Pickup Lines

Hav­ing an­a­lysed the pick­ups from one of Jimi Hen­drix’s Strats, Roger Mayer talks about what made this never-bet­tered de­sign so good…

Guitarist - - Contents -

It’s early 1967 and the psy­che­delic sound of Pur­ple Haze is blast­ing through the air­waves. Jimi Hen­drix has just re­cruited his “se­cret weapon”, Roger Mayer, a Bri­tish govern­ment sci­en­tist and acous­ti­cal anal­y­sis ex­pert, who’s just fin­ished scru­ti­n­is­ing the pick­ups from one of his Stra­to­caster gui­tars.

“Jimi, I’ve run the tests on the pick­ups,” says Roger, “and Leo got it right first time; there is no ad­van­tage to be gained by de­vi­at­ing from a stan­dard Fender pickup.”

Some 50 years later, Gui­tarist is sat with Roger in the lounge of his Greater Lon­don home, and it ap­pears that the Stra­to­caster pickup has in­deed re­quired very lit­tle in the way of change over the last half a cen­tury. “There are other vari­ables that would be much more ad­van­ta­geous than al­ter­ing the pickup it­self, such as mov­ing it rel­a­tive to the strings and chang­ing the strings them­selves,” ad­vises Roger. “There’s an op­ti­mum po­si­tion and it’s not mov­ing the pickup as close to the strings as pos­si­ble, be­cause if it’s too close it’ll in­tro­duce what’s known as a false mag­netic bridge. The ac­tual mag­netism of the pickup pole­pieces cre­ates a mag­netic bridge and will pull the string out of tune.”

We ask Roger what makes Strat pick­ups so good that the same ba­sic de­sign is still be­ing made to­day. “From a sci­en­tific stand­point, it’s ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing a very de­tailed sound,” he ex­plains. “The Fender Stra­to­caster pole­pieces give a very con­cen­trated mag­netic field over a short dis­tance and are af­fected by a small area of the string, but with quite a high in­ten­sity of mag­netism. You can hear very clearly that there’s a dis­tinct change of sound when you change pick­ups on a Strat.

“The magic that the ear – or, more ac­cu­rately, the brain – per­ceives is when it can hear lots of things in a sound; in other words, trans­parency and de­tail. That’s the rea­son you need a de­tailed sound in mu­sic, what­ever the style is, be­cause if it’s all smudged to­gether you won’t be im­pressed. It’s that sim­ple. Your brain tells you if it’s a good sound or not. Jimi and I used to talk a lot about the nat­u­ral hu­man abil­ity to dis­tin­guish this. The more we un­der­stood about these things, the eas­ier and more fun it was to re­alise his mu­si­cal vi­sion.”

Sin­gle coil pick­ups with mag­netic pole­pieces are used in a va­ri­ety of gui­tars, although Strats still some­how man­age to re­tain a char­ac­ter­is­tic sound – some­thing which has as much to do with the way the pickup is mounted as to how it’s con­structed. “We knew the Stra­to­caster pickup de­sign that Jimi was us­ing was good, so we then looked at how the pickup was mounted,” con­tin­ues Roger. “Back in the late 60s, Fender pick­ups were mounted us­ing a vari­able rate spring – a con­i­cal spring that was specif­i­cally de­signed not to have a par­tic­u­lar res­o­nance. The rea­son for that is, once you start play­ing loudly, you ideally want the pickup to be float­ing in the body, so it picks up the vi­bra­tion of the string and not from the body.

“That’s ul­ti­mately what you’re try­ing to do - pick up the strings’ vi­bra­tions. Then you have a con­trol; you’re pick­ing up the strings’ vi­bra­tions as op­posed to hav­ing the gui­tar’s body act­ing as an am­pli­fier and cre­at­ing un­nec­es­sary arte­facts and feed­back that you might not need.”

From 1964 and dur­ing Fender’s CBS ac­qui­si­tion years, there were some ob­vi­ous al­ter­ations to how Strat pick­ups were made, although the ba­sic de­sign re­mained the same. On ini­tial in­spec­tion, these pick­ups are eas­ily iden­ti­fied by their dark enamel wire and grey coloura­tion to the vul­can­ised fi­bre bot­tom flat, and in terms of dat­ing are as easy to pin­point as de­ci­pher­ing ei­ther the hand­writ­ten scrawl or stamp. Whereas be­fore the coils were hand-wound, Fender be­gan us­ing ma­chines to wind them, and in the process lost a lit­tle bit of their unique char­ac­ter. Yet this didn’t stop Jimi Hen­drix from mak­ing good use of them!

Ul­ti­mately, for play­ers, it’s im­por­tant to feel ex­cited and in­spired by the sound and feel of a Strat pickup as much as any­thing else. These days, there are so many brands of Stra­to­caster pickup to choose from that it can of­ten seem a lit­tle over­whelm­ing. How­ever, there is one con­sis­tent ring of truth that they all seem to have in com­mon: Leo got it right.

The iconic Strat trio with their stag­gered pole­pieces

Ei­ther a stamp or hand­writ­ten scrawl will date the pick­ups

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.