist
Strat pickup (white) and ES-300 (tortoise) for 1940s-style Gibson lap steels
Does age have a discernable effect on a pickup’s tone? Can your pickups sound as good, or better, than true vintage examples?

I have a feeling the wire in the coil does change a little with age, but I have no way to prove that. The old magnets do have some different impurities than new ones—I have sent parts off to be vaporized and run through a spectrum analysis machine. Also, magnets will discharge to various levels after they are put into most types of pickup assemblies. Most old pickups, if you recharge them, will read noticeably higher than before. On most of my pickups, I discharge the magnets partially— various levels of magnetic strength do sound noticeably different. I try to make each pickup design I sell sound as best as it can. I developed all of my line over time, making changes and comparisons to previous versions to really polish the results.

I listen to countless vintage instruments and compare them to my pickups as well. Often there is some difference, but even old pickups sound different from each other. I am not completely concerned if mine sound exactly like some vintage example. My concern is that if you were to compare mine, would it sound favorably similar? Even to the point where the difference it has is considered a strong point, worthy of getting a comment that it may even sound better than the best vintage example.

The Pickup Artist
Lollar Concert Archtop Guitar
There are so many esoteric claims and theories floating around in the boutique pickup world—how can players sort out what is true and what is just marketing speak? Are there any theories or ideas you’ve heard that strike you as patently untrue?

A lot of the claims and theories out there have just been repeated over and over—copied from one book or article to another for decades without having anyone examine them. If it sounds like BS, it probably is. There is no truth police for advertising. If someone is saying they have discovered some secret no one else has, it’s probably BS. If they are way undercharging everyone else but saying it’s of similar quality, it’s probably BS. One thing I see repeated over and over is the claim that just because a pickup is hand-wound means it’s better than anything else. Claims like, “My hand-wound pickups are better than any machine-wound pickup,” with hand-wound meaning hand-guided traverse. I would bet most of the guys claiming that have never run an auto traverse machine, so they can’t honestly know what the difference is. It’s not just how it is wound or just what materials are used; it’s all of that together plus having a vision of what outcome you want as a result. If you can’t make it consistently, you don’t have anything.
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