Bass Pickup Test

Can better pickups really make a cheap guitar sound more high-end?

 I’ve been wanting to try this test for quite a while now, doing a controlled experiment where all the variables are the same to test the difference between stock pickups and high-quality ones like mine.  For this test I acquired a fairly run-of-the mill P-Bass copy with a maple neck, rosewood fretboard, some sort of inexpensive body wood like basswood or laminate, and standard electronics. Cost: $100.

I started by recording the stock bass via direct input to my M-Audio Firewire.  I recorded in ProTools and just used some simple compression and a little bit of reverb to give it some depth.  I did a simple riff (forgive my sloppy playing) first with a pick and then switched to fingers.

Next I took apart the bass and took out the old Select by EMG pickups.  Output was 7.6k and magnetic pull was over 50 Gauss per coil.

 

I replaced these with a set of my vintage-spec pickups with Alnico V magnets hand beveled and hand weakened to 25 Gauss.  They are scatterwound with 42 gauge Formvar wire with 10,000 winds per coil, yielding a little over 10k of output.  I top it off with wax potting in the proper mixture of beeswax and paraffin and wire it all up with vintage-style cloth covered push-back wire.  Truly the cream of the crop.  Total cost of the bass with my pickups: $200.

I wired everything back up and restrung the guitar with the same strings and recorded the same riff with the same software and the same compression and reverb and you can hear the results below in the two mp3 files. It helps to listen with some high-quality headphones.

First you will hear the guitar with the stock EMG pickup, it’s a cheap pickup and sounds about as it should.

Stock Pickup

Next you hear my vintage-spec P-Bass replacement.  First, pay close attention to the extreme highs and you will notice even the most subtle sounds of the fingers moving over the roundwound strings, something you can’t even hear from the EMGs.  This clarity and response of my pickup is a result of scatterwinding, this lowers the distributed capacitance of the pickup.  Now listen to the extreme lows and you will hear nice round, organic low notes where the EMG is flabby.  If you listen to the track again and this time listen to the mids and you will hear all kinds of character and life where the EMG’s are obviously lacking.  A guitar should have a “voice” and not just sound like a P-Bass, the mids are where this character lies.  The Sklar pickups hear this voice very well and it comes through organically whereas the EMGs sound harsh and metallic.

My Pickup

The clarity and character of the Schuyler Dean pickup comes from the select components that I use and the quality of the craftsmanship.  They say a band is only as good as its worst player, and that is true with pickups as well.  If every piece of the puzzle is a good one then the results will be good.

The Best of Both Worlds

Humbuckers are used for their ability to “buck” hum and also for their fat tone.  Many modern humbuckers come with extra lead wires so that they can be custom wired to switch between single coils and humbuckers via a push-pull pot.  The only problem is that when you take a humbucker with an 8k output and switch to single coil mode you literally cut the output in half to about 4k because you are only using half of the pickup.  A 4k single coil is a pretty weak single coil, and you will notice the tone will be quite thin and unexciting.  
One way of fighting this problem is to wind the coil on the adjustable side to a higher output.  At Sklar we use special 43 gauge wire to wind the adjustable screw side of the pickup to 6k in the neck and 7k in the bridge, similar to what you would find in a strat.  The slug side of the pickup is wound normal and when you switch back to humbucker mode you get nice fat tone with no hum.  You can custom order a set of these pickups with your choice of covers for a special price of $200 for the month of April only!  Email sklarguitars@gmail.com to place your order.
We teamed up with Aaron and James of Maret Guitars to install a set of these in their Custom Classic and we were very pleased with the results.  This guitar has an alder body, a special wide maple neck, ebony fretboard, push-pull coil tap switch, string-thru-body bridge, pearl white finish, and a snappy two-piece tortoise pickguard.  The guitar is on display at SF Guitarworks in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and you can come by and see it yourself and even try it out.  Make sure to talk to Aaron while you are there.

How does a truss rod work?

The truss rod makes adjusting the bow in your neck possible.  They can be found in all modern electric, acoustic, and bass guitars.  some vintage guitars didn’t come with a truss rod, but that’s ok, as long as the action is not too low or too high.

Strings put a lot of tension between the tuners and the bridge, so naturally the neck will bow a little under the force, a little bow in the neck is a good thing.  Unfortunately wood is prone to warping due to temperature and humidity changes and can bow too much causing high action or even back-bow making the action too low and causing fret-buzz. 

A truss rod is a metal rod that runs up the length of the neck under the fingerboard and has a nut at one end for adjustment.  There are many different types of truss rods but one of the most common is the twin-action truss rod shown below.  They make it possible to adjust for either bow or backbow.

The twin-action rod is two threaded rods connected to blocks at both ends.  At one end there is a nut for adjustment, if you turn the nut clockwise it shortens the bottom rod and forces the rod and the neck to bend backwards and correct bow.  If you turn the nut counter clockwise it lengthens the bottom rod and forces the neck and the rod to bend forwards and correct backbow.  Here is a picture of how the truss rod fits in a small channel routed in the neck under the fingerboard.

The other type of rod is a single-action rod that only corrects for bow in a neck.  This type of rod requires a curved truss rod channel.  The rod itself (shown in green) is curved and when you tighten the nut it forces the rod to try to straighten out, thus straightening out the neck and correcting for too much bow.

Generally to adjust a truss rod you need to make very slight adjustments at a time, you may not even see results for 24 hours after the adjustment is made.  Go slowly to avoid breaking your truss rod, it is a very expensive repair.

For more information on how to set up your guitar, see our setup blog entry.

Trick/Retro Tele

A classic guitar with a few trick modifications

We just finished this demo Telecaster that will make its home in Gary Brawer’s repair shop in downtown San Francisco.  If you would like to try this baby out, just visit Gary’s shop in the back of Real Guitars, 15 Lafayette St. (at the corner of Mission).  
It was designed much like a 50’s Reissue, with lightweight swamp ash body, vintage-style three saddle ashtray bridge, and a maple neck from a MIM Fender Telecaster.   The body was made completely from scratch from a nice piece of ash from Stewart Macdonald.  I wanted to forgo the pickguard and really let that beautiful wood grain show through, so I decided against the common routing in the body for the wiring that typically hides under the pickguard.  The wiring in this guitar is routed through a small hole starting at the neck pocket and ending in the control pocket. With amber stain and a thin coat of waterbased varnish this guitar is a real beaut!
Trick electronics include our hum-canceling bridge pickup to get rid of that pesky 60-cycle hum, and a 4-way switch so that you can play with the two pickups wither in paralell (standard Tele wiring) or in series (more output, fat sound).  The neck pickup is a special custom creation of mine that has the perfect balance of trademark “bell” tone, shimmering highs, and voice in the lower mids.  The electronics are topped off with a pair of vintage “chickenhead” volume and tone control knobs I found at a yard sale.  

the $20 homemade acoustic guitar pickup

How to make your own acoustic guitar pickup for cheap.  This way you can plug your guitar into a PA or an acoustic guitar amp.

Required tools:
soldering iron
electric drill
wire cutters
coping saw

Required parts:
buzzer piezo from Radio Shack (The Shack) $9
Switchcraft Nickel End Pin Jack $11
3M double-sided poster tape
1 foot of audio cable

Optional parts:
250k potentiometer
capacitor
guitar wire

1.  Remove the strings and drill a 1/2 inch hole in the bottom of the guitar where the strap button is.  The nice thing about the Switchcraft jack is that it acts as a jack AND a strap button.  Be careful when drilling not to damage your guitar.

 2.  Take apart the buzzer.  This might require a coping saw to get through the plastic casing, careful not to damage the flat metal piezo.

3.  Solder one end of the audio cable to the piezo.  Positive is the top ring, negative (or ground) is the large bottom ring.   The two plates are separated by crystals, when given a current the produce a noise, when given a vibration they produce a current, we will be using the piezo for the latter.

4.  Solder the other end of the cable to your jack, positive is where the tip connects in the jack, negative is the sleeve or ground.

5.  By nature, the piezo is a very bright-sounding pickup for an acoustic, so we’ll be using some 3M double-sided poster tape to attach this thing to the underside of the bridge.  Because it is made of thick foam it dampens some of the brightness.  Stick a piece of it to the top and bottom of the piezo.  Mount the bottom of the piezo to the underside of the bridge.  Then install the jack in the bottom of the guitar.

You could use the pickup just the way it is, but I chose to have a tone control to get a little warmer sound out of it.  Use the following wiring diagram to solder a tone control into your circuit (advanced skills required)

I chose not to drill another hole in my guitar for the tone control so I used some more of that poster tape on the back of the tone control and stuck it just out of sight in the sound hole, if I need to adjust tone at any point I can just do it with my fingertips through the sound hole.

Reinstall the strings and test it out!!

What is ‘scatter-winding’ anyway??

Many high-end pickup manufacturers like to boast (myself included) that their pickups are “scatter-wound,” but many people don’t really understand what this term means.  In fact the whole art of winding pickups is quite foreign to a lot of people, even if they play guitar.  Quite simply, scatter winding is a method of making pickups that results in a unique and beautiful sound.  In this post I’ll take a stab at trying to explain the principles of this method.

All electric guitar pickups use the same basic design, they are simply magnetic polepieces wrapped in very thin copper wire.  The polepieces generate a magnetic field that the string vibrates in, and the copper coils turn that vibration into an electric signal. 

In the ’50s, electric guitars started getting extremely popular.  Humbuckers, used primarily in Gibson guitars, used a uniform wind made on a machine; and single-coils, used primarily in Fender guitars, used a scatter-wound coil made by hand.  Technically you could use either method for either type of pickup, but it is widely believed that single-coils sound better scatter-wound.  Tension also matters when winding a pickup, looser winds typically sound clearer and better.

When I first started winding pickups I didn’t understand that the way in which you wind the pickups actually has an effect on the tone.  It made sense to me that the quality of wire you use, the number of turns, the quality of the magnets, and the strength of the magnets all played a part in the overall tone.  But I figured you would need some sort of ultra sensitive computer to hear if they were scatter-wound or not.  I made a couple of pickups by just guiding the wire back and fourth in a very even manner.  I made a couple variations of these and tested them, then I made a set of pickups using a scatter-winding technique.  The first thing I noticed was that the resistance (electrical output measured in ohms) of the pickup had dropped significantly.  When I installed them and tried them out I was amazed!  I was hearing details that I had never heard before, there was more treble and harmonics than I had heard from my earlier pickups.  The video below shows me scatter winding a pickup.  The wire is as thin as a human hair so you can’t really see it, but you can see how my hand is moving to get an idea of how it’s done.  It also helps to be blasting Pink Floyd while you’re doing this for 15-20 minutes per coil.

When coils are wound on a machine, each consecutive wind is very close to the last wind.  when you scatter-wind a pickup the idea is to put lots of space between each consecutive wind, this lowers the distributed capacitance of a pickup so that more treble and detail get through.  Your tone control on your guitar has a capacitor on it, as you turn that control counter-cockwise it uses more and more of that capacitor to bleed off highs to the ground, and the result is you hear a darker guitar tone.  Scatter-winding does just the opposite, it gives the pickup more treble.  This sounds really good on single coils because they have a very open sound to begin with, extreme highs and extreme lows, a lot of the guitar’s natural tone and character comes through.

When I’m scatter-winding a pickup, I try not to follow any sort of pattern and I move the wire randomly across the bobbin.  Machines are not good at this because they are programmed to do things very neatly.  I suppose you could program a robot to mimic the motion of the human hand, but that wouldn’t exactly be cost-effective.  The human hand is a really good tool for this because it’s hard for us to do things in a consecutive pattern.

Update 08/04/2010

You can also scatter-wind by simply guiding the wire back and fourth faster across the bobbin, thus putting more distance between each wind.

Scatter-wound pickups are more expensive because they have to be made by hand.  It also makes the pickup more unique because you can never exactly replicate what you did before, so each pickup has its own tonal character.  When Fender first started out as a company, all of their pickups were wound by hand, they are considered by many to be some of the best sounding pickups in the world.  Today they make thousands of guitars a year so naturally it doesn’t make sense for them to hand-wind each pickup, but there are a few other winders out there like myself who still hand-wind every single pickup.

SACRILEGE!!!

The Telecaster is a great example of sonic perfection in its simplest form. Alder (or ash) slab body, maple neck, string-though body bridge with brass saddles, a hot single coil in the bridge and and even hotter one in the neck, 1 volume control, one tone control, and a three-position pickup selector. It is Leo Fender’s first and quite possibly his finest mass produced electric guitar. It’s dumbfoundingly simple and yet it produces some of the most recognizable tones in music. The Tele tone can be heard in classic recordings from The Clash, Radiohead, and The Rolling Stones. It is perfect.  It is beautiful.  It is precious.  And so I’m going to take one and screw it up.

That’s right I’m going to rip out the old bridge, gouge out the wood in the body and stuff in a humbucker like you would find in a Gibson. I’m going to carve up the pickguard and cram another Gibson pickup, a P-90, in the neck. And then I’m going to rip out it’s guts and rewire the whole thing. Actually it’s not as bad as it sounds, and much worse atrocities have occurred to Telecasters in the past. Don’t worry, this particular Telecaster is made in a foreign country and cost me $200 in a pawn shop.

Here it is in stock form

I decided to do this project because of my curiosity for the P-90 pickup. I was listening to the Stone Temple Pilots album “Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop,” and I noticed how incredible Dean DeLeo’s guitar sound was, I had to figure out what kind of guitar he was using. Actually he was probably using a bunch of different guitars, and the tone probably has a lot to do with the amp he was using, but in this video you can see that he’s playing a Les Paul Jr. with P-90’s.  Anway, I figured the Telecaster, with its high sustain and bright tone, was a perfect starting point to try out this dark and raspy pickup.  I needed something equally as fat to put in the bridge position so I opted for a hot humbucker to take the place of the single coil.  This would of course require a whole new bridge and routing out the body to fit the larger pickup.

 Putting a P-90 in the neck position is the easy part.  In most Mexican and American Telecasters there is actually a rout in the body big enough for a humbucker or P-90, this is because many models are available with lots of different pickups, so they make just one body to suit many different models.  Here you can see the black spring foam I put in the neck pocket, that is there to hold the P-90 at the correct height.  The height adjustment screws go right down through the pickup into the wood in the body.  This modification obviously wouldn’t work with a “Dog Ear” P-90.

The pickup I’m installing is a Deep Blue pickup that I sell for $80.  It uses Alnico V bar magnets, Nickel-plated steel pole pieces, and is scatter-wound with Formvar wire to 8.2k ohms of resistance.

Now for the tricky part.  Obviously the old bridge is not going to be able to accomidate a humbucking pickup, so I bought a Gotoh Humbucker Bridge from Warmoth.  This is a really nice piece with a 1/8″ thick brass plate!  I installed the bridge and used a sharpie to mark where I needed to rout.

For a really Clean rout I used a Humbucker Template from StewMac.  Then I had to take off the template and carefully rout where the height adjustment screws would go, being careful not to go outside where the brass plate would cover. 

Here is the guitar all put together.  For routing the pickguard you can also use a StewMac template.  A table router is really not a very expensive tool, I got mine used for $50 and you would be surprised at the repairs and modifications you can do with one.  When you’re ready to wire everything up check out the wiring diagrams at GuitarElectronics.com.  The humbucker I used is one of my Deep Blue Alnico II Bridge humbuckers and it compliments the P-90 beautifully.

I was really surprised at how well the P-90 works in the Telecaster.  Up until I did this project the best thing I had heard in a Tele was the USA Alnico pickups I had installed in it.  The P-90 is bass heavy, but not in a flabby way, the bass tones stay punchy.  And because it’s scatter-wound the treble and harmonics come through nicely.  It also has that trademark growl that make it unmistakeably p-90.
 Shortly after this project I recorded some audio samples, you can listen to mp3 files here!

Reverse Evolution

Converting a ’90s Music Man StingRay Bass to a Precision Bass.


This is one of the more involved projects I’ve tackled in a while, but one I was rather excited to try. My friend, Tom, had a Music Man bass he wanted me to tinker with. He was happy with the action and playability of it but felt that the active pickup wasn’t really the sound he was going for. He owned a Fender Precision Bass (P-Bass) and loved the sound of the split-single coil. I couldn’t agree more, I’ve always thought that active pickups in a bass have kind of a funky Victor Wooten sound that I’m not really a fan of, I would much rather hear a split-coil pickup in that beautiful guitar. Plus, I hadn’t yet had the chance to build a split-coil pickup, so I jumped at the chance.


Tom’s bass was a perfect starting point for a great sounding guitar: ash body, bird’s eye maple neck, good hardware, good tuners, it just needed a little work in the electronics department. I noticed that there was a large space in the pickguard where a P-Bass pickup could go.


I ordered a P-Bass router template and pickup kit from Stewmac.com that included all of the parts for the pickup including Alnico V magnets, flatwork, covers, eyelets, and leads. I would also need a couple of 250k pots, a capacitor, and an output jack to convert the electronics from active to passive.
I tested the harmonics of the guitar by tuning to concert pitch (E-A-D-G) and gently running my finger up and down the string while plucking it and listening for harmonics. Then I placed the template so that both sides of the split coils would be directly under a couple of harmonic “sweet spots.”


I used some double sided tape to attach the template to the pickguard (measuring and re-measuring many times to make sure I had it on straght) and then used a table router to make this totally custom pickguard.

By attaching the new pickguard to the body, I can trace the lines where the pickup rout will go, this ensures the holes in the body line up with the holes in the pickguard.


Using the same template attached with poster tape, I routed the pickup holes in the body.


Some black shielding paint will help keep interference away from the electronics.


Copper shielding tape on the back of the pickguard.

Winding the new pickup. I found that the Stewmac.com kit was fairly priced ($16, not including coil wire) but leaves a couple details to be ironed out: the top flatwork didn’t fit firmly enough to keep the bobbin together (had to use super glue) and the plastic covers didn’t fit over the polepieces (had to use a Dremel).


Out like the 1990’s: active electronics. It’s out with the new and in with the old here at Schuyler Dean Guitars.


Here you can see I wired up a simple 1 volume 1 tone (250k pots) circuit for the split-coil. The two pots on the right are dummy pots to fill the place of where the active EQ used to be.

Once I had everything put back together I plugged it in and turned it on. We now have a unique-sounding bass with a little P-Bass growl. The pickup gives it lots of lows, a nice growl and crystal clear details. You can hear an MP3 sample that I recorded here or hit the play button on the player at the bottom of this post.

MP3 Sample

How to install Stratocaster pickups

So you’ve decided to upgrade your tone, great! One of the most exciting and satisfying modifications you can make to your Stratocaster is replacing the pickups. In this post I’ll show you how it’s done, you’ll be surprised how easy it is.

Required tools:
soldering iron
wire cutters
wire strippers
phillips head screwdriver

Recommended tools:
tuning peg winder
electric tuner
electric drill driver

First, detach the strings from the tuners and lay them over the back of the guitar as shown.

Next, take all 11 screws out that hold the pickguard to the body, a drill driver makes this go much quicker.

You’ll find there are 4 wires attached to the body (2 grounds and two leads to the input jack), leave these attached and rotate the pickguard back over the bridge as shown, this will make it easy to work on.

Working on one pickup at a time, carefully unsolder both leads from the pickup and remove from the pickguard by unscrewing the phillips head screws. Use the old leads to judge how long you need the new leads to be. Do all of your cutting and wire stripping before installing the new pickups. Carefully solder the new pickups to their appropriate places, if you get confused, you can find wiring diagrams here.

Once everything is wired up, reinstall the pickguard and the strings.

Plug in to your amp and play on a good clean channel in all 5 positions to make sure there are no phase issues. If you notice a big drop in lows and a weak tone in positions 2 or 4 you have phase issues and probably wired the middle pickup backwards. If you notice a volume difference in the three pickups, simply adjust the height of the pickups using the phillips head screws, the closer the pickup is to the string the louder it will be.

I hope this helps, if there are any other questions feel free to email me at schuylerdeanguitars@gmail.com

Making a Custom Pickguard

There are many reasons for needing to make a custom pickguard. Maybe you want to fit some custom pickups in your guitar, or maybe you want to create something that looks totally unique. You might just want to make a replacement for something that is already on there that was damaged. If you were going to buy a premade one it would cost between $20-$40, so chances are you’re going to save some money by making your own.

In my case I want to install humbuckers in an American Stratocaster equipped with single coils. The routs in the body are already there from the factory, so the only thing in the way is my pickguard.

The best thing to use as a template is sanded 1/4 inch plywood from Home Depot. this is the best material I have found that offers ease of use and low cost. Take your old pickguard and trace a line around it were you will cut the template, also mark the location of the screw holes, hardware, and pickups, these will help.

Use a coping saw to cut on the line around the pickguard. It’s better to leave a little edge around the template and then sand in afterward. I did a lot of sanding to get my template to be perfect, the better the template looks, the better the pickguard is that will come from it.

Next, measure the location of the pickup routs. I had to match the location of the pickup routs to my guitar body perfectly so that everything would fit right, so I used the pickguard screw holes as a reference since they determine where the pickguard would sit.

Once I had the location traced on the template, I used premade templates from Stew-Mac to get perfect pickup holes in my teplate. These require their ball-bearing router bits, the same as we will use on our wooden template. Use double sided tape to hold the template in place and drill a hole the size of the router bit to get things started.

Once everything is routed and sanded, we can attach our template to a piece of pickguard blank material. Use a coping saw to cut within a quarter of an inch of the template, the finer the blade the easier it will be to cut the vinyl. Drill holes in the pickguard where you will be routing for the pickups:

Use a straight router bit to carefully clear out the areas where the pickups will go.

This is a picture of a premade acrylic Tele template being used to make a pickguard on a table router. notice how the pickguard is trimmed to about a quarter of an inch from the edge before the table router is used. This is to prevent the blade from binding and ruining your pickguard.

Then use a beveled router bit to get a slanted edge around the outside of the pickguard. Use a straight router bit to get all the straight edges.

Here you see the new pickguard near completion with a humbucker installed.