DOING THE MATHS
Tim Mills of Bare Knuckle Pickups used all of his ingenuity to marry the nuance of a vintage PAF with high-gain drive and clarity. The result is a next-gen humbucker called the Polymath
When we started working on this issue’s theme of progressive gear design it so happened that Tim Mills, founder of Bare Knuckle Pickups, released one of the most interesting humbuckers we’ve seen in a while. Designed as the signature pickup set of renowned producer and guitarist Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood, both the concept and execution of the resulting Polymath humbucker set goes deeper than is first apparent.
Ordinarily, Tim likes to listen to what an artist wants and then lets them pick their favourite of several prototypes in a blind listening session, conducted face to face. But thanks to lockdown, the Polymath set couldn’t be done that way. Instead, Tim relied on his experience and Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood’s exacting feedback via email to get the job done. Trouble was, Adam wanted two things: a humbucker that performed as subtly and dynamically as a good PAF – but also one that could drive high-gain riffage with definition and articulation. It was the tallest of orders, but Tim thinks they “hit a home run” with the Polymath humbucker set, while the story of its creation sheds fascinating light on how pickups are designed and refined in the 21st century.
Why did you decide to make a signature set for Adam ‘Nolly’ Getgood?
“Adam and I have got a history that goes back over 12 years now. I’ve worked with Adam a lot over the years. We did the original sound clips for the Bare Knuckle website together, which was quite a journey. It took about three weeks. People think knocking out sound clips for a website is easy, but when you look at how many pickups we make and then all the different permutations you have to do of those, it took weeks and weeks locked in my studio with Adam bashing out these sound clips and me literally making pickups and gutting guitars and swapping them all. We tried to use the same host guitar as much as we could. We got to know each other very well as part of that process, and became extremely good friends.
“Obviously Adam’s career has blossomed since then, namely with his work with Periphery but more so these days as a producer. I was going to say a sound engineer, but he’s not really a sound engineer in that respect; he’s more the mix and production side but also this person with this obsessive ear for tone. Some of the things that Adam does, his pursuit of tone is kind of legendary, really. Subsequently, he has mixed and produced albums for some of the biggest rock and metal artists in the world.
“It got to the point where we decided that, between the two of us, it would be a no-brainer to do a signature set. We started work about a year ago and had to do it all remotely this time, which was a little bit unusual. The end result was the Polymath.”
Where does the Polymath set sit on the spectrum of vintage versus modern tone?
“The Polymath kind of encompasses things that are tweaks on traditional designs through to things that are quite innovative. We’re talking about humbuckers, so in some respect there’s nothing innovative there. The actual way a humbucker works has been largely unchanged, in terms of a passive pickup, for years. What we have done instead is look at the application of
“There are tricks under the hood for a PAF-like touch-sensitive feel… But you also get the definition required for modern metal” TIM MILLS, BARE KNUCKLE PICKUPS
“A lot of Adam’s work is on the mix and production side, but he also has an obsessive ear for tone. Adam’s pursuit of tone is kind of legendary” TIM MILLS, BARE KNUCKLE PICKUPS
the humbucker, particularly in relation to the types of music that Adam produces – like I said, predominantly rock and metal. It was very much about drilling down into the right output ballpark, if you like, that Adam wanted. Then looking at the applications of these pickups and how I could translate that through to the actual design of them.
“There are some unique things that go on under the hood with these pickups in terms of how I created them to reproduce the sounds that Adam uses. We use some quite unusual combinations of magnets, wire and production techniques right the way down through to the amount of potting, wire gauges, the types of material that were used in the pole screws, so on and so forth. So there were a lot of variables that were used to create this set.”
When you design a new set of pickups for an artist, do you have their preferred guitar model or tonewood combination squarely in mind?
“When we do these sorts of things, not just with Adam but with any artist, we look at the guitars they use first and foremost. We tend to sort of go, ‘Right, you’re most known for playing this sort of instrument. We’ll work on that one primarily.’ Once we’ve dialled it in there, we then start beta testing it across other guitars. I think it’s very important to do that.
“A lot of people have messaged me over the past week and said, ‘So were these designed primarily as a six-string pickup, is that the true voice of them? And if I were to get a seven- or eight-string that wouldn’t be the true voice of the Polymath?’ Well, that’s not the case. Once we’ve worked on a six in the type of guitar construction that Adam mostly is thinking he’s going to use them in, we then move it out into sevens and eights and different timbers and constructions, different bridges, neck joints… We’ll be looking to see if there is any huge variation at any one point where we go, ‘Whoa, hang on a minute, that doesn’t sound anything like it any more when we put it into that guitar.’
“So we’re looking for some consistency rather than jumping around on too many different instruments to start with. Otherwise, you just can’t develop any focus, particularly in this instance where you’re having to not work in the same
room, so there was a lot of messaging and sending of clips backwards and forwards and me having to send pickups to Adam for him to install himself. I couldn’t see what he was doing, he couldn’t see what I was doing, so we were both working blind in that respect.”
How did you find your way to the right solution with these particular pickups?
“At the outset Adam was a little bit split between whether it was going to be a vintage-hot output, which he does enjoy – he loves that extra headroom you get with hotter vintage pickups – or if it was going to be based around a medium-output pickup. I had to get over that hurdle first. We worked hard on producing some prototypes of both and he liked both of them, which wasn’t a huge help at that point. You know, it’s like, ‘Oh, I can see lots of applications for this that I’d use, the vintage-hot one.’ Equally, I could see more people identifying with the mediumoutput one. What I did was I actually came up with using an unoriented form of Alnico in the medium-output one because I thought, ‘If I can get some of that feel that he’s enjoying, the touch sensitivity and extra headroom, from the vintage-hot into this medium-output one, I think we’re going to get a lot of both of what he wants in one model.’ That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. All of a sudden, once we made that change to that magnet, it was like, ‘Wow, now we’re running all of a sudden.’ There were a few little tweaks to winds that we made and it was a homerun at that point.”
Was the unaligned Alnico prototype a hit with Adam straight away?
“Oh, it was. It was like night and day; you could hear it in his playing. The sound clips that were coming back, you could almost pick up on this energy and excitement that was coming through those sound clips. It was staggering, really. The unoriented magnets, just to dig into that a little bit, they’re essentially slightly lower-output or less pull, if you like, than oriented Alnico V. What that’s actually doing is giving us a little bit more headroom, but it’s not driving the bass so hard. With a medium-output pickup he’s getting that real lovely squishy chug that he wants for high-gain metal, but when he’s going up on the higher registers, solo tones, those notes are staying really fat and musical.
“There’s an output range there that most people will feel comfortable with. It keeps the mids nice and present in the mix. That was ticking all of those boxes. You roll off the volume a little bit and you can get some absolutely awesome classic rock tones out of these. We ran through some sound clips of quite a few different styles of rock and metal just to see how they sat in the mix with different types of tracks. We really knew we were onto something at that point.”
Is the neck Polymath the same design as the bridge?
“No, the neck pickup is something that I’m really proud of, actually. There are a lot of quite different things going on in there compared with the bridge. I’m using two different wire types, for starters. There’s a little trick that I’ve done with the inductance to make sure it’s very articulate. It’s got this lovely tubular neck tone, but it’s very articulate. It’s not super-bloomy, if that makes any sense, like you would get with a traditional PAF-type neck.
“On paper, you look at the DC resistance and you think, ‘That’s quite hot.’ It’s going to really drive super hard, but it’ll soak up a lot of gain and still sound really, really clear. Using these twin wire types also means that the split and series/parallel tones are really quite special. This is something that Adam drilled down into a lot. He really got into using not just a series tone and not just a single-coil tone but looking at how the pickups worked in parallel as well so that we could really capitalise on all of that. So you can get a complete range of tones just off the guitar itself without having to do any post-production.
“The neck pickup also uses unoriented Alnico, but, as I said, there are quite a few little tricks going on under the hood right down to the length of potting times to make sure that you still get this very much touch-sensitive feel out of the pickups that you would expect – like when you play a PAF – with the notes blooming under your fingers. But you also get the definition that is required to play modern metal styles.”
The Polymath humbucker set is available now from Bare Knuckle. For more info see www.bareknucklepickups.co.uk
“I came up with using an unoriented form of Alnico in the medium-output pickup [to capture] the touch-sensitivity of the vintage-hot prototype” TIM MILLS, BARE KNUCKLE PICKUPS