Replacement Pickups

There is a massive array of pickups available and I have absolutely no bias towards any particular brand. I’ll fit whatever you want (or think you want!) and if need guidance to choose an electronics set-up that nails ‘that’ sound then I have tried a lot of pickups and can advice you according to your budget. I also have picked up a lot of little tricks along the way. Les Paul Players - ask me about my no switch coil-tap trick! But here’s some thought on replacement pups.

Di Marzio were the first brand to create any serious replacement alternative to the stock pups fitted in Fenders and Gibsons and their PAFs, originally launched in the late 70s, are still awesome. They have the characteristic PAF pick attack with that slightly microphonic effect (for want of a better word) and a useful ability to back off the volume control to clean up.

Seymour Duncan was the next really boutique brand to launch - Seymour himself used to hand-wind them apparently and their range now is mind-boggling. They launched in the late 70s and the rest is now history – you cannot really go serious wrong with any of their replacement pups – but there are alternatives.

From the US, I love Lollar pups in a Strat – especially the lower impedance models - and Lindy Fralins come a close second. If you are seeking a truly head-turning sound from a Strat, the Lollar Vintage Blonde set straight into an basic valve amp like a Princeton or Deluxe will make you want to have its babies! Trust me.

There are also some really great UK based replacement pup manufacturers out there at similar price points - Bare-Knuckle spring to mind and offer something for any style. All scatter-wound and wax-potted.

At a lower budget, I am a great fan of 2 brands - and I am not connected with either incidentally. I have just put a lot into guitars recently and I like the sound and especially the price.

GFS have a large range and some really interesting left field stuff – check out their Dream 180s – I have a pair in a sunburst Tele and they offer a very different and unique sound. Worth a serious look also are ToneRider – again from the US. They have a more classic offering by way of range, but their True Vintage Strat set that mix alnico 3 and 5 magnets in the same set create a classic late 50s vintage tone and their PAFs have revitalised an old 70s Les Paul of mine. Do not be put off by the lower cost (sadly not that startling now due to the $/£ rate) – they are serious pups if you are looking to revive a guitar or up your game with a Squire or Epiphone.

I am now going to leave all you Strat players with a very sad thought. Back in the seventies, when the replacement pickup market started to take off, players wanted more output – it was the fashion. So guitarist from all over the world junked their original Strat pickups for more fashionable higher-powered replacements. A luthier friend of mine recalls “I just chucked all these old pickups, from Fenders mainly that I had swapped out for the latest new thing, into an old box in the corner. After a while, I didn’t know what to do with them and no-one wanted old weaker Fender pickups any more. I had to make space in the workshop and took the whole box down to the dump!” Doh!

Vintage Pickups – Facts and Fallacy!

Actually there was a huge amount of variation in the way in which pickups were manufactured during the so-called golden years of electric guitar making, and a huge amount of the tonal legacy and mystique that we attribute to this era is probably no more than accidental! Quality control was at the behest of those individuals on the production line and don’t forget that in the now sought after era of the Strat, being such an innovative guitar, they could hardly keep up with production at the time.

At Gibson, because the winding machines did not have automatic shutoff until the early 60’s, the coils could overwind until the winder turned the machine off manually. PAF Humbuckers should normally have 5,000 turns of AWG 42 Plain Enamel copper wire, but the winding machines were not monitored closely, and they would easily overwind. This is why Gibson P.A.F. pickups had a variance in DC resistance

PAF History

Lets start with a little history about the fabled Gibson PAF pickup. By the mid-50s, Fender had become a serious competitor in the solid body electric guitar market. Gibson needed to respond to this threat and they sought to do this with their Les Paul model which had very high quality production values –glued neck, ample capped mahogany body edge binding as opposed to Leo Fender’s mass-production innovations such as the bolt-on neck and the in-line headstock. They felt that these high quality guitars needed some else – a low noise, high quality pick up.

The problem all single coil pickups is something inherent in their designs, allowing mains noise to interfere with the sound. In a word they are very sensitive to hum – ever played a Strat near a dimmer switch and you’ll know what I mean. And Gibson’s P-90s (their single coil pickups – much underrated by the way) were no exception. Seth Lover, Gibson’s engineer assigned to solve the problem, discovered that if you connected two single coil pickups in series but out-of-phase electrically (and magnetically), the interference signal of one coil cancelled out the interference picked up by the other coil. Hence the term Humbucker.

The patent for the pickup design was filed mid 1955 and Gibson added the new pickups to their electric solid-body (and arch-top guitars) including the Les Paul in 1957. Later that year, a small label was added to the back of the pickup that read, "PATENT APPLIED FOR" (PAF).

PAF Magnets

Up until 1961 Gibson used varying strength of magnets in their PAFs. The magnets used were Alnico (an alloy of ALuminium, NIckel, and CObalt) and they are graded according to their strength. The Gibson factory generally used the same magnets, which they had bought in for their original P-90 pickups. But Gibson randomly used Alnico 2,3,4,5 grade magnets in PAFs all the way through until 1961. This, together with the inconsistencies in winding turns easily accounts for how two Gibson PAF pickups can sound quite different. By 1965 though Alnico 5 was the standard for all Gibson humbuckers.

The pickups were wound with AWG42 coated with plain enamel. Gibson eventually switched to polyurethane coated wire around 1963 and this again changed the sound of the pickup. A pickup’s DC resistance (one measure of its power) is determined by the number of windings, and so when the pickup bobbins are overwound (which happened a lot by accident at the time), they are more powerful with fatter midrange but less at the top end. The PAF pickups manufactured up to 1961 usually measure between 7.5 and 9.0 K ohms but by 1962 (the end of the PAF era), the Gibson factory was turning out pickups very consistently to 7.5k Ohms DC resistance.

Another factor in PAF story is that the separate coils of a PAF could vary between themselves in the same pickup due to the inconsistency of Gibson's manufacturing techniques. So one coil might measure 3.5k, and the other 4.5k ohms. This mis-matching of coil impedance has the additional effect of promoting certain frequencies in the sound of the guitar and further contributes to why two PAF pickups can sound quite different.

Initially the bobbins used were black, but starting in early 1959, PAF pickup bobbins gradually changed over to white (not cream). On all zebra (half black, half white) PAF pickups, the white bobbin is almost always the non-adjustable bobbin.

The Vintage Fender Pickup Story

Before 1965 Fender pickups used larger diameter magnets that were sand-cast - furthermore the original Fender magnets were Alnico as with the Gibson PAFs. Over time older magnets lose power, and the old Fender pickups were pretty low powered anyway - between ‘54 and ‘64 Fender pickups never had a higher DC resistance then 6.25 K ohms. The outcome of the lower magnetic power coupled with the degradation of the magnets over time, means that the pull on the strings is lower and therefore the strings can vibrate more strongly and longer. Magnets that are too powerful can actually pull the strings towards the pickup, and this dampens the vibrations so sustain is attenuated.

So there needs to be a balance, because you don't want magnets that are either so strong that they dampen sustain or too weak to generate a good signal. So in some way maybe after 30 years, the magnets are at their "ideal" power, thus producing "ideal" tone. Although my recollection of playing Strats at that time was they sounded pretty good then anyway!

Another factor that is different now from then is string technology –you couldn’t get such a wide variety of string gauges and early string sets tended to have a wound 3rd (G) string. Fender compensated fro this by introducing a fixed stagger pattern. Again, all part of their push to have a guitar that was mass producible and therefore able to generate greater profits – remember competitors pickups like Gibson had adjustable pole pieces – more cost.

Their stagger pattern, that is the height of the individual magnet pole pieces compensated for the varying strength of vibration from the string gauges normally used at that time. For example, today no one uses a wound third (G) string – it actually sounds great – but you can’t bend it. To compensate for this, the fixed magnet heights were different on older Fender pickups. Hendrix (or might have been Clapton) I think was credited with dropping all the strings in the standard set down one position and adding a banjo string on top E to enable them to get outrageous bends. And then Jimi sometimes dropped the tuning down to E flat anyway – presumably for the same reason.

Up to the time that Fender was bought by CBS, all their pickups were hand-wound. Let me qualify that – the bobbins were wound on machines but the wire was fed in by hand. So the wire was not evenly distributed over the bobbin - it could be pretty random and the tension was determined by the machine-operators fingers; and again it could be uneven and variable. This is what some people refer to as scatter-wound. Apparently, and I am not an engineer this scatter-winding and uneven wire tension changes the distributed capacitance of the pickup and therefore a scatter wound pickups tone is different from one machine wound automatically and beautifully evenly.

If you use copper wire straight off a spool and wind pickups with it, it doesn’t work. Each wind of copper needs to be insulated from the next to get the electromagnetic effect. Vintage Fender pickups used a different insulation chemical than newer wire – called Formvar, although they are using this in custom shop models along with Alnico magnets in an attempt to recreate the vintage sound. Even though the gauge of the actual wire might be the same, and those in all Fender Strats was AWG42, the thickness of the wire and therefore composition of the insulation is different. This changes the overall dimensions and density of the windings and this in turn changes the inductance and capacitance of the pickup, and hence the tone. Fender used Formvar insulation till about early 1964 when they switched to Plain Enamel.