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Author Topic: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
smgear

Posts: 170
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Post interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 30, 2012, 06:25
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I've just spent about 6 hours ignoring my work and researching the recent offerings of pickups to put into some of my projects. Today I was particularly looking to fill two HB slots and I checked out a bunch of HB, P90's, filtertron, Hybrids like the P Rails etc. There were some I liked and I put together some potential combos that I think would provide some good tone and versatility, but overall it left me with a slight feeling of boredom in the sense that there seem to be only a couple narrow palates to play with. I understand that on one hand the physics of magnetic pickups only allow for experimentation with a couple variables - magnets, winding, resistance.... and on the other hand the wood, tone controls, string comp, and fingers... all have their function and influence. But its really disappointing to me somehow that the vast majority of pickups are designed to recreate or subtly fine tune a few specific vintage designs or to simply boost the output of said designs for heavier modern styles. I'm not explicitly trying to emulate any of those sounds in my playing so I feel kind of trapped by the bulk of the products I'm seeing.

I want something different, something unique, and I don't want to have to spend $400 or more to get it from some boutique maker unless that's the only place I can find it. I might be really happy with something unpredictably growly, something painfully unbalanced, something muted, filtered, microphonic, or whatever designers typically try to avoid. Or, short of those, just something that has a unique timbre or texture. I suspect that there have been a lot of cheap pickups and knockoffs over the years whose 'failings' were quite appealing and certainly there have been experimental designs that didn't take off due to the lack of fit with mainstream players.

For this build, I'm leaning towards some of the Harmonic Design pickups simply because they have a sort of Hi-Fi openness to them that somewhat transcends any specific style. But I'd happily go to the other extreme of highly textured if I knew where to look.

So, I'd love to hear about any 'sleeper' pickups that you have heard or used that had a very distinct and original texture. Something where the uniqueness of the raw output led your playing or writing in a new direction.

Jeff_H

Posts: 47
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 30, 2012, 08:37
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Okay - full disclosure. I haven't been able to try any of these, but they have caught my attention.

Guitar Fetish has lots & lots of pickups to browse at reasonable prices. In their humbucker form-factor, the ones that particularly catch my eye are the Dual Lipstick's, the Surf 90 Single-coil, the Dream 180, the Dream 90 single-coil, and, finally, the Loudmouth.

Eastwood guitars offers some interesting copies of vintage Airline/Valco single-coil pickups that are humbucker form-factor.

Best of luck!

Digital-
Larry

Posts: 192
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 30, 2012, 09:50
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Very interesting ideas and astute observations. Pickup manufacturers really ARE trying to sell as many as possible, so my guess that risk-taking design wise is minimal, and hyping of top-secret goodness is maximal. For better or worse, I still fall into the camp of "if it sounds better, we should be able to figure out why and recreate it".

Pickups have inherent electrical properties such as the resonant frequency (a result of inductance and capacitance) and the height of the peak (result of resistance). I've gone on excessively about SPICE analysis for pickup wiring, but that is not the full picture. The magnets are also critical, and can actually be one of the non-linear (distortion producing) elements outside your amp's circuitry.

Since at least part of the industry's focus is on overwound pickups, I'd go in the opposite direction.

How about an underwound pickup using fatter wire (lower resistance) for a real distinctive peak (whose frequency could be tuned with load capacitance if needed)?

Anybody make a pickup that mixes magnetic materials or uses really weak magnets? Something purposely microphonic? How about the bzzzzt-skreeek that Pete Townshend gets after smashing his SG against the stage a few times? You don't think those sounds are a critical part of the performance? I sure do.

I still think that a lot of a pickup's character comes from its electrical frequency response, and messing with resonances in those circuits can give unusual results (which are perhaps not suitable for every occasion).

Depending on how crazy you want to get, I'd even recommend getting some used pickups on eBay and mess with them. Peel off 10 feet of wire, cut it off, and put it back together. Or peel off 2/3 of the wire, scrape the insulation, solder a small wire that can come out externally, rewind 1/3 of the wire, add another wire, and then rewind the rest of the pickup. Now you've got two coil taps, which you could bring out directly, or wire to caps, or God knows what.

It's easy for me to recommend to YOU to waste your time like this! But you never know - you might hit on something that nobody's found, or thought was worth pursuing.

joe
Administrator
Posts: 224
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 30, 2012, 10:17
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Great ideas, Larry! The weak magnets topic is interesting, and it's a bit of an obsession for Seymour Duncan (the guy, not the company). Weak magnets can be glorious in a neck-position humbucker, as in the recent Joe Bonamassa pickup set.

My personal take is that soon a lot of players will be using ultra-hi-fi, ultra-wide range pickups, played through digital filters that mimic the spectral and dynamic properties of many different pickups. Yes — pickup modeling.

smgear

Posts: 170
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 30, 2012, 11:49
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Good stuff guys. I've been avoiding getting into pickup modding because, well, I already have too many projects on the shelf as-is. I have done some experimentation with optics, but I have to work out a few things there yet. I think decreasing power or shaping the magnetic field is a good area for exploration. I'll probably just buy a couple pickup lots off ebay and start screwing around with them. It wouldn't be too difficult to add a little circuit to adjust or balance the output level before the jack if necessary. Well,,, It looks like I'll be busting out my electronics books for some learnin'.

Double D

Posts: 195
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 30, 2012, 12:01
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It sound to me like you should find a bunch of vintage euro and japanese pickups (or project guitars) and try some of the wacky, microphonic flavours on offer. I had an old Kent that was pretty much unplayable, but had the most bad-ass pickups ever! My lap steel has a Teisco p/u which is kinda' tweezy in a really cool way. The original fella' who got me thinking about this was David Lindley who has sworn by low-fi microphonic cheapies forever.

smgear

Posts: 170
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 30, 2012, 13:43
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The eastwoods and teisco's do sound cool. I'll watch for some on Ebay. DD, the Kent comment raises an interesting point. I've occasionally heard comments like that about how one off-brand or another had some great p'ups. But since they're usually generic or off-label, it's nearly impossible to track them down short of buying the original instrument. Someone needs to start a pickup database with detailed descriptions to keep track of this sort of thing.

Another point I keep thinking about is the whole hand-wired vs machine-wired issue. I don't see why hand-wired would inherently be any better. If anything, they would be less consistent. Most production quality these days is stellar. It seems that once the machine is programmed, there would only be a minimal added expense to doing small batches, so I'm surprised that larger makers with good facilities like SD don't do more (or any) off-brand short-runs. I think that could be a really nice market for them. Given that most of the original patents have expired, they could do some limited release 'lesser classics' or merely some occasional oddity pickups and just sell them direct with minimal packaging/distribution/pr. Just run a small batch every couple months, put up a description on the website and/or set up a mailing list for like-minded customers, and let the interested people come and get them. By keeping the sales overhead low and doing away with documentation, custom packaging, etc, they can keep the customer costs low and still clear a profit. But moreover they can service the market that is craving new sounds and it might lead to some cool discoveries all around. Heck, I'd gladly pay a small monthly subscription fee if SD would send me a set of unique or interesting pickups every couple months and I don't think I'm the only one who would be interested in a program like that.

Well, I'm sure they've considered similar options and decided against it. However, many of the bigger gear companies seem to have fallen into the trap of reinforcing the dominant market rather than responding to the players desires to move in new directions. I feel like players are increasingly getting tired of choosing between either a 'classic vintage' or a 'modern heavy' sound and would jump at some fresh or forgotten sounds.

bear

Posts: 153
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 30, 2012, 18:15
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Most makers are stuck in a coupe fixed build types that only really vary in magnet type, pole-piece type, and whether they are overwound or less overwound. (Underwound happens on occasion, but is still rare.)

There's some more variation that could happen with coil shape, magnet structure, and magnetic field shaping. A lot of the Jazzmaster pickup sound is about its coil geometry, flat and wide, not very different in poles or amount of wire from a Strat pickup but broader and less with less of that nasally twang. The actual Charlie Christian pickups for ES archtops has ridiculously big, weak bar magnets that sound different than the similar lap-steel pickups that are closer to most modern CC-for-Tele types. Horseshoe types put the field around the strings, which can actually reduce over-strong sring pull even with powerful magnets for high output. Or fields can be altered by magnetically reactive pickup covers or baseplates, like Tele bridge pickups and derivative Strat types.

There's just so much more that can be done than typically is. I'm bored of so many conventional types and most makers only change things up by, say, doing a humbucker-sized P-90 adaptation.

Lace Alumitones and Bill Lawrence/Wilde MicroCoils may be the most adventurous new stuff of recent years. The only thing is I have doubts of how well low inductance pickups will behave with fuzz.

mwseniff

Posts: 149
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 31, 2012, 10:30
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I've had an idea or many years that a picup with an electromagnet rather than a permanent magnet might be a good design. It might work to use a pulsating current well above the audio frequency like low frequency RF range so it could filtered out easily. It might be a good design for a midi pickup giving a more accurate signal for conversion. This design might even be good for a direct digital conversion using the pulse as the sampler rate.

smgear

Posts: 170
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Post Re: interesting sleeper pickups - a rant and question
on: August 31, 2012, 16:06
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bear, I've had the micro coils on my radar for awhile, but I hadn't heard of the alumitones before. After a bit of listening and reading, I'm really intrigued. I applaud their uniqueness for sure. The highs are incredibly clean and clear, although the low end doesn't appear to come across as well. It is technically balanced, but human hearing isn't, so the lack of 'artificial' compensation and tendency towards muddiness could be a problem for some genres. I might give one a shot in my jazz archtop where it would probably shine. I think they illustrate the main dilemma with high def pickups which is that they are great if you have all the other tools in the chain to add the desired texture. But if you have a limited setup, your tone will get trapped. Of course, you can retrain your fingers to get some of that back. Very interesting though.

mwseniff, I think that's a really cool idea, but focusing and containing the field could be an issue. Ambient interference and even finger proximity would probably distort the field. Perhaps in a really cool way though.

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