Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Thawing the Ice-Pick

getting a warmer tone from your Strat bridge pickup

For many players, the Strat has one good pickup in the neck.  The middle is simply there to occasionally get a weird two-pickups-in-parallel sound or to cancel 60-cycle hum, and the bridge is there only... ONLY for use with a fuzz pedal.  God forbid you would want to play your bridge pickup through a clean Fender Twin, you might ruin the hearing of everyone in the first row!

Here are a few tips to warm up the tone of that pickup in order of cost and simplicity.

1. Adjust pickup height $0- Make sure your bridge pickup is not too close to the strings.  Depress the high and low E at the last fret and measure from the top of the two poles to the bottom of the string.  Make sure the pickup is no closer than 1/16" and adjust the rest of the pickups to match the volume of the bridge. 

2. Wire the bridge pickup into the middle tone $0- The classic wiring of Strats is to have a tone control for the neck and a tone control for the middle, and the bridge is left out of the tone circuit.  Most modern Strats have the bridge wired in with the middle control.  If your bridge pickup has no tone control, here is a wiring diagram to help you:

3.  Affix a baseplate to the bridge pickup $4- This mod is cheap, easy, and completely reversible, so why not give it a try?  Tele bridge pickups sound amazing because they have a baseplate to raise the inductance, lows, and volume, the same technique can be applied to Strat pickups.  Buy a baseplate from a guitar parts supplier and either apply glue or melt some wax to adhere it to the bottom of the pickup (wax is my preferred method as it is easier to remove later).  Any metal plating on the guitar should always be grounded.  Use a file or course sandpaper to scratch up a section of the baseplate and apply some solder.  Then solder a lead from the baseplate to the back of a potentiometer. 

4. Replace the bridge pickup with a higher output pickup $85- single coils with a greater resistance (measured in ohms) with have more output, more lows, and less highs.  There is a wide variety of drop-in replacements out there that require no modification to the body.  Here is one of my Blue Dog pickups that measures 8.1K ohms in the bridge and uses steel poles and bar magnets like a P-90 for a fat, warm tone. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Lacquer Potting Pickups

Most modern guitar pickups are potted to prevent microphonics.  This can be done with wax or lacquer.  Wax is my preferred method for potting pickups as it is easier to work with and penetrates the coil better, but many vintage pickups from Fender and other brands are potted in lacquer.  Potting in wax also allows you to pot pickups with the cover attached, potting in lacquer should only be done with the cover removed.  By dipping a pickup in wax or lacquer and letting it dry, you are creating a hard casing that holds the individual parts and winds together. 

I use a process incorporating lacquer and wax on my Fender-style exposed-pole pickups.  Potting the bobbins in Lacquer insulates the magnetic poles from the winds, this way a short is prevented if the coating on the winds is thin or starts to corrode.  Once the pickup is completed, it is dipped in wax to prevent microphonics. 

lacquer-potting pickup bobbins

Lacquer-potting bobbins is very simple.  Once the top, bottom, and polepieces are assembled, you can dip the bobbin in brushing lacquer from the hardware store and hang it to dry for 24 hours.  Once drying is complete you can wind it just like a normal pickup.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Common Myths of Scatterwinding

Myth 1. Scatterwinding is just a bunch of hype

Is good tone just hype?  Scatterwinding is putting the most space between each consecutive wind as possible, thereby lowering the capacitance of the pickup.  This is achieved by the winding pattern and the tension of the wire, which is usually done by hand, and takes years of experience.  This is, in my opinion, the most important aspect in pickup making next to resistance and magnetism.

scatterwinding a single coil

Myth 2. Scatterwinding can only be done by hand

Nope.  Although hand-guiding the wire onto the bobbin is probably the best and easiest way, you could get the same results from a machine.  I have heard that when Jason Lollar was starting out pickup winding, he made his own machine that would turn the bobbin and guide the wire automatically.  A pickup can be scatterwound in this way as long as the motion and wire tension are calibrated.  The problem is that machines are consistent and the point of scatterwinding is to be inconsistent, it is hard to replicate the motion of the human hand.

Myth 3. All handwound pickups are scatterwound

Not really.  The winding pattern and the tension are still dependent of a number of variables: machine type, speed, wire type, and most importantly, who is winding the pickup.  All will make a pickup sound different.

Myth 4. Scatterwinding just means randomly guiding the wire onto the bobbin

Wrong, it almost has more to do with wire tension, which takes a lot of time to perfect by hand.  If the pickup is too loose, you won't get the correct number of turns and the pickup will sound thin.  Too tight and it will sound dead.  Here is a useful tool for figuring out the proper tension.

Myth 5. Scatterwound pickups need to be wax potted

Not always.  Microphonics are screeching sounds coming from winds of wire and little parts of the pickup vibrating together.  This can be a big problem when playing at a high volume on stage.  A lot of it has to do with the quality of the parts used, the age of the pickup, and how it was wound.  If you use a pickup that has been made with quality parts that fit together tightly and that has been carefully scatterwound, you do not need wax potting, and that gives your sound extra openness and clarity.  I have been testing this myself for years.

Myth 6. Single coils are scatterwound and humbuckers are not

Traditionally this is the case as most humbuckers are wound on a machine.  Personally, I prefer all pickups to be scatterwound.  Anywone who plays a with a humbucker in the neck position knows that it doesn't really cut through the mix as well as the bridge in a band situation, try using a scatterwound humbucker!

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

How to solder

Here is a quick video I made showing basic soldering skills:

Some key points to consider:

1.  use a quality soldering iron with adjustable temp control.  If your temp is too low you might cook the internal parts of the potentiometer before you melt your solder.
2. get in, solder, and get out as quick as possible to minimize heat on delicate components.
3. score the area you are soldering with 80 or 120 grit sandpaper.
4. tin your wires and lugs, ALWAYS.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Acid-aging guitar parts

using muriatic acid to make parts look 60 years old!

Depending on their environment and how often they are played, guitars can start to deteriorate in appearance.  This can make a guitar feel and look more "played" and "broken in".  You can replicate this look on a new guitar in a number of ways using sandpaper, and various metal objects.  I personally prefer a subtle bit of aging that catches the eye, it's easy to go overboard.  

Muriatic acid replicates years of oxidation in a matter of hours, and can be purchased at your local hardware store.  Be mindful to use gloves and goggles when handling it, this stuff will burn your skin!  A respirator is also advised since the acid puts off gasses when aging metal, and do it in a well ventilated area away from children and pets.  


You'll need a plastic container (the acid will not eat away at plastic).  I used these old food containers.  I've got a 4 oz perforated with holes for the top and an 8 oz for the bottom.

Arrange the parts on a single layer in the perforated 4 oz dish.  Nickel parts age nicely, chrome and gold also work.  Place the 4 oz dish in the 8 oz dish to catch the acid.

carefully pour acid over all of the parts.  The liquid then drains into the bottom and the parts remain suspended.  I have found the gas does the best aging, rather than submerging the parts in the liquid.

Carefully place the lid on top to trap the gasses, DO NOT PRESS DOWN, exerting force on these containers could split the side, then you'll have acid all over!  Not good.

Let the parts sit and check on them periodically.  When they are to your liking, rinse them in water and dump out the used acid, or save it for another use.  Keep in mind as the parts dry they will oxidize a bit more.  I would not recommend doing this with tuners or bridges as the oxidation will eventually seize the parts together.  I also only age covers, poles, and baseplates, the pickup coil would not last long in acid.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Stereo Guitars

Why would you need a stereo guitar?

If you have ever listened to music on a car stereo or headphones you can probably appreciate the importance of stereo.  Have you ever panned all of the music to either the left or right side?  It sounds like something is missing right?  Well once you hear a guitar in stereo, mono will never sound the same again.  It is a fuller, richer sound and opens up a whole new world of possibility.

Guitars are typically wired in mono, but a few companies are making stereo guitars these days.  These are usually two-pickup guitars with a jack for each pickup.  This means you have to have two cables hanging from your guitar while you play!  As far as I am concerned the only thing worse than one cable is two.

A normal mono cable on the left and a stereo cable on the right

The Skyliner guitar has one jack that you can use either a mono cable or a stereo cable in.  Plug in a mono cable and it operates just like a normal guitar.  Plug in a stereo cable, the included A/B footswitch, and put the guitar in stereo mode and you are ready to conquer the universe!

The footswitch has one input for the stereo cable and two mono outputs, one for the bridge pickup and one for the neck pickup.  You can run the two channels independently to select one, both, or none, and the LED indicator lights tell you if the channel is active.  This way you can run separate effects and amps for the two pickups.  This gives you the fullness of two guitars when only one is playing.  Here is a demo of the Skyliner Stereo guitar:

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Teisco Gold Foil repair

fixing a vintage Gold Foil pickup

I bought this '60s made in Japan Gold Foil on eBay "as-is" with the intent to repair it.  It had no output and showed no resistance on the meter so I took the cover off by removing the phillips head screws on top.  

Next I removed the magnets which are simply held in place by their own magnetism on either side of the coil.  They were installed with South polarity facing up.  As I was inspecting the coil, I removed some tape and noticed the tiny 44 gauge coil wire had become detached from the white lead wire.  I resoldered and checked the resistance, it was now showing 5.3K.  

This might seem like a low resistance for a single coil, but don't be fooled!  The low resistance makes these nice and clear while the powerful magnets and the squatty coil make it sound full and fat.  I have repaired another Teisco Gold Foil that was around 6.3K and I have seen DeArmond pickups showing upwards of 10K, so there is quite a variance in specs of what is called a "Gold Foil".  I based my own Humbucker-size Gold Foil pickups on vintage pickups I see come into the shop.

When dealing with classic pickups like this, it is always better to use the original coil if possible for the most authentic tone.  The most common cause of dead pickups I see is sweat or moisture corroding the coils.  Usually there is no other way to repair a corroded coil than to rewind it, which I will do with vintage-spec wire to the appropriate number of turns.  Rewinds usually cost about $50 per coil. 

With this pickup I will probably wax pot it so that it will be less microphonic and install in a Telecaster.  Here is a quick video I made of the pickup in my tester guitar: