Humbucker-size Pickup Shootout

In this series of videos, I tested six of my humbucker-sized pickups in the same guitar with the same rig and the same mic.  The guitar is an Epiphone Les Paul with 500K CTS pots played through a vintage Bassman (black faceplate).  A Strymon Flint is used for reverb, overdrive is a Fulltone OCD, and distortion is a Russian Electro-Harmonix Big Muff Pi.  One SM57 is used to mic the 12″ speaker cab.  I was very happy with the results and surprised at the variety of tones I could get from one guitar.  All of these pickups are available to buy on the “Hand Made Pickups” tab.  

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!

Balancing output with a humbucker

Using a simple resistor to match a single coil with a humbucker

 
It’s a classic combination: a humbucker in the neck and a single coil in the bridge, but it can be a real challenge to keep that single coil from sounding too thin in comparison.  The problem arises for three reasons:
  1. humbuckers are naturally warmer and louder than single coils
  2. at the neck the string vibrates farther than at the bridge causing more bass and volume
  3. humbucker-equipped guitars usually come with 500K pots
The third reason is the one I’ll be talking about first.  Typically humbuckers sound better with 500K pots and single coils sound better with 250K pots.  This is because single coils sound better with a little bit of the highs bled off to the ground, and humbuckers (being naturally dark) sound better wide open.  This Telecaster Custom (shown above) came with four 500K pots, one each for neck volume, neck tone, bridge volume and bridge tone.  This sounds fine for the humbucker but to give the bridge pickup a little more warmth we are going to use a resistor.  If you follow this link you’ll find a wiring diagram for the American Telecaster HS.  Scroll down to the second page and you’ll see two pots, a switch and a resistor leading from the hot lead of the bridge pickup to ground.  Scroll down to the third page and you’ll see that these are 500K pots and a 270K resistor.  I didn’t have a 270K resistor, so for the Telecaster Custom we are going to use a 220K in series with a 39K resistor to give us 259K.
I then covered the resistors with shrink tubing to prevent a short and soldered it between the ground and the first lug on the volume control where the hot lead for the bridge connects.  You can also see a high-pass filter soldered between the first and second lug of the volume control consisting of a .001 uF capacitor and a 150K resistor wired in parallel.
This gives you a more uniform blend of highs and lows when you turn down the volume control.  This trick works great on bridge and neck pickups and I use it on all of my guitars.
The final thing to do is adjust your pickup height.  You want your bridge pickup to be reasonably close to the strings without touching them.  Depress the first and sixth string at the last fret and raise the pickup until it is very close.  If the pickup sounds harsh and metallic then back off a touch.  The neck pickup should be adjusted all the way down to the pickguard and then raised until the volume of the two pickups is equal.

 

 

How do humbuckers work?

How do these pickups “buck the hum?”

Humbuckers are great for their warm, powerful tone, and best of all they “buck” the hum that single coils are usually are prone to.  60-cycle hum comes from electronics that surround us every day like florescent lights and power transformers, and it sure doesn’t sound very good when it comes through an electric guitar amp.  That’s why humbuckers were such a valuable invention when music was getting louder in the 1950’s, but how do they work?

Humbuckers are basically two single coils arranged side-by-side (fig. 1), each with six magnetic poles or slugs (one for each string).  They are wired in a way that cancels the unwanted frequency and keeps as many of the good frequencies as possible.
fig. 1
Most modern Stratocaster guitars (fig. 2) have a humbucking option built in.  The middle pickup is reverse-wound/reverse-polarity to the neck and bridge, so that when they are used in combination they will cancel any hum.  This only works because the two coils are so far apart and the harmonic frequencies are so different, the only quality that is the same about them is the hum, so when the two coils are opposite, they cancel the hum.
fig. 2 the middle and bridge or middle and neck pickups are hum-canceling together
 Humbuckers function a little differently than this. Since the coils are so close together (as close as they can possibly be without being on top of each other), they are sensing very similar sounds and they need to be out of phase to cancel the hum.  Humbuckers consist of two coils (both wound counter-clockwise) with opposite magnetic poles facing up, usually wired in series.

Some people don’t like how humbuckers aren’t as clear or bright as single coils, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that there are many different ways of building humbuckers to change the tone.  The original Seth Lover PAF humbucker (which is the baseline against which all other humbuckers are judged) consists of 5000 uniform winds per coil (not scatterwound), bar magnets mounted underneath, adjustable poles on one side, slugs on the other, topped off with a nickel-silver cover.  All of this makes for a pretty dark sounding pickup.  Which might sound great in certain guitars, but some guitars beg for bright, twangy tones.  You could use scatterwound coils (for a brighter, clearer sound) and solid Alnico polepieces much like a Strat pickup.  This is the formula I used for my Apex Humbuckers.

fig. 3 my Apex Humbucker
You could also have an underwound humbucker (say with 4000 winds per coil) for a brighter tone, and you could wire these coils in parallel (instead of in series) for pickup with a clear tone and absolutely no hum.
So there are lots of different options when it comes to getting different tones out of humbuckers, they don’t always have to be dark sounding.  Most modern humbuckers come with 4 conductor leads so you can split the coils, and you can look up a wiring diagram here to experiment a bit.  Knowing your color codes of your pickup wires will be very helpful too, here is a link to color codes of a number of popular humbucker manufacturers.

Eliminating electrical noise in your guitar

Getting rid of outside interference in 4 steps

For many of us who love the sound of single coil pickups (eg. classic Strat or Tele) we are familiar with 60 Hz hum, radio stations, and cell phone signals coming through our amp.  This is electrical interference that our single coils are especially susceptible to, and yet we refuse to give up single coils, we just love the tone too much!  Humbuckers are a great way to fight this 60 Hz hum, if you have ever played a guitar with a humbucker and a true single coil you can easily hear the difference, but a lot of players complain that too much tone is lost when the hum is “bucked.”  The truth is, you can stick with your old single coils as long as you follow a few DIY procedures that are guaranteed to reduce the noise to an absolute minimum.  Even if you have humbucking pickups these steps will help reduce the overall noise of your rig.

Step 1.  Shielding Paint

With the pickguard and electronics removed from the guitar, you can paint shielding paint from Stew-Mac on the inside of the control cavity and the pickup routs.  Two or three coats (allowing it to dry overnight between coats) should provide enough coverage.  All grounding material must come in contact somehow with the back of the potentiometer (ground).  Connect a ground wire from the paint to the back of a potentiometer or paint up to a screw hole so the paint comes in contact with the copper tape on the back of the pickguard (see step 2).

Step 2.  Copper Tape

This tape (also from Stew-Mac) is great for sticking to the back of pickguards and totally blocking out any interference.  The tape is grounded by coming in contact with the switch and potentiometer casings.

Step. 3  Leads

Keeping all electrical connections to an absolute minimum length will reduce the chances of interference.

Also, twisting the positive and negative leads from your pickups (as seen on this Jazz Bass pickup) will help cancel interference.  It is debatable whether this makes a noticeable difference in passive equipment, but it won’t hurt, some like it for aesthetics and wire manageability.

Step 4.  Final details

Having a good quality, shielded instrument cable free of cracks and keeping it as short as possible will help tremendously in avoiding interference.

further reading:

Eliminating Troublesome Hum & Buzz Created By Electric Guitars by Bruce Bartlett 

Canceling Tele hum on the cheap

Switch polarity to get rid of 60-cycle hum

For more than 50 years, the Fender Telecaster has been manufactured pretty much the same way. It’s trademark sound is one of raw, gutsy tone with sharp attack and great clarity. Because of it’s simplicity and honesty, it is perhaps the best way to showcase a pair of single coil pickups. One of the drawbacks of true single coils is their hum which guitar makers have been trying to fix for decades. Since the Telecaster’s design was perfected rather early on in electric guitar history (1950) it is one of the only dual pickup guitars that did not have hum-canceling capabilities, and it still doesn’t today. Most of the time the two pickups are made reverse-wound/reverse-polarity so that when they are used in combination (the middle position of your pickup selector) they will cancel the hum. The telecaster design has been pretty much left alone because so many players love the trademark sound and especially the sound you get when the neck and bridge pickup are played together. For a lot of players that is more important than “bucking” the hum, but for you it might be more important to have a quiet setting on the guitar. Here I will show you how to cheaply and easily buck the hum on a standard Telecaster.

As we just discussed, most Tele pickups are wound the same direction and charged with the same polarity facing up, making them non-humbucking, so all you need to do is switch the leads and reverse the polarity on one pickup. You can test the polarity by holding a compass up to the top of the pickup as shown below. Opposites attract, so this pickup is charged SOUTH UP (fig. 1).

fig. 1
Reversing the leads on a pickup is a simple operation with a soldering iron, but charging the magnets will be a little more tricky.  Especially since most vintage, and vintage-reissue Telecasters have a copper-plated steel baseplate on the bridge and a chrome cover on the neck pickup, which is soldered to the ground of the guitar.
Modern American Standard bridge pickups, like the one shown below, do not have a baseplate, and are changed NORTH UP (fig. 2), so here I will remove the pickup and charge it SOUTH UP.
fig. 2
This can be done with a pair of 1″ rare earth magnets from Steward-Macdonald ($8.57 each).  These are extremely strong magnets that will successfully charge Alnico polepieces like in my pickups here.  They will also successfully erase hard drives like in you iPhone or MacBook, so keep them away from all computerized equipment.  You can see the magnetic field you are dealing with by holding it to a compass .  It is attracting the NORTH needle, so this is the SOUTH pole of the magnet (fig. 3).
fig. 3
Charge the pickup polepieces by moving them back and fourth between the rare earth magnets.  The magnets will change magnetic fields of weaker magnets to what they are most attracted to, so a SOUTH pole with charge pickup polepieces to be NORTH.  Rare earth magnets will hold themselves to the jaws of a vice.  Label the side that will charge magnets to be North as I have done below (fig. 4).
fig. 4
Adjust the jaws so that the magnets are as close as possible to the polepieces but still allow the pickup to pass freely.  Move the pickup through the jaws of the vice a few times and it is fully charged.  Reinstall the pickup with the leads reversed.  Positive leads are usually white or yellow and in this case would be soldered to the ground (the back of the potentiometer), negative leads are usually black, blue or green and in this case would be soldered to your switch.
If this pickup had a metal baseplate (fig.5) or a cover it would be a little more difficult to charge the magnets but sill possible.  It would require disconnecting the negative (ground) lead from the baseplate or cover and running a separate ground wire from the baseplate to the back of the potentiometer.  Then, special care must be taken to break the hold of the potting wax and remove the baseplate or cover without damaging the coil.  Then you can charge the magnets.
fig. 5
Now you have a hum-canceling mode on your Tele without effecting the tone of the bridge or the neck 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!