The Fluence team at Fishman (left to right): Larry Fishman; VP of OEM Sales Rob Ketch; Fluence project manager Charlie Russell; Electrical Engineer John Eck; R&D head Ching-Yu Lin.
I highly recommend having a conversation with Ritchie Fliegler. Fliegler, a guitar industry vet boasting lengthy tenures at both Fender and Marshall, is psyched about his new collaboration with Larry Fishman. That project can—correction, will—change the way you think about electric guitar pickups.
My initial “pre-interview” with Fliegler lasted almost two hours. We discussed everything from aerospace technology to Lionel trains, from Hendrix’s association with Marshall to why no one considers the New York Philharmonic to be a cover band. And somehow it all seemed relevant. Within days I was on my way to Massachusetts to meet with the team at Fishman.
We’re accustomed to hearing about “the next new thing” in pickups every time NAMM season comes around. What the Fishman team has concocted is not a new sound. Quite the opposite: It’s a way to consistently and accurately recreate the sounds of the world’s best pickups.
Pickups: A Black Art?
Pickup winding can be something of a black art. No matter the manufacturer or the person doing the winding, one pickup can sound different from the next. Even with consistent production methods, there are such wild card factors as inconsistency in the raw materials used by the manufacturer.
Guitars, too, are also full of uncontrollable variables. For one thing, they’re made from trees, and trees vary. So do wood-drying conditions, shaping techniques, manufacturing and assembly methods, and the design of the metal and plastic parts we attach to that wood.
But for all of us electric guitar huggers, sound eventually comes down to that critical point where a vibrating string excites a pickup magnet. The invisible events that occur in that instant are responsible for all the things we love about pickups—and many of the things that frustrate us.
The sound coming from a vintage ’54 Stratocaster pickup or a ’57 PAF humbucker can be magical. But according to Larry Fishman, that “magic” is precisely why his company sidestepped electric guitar pickups for its first 34 years: “Too much voodoo,” he says. Fishman felt he could match the performance of existing electric guitar pickups, but not bring anything new to the party—until now.
About 18 months ago Fishman and his team started thinking about magnetic pickups in a bold unique new way. The result is a new pickup line: Fluence.
A New Path to Old Sounds
Understanding what’s unique about Fluence requires an understanding of how traditional pickups work—and don’t work. Like beloved family members, pickups have their faults. But as anyone associated with Fluence will tell you, this is not a story focused on bashing traditional pickups. Rather, it’s a love story about preserving the best qualities of great pickups without their associated problems, and at a reasonable cost.
Layers of printed coils awaiting magnets. The small rings are “vias” that electrically connect the layers.
A bit of pickup history: In the early 1930s, George Beauchamp applied for a patent on an odd looking guitar-like instrument that included a “pickup.” (The patent uses the variations “pickup,” “pick–up” and “pick up” interchangeably.) His invention was the now-famous Rickenbacker “Frying Pan,” which hosted the first guitar pickup. (To acquire the patent, Adolph Rickenbacker had to send Hawaiian guitarist Sol Hoopii to Washington to demonstrate Beauchamp’s invention, proving to U.S. Patent Office examiners that it worked.)
While there have been thousands of pickup variations and refinements over the last 80 years, most of today’s magnetic guitar pickups aren’t all that different from Beauchamp’s invention. In a conventional pickup, a continuous length of copper wire is wound thousands of times around a bobbin or coil former, surrounding the magnet or magnets. (The wire doesn’t short itself out because the copper strand is coated with a thin layer of insulating material.)
Fluence, however, is based on the notion that coils can be applied rather than wound. Like traces on a circuit board, concentric spirals of “coil” can be printed. Picture, for example, a racetrack- shaped printed circuit board the size of a Stratocaster pickup, with an opening in its center reserved for magnets. One board can hold one spiral, and because it’s printed, each copy is perfectly consistent. The next step involves stacking multiple layers of printed coils and interconnecting them until “pickup” ability is reached. It’s a technique used in the aerospace and telecommunications industries, though it’s never been applied to guitars.