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.

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.