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May 2014

The Guts of the Thing


Get Wired Last month we decided to focus in-depth on pickups, so I thought we’d start with the Stratocaster, since it’s the best. Yes it is. Oh yes it is. Oh yes it IS.

Have a look at these illustrations of a Strat pickup with and without its cover. The cover just slips on and off, in case you were wondering. The original design called for an exposed coil, wound directly on the magnets. The plastic cover slipped over the coil to protect it before the pickup was mounted into the pickguard.

Perhaps it didn’t occur to Fender that people would disassemble their guitars to modify or replace their pickups and wiring schemes. Surely in 1953 Leo wouldn’t have foreseen the massive aftermarket pickup industry that would spring up in later decades, and he probably couldn’t have anticipated the huge DIY movement that we see today. Still, there are some people in the pickup community who feel that this removable cover was a major design flaw, since the coil is completely exposed and really vulnerable to damage when the cover is removed.

As you can see in the following illustrations, there are only a few parts to the pickup; it’s a very simple design.

There are two flat plates made out of vulcanized fibre, six magnets, and a coil of wire.

So there you have it, the innards shown, er, outwardly.

The magnets used by Fender were alnico 5. Alnico describes the magnet’s content, which is ALuminum, NIckel, and CObalt (with a few other metals thrown in for good measure). There are a number of different alnico alloys; the ones commonly used in pickup making are 2, 3, 4, and 5. But because the aluminum, nickel, and cobalt percentages can vary pretty widely, there are thousands of possible variants. Much has been made about the importance of this component in reproducing those great Strat tones of the fifties and sixties, but I think you could argue that we don’t know the exact makeup of the alloys Fender used back in the day—though this could probably be ascertained, if anyone cares to donate their old pickups for lab analysis.

Of course you could also argue that the magnet alloys used in Fender guitars may have changed over the years, since it’s probable that like most manufacturers with a production schedule to meet, Fender bought from more than one supplier.

The coil wire used was 42 AWG (American wire gauge) copper, insulated with Formvar (polyvinyl formal). The ends of this wire were wrapped through eyelets attached to the bottom plate, and then heavier, human-friendly 22 AWG leads took over from there.

Fender used 1800 turns of wire on the coil, yielding a total DC resistance of between 5800 and 6200 ohms, per Forrest White (Plant Manager, then VP and General Manager of Fender from 1954 through the beginning of 1965).

Next up: Telecasters!

George Ellison
Founder, Acme Guitar Works

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