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