Photo 1 — The essentials: a low-watt soldering iron, a stand, a small damp sponge, and a roll of “electronic silver solder” like this .020" 60/40 tin/lead rosin flux solder from Kester.

Learn to solder like a pro in this easy-to-follow demonstration.

Given the DIY nature of this issue, we thought it would be appropriate to address good soldering technique. If you’re willing to invest a few bucks in some modest tools and spend a little time practicing the basics, you can learn to wire up guitars, stomp kits, speaker cabinets, and even do some simple amp mods. Once you understand the fundamentals, you can save money and derive a lot of satisfaction from working on your own gear.

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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

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

Just what does it mean when a pickup is "hot"?

Get Wired Some pickups are “hotter” than others. But what does this mean? Does it mean that these pickups will push an amplifier harder, resulting in more gain and volume? Yes. Does it mean that these pickups will impart a warmer, fuller tone? Generally, yes. But why is this? And how do you make a pickup hotter? And how does DC resistance correlate to “hotness” or output?

Let’s consider again how a pickup “picks up” the string vibration and how this is turned into something musical.

Pickups use coils of wire and magnets as their core components. The ferrous guitar strings pass through the magnetic field that exists above the pickup, and as the strings vibrate, they move the magnetic field, while the coil(s) remains stationary. This movement of the magnetic field relative to the stationary coil induces voltage, which is sent to the amp.

If you were to make a device wherein the mobility of the two components was reversed—that is, where the coil moved relative to a stationary magnetic field— then this device would also induce voltage (and would be called a generator).

The voltage that’s generated by a pickup is measured in millivolts, and you can increase its strength in several ways:
  1. Increase the strength of the magnetic field
  2. Increase the size of the coil by adding more wire wraps to it
  3. Increase the force with which the string is excited (pluck it harder)
  4. Increase the content of magnetic material in the strings
  5. Increase the mass of the strings
If you think of the magnetic field as being able to “grab onto” the strings, then you can see that it would hold on more tightly to a string with a higher iron content, for instance, than it would to a string with a lower iron content. So heavier strings of a given brand, having more iron content (more steel mass) than a lighter set of the same brand of strings, would move the magnetic field to a greater degree when a string is plucked, and would generate more voltage in the process. This is one reason for the difference in tone between heavier strings and lighter strings.

Similarly, if we increase the strength of the pickup’s magnetic field, all other things remaining equal, we’ll get a higher voltage. And if we add more turns of magnet wire onto the coil, we’ll get a higher voltage. In either case, this higher input voltage will drive the amplifier harder, resulting in more gain, and more volume.

There is also a tonal change. As the voltage increases—and again, all other things remaining equal—we’ll see more mids and less highs, at least up to a point.

Fender and Gibson are really the two makers who defined what now constitutes 90 percent or more of the pickup market. In the early days of the electric guitar, many designs were tried, as is usually the case with new technologies. But Fender and Gibson came up with enduring form factors: the PAF humbucker, the P-90, the Strat pickup, and the Tele pickup. The majority of guitars currently in production use one or more of these, and the overwhelming majority of replacement pickups being produced derive their form factor and basic architecture from these five designs.

There have been many other influential designs, of course, such as the Gretsch FilterTron (and its DeArmond predecessors), as well as other pickups from Fender and Gibson, such as the Jaguar and Jazzmaster pickups. And of course there are very popular bass pickup designs, such as Fender’s Precision Bass and Jazz Bass pickups, as well as various soapbar designs. But when we exclude bass guitars from the discussion, the five designs listed above really define the market.

But because these five pickups all have a different form factor and construction details, they vary considerably. The statement “all other things remaining equal” certainly doesn’t apply here.

So, let’s look at each in detail. We’ll start next month!

George Ellison
Founder, Acme Guitar Works

Lindy Fralin talks pickups and gives us some tips for our P-90s.

Last month we discussed some things to think about if you’re considering a pickup replacement. I alluded to some conversations I’ve had with Lindy Fralin, and thought you’d like to get his perspective. In case you don’t know, Lindy is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable pickup guys on the planet. Countless heavyweights have turned to him for tonal assistance over the years.

Get Wired
Lindy Fralin’s Steel-Pole pickups are constructed like P-90s, but in a Strat form factor and are fairly hot – but that doesn’t make them “rock-only”
I was in Lindy’s shop several years ago and he had a bunch of guitars that they use to test pickups. One of the Strats had Lindy’s Steel-Pole pickups in it, in all three positions. This particular pickup is constructed like a P-90, but in a Strat form factor, and is a fairly hot pickup. We often sell these pickups to people for use in the bridge, to beef up that position a little. Somewhat less frequently we’ll sell a complete set of them, but many people fear that this pickup will be too hot for the neck and middle positions, and that using them in these positions would sacrifice their Strat’s “chimey-ness.”

So I asked Lindy about this guitar in his shop that had these pickups in all three positions, and he commented that they had tried many different pickups in that guitar, and that it was so inherently bright that it needed the output of the Steel-Pole pickups in order to warm it up tonally. It was too “brittle” sounding with the lower output pickups they had tried.

This is an interesting consideration. What Lindy didn’t say was, “We wanted that guitar to shred, so we put hot pickups in it,” or “We use that guitar to play loud, obnoxious rock n’ roll, and needed it to pummel the front of that Dual Rectifier over in the corner.”

A lot of customers that we speak with get caught up with the names of pickups or their “output” (which I’ve put in quotes since DC resistance is usually the only measurement considered), and I think this is unfortunate. For instance, the word “blues” in the name of a pickup can lead to misperceptions such as, “This pickup would be inappropriate for me, because I don’t play the blues.” Similarly, the words “high-output” in the name will often lead to comments such as, “Not for me; I don’t play heavy metal.” The concept being adhered to here is that more output is more appropriate only for heavier types of music, where more gain and volume are desired. But the new paradigm that Lindy has introduced is that pickup selection is often more about choosing a set of pickups whose output will work with the inherent tonality of the guitar (and other factors such as the amp and the player’s ears) in order to arrive at the desired tonal destination.

I think any pickup manufacturer will tell you that a situation they encounter daily is that people call them looking for pickup recommendations. It probably seems to the consumer that no one would be better equipped to do this, since the manufacturer has more experience with their own product line than anyone else, and of course there’s some truth to that. What’s probably less apparent to the consumer, however, is that the pickup manufacturer is missing a lot of the information needed to make a reliable recommendation. The manufacturer has no knowledge of the guitar’s inherent tonality, and while the consumer will often be asked questions about what kind of gear they’re using and what type of music they primarily play, the person conducting the interview will still be left with only a cursory grasp of the situation.

Then there’s the plethora of ambiguous terms used to define tone – words like “chime,” “quack,” “smooth,” “hair” and “creamy.” I think it’s safe to assume these words mean different things to different people. Customers also use terms like “lowmids” and “highs” to define what they’re looking for, but what frequency ranges are these, exactly? In any case, suffice it to say that, again, these terms mean different things to different people.

So what’s a manufacturer to do? Take a stab at it. The manufacturer listens to the customer and makes an educated guess, but in the end, it’s only a guess. And of course it’s also only a guess when consumers arrive at their own decision, and for this reason many manufacturers have a replacement policy. Many, for instance, give the customer a period of time to try a set of pickups, with the option of exchanging them if they haven’t taken the customer to his desired tonal destination.

Of course, at this point the manufacturer will have an advantage that they didn’t have before: they have a frame of reference. Once a set of their pickups is in a particular guitar, being influenced by that guitar’s inherent tonality, played by the customer through his gear, with his hands, and being listened to with his ears, subsequent input from the customer becomes much more meaningful. Since they now have a baseline, the manufacturer can home in on an appropriate choice.

Next month: more about the differences in pickups and how these differences affect a pickup’s output and tone.

George Ellison
Founder, Acme Guitar Works