Jun 25, 2016

First "Reel Character" Custom Pickup

          After finally getting all the minimum necesary supplies, I was able to put them to work winding my first cutom pickup - a Strat single coil bridge with coil tapping!
*If you haven't seen my inordinately popular post about the "Reel Great" guitar pickup winder, you can find that first here: http://mattwins.blogspot.com/2016/06/how-to-build-guitar-pickup-winder-from.html

          Wait - a coil tapping single coil?  Heresy!  Fully handwound?  I'll show you how it's all done, and if you don't mind squandering a couple hours of your hard-earned life and risking your sanity by winding a mile of copper wire thinner than a human hair, you too can achieve the same results!

My extremely advanced high-tech workbench featuring state-of-the-art... okay it was about $30 for everything.
1 lb of 42 AWG magnet wire, $25 from Amazon and should do 10+ pickups
Materials required:
  • Pickup bobbin
  • Pickup poles and magnet, or magnetic pickup poles
  • 42 AWG wire
  • Soldering iron + solder
  • Sandpaper
  • Winding apparatus (technically optional but highly recommended)
  • Patience, and lots of it. (not optional)
  • (Optional) Multi-tool
  • (Optional) Multimeter

          Setup went pretty easily with the "Reel Great" winder - I clamped the winder (with a raised base) to one side of the table, and clamped a CD spindle to the left side.  The spool of wire went on the CD spindle pretty well and was free to rotate.  

           Begin by wrapping some of the wire around one of the little eyelets in the pickup - it'll take a little bit and be a pain with the microscopic wire, but this is the easy part.  Get enough wraps that it holds strongly and is a large enough little section to easily solder the lead wire later.

           Next, do a few wraps very slowly and carefully around the bobbin by hand.  Get at least ten wraps on there to be safe.  They should be on tightly and not wiggle, but if you pull too tight, the wire will snap and you're SOL.  Sorta.

Visible solder joint at a break about 20% of the way through wrapping

          Alright, so you're on a roll - you got the initial wraps done and got a solid layer of copper on there with your winding device of choice, then all of a sudden, you hear a nearly undetectable, yet utterly ominous *snap*.  As quiet as a whisper, this snap is accompanied by an uncanny emptiness in your hand where an instant before you felt the reassurance of the taut wire, and a feeling of dread courses through you as you realize all is truly lost.

           Well, not completely.  If it breaks right at the start, just rewind it all.  But it'll break later on, and you can't undo all that hard work.  That means it's time for the painstaking and unrewarding task of soldering together these microscopic wires.

           Use a scrap of 200 grit sandpaper and scratch away the insulation from the ends of the wires that broke, then twist the ends together tightly.  Very, very carefully, solder them so the wires are reborn as one in shining silver.  Give 'em a little tug to check that the joint is good, then wrap a few more times around by hand like at the start, and you should be good to go again.

          Remember that I was making this pickup coil-tappable?  After reaching the desired resistance for the lower power setting, I wrapped the wire around the other eyelet like the pickup was finished.  I drilled a third little eyelet to wrap the wire around, and then soldered the wire from the second eyelet back to the large spool to get winding again.  Another couple hundred or few thousand wraps later, I finished the "overwrap" in the same way, through the third eyelet.  

Now we have two sections - the main wire, with a resistance of 4.53K ohms, or rather underwound, for a snappy, twangy clean, and an overwound section that ups the total resistance to 6.56K ohms, or just a little bit hot for some warmer tone that will drive your amp harder.  I might have wound both settings a bit hotter, but this was actually about as much as I could wind on with the pickup cover still fitting properly.

          Potting pickups is a pretty big step for a lot of people - but not a necessary one.  Remember that the first pickups in the 1950's and 60's were often unpotted, and hailed for their tone.  However, unpotted pickups can squeal and pick up unwanted sounds.  I took the road less traveled and brushed in some clear poly, which sealed up the outside and protects the wrappings a bit, prevents some unwanted vibrations, but also allows some of that microphonic quality that gives a truly unique tone.  

          Plus it's about thirty bajillion times easier, faster, and safer than melting beeswax on your stove, but that's totally not why I did it at all.

          The bobbin finally finished (all wrapped up, heh), we can insert the lead wires.  Any old wires will do; special vintage gold-plated cloth-covered wires won't change a thing, but they might look nicer.

Time to re-insert the poles and reglue the magnets!

At this point you can add a custom flair by staggering the poles however you like - I lowered the outside poles a little, and sunk in the B string pole a bit as well.

Ran into a few little problems here - the bobbin's screw holes were stripped, or just didn't fit the screws used, so it wouldn't hold in the pickguard.  I snipped up some plastic from the recycling bin, glued and drilled it, and it holds it beautifully... err, at least securely.  It still looks like trash, but only from the inside of the pickguard anyway.

Another little problem - I intended to use the same black cover from the previous pickup, but the holes didn't align properly.  Not to be dissuaded, I quickly spray painted the white pickup cover and did a crappy job drybrushing on some silver.  If it wasn't obvious before, it's obvious now that this baby screams "custom!"

Comparison, old and new

Inserting it all into the pickguard went uneventfully, which is great.  The plastic nuts hold the pickup right in place and the switch for the coil tap went in perfectly.

After soldering, I wrapped the wires in gold duct tape because it's what I had on hand the spectroscopic qualities magnify the capacitance transduced from the pickup whirlamajigs.

New switch and pickup installed - looks great to me, nothin' more custom than this.  But how does it sound?

I can't claim to be a tone god.  In fact, in a blind test once I couldn't even tell the difference between a Strat and a Les Paul (ouch).  But to my ears, this thing rocks.  It's been a labor of love, and I'm sure that makes me biased, but this pickup has a lot of character and dynamics seem to jump more than with stock machine-wound pickups.  

Although scatter-winding is supposed to lower the capacitance and increase high-end clarity, I noticed that the pickup seems unusually warm for a Strat bridge.  On the 4.5K setting, it has a bright, clean, twangy sound, as you might expect from an underwound single coil.  The lighter bridge pickup setting merges well with the previous Gilmour switch mod for a neck+bridge sound, and well with all three pickups as well.

The 6.5K setting adds a lot more warmth, a little more hum, and some stronger drive to the tone, and has a more humbucker-like feel, great for distorted leads in particular, and a warmer bluesy drive.

Altogether now this Strat has 11 settings: five, plus two from the Gilmour switching, plus two with the coil tap, plus two with the coil tap and Gilmour switch together.  It's a beautiful feeling.

Neck + Mid
Mid + Bridge
Mid + Bridge*
Neck + Bridge
Neck + Bridge*
Neck + Mid + Bridge
Neck + Mid + Bridge*

Let me know what you think with a comment below, and stay tuned everyone - demo video with winding footage is in the works and will be up soon!

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