In a world where electronics has reached every aspect of human life it is no wonder that the old magnetic guitar pickup has seen some descent, either through the logical evolution of the old concept (active pickups) or by using different physical principles (piezos, optical pickups…) However, most pickups that are sold these days are based not only on the same old principles, but on particular designs that take us back sixty or more years and which most players consider the absolute best. In this apparent wilderness, why did I decide to make pickups for my own guitars?
- First of all, I’ve had problems with pickups from different makers, big companies that I won’t mention. For example, a pickup model that I installed quite frequently a few years ago suffered a lot of failures a few months after installation. The pickup, which was encapsulated in epoxy, lost the internal connection to the shield of the output wire. It could be repaired, because the legs that supported the pickup height screws were still connected to the ground inside the pickup. It could be fixed simply by connecting the shield of the output wire to one of the legs. This happened to several pickups through several years. Some players didn’t like the fix (guitarists are strange people!) so, after some complaining, I got free replacements from the maker (I must mention here that this was thanks to a well known guy who stood behind his product no matter the cost). Unfortunately, some among them developed the same problem! In the end, the pickup was redesigned. I received some of these new units as replacements for failed parts, and they didn’t fail again, so I suppose that they fixed the problem. Another issue was with conventional humbuckers, the old design with a golden cover made by one of the big big companies. I’ve had failures in two of these, and I haven’t bought millions! Regarding floating pickups, I’ve had problems with some units that were made to be attached to the pickguard with a tab. Even if the instructions said that the tab could be modified, I found that it had wires inside (it was made of epoxy resin). I could repair it twice (don’t ask me why I sanded one a second time!), but later I got two more failures simply through manipulation! The wire was so close to the surface of the tab/body that it was easy to cut accidentally. I repaired the third failed pickup, but I couldn’t find the problem for the fourth! That was the last one that I purchased.
- I’ve had issues with the design of certain pickups. A floating pickup from a big maker had an excessive compensation for the B string, so it was noticeably less loud than the others. I think this was because it was designed to be used with bronze-wound strings, which sounded right because bronze is not magnetic. However, the instructions mentioned that it was compatible with both bronze and nickel strings. This could be possible if the pickup had adjustable polepieces, but that was not the case.
- Sometimes, subtle variations in the design of some pickups may become an unexpected problem, For example, you can find some full-size humbuckers that don’t have legs. These pickups are usually made of plastic and have a pair of threaded protrusions at both sides where the height adjustment screws are inserted. If you have to change the pickups in your guitar, you’d better make sure that your pickup rings have the same distance between the screws, because this is not a flexible suspension. Contrary to this, legs made of soft metal can be bent a little to compensate for small misalignments. They also allow for a greater height variation, which is another drawback of the all-plastic design.
- I don’t like the way some pickups look. I find that epoxy or plastic is not adequate for some guitars. Even so, some designs made of epoxy or some other resin can be quite attractive, but I’ve noticed one maker that has redesigned his epoxy pickups and now they are made of a cheap-looking plastic material.
- Some pickups are not made consistently. For example, some floating pickups which should be quite thin are thicker than specified because the magnet protrudes. Sometimes a lot. Also, some full-size humbuckers have a distorted metal cover that is soldered to the pickup without pressing it first on the baseplate. Sometimes the distortion is quite prominent; as a result, if the pickup must be set high, the extra size will not match the inside of the pickup ring.
- Finally, I find that changing the number of strings, polepiece spread and other parameters to custom values, if available, has high costs. It is a fact that musicians must adapt to existing pickups, which is the wrong way of making things. I am in debt with Dan Rochlis, an amazing guitar player, for making me see that this was a real problem in a real world.
After all this, I decided to make my own pickups. They had to be reliable, free of known design issues, adjustable, beautiful and consistent. Also, as a guitarmaker that makes a lot of custom work, I wanted a construction method that could be easily modified. Regarding the tone, I could make variations, but never forgetting that old pickups are the measure of all-things-pickups. These reasons were not new to me, they were the same that led me to build guitars, so now I am equally commited to both.