wound for tone

WCR has been hand-winding pickups for about 15 years now. I hope I can shed some light as to how WCR’s tones are achieved, and why they have become a benchmark to many

Hello PG readers! I was blown away when Trent and Brett asked me to write an article for the first issue of Premier Guitar. I thank them mightily for the opportunity to try to get some of my ideas across to all of you tone freaks.

WCR has been hand-winding pickups for about 15 years now. I hope I can shed some light as to how WCR’s tones are achieved, and why they have become a benchmark to many.

I was always amazed at the fantastic tones of an old humbucker blasting through Marshalls. Even way back then, those pickups were going for an easy $750-$1500 per set (you know which ones I mean...). Well beyond my reach, I decided to wind my own. Although early on I used the same old material types, I just could not get those magnificent tones. So I tried radically different approaches using different wire, magnet configuration, potting material, and so on. This gave me my first success, the Fillmore Set; I got what I was after, and had my own, new style. Wound For Tone

Personal hand-winding style had a huge effect on WCR’s product, and I found I could use brand new materials to get great old, vintage tones (listen to “Stormy” on our website).

Personal hand-winding styles/patterns are of extreme importance to great tone. There are many variants in a wind that can, and will, change the tone. Wire type, gauge, insulation, tension, speed, patterns, magnet type, strength and placement, potting material and application technique, even the type of tape, amount of, and tension on it will all effect the outcome. Each is a very small thing, but they all add up.

Put your ear directly on your favorite axe, and imagine still hearing all of that great tone coming out the speakers when plugged in. That kind of harmonic clarity, sustain, and excellent note separation, even in high gain situations, are all very obvious components in high-end pickups, including those from WCR (you can listen to clips on our website).

The next huge improvement came in the potting, or coil-saturation dept. Wax to me is a huge killer of tone. It acts like one of those run-away-truck stops on the highways. The truck (guitar resonations) plows into the loose gravel (the wax) and quickly comes to a dead stop. Wax is a good thing to use if you need something to kill shrill highs, or squealing caused by a loose, fast, lousy un-controlled wind, or an improperly installed cover. After several years of trial and error, we found a perfect material that not only stops the un-wanted squeals, but also still allows the true tone and resonation of the guitar to shine through the coils like they should. It’s the same with covers; when done right, they can add a different, desirable dimension to the end tones.

Theory has it that the electrons do not move through the inside of the wire, but rather along the outside of it. Since the wire is wrapped over itself many times, there are many different electron collisions happening, and the pattern will shape how they occur, and color the sound. Intense, independent hands-on quality control on each coil will out-do a machine-wind everytime. Automation is too perfect, and the human ear is not. Perfection is just too sterile sounding to the average ear.

Consistency in style is vital, and sadly, very, very few hand-winders are. In fact, there are very few true hand-winders left. I have been jokingly told it is a black art! Just like learning guitar, it takes practice, practice, and practice! It is not rocket science. It is long, hard hours of study. With the proper hand-winding expertise, correct metal alloys, plastics, wire, building techniques and detail, it is more than possible to make pickups that sound as good as, and even better, than the early buckers. They certainly were not cryogenically freezing them in the 50s … and they sounded most excellent both then and now.

After literally thousands of hours of practice, the procedure is extremely well established. Take advantage of true hands-on experience, and give us a try. You’ll never go back!

Jim Wagner
WCR Pickups

It can be difficult, confusing as hell to the untrained ear and possibly expensive, depending on your budget

It can be difficult, confusing as hell to the untrained ear and possibly expensive, depending on your budget.

How can you tell (in advance) what pickup will be right for the sound you want?

If you don''t already know, then you simply can''t answer this question without help or a lot of work. You will have to rely on someone you believe you can trust. This could be a friend, a guitar repairman with a good reputation, a cool guitar shop known for their expertise, or even a pickup company that you have heard good things about.

There are many online sites with reviews of pickups from all the manufacturers. Validating the information found there is another matter altogether. Sound clips are great, but do they represent your guitar, your rig, in your environment? Pickup tone charts generally only talk about the characteristics of the pickup itself and might even confuse you more. If you are new to the pickup game, understanding all the vague jargon just doesn''t happen overnight. Do you really want to go back to school just to change your pickups? I don''t think so. You just want to improve your tone and get back to playing your guitar!

In this month’s “Wound for Tone,” I will try to lay down some simple guidelines to get us at least close, if not on the mark in choosing a pickup. And for the sake of keeping it simple in this article, I will focus on single coil pickups for Strat-style guitars. Let''s simplify and break it down:

First, your existing pickups must be properly adjusted...
for a true evaluation of what your guitar is capable of. Bring the pickups as close as possible to the strings without physical, or sonic (particularly on the low E string, usually manifested as weird overtones) interference. This is usually about 1/8” from the high E when the string is depressed at the last fret, and as somewhere around 1/8”- 1/4” clearance on the low E depressed at the last fret.

Describe what you like and don''t...
like about the sound of each pickup. Is the neck meaty? Rich? Sound like Stevie? Is the middle clean, strong but full, rhythm supreme? Does the bridge have good, clean bite and cut through? Do your combinations have that quack? Is there hum canceling for bad hum situations?

Analyze the tone personality...
of your guitar. Consider the weight of your guitar, particularly the density of the wood used, which is the number one factor in the tone. The less dense a body is, the lighter it will be and so on. The neck will certainly play a part, as well as hardware types, and so on, but generally to a lesser degree. An often-used generalization is that maple necks are brighter than rosewood- necked guitars. This is a factor, but a very light guitar will almost always sound warmer with any quality set of pickups (warmer is not always enough for tone hounds!). A medium weight instrument can go either way, while a heavy guitar typically is thinner or bright sounding while breaking your back at the same time.

I often hear complaints that a guitar sounds too weak overall with the bridge position being way too thin, often to the point of being unusable. It is clear in these cases that a stronger pickup is needed in the bridge position. That''s why Rio Grande, like most pickup makers, offers more than one style (output) of Strat pickup. These guitars may need a hotter pickup, with more signal to work with, such as our Muy Grande or Dirty Harry (which is actually a miniature P-90).

In most cases pickup configuration, as in all things, is personal taste. For myself, a tapered set is an absolute necessity. Your guitar is physically tapered from the day it was made. A tapered (often referred to as calibrated) set of pickups is only natural. Smooth and round for the neck, solid and compatible for the middle, and strong and punchy for the bridge. That is a set getting stronger from the neck towards the bridge. You can have all these things and still retain pure natural Strat tones without going overboard.

We will change pickups in guitars, usually for one main reason: we do not like the sound we are getting from the guitar. The pickups are the most important variable you have control of on your guitar. Try a new set, you will be amazed at how much it may affect your sound. Once you get a set of pickups you''re happy with, you won''t have to fight your rig for tone!

One thing is certain...good tone makes you feel and play better. There are lots of pickups out there, so happy hunting!

Dave Wintz
Dave Wintz founded Robin Guitars in 1982, and Rio Grande Pickups with Bart Wittrock in 1994, and continues to be involved with both.

My fascination with music dates back to an experience that changed my life: witnessing Bo Diddley perform in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1957. Bo’s performance was electrifying, and he had a wall of speakers that, nearly literally, blew me away. After that, everything was different.

As soon as I got home I started begging my father for an electric guitar, but he flatout refused to give me one. So, I took an old acoustic guitar and modified it with steel strings and a magnetic pickup I fashioned, and then I rummaged together parts to build my own amplifier. It didn’t sound great, but it worked. That was my first lesson in the science of building musical equipment. It certainly wouldn’t be my last.

I realize that some Premier Guitar readers may not know that we wind our own pickups at Peavey, but that fact is that we’ve been winding our own pickups since day one with the T-60 guitar. I’ve always held the philosophy that in order to be better, by definition you have to be different. The inspiration for our new HP Special pickups – the first Peavey pickups ever offered as aftermarket components – came from the same place as many other innovative products in the Peavey catalog: dissatisfaction with what other companies are making, and input from musicians to the same end.

Wound For Tone Inconsistency is a recurring problem in so many areas of guitar making – that’s why I began using precision CNC techniques in instrument building – and it’s no different with pickup winding. The HP Special pickup is based on a patented design to ensure consistent tone above all else. We developed a flywheel winding technique to wind every pickup consistently. Some methods of machine winding can result in more wire tension on the ends of the bobbin than in the middle, and cause the pickup’s output to vary. Our method of winding keeps the tension levels consistent all around the bobbin so the tone is always consistent.

Coil tapping is a standard feature on both the bridge and neck pickups on our HP Special guitars, and we’ve resolved the tone problems of coil-tapped pickups by varying the wire gauges. Most “tapped” pickups don’t sound like true single-coil pickups because they are wound as humbuckers. We wind HP Special pickups with two different gauges of wire so you get a true single-coil tone when you tap them, and humbucker tone when you run them in the standard configuration.

Technically speaking, HP Special pickups are four-conductor, hum-canceling pickups that use alnico magnets. The HP-B Custom, or bridge position pickup, has a balanced coil configuration that produces super harmonics with a high output and just the right blend of sustain and distortion (not harsh or dark). You get the best of both worlds: from warm, sweet tones to raw rock ‘n’ roll sustain. It measures out at 16.4k D.C. resistance with a 5.5 kHz resonant peak. The HP-F Custom, or neck position pickup, is voiced to produce accurate, clear tone for fast, articulate runs. Its brighter sound has slightly less output that makes it a good match with the HP-B. It measures out at 7.72 k D.C. resistance with an 8.0 kHz resonant peak.

Dating back to my first encounter with pickup winding, I knew that pickups were only part of the “tone” equation. The other part is matching pickups to your instrument. Some players get in trouble when they start switching out pickups haphazardly, and they kill everything that is unique and balanced about their guitar’s tone. Certain wood combinations are matched together for a reason, like mahogany and maple or basswood and maple, and so should pickups be matched to your guitar’s woods, and even your amplifier. HP Special pickups are voiced to give an accurate representation of the sound of your instrument.

Caveat: some folks would have us believe there is magic in how musical instruments are made. As much as I’d love to tell people that our pickups sound great because we wind them under a full moon in a Mississippi swamp, that simply isn’t true. “Magic” is just a way to describe things we can’t understand. Once we understand them, they become science. And when you know the formula, you can do anything you want to the formula!

Hartley Peavey
Peavey Electronics