By JP Holesworth
Dave Stephens of Stephens Design represents the more esoteric end of the pickup alchemist spectrum. Coming from a diverse background that includes graphic arts and jewelry making, before immersing himself in scatter winding chakra alignments, Stephens currently produces some of the most expensive new pickups (except for the silver wire wound Duncan Zephyrs). He has a one-year-plus waiting list and a long, tedious building process, which is just fine with him. He said he wouldn’t be giving up any “secrets,” though the insights provided here are way beyond our expectations. Stephens also has a YouTube channel with several better-than-average quality demo clips (see links following interview). Oh, and our fearless leader Editor has a great-sounding TAO T-Bucket guitar outfitted with Stephens Design PAF-type HBs. This interview promises an enlightening perspective into the boutique pickup movement — and just maybe, between the lines, some of you will crack bits of trans-dimensional code with which to open doors of your own perception about guitar pickups. Or perhaps not. Also important to note is that the Stephens website is more information-generous than most.
We aren’t ashamed to note that this interview was an email exchange, which worked well for the sheer volume of response. Despite some question “overlap,” Stephens took on each question from every angle, with passion and depth. This could very well be an expose’ on the pickup industry in some contexts. One thing for certain, you won’t see this in any other magazine! Trust us.
But first, a bit of a warm-up from our own nebulous perspective…
Most electric guitar builders don’t make their own pickups. Boutique luthiers put enormous time and energy into creating unique musical instruments with the hopes of capturing the ears and eyes of discriminating guitar players presented with a vast array of choices. Then there are the pickups, pots, switches, and hardware, with pickups being most critical of all as they define “electric” in an electric guitar. Pickups translate and transmit the instrument’s voice to the amplifier. Arguably, pickups are the very heart of the electric guitar, although some will debate about tonewoods, construction, proper integration of everything, etc.… But hey, spend the rest of your life reading gear forums and never resolve it!
And so, there are the pickup makers; these mad scientists, gurus, shamans of wire, magnets, and electromagnetic phenomena— mediums who communicate with the deceased all-knowing coil winders of the ’40s and ’50s. Until the aftermarket to present boutique wave brought along a few personas of mystical, magical forest-dwelling wizard winders, pickups were pretty utilitarian, like pots and switches. The basic design and appearance of pickups haven’t changed much in over 50 years either. Aside from chrome or gold covers, aged or not, or open coils in black or cream—or the case of Strat-types, a few cover colors from white to black, we’re basically looking at coil bobbins with poles or blades. And that’s just how we like it… nothing too different looking, please! That weird stuff is for bass players. But let’s face it, what defines a great electric guitar before pickups are installed? It needs a setup, feel and appearance that people will like and should resonate & sustain well unplugged, right? Sure—but let’s also remember that pickups aren’t capturing audio or acoustics as a microphone does… They are simply converting string vibrational patterns into voltage, with characteristics of that conversion determined by how a given pickup’s overall design and composition determine its magnetic field characteristics. It’s all about the field, which by the way, no one can literally see. At least nobody we know of. Thus, those pickup makers most outstanding in their field are looked upon as seers to another dimension. And builders of electric instruments are at their mercy whether the luthiers choose to admit it or not.
Guitar pickups seem either overlooked or over-hyped. But when a luthier puts their heart and soul into the wood and construction of a guitar, an electric guitar, they must certainly have an amplified sound in mind. So the instrument is built, and then they must seek a pickup supplier with the right mojo to interpret their masterpiece through a speaker cone. Yes, I just used the word “mojo,” and I hate myself for it too! Maybe you wonder as I do about running across that very exotic guitar with the most mainstream pedestrian set of pickups. In the case of a pickup maker like Dave Stephens, the luthier either doesn’t want to pay a premium for pickups (even though his guitar could be price pointed at $10K, cheap bastards!), OR the boutique pickup maker just can’t keep up with demand. Everyone’s heard that good things take time, good things come to those who wait, or that patience is a virtue.
I once read that in movie/film making, the score is the very last thing… and the composer is always in a crunch to have it done yesterday as if the music were an unavoidable & trifling detail for the producers. Yet imagine a movie… any movie, without a score track. Kinda like an “electric” guitar without pickups. And as with film scores, whether pickups magnify the emotional impact well or poorly… ya just can’t do without ’em!
Guitar Connoisseur: Portland, Oregon, is a mecca these days for craft gear, as well as craft beer… Do you cross paths with many fellow tone crafters in the Pacific Northwest?
Dave Stephens: Yes, it’s an amazing music town for Blues and Jazz, plus many other types of music. And YES, if you love craft beers, there are all kinds of incredible beers and small brewpubs not to be missed for visitors. There is always a great deal of music going on every night of the week in many bars and restaurants. And many places to play for jammers who want to sit in and play all night with fellow musicians, both professional and amateur. Most of my good friends are musicians I met at the many Blues jams. Portland still has a small-town feel; people are friendly, there are not many crime or gang problems, and it’s a beautiful place. It’s also a very rainy place and rains probably 8 months out of the year… why we call this part of the country “The Great NorthWet!” They also have a huge Blues festival every year with national acts, lasting about four days, a very big event.
Ed Note: Portland’s Waterfront Blues Fest is the largest Blues event on the West Coast, USA.
There are some great artisans in town; Saul Koll Guitars is there. Saul took a Gibson NightHawk of mine that no other luthier could make playable because of a slightly twisted neck and did the most amazing fret job I’ve ever seen and made it play like butter. He has his own line of guitars he sells and does repair and setup work. Twelfth Fret is the best place in town for guitar work; many talented luthiers work out there. Conrad Sundholm, who founded Sunn Amplifiers in the ’70s, lives in the area and is a friend– and had a recent article in ToneQuest with a great review of his Conrad Amps products. Conrad would hang out at the Duff’s Garage Blues jam when I was there, and developed an app based on input from all us musicians, called the Blues Jammer. I also met a few small amp builders at the jams who only build a few amps for guys like Curtis Salgado and others.
The Duff’s Garage Blues jam is held every Wednesday and hosted by Suburban Slim (Phil Wagner), and is where I learned about good tone. We lived in Ashland, Oregon, a small mecca for New Age practitioners, and the Shakespeare festival. While we lived there, I rediscovered my love for playing guitar during a good business year for our graphic design company, so I had bought several guitars and a Blues Junior. One night my wife said if I would keep buying guitars, I had to go out and DO something with them. So one night, we went to a brewpub restaurant that had a jam session. After I had about four Guinnesses, the band announced that they were doing the last song of the night and had a special “guest” named Dave Stephens! I turned around, and Suz handed me my guitar, I was in shock because I have horrible stage fright, so I went up on stage, played one jam tune, and got a standing ovation! Anyway, I became a Blues jam addict, but there really was only one true Blues jam in the area. I made friends with the hosts and played for about 3 years with them in a biker bar, with drug deals going on the bathrooms and occasional police coming in the doors looking for someone, a pretty amazing place. But Harley Davidson bikers love Blues, and I had great times there. With that background, we moved to Portland during bad economic times around 1998 to find work. We didn’t find any new clients or work, but I discovered 22 Blues jams in town, and I felt like I was in Blues Heaven! Eventually, I found Duff’s Garage as my home and played there for 8 years, learning that great tone doesn’t come from a pedalboard. The most amazing tones I was hearing came from old guitars and old amps; plugin, turn up and play, nothing else to add to that! Eventually, my pedals went into the closet and got a vintage Silverface Deluxe Reverb, did some work on it, and that was it for me. So, this leads to the next question…
GC: What inspired you to get into pickup making? You acknowledge Jason Lollar’s book on your website, as do a few other current pickup makers out there.
DS: How I got into making pickups was kind of like a bolt of lightning from above. About 15 years ago, I remember waking up and telling Suz I had a weird dream about making guitar pickups for a living. I thought it was a strange idea and forgot about it until it later came true. So, there I was, going to Duff’s Blues jam every Wednesday and several others during the week, playing many guitars. I met Saul Koll at the jam, and since I was a graphic designer for the last 30 or more years (doing work for EMG Pickups and 100’s of album cover packages for many world-famous musicians), we made a trade for a guitar he built for me, in return for my doing his print catalog of all his standard model guitars, in an incredible rush because he had to go to NAMM in a couple of weeks. I had him build a Nashville-style Tele for me in Mary Kay, finish with 3 pickups. The guitar was just a monstrously beautiful work of art, plays like butter, but the boutique pickups he recommended, just were sterile and flat sounding. They refused to scream no matter what; even pedals didn’t help, so I put it away. I had seen an ad for Lollar’s book and, without even thinking, sent off for it and vowed to make that guitar sound great and set my mind to make a business of it. I didn’t even rationalize or think why I wanted to do a pickup business; it was just a drive that was there in me, that had to be fulfilled, and I didn’t question it. Maybe having EMG as a client for 14 years helped inspire me, but while I visited their business hundreds of times, I was never exposed to actual pickup making, though I did participate in some listening tests once. I liked their Strat pickups, but ultimately I’m not a fan of noiseless single coils.
I used computers from the earliest Apple products in my graphic design career, so my wife and I were online before anyone knew the internet even existed. We literally live online, going way back, so it was natural to me that I searched around and found Jason was online and emailed him that I was finding problems with his book and didn’t understand some things and that I was going to do this as a business. And he immediately helped me without question and helped me get set up and get things working. Jason is such a prize; there’s not many out there who would do that. I hounded him with questions. Eventually, I got his winder built and began making my first pickups– going through a horribly difficult learning curve and learning how to use woodworking power tools to make my own pickup parts. During a real difficult time in my life, we were destitute, living in an awful apartment complex and barely surviving, while my wife tried to take care of her elderly father.
You couldn’t buy ready-made pickup parts at that time, so learning those skills from Jason and making my own pickup parts was priceless. I didn’t ask him how to make a “good sounding” pickup or make his own pickups. I didn’t want to be a “Lollar clone,” no way. I wanted to learn to do my own experiments and design my own type of pickups, built from scratch, and that’s exactly what I did. As a graphic designer, one is trained to be extremely analytical and detailed in the extremes. A recent 7-year passion for metalsmithing and lapidary arts has also given me useful skills (and published in several magazines and books on jewelry art). My father was career military, and I grew up around tube gear and his electronics workshop, so I had those skills to draw on as well. I had definite ideas on quantifying and understanding what pickups were all about, and I wanted to learn by experimentation and not rely on second-hand information.
There really are no books or any information out there that describes how to manipulate tone in guitar pickups, other than the basic magnet and wire changes. It’s relatively easy to wind a strat pickup so that anyone who has the patience to learn how to work with very fine magnet wire and not break it can make a pretty good-sounding pickup. BUT, to get beyond that, it takes years and years to learn how to make something sound really great. Very few ever get that far. Yes, Jason got me started, and I tell everyone that, but I don’t make anything like he does. He is a great friend and one of the very few pickup builders I have any respect for.
GC: In hindsight, does Lollar hold back many key secrets?
DS: Well, as I mentioned before, he didn’t tell me any “secrets,” and I purposefully didn’t ask him about how to make pickups sound good, only how to build his winder or the basics of physical pickup construction. I wanted to figure it all out myself so that anything I learned, I would prove to myself. It would be my knowledge, my methods alone. I researched pickup making from the ’50s and ’60s; Harry DeArmond was one guy who became a hero of mine because his designs were extremely well thought out and ingenious. Walter Fuller at Gibson was another one, but it gets blurry who designed what pickups. Guy Hart designed the Charlie Christian pickup, but who was he? Also, in the beginning, I swore I wasn’t going to make Humbuckers because I hated them and swore I wasn’t going to make any “vintage reproduction” pickups either. I just saw many guys making pickup sets with names like 1958 Strat set etc.; I didn’t want to be just copying what everyone else was doing. I only wanted to do my unique designs, but I began to learn things from vintage pickups I bought, so some of my designs were based on vintage design principles. It’s funny that in the end, the most knowledge I gained about how to get a good tone came strictly from studying vintage pickups– by dissecting and seeing everything that was done. You learn classic tone from the pickups themselves, from the old masters.
GC: In your opinion, what are good pickup makers doing well right now?
DS: There are so few really good pickup makers. There are hundreds of pickup makers now, but most are part-time hobbyists; they are pretty much just winding and assembling pre-designed kits, paint by numbers, really; you don’t really learn anything by assembling a kit. Some, who have more curiosity, do improve, but they never actually design a new type of pickup, and they don’t understand the principles and physics of magnetic and coil design. And they all are hand guiding their coils. So, they all pretty much make the same things, and you can’t tell one from the other– no originality. Too many only make Humbuckers. Well, you can’t understand a Humbucker at all unless you have mastered single coils. A simple Strat pickup takes years to master and understand. A Humbucker is ten times more complex than that. Out of endless curiosity, I made every kind of pickup type that I could. Each one has important lessons to tell you. In retrospect, it was good that I did my own unique designs because it taught me about design. If you only make the standard pickups, you only get so far with that. You have to get outside that box to understand what’s IN the box.
So, all that said, what are the good ones doing really well? I can point to Jason Lollar, who has a passion like I do for vintage pickups and has built a successful business so that he can afford to spend money on making expensive parts to recreate vintage pickups that no one else is doing, as well as his own designs. I can think of one or two others who are doing some original work, but nothing spectacular. TV Jones specialized in Filtertrons, doing about the same research I did on PAF’s, and his pickups are excellent.
But understand that my own personal goal was never to be making hundreds of pickups a month. A business like that would burn me out. I wanted to make very few pickups but make them like a piece of art. Each one embodying all the research and experimentation I’ve done over these 11 years to produce something that stands way above a mass-produced pickup or “boutique” mediocrity. So, my work ethic is kind of Zen– focus on one thing at a time, and do the thing I’m working on slowly and totally focused, and do it with love and attention on the smallest details. I have to be actually enjoying what I’m working on at the time, or I quit and do something else. It’s not a very profitable way to work. I am always consumed with trying to understand coils and magnets, and steel and the quantum physics madness that those complex ingredients can produce infinitely; it can drive you mad. How many ways can you wind a single strat pickup, for example? HUNDREDS! How many ways are there to manipulate that one pickup’s tone by various methods? You can’t even count it.
When I am working on a prototype pickup, it’s easy to get lost in seeking perfection. You go around in circles and sometimes find yourself back where you started; it’s like trying to throw a lasso around water; things become so elusive and exceed your grasp constantly. Some pickups only really give you spectacular results if specific ingredients are used. If one piece isn’t working, the whole falls apart. Finding balance can be extremely frustrating. You do figure out principles that work really well, but then even those ideas aren’t written in stone and can change as more is understood. If you are mass producing pickups, you have to lose control because you can’t make every single pickup spectacular; you have to settle on a certain level of mediocrity because you can’t pay attention to each pickup. I’m not very money motivated, and it goes against the grain for me to forego maximum quality in the pursuit of quantity production. As a business ethic, though, this is a horrible way to think. I make my pickups very slowly because if I am making a set of pickups, the neck pickup design is very different from the bridge pickup, so you can’t just make standard parts that all work in each position. The result is that I have about a 40-week waiting list for my work because I can’t crank them out like a machine. I have a hard time giving up my principles just to make as much money as I can… Call me stupid, I guess, haha, but I also feel good about every pickup that gets mailed out. Mass-produced mediocrity isn’t for me; the world already has plenty of that.
GC: Were the best pickups truly produced in the ’50s?
DS: No. This is a complex question without a simple answer. Great pickups were made from the beginning, back in the early ’30s, maybe even earlier. The real question is, WHY were so many pickups from back in those eras so great sounding? The answer is materials and technology. I learned this from my PAF reverse-engineering project, which is seemingly never-ending, even now. In studying PAF’s and having senior industrial experts help in that work, we looked at pickups back in the late 1930s, up until the late ’70s. Mostly Gibson stuff, but Fender as well. The materials technologies of the time as compared to now were much cruder. Today, we make steel using high-tech electrical furnaces; we have better chemicals to exclude oxygen from the furnace burn, the materials are cleaner and purer. The same thing applies to how alnico was made and how magnet wire was made.
Everything then used low-tech methods and ingredients. The result is that it made more MUSICAL pickups because crude materials give you more blended sweet tones. In the study of PAF’s particularly, you can see that in the late ’50s, alnico making improved. Suddenly, you had smaller magnets that would hold a higher magnetic charge than the older big fat magnets that didn’t hold as much a charge for their size. So in ’59 and later, the pickups got brighter and more clear. This continued through TTops into the late 70’s when steelmaking had also evolved to being more high tech, cleaner materials, and methods until late TTops were very bright and even shrill at times.
Ed Note: “TTops” are 70’s era Gibson Humbuckers, identified by a letter “T” on top of each coil bobbin.
I also had the same 40-year time span of magnet wire analyzed by Elektrisola Wire Corp. I graciously offered to analyze all the wire samples I had taken and saved off many vintage pickups from Fender, Gibson, DeArmond, and others. Magnet wire changed quite noticeably over time. Yes, it was also a more musical-sounding wire, more crude material, processed and made with less pure copper and probably more organic insulation than now. Modern magnet wire is much more clear sounding; it would be possible to have some made more to vintage specs, but I can’t afford it, and it would be an expensive, risky experiment as well. Unfortunately, I don’t see anyone who ever did ANY analyses of vintage wire, and no one else seems to know zip about it. I was just lucky that I had that opportunity to consult with experts and have their lab tell me how my vintage samples compared to all the modern wire samples I also supplied them. A fascinating story in that data, and no one ever did this work before.
Not all vintage pickups were great ones, though. The P13 is a fascinating story and one example of a pickup that wasn’t so great. It followed the Charlie Christian pickup. The CC pickup was a huge device with large flat cobalt steel magnets that had to be supported underneath the top of an archtop guitar, with a 3 point screw and springs mounting system, very cumbersome. With the invention of alnico magnets, they didn’t need those large steel magnets anymore to make the pickup into a small self-contained, compact package. The first P13 also had a blade in the shape of a T with the top notched to make poles for each string. The blade was extremely thick and difficult to manufacture, so that design didn’t last long. But next, they tried making the thick blade into only tall enough to butt the magnets against, then sunk pole screws into the top to make it adjustable, a good idea. West Coast and Jump Blues players love this version, but this was a very dark-sounding design, and in some amps, they just can be one of the muddiest pickup designs ever for guitar. The coils were also “air coils” and not actually wound onto the steel core but slipped over it. The bobbins were made of paper, an extremely unfriendly production design, difficult to make. I make a reproduction of P13’s, and modern materials help it to be more useful. The design eventually morphed into the P90 as we know it today, one of the best pickup designs ever. Many other pickups from the early years were too complex, too much steel in them, too dark sounding, that wasn’t commercially successful. Just because a pickup is vintage doesn’t mean it sounds great. But the great-sounding ones did have the benefit of period materials that we don’t have.
There is also the aging factor. It’s almost impossible to quantify and measure what aging does to the sound of a vintage guitar pickup. Some of what people think make vintage pickups seem warm is actually because the wiring harness they are in has aged.
GC: People debate that things like wire and magnets are “better,” at least more consistent quality-wise today. Is it necessary to have period-correct materials to obtain the tones of that period?
DS: Another complicated question. No, you don’t need vintage magnets and wire or steel to get vintage tones. But you won’t get identical tones, either. In my PAF work, there is about 5% that will always be beyond my reach. It just cannot be had unless you have a time machine to send materials back from 1959. Magnets are now all made in China. Ten years ago, it all came from Korea. The Chinese learn fast, yet their magnets are still fairly crude, which is a GOOD thing. I have been sent samples from some American alnico makers, but their magnets are too high tech, too clean, and just sound wrong, too bland, with no sparkle. They just have lost what the Chinese apparently are still making. Let’s just hope the Chinese don’t become too high tech and start making aerospace quality alnico because it won’t be as good. I love Chinese magnets and have mine all custom-made through an American broker who sources from many factories over there. And I keep many different stocks of these magnets and place the magnets into the design that works best for them. Chinese magnets are really close to a lot of vintage magnets I have. It’s good stuff, but you have to realize that each factory has its own alnico recipes, and no two recipes for a single type of alnico are the same. So, I have alnico 2 that is extremely bright, and I have alnico 2 that is soft and warm. It’s a joy to have so much choice.
Magnet wire IS better, but “better” has its drawbacks. Again, referring back to my PAF work, with modern magnet wire, I can exceed the clarity of most PAF’s with new wire. I rewind many vintage PAF’s with modern wire, and they sound amazing, better than they were. But it’s also because they have vintage magnets and steel in them that they sound great.
Suppose you watch any of my PAF repro YouTube videos. In that case, I often compare actual vintage PAF’s side by side with my reproduction Vintage Lab HD PAF’s that I make, using every ounce of 11 years of research. Thousands of hours and experiments, so you can see that it IS possible to get really damn close to a vintage 50-year-old aged Humbucker. But there are minor differences if you listen close enough. The differences can be minimal, to the point that I have been confused during long video recording as to which set I was playing– the vintage or the Vintage Lab repro, and have sometimes mislabeled them in the YouTube videos. I always set my amp and speakers and method of recording to be very bright and transparent so that you can hear small details, but at a gig on stage, with a loud band, you wouldn’t really hear any difference at all. Guys who own real vintage PAF’s often tell me they prefer my copies because mine have better clarity by a little bit. It remains to be seen if 50 years from now, mine will sound different.
GC: Until I actually heard some great-sounding vintage 50’s era pickups myself, I believed it was mostly hype. Aside from specific magnet and wire grades, did the early pickup pioneers have certain advantages in terms of techniques or equipment that are lost today?
DS: No, they didn’t have better equipment or techniques; they had worse. Worse is “better.” They had the crude materials, the crude technology, all these are gone. I have no hair on the top of my head from tearing it out, trying to make modern materials from modern factories sound like vintage materials. For a perfectionist, it can be heartbreaking trying to get closer and closer.
One big problem I forgot to mention is that plain enamel magnet wire was used a lot in those days in many pickups. Here in 2013, there are only two places in the USA that make plain enamel wire. One of them has quality control problems, they use too thick insulation, and it’s nothing like vintage wire. The other makes the wire too thin or too thick. Wire diameter is a design tool– tiny differences in diameter make big changes in tone. It has nothing to do with what “gauge” the wire is because each gauge has a huge tolerance in the industry for what can be accepted. The only reason plain enamel wire is even made anymore in this country is because of pickup makers. No other industry uses it, and it could completely disappear at any time. I would be F#*#D if that ever happened because no other type of magnet wire sounds the same as it does. Five years ago, we had more sources for this wire, but several companies quit making it because it involves toxic chemicals. The previous company that was making it 3 years ago made it so inconsistently that you couldn’t have a locked-in design that worked because you would buy wire one month that was great. The next month you’d get something that was completely a different diameter or sounded totally different; it was horrible to deal with. We are blessed- for now- that Elektrisola is making plain enamel, but not in my preferred diameters. You have to adapt to changing times, and we are stuck with what’s available. I could have custom wire made, but the cost is about $10k– too much money for a small artisan builder like myself.
The other thing you have to realize about playing a vintage instrument that no one has paid any attention to is that you are also playing an AGED WIRING HARNESS with vintage pots and tone caps. The wire itself oxidizes, the insulations oxidize and corrode, and cloth breaks down, etc. I did some experiments with vintage braided shield wire vs. an equal length of its modern equivalent. There was a large difference in what happened to a PAF’s resonant peak frequency between the two-wire samples. If you rewired a vintage Les Paul with new modern, braided shield wire, you would get a big increase in clarity because a vintage PAF measured without its aged pickup leads is very, very bright. Few, if any, pay attention to these details, but I always look at the complete picture, not just at the pickup. You can go to extremes in research. For instance, Les Pauls were made with the wood of those times, glues and lacquers that weren’t the same as now, but it only frustrates you and saddens you that these things can’t really be had anymore. And an aged LP has dried out and produces an acoustic tone a new guitar can’t. There is a video on YouTube comparing a reissue Les Paul against a 59 Les Paul, UNPLUGGED, and the differences are remarkable.
GC: If you had the magical opportunity to speak with a deceased pickup pioneer, who would it be, and what might you ask them?
DS: Harry DeArmond. I would ask him how he arrived at certain designs. One of his most amazing, technically, is the “monkey on a stick” Guitar Mike/mic that jazz guys love. It has a really unique and complex magnetic design, unlike any other pickup on Earth. Every pickup maker I’ve known who tried to figure out how the design works has completely misunderstood it. I tried similar things along the way from my own experiments, so I know what he did and may someday soon do a version of it that anyone can use in any electric guitar. I can tell you that DeArmond was a tinkerer like me, trying many crazy things to see what might work and learn how to control what a pickup does. You have to love tools, love cutting up and shaping metal, and machining things, or turning parts on a lathe. This gives you the ability to make your dreams and ideas into something you can hold in your hand and listen to on your guitar. Harry’s pickups are timeless; they always sounded great and are still in great demand with high prices on the vintage market. Very few people know that Harry DeArmond also invented the technique of finger “tapping” that Eddie Van Halen made famous in our time. Harry used the technique to demonstrate to musicians how beautifully sensitive his pickups were, a real showman and amazing musician. I made acquaintance with someone in the UK who is trying to write a book about Harry DeArmond– I don’t know if he’s been successful with it yet or not. It’s a story that needs to be told.
GC: What are some key performance characteristics of a high-quality guitar pickup?
DS: That’s kind of a weird question, ha. What makes a great car? Is a great car a Volkswagen or a Ferrari? They are both great cars because both fulfill different functions. To me, in general terms, a great guitar pickup has the qualities of a human voice. It sings, it speaks, and it doesn’t sound mechanical or shrill. It won’t cover up your mistakes; it’s touch-sensitive, intelligently designed using known principles, and not “magical thinking” or advertising slogans. “High quality?” Well, going by what vintage pickups were, you don’t want high-quality materials. My own work I would call “high craftsmanship.” Everything goes together well, every part does its intended job, and every part’s job is well understood and tuned to produce the whole.
GC: Have you ever made a superlative-sounding pickup that had to be shelved because it cannot look conventional enough to be cosmetically acceptable?
DS: Not really. The only ones I’ve shelved took too much time to build, too frustrating to make. I still have one or two like that, but I priced them high for the time they take to build. They don’t sell much anymore, but they are unique with really great tones, like my laminated blade Tele neck pickup. It’s like “angel tones,” but it takes a couple of days just to make one, not very cost-effective. Those who did buy them rave about the sound.
There really honestly aren’t any new ideas in pickup making; they all use the same principles. I used to search out every pickup patent I could find, and you see the same basic ideas over and over, done in different ways. You also find bizarre patents, and when you try out the idea, it sounds terrible, and you wonder why it was ever patented. Plus, there were patented pickups that were never actually produced, probably because they sucked bad. So, yes, you can make an outrageously strange-looking pickup using good design, but then you end up with something that maybe has to be built as part of the guitar. Gibson did some extraordinary pickups for their archtops, for instance. One was like a giant Fender single-coil idea that was angled at an extreme degree so that one pole was very close to the bridge and the other pole was up near the neck. The pickup must have been about twelve inches long! You could make a pickup like that, but no one could use it on an existing guitar.
Guitar players as a group are actually very conservative when it comes to their gear. This is why weird guitars don’t really sell well compared to Les Pauls and Teles and Stratocasters. It’s the same with pickups; the bulk of all pickup sales are for the classics. There are some cool-looking pickups like the Alumatones by Lace, but they can’t match Strat pickup sales, and the tones of those ideas are out of the norm. That pickup, by the way, is not a new idea at all, and the original idea was conceived in the 1930s. I do have some prototypes that were pretty odd that I’ll probably never sell. One was called the Phase-o-phonic. It has two sets of pole screws, and by adjusting them, you can make each string progressively more an out-of-phase tone; each string can be tuned that way. It’s a gimmick idea, and I don’t think anyone would want one– plus, they are difficult to make.
GC: How much of pickup making is materials vs. technical expertise? In other words, a good chef can manage to maintain good results as seasons and ingredients change, whereas a novice cook relying strictly on recipes has more difficulty compensating for ingredient fluctuations.
DS: In my opinion, it’s ALL technical expertise. You can have good materials, but if you don’t know shit about making pickups, they won’t help you. But that technical expertise MUST include a deep knowledge of materials. A novice will buy a kit; the materials were already chosen for the kit, the design was already made, everyone who winds and assembles the kit will get the same results. Material is a complex subject. With magnets, every manufacturer has their own alnico recipes that are different than everyone else’s. I try as many sources for magnets as I can; I have them made to my specs. Magnets are like colors of paint, you use them where they work, and you don’t use them because of some alnico “number” they are called because alnico 2 can be sweet and warm and low power it can be extremely bright, charging too high gauss.
The steel I use, I buy from four or five different places and am always trying out new sources. Each company’s steel sounds different, IS different. Magnet wire is not all the same; there are large tolerances for what can be called “42 gauge,” for instance. You have to measure every batch with a micrometer, and you have to know what the actual real measured diameter does to tone.
To understand materials and the physics of coils, magnets, and steel, I learned to use technical measurement gear very early in my pickup career. One engineer, I knew taught me how to use an LCR meter (inductance, capacitance, resistance). All the other pickup makers laughed at me because I did that. I didn’t care because that meter was the first instrument that could tell me what would happen if I made a change in one part in a pickup or wound the coil a different way; that ears can’t really hear well enough. It’s a very limited tool, so I learned to do frequency response charts and then how to read peak frequencies in pickups. None of these tools can tell you what good tone is; none of the tools are useful by themselves. They are crutches and teachers, but to master your craft, you need to use them, then when the lessons are learned, you need to abandon them pretty much. I seldom use them at all now.
GC: Do you search far and wide for NOS wire and AlNiCo, or use current materials and special techniques to compensate for materials variations?
DS: No, I don’t look for NOS wire, though I do keep an eye out for a certain type which is extremely rare to find. I do have a small collection of 50’s magnet wire for my “museum.” I have a one-pound roll of NOS plain enamel I got recently, paid a fortune for it, but it’s strictly for one single experiment I haven’t been able to do yet because of limited time. And that is to wind two identical Vintage Lab HD PDF replicas, one with the NOS vintage wire and one with equivalent modern wire. I have the Elektrisola lab data on what vintage PAF wire is, in NUMBERS and anecdotal stories. Still, I have no way to actually hear how the old wire actually sounds in a newly wound modern pickup compared to the same with modern wire. I guess it’s a darker and sweeter sounding wire because the numbers point to that, but some of the data also points to the other direction. I may wind a set or two and sell it to recoup the money I spent on it, but that’s all. Several winders have claimed they are using NOS vintage wire, but I have examined these pickups, and there was no vintage wire inside. Unfortunately, there are disreputable people in this business who will do or say anything to put your money in their pockets. When confronted to prove his claims, one guy gets angry and says he doesn’t want to reveal his “secret source.” Some claiming to use NOS wire are using a less than 10 years old wire and is a modern wire. Pretty sad to what levels some will stoop to make a sale, and it pollutes the craft and gives the field a bad name. The problem with using NOS wire is that most of it doesn’t age very well and because you can’t get a consistent stock of it, what is the point of designing any pickup around using it? It could actually be detrimental to your pickup design. It’s not some magic potion that’s going to make a pickup into something stellar. Unfortunately, guitar players fall for these stories and don’t demand the storyteller prove his claims.
GC: On your site, you refer to the use of a spectrum analyzer, with minimum emphasis on the usual DC resistance specs. What useful parameters does a spectrum analyzer reveal or provide?
DS: Truthfully, not very much. My website is a bit out of date because I am too busy to keep it current. If you want to keep up with what I am doing, subscribe to my YouTube Channel http://www.youtube.com/sdpickups. DC resistance, though, is not very useful at all. DC resistance only applies to a known DIAMETER of wire with a certain length. So if you are making a pickup that is 10Kin 43 gauge wire, and the next roll of magnet wire you buy, the diameter is slightly smaller. You wind it to 10K, you have actually DECREASED the OUTPUT because the skinny wire has more resistance per foot, so you put fewer winds on the coil. All my recipes are for wind counts. One turn of wire around a magnet always equals the same voltage measurement. If you always wind the same number of turns, you always get the same output. Changes in the diameter will make that same output read differently in ohms but not output if you use the same turn counts. You always have to know the actual diameter of the wire you are using because if the next roll of wire changes in size too much, you’re going to get a different tonal sound. Wire diameter even changes throughout the roll of wire, so you have to constantly “mic” the wire to keep your design consistency.
GC: “Scatter winding” is sometimes discussed as if it were some sacred geometry. What’s your definition of scatter winding, and how much of a factor is it for creating a good pickup?
DS: The scatter winding term is so much bullshit, a term that amateurs use. Scatter winding is any winding pattern where the wire is not laid down precisely next to the last wind laid down. So if you set your machine winder to wind a coil that is four turns per layer on a two-inch length of coil, it technically is a scatter because the turns of each wire don’t touch each other, side by side.
Guys who hand guide their coil winds mistakenly think it’s a superior method; this is the hobbyist amateur’s mindset. Hand-guided winding is good for single coils but terrible for Humbuckers. All my pickups are machine wound. I used to hand guide my coils, but my fingers, wrist, and elbows are very prone to repetitive stress damage, so I spent years trying to figure out how to get a machine that would do my wire guiding for me. The industrial coil winding machines are too perfect, everything is locked in place, and you can only write a certain length of programs on most of them. I wanted something I could program to make a hand-wind pattern. Industrial machines are also horribly expensive. My earliest attempts to take the stress off my hands was by using a bicycle derailleur cable and lever so I could just move the hand control back and forth, but still, my hands ended up hurting. Anyway, I tried various little inventions with not much success. Eventually, I realized I would have to use a stepper motor and CNC somehow, but I couldn’t find anyone who could teach me how to do it. Finally, I found an older man who sold me the parts to wire up a basic rig, which I then built into some surplus hardware from eBay and built my own simple programmable winder, very crude, very low-tech, and ridiculously cheap. It makes everything I want, a vintage-type machine wind or hand-guided winding pattern, the parts are inexpensive, and I built a backup machine for practically nothing. There is no commercial machine that can do what mine does, and I would never want anything else. For the actual winding motor part of my unit, I use an Adams Maxwell vintage hand winding machine from the ’70s and have three of them. They are built like tanks, and mine is not linked to the CNC wire guiding system. I love low-tech, ha, and I don’t show my winder to anyone.
Some out there claim that a vintage coil winding machine produces some magical sounding coils. So magical that you have to pay extra for the privilege of being fooled into believing those stories. Seymour Duncan actually owns the original winder that wound the original PAF’s, but there is no magic, sorry. The only magic in coil winding comes from the knowledge of the operator. A machine wind is the only method to get superior clarity from Humbuckers, P90’s, TTops, mini-buckers, etc., especially for the neck pickup; hand-guided winding can’t deliver the same clarity. My first machine wind was a P90 neck, and at last, I found the capability of making it sound sweet and clear like the originals were. None of those pickups were ever hand-wound from Gibson. Leo Fender did hand wind, but when CBS bought the company, they machine-wound everything. Is one better than the other? No.
There is too much hype in the pickup-making world. In my 33 year career in the advertising business, I saw how businesses could severely damage themselves by making claims that weren’t true. I use no such deception in my world, and it makes me sad that so many players pay for stories they are told rather than for a pickup that sounds great; with so many amateurs out there, it’s easy to get burned in the pursuit of tone. There is no magic bullet for tone, not vintage wire, vintage magnets, or vintage winding machines; none of these things will help you.
GC: In your observation, which positive offset occurs most often: 1) -Well-built guitars offset mediocre pickups? 2) – Good pickups offset mediocre guitars? 3) – Boutique amps & pedals offset mediocre guitars & pickups?
DS: Great question! A master can’t overcome crappy pickups built guitar. Good pickups by themselves; if you throw them in a crappy guitar, you can’t make it a great-sounding player, as I will explain. A great boutique amp can help a mediocre guitar with mediocre pickups; in fact, most of them are probably designed around using average import guitars from your local large music store. They kind of have to be, really.
But, let’s back up a bit and explain something because it’s not that simple. I have over 40 video pickup demonstrations on YouTube. You will see that my earliest Les Pauls are a tobacco burst and a red burst for my PAF work. The red burst is a $200 Stellar guitar, made of mahogany and some unknown wood cap on the body; they claim “maple.” The fretboard is some kind of dyed wood. Acoustically the unplugged guitar sounds big and warm, very much like an actual vintage Les Paul. But, basically, it’s a piece of crap. So, why does it sound so damn good in the videos? I learned that a guitar’s wiring harness is half the battle for good tone because I learned out of pure survival.
My first experience with this was with a cheap Jay Turser guitar from China about ten years ago. I put a set of my P90’s in it, and they sounded horrible, yet in my other guitar, they sounded incredible. Someone suggested changing the pots, so I did, and the change was dramatic. But as time went on, I learned that the entire harnesses in these offshore guitars were made of junk that just put a muffled blanket over any pickups you put in them. I eventually realized that I had to study how the original harnesses were wired for my PAF work and what each component actually was. It was difficult to find those things out back then, and no one could tell me, for instance, how the switch was wired. Now, in EVERY guitar I get, I completely tear out all the electronics, switches, pots, jack, tone caps. The tobacco burst is a cheap Chinese Epiphone, all mahogany, not a good guitar at all. So, you CAN use a cheap guitar like that one, that at least is playable, put a first quality accurate 50’s harness in it with specifically chosen CTS pots and specific paper in oil tone caps, good jack, and switch, wired in 50’s method with bus wire connecting all four pots, following how the real harnesses were done, put in a set of my Vintage Lab HD’s or others of my VL pickups, and get remarkable results. The videos show that it’s possible. But, I finally sought out first quality guitars and now use Epiphone Elitist Les Pauls, made by Fujigen in Japan. It did give me much more authenticity for the Les Paul sound because they are long tenon neck joints, excellent wood, and build. But they, too, had low-quality harnesses, and both were completely rewired from scratch. Even the most expensive guitars often have poor quality harness components, smart Gibson LP owners put better pots and caps in them and wire them 50’s style, and the change is remarkable. TAO Guitars are the first luthier builders I met who understand the importance of the harness.
Pedals, I suppose, can help mediocre pickups. We call them “talent boxes,” where I live. You really shouldn’t need anything more than a guitar, an amp, and your fingers to get a great tone. Portland taught me that. But I did used to rely on pedals previous to my Portland enlightenment, ha. At that earlier time, my favorite guitar was a Gibson Marauder. In fact, I had collected five of them. They were designed with Bill Lawrence pickups. Unfortunately, the pickups were responsible for the failure of those guitars to become popular. They were noiseless pickups, a cool design but very weak output.
GC: Where are you on potting or not potting? I saw one pickup maker listing 3-4 different potting “recipes” available with his pickups, kinda like offering different cheese options for a burger. What’s that all about?
DS: Single coils of the Fender type should be potted all the time. Guys use bee’s wax mixed with paraffin, but there is zero proof that bee’s wax was ever used. I don’t see it in vintage Fender pickups at all. I don’t pot my PAF’s because they never were. Some guys claim they have a secret “vintage potting recipe” when using some version of shellac. Yes, it does make the pickups sound warmer, but only for about six months, then the water and alcohol in the shellac finally evaporates, and the warmth disappears. Water and alcohol have a high dielectric effect, reducing the wire’s insulation efficiency, so you lose treble. I did many experiments with dielectric materials of all kinds and found a potting fluid that really warmed the pickups up and was permanent, but it was too hard to control the effect, how much to use, and was messy to deal with. I don’t use anything special now, just pure paraffin, which is very transparent sounding. Bee’s wax can darken the tone a tiny amount, but I think it can also absorb water to some extent because it’s an organic substance. You should be able to get the tones you want from any coil by knowing how to make a coil sound warmer or brighter by… well, you should know that if you’re experienced. You don’t need “secret sauce” to help you.
I did discover something fun about how Leo potted his pickups. You see old Strat pickups with a very glossy wax coating on the coils, almost like they were lacquered, but it’s wax. It’s a secret I don’t tell anyone, but it was amazing to figure it out finally. I think Leo was speaking to me, ha…
Fender did actually use lacquer potting in the late ’60s, but it was for a very short time. Lacquer does not penetrate the coils; it only solidifies a few outer layers, so most of those pickups are microphonic and squeal at loud volume. Lacquer eventually killed many of those pickups as well.
GC: In the boutique guitar culture, there’s some division about the meaning of “hand made,” which today usually boils down to pin router vs. CNC. With amps, it’s Point to Point vs. PCB. Similarly, some feel that hand winding isn’t “by hand” if the winding machine utilized is “smarter” than a fishing reel. Where do you stand with this?
DS: The guiding wire method isn’t as important as knowing the person guiding the wire or the person telling the machine how to guide the wire. A machine isn’t smart. You can’t buy an expensive industrial programmable winding machine, and it’s going to spit out good-sounding pickups for you if you never wound a pickup in your life before you bought the machine. To me, the issue isn’t about “hand-made,” whatever that means. The issue is kit pickups vs. intelligent original designed pickups. A printed circuit amp is like that; it’s a circuit design literally etched in copper. You can buy an amp kit with a PC board and supplied components; you are assembling someone else’s thinking. With pickups, most are assembling someone else’s thinking too. My low-tech programmable winder will do the same kind of winding pattern as my hands will, but you have to start in the beginning winding by hand to learn that technique. My machine can do a hand-wind, but industrial programmable winders aren’t good at this. Generally, they don’t allow infinite lines of code, and the physical way they put wire on a coil is very tightly controlled. Neither machine nor hand winding is superior; hand-guided winding is best for single coils of the Fender type– machine guided winding is best for pickups that were wound on automated machines in the past, PAF’s, P90’s, mini-buckers, TTops, etc.
Lollar’s book teaches you how to make your own flatwork with a router and fiberboard. No one takes the time to learn this anymore because you can buy those parts ready-made. If you’re assembling kit parts, is it really “hand-made?” It should say “built and designed in China/Korea/Japan and assembled in the USA.” That pisses off many hobby winders when I say stuff like that, but it’s the truth. I see more and more guys following my lead of making their own Humbucker parts; I was doing that about 8 years ago, experimenting with different alloys, and altering parts’ design to learn the effects. I don’t remember anyone else doing those things back then, and no one was interested in what a PAF really was made of. What disturbs me these days is some are now making claims that they “reverse-engineered a 1959 PAF” and that they are the new expert on PAF’s. A guy with 2 years of pickup-making learned all the secrets of PAF’s from one cheap metal lab test? Total bullshit! I look at the parts they make, and they’re just wrong. They’ve seen me all these years talk about my metallurgy work, and they think by using phrases that I’ve had on my website for years is going to elevate them in the public eye, but their knowledge is totally cosmetic and doesn’t work, and the tones don’t match the claims. I’ve been obsessing on the PAF puzzle by doing actual thousands of hours of work and experiments and spent thousands of dollars on machine shop tools, materials, and exotic alloys. It’s only been in the last two years that I’ve gained a pretty complete understanding of that one pickup. No one can buy some steel after a cheap lab test and get anywhere near where I’ve gotten in that study. And my study goes on and on and on…
I would compare my work with PAF’s in particular, as this is the main obsession, with someone who builds only one amp design from the past, yet studies many examples of the vintage amp itself, how all the components were actually manufactured in every tiny microscopic detail and keeps building that same amp over and over and over until he completely understands how the originals sounded and worked until one could put the vintage amp side by side with the recreation and barely be able to hear any difference at all. In my videos, my absolute acid test is to do exactly that with real vintage PAF’s and my recreations, show them side by side, make no claims other than I did my homework for years and years, and let the customer decide how close I got.
So, “hand-made” doesn’t really have a lot of meaning. You have to get to know who the builder is. Does he do only the same things all the other builders are doing, or did he step outside of the box with an insatiable curiosity about his craft? That’s what drives me; it is endless, infinite curiosity. Nothing is true for me until I prove it for myself, and I always have endless questions about what I’m doing and am never satisfied with what I make. There is always one more experiment to try, one more idea to work on; perfection is always just out of reach.
GC: Have the essential, iconic sounds of electric guitar crystallized to the point where newer pickup technology is no longer necessary— leaving the quest always about the recovery of original “retro” fundamentals?
DS: I do think guitar sound is pretty much very traditional and narrowly defined. There are very few artists who step outside the accepted norms. Tuck (Andress) of Tuck and Patty is one guy I can think of who uses an extremely clear and unconventional guitar sound. I can’t think of anyone else offhand who does anything with a tone that really stands out. Maybe Jack White of White Stripes, but he’s still using conventional vintage pickups in less popular guitars like the Supro’s and Nationals. Maybe that’s why I love PAF’s because Gibson lost that sound not long after they were discontinued. It’s not a real common sound you hear anymore. But it’s part of the tradition, and though hard to get, players are familiar with those recordings. Except the recordings are more an engineer’s artwork than how the pickups really sound in a person’s bedroom amp. The Alumatones are the only recent innovations that have departed somewhat from what’s accepted, yet you never see anyone using them because players are very conservative in what they’ll accept. Bass players are different, though; they are more into active pickups, unique tone circuits, gimmicky basses, etc. I don’t make bass pickups because I don’t play bass, so it’s too hard for me to test something I don’t play. There will always be “new” ideas about pickups and their technology, but it’s always based on what has gone before, well, unless you get into optical or laser pickups… But will they stand the test of time and gain wide acceptance? Probably not.
GC: Do you prefer an analog or digital pedal chain? And why one over the other, from the perspective of a pickup maker?
DS: As I mentioned earlier, I am old school and don’t use pedals anymore. I still have quite a few pedals, some from my earliest days of guitar from the late ’60s, like my Big Muff and MXR phaser. Traditionally, a lot of early rock guys used weak pickups with pedals. Weak pickups survive through a pedal chain much better than hot pickups do. I prefer analog pedals myself. I’ve tried some of the digital pedals, and they always seem to sound really bad if you push them to extremes. I got a Fender Mustang amp last year to play with headphones, but all that digital amp mimicry sounds totally fake, and I can’t stand it anymore. Pickups don’t interact with digital the way they do with real tube amps. It’s old school for me, and I don’t apologize for it.
GC: Speaking of signal chains, any thoughts on tubes, transformers, and speakers?
DS: Oh, YES! All my tube amps are mostly Silverface era Fender amps, though I have a few others too. An aged tube amp, point to point wired, just can’t be beat. The Silverface amps are still very affordable compared to modern boutique amps and are easy to maintain and do small mods too. I have Weber speakers in all my Fenders. Still, I also have Celestion speakers in a couple of pine cabs that I regularly use that I really love, especially the Alnico Gold, probably one of the best speakers made. I haven’t done anything with transformers, and I don’t think modern transformers can equal an aged vintage transformer. There are the same problems in duplicating vintage transformers as there are in duplicating vintage PAF’s. The iron and copper and manufacturing techniques from back then were different and can’t be matched 100%. It’s the same with tubes; some excellent tubes are made now, JJ’s, Mullard, Tung-Sol. But when you compare them to NOS vintage tubes, it’s obvious something was lost. I use JJ preamp tubes in all my amps, but I use NOS vintage power tubes because they are just so much better sounding than anything new. Tube manufacture involved extremely complex metallurgy, and the experts from that era are mostly gone now. It’s a partly lost art, sad to say.
GC: What amp or amps do you use testing and making demo videos? Why?
DS: I use mainly for PAF’s, my ’73 Blackfaced Vibrolux. It has a real blackface era power transformer, so you can use a GZ rectifier tube. The main reason to use it is that it runs on 6L6 power tubes. For classic rock-era PAF work, guys like Peter Green and Michael Bloomfield used Fender 6L6 powered Fender amps. Their tones are more ideal to me than Jimmy Page or Kossoff because Fender amps are cleaner, and you can hear the details in PAF’s better than you can in a cranked Marshall. I am not very familiar with playing thru any Marshall and don’t own any Marshall amps other than a rare Studio 15, but it’s not a typical Marshall amp and uses 6V6 power tubes. 6V6’s, in general, are a bad choice for real PAF’s or my reproductions. They don’t sound good in my smaller Fenders with those tubes because they break up too fast, don’t have a big round sound with enough headroom, and sound harsh with PAF’s. For Fender-type pickups, my smaller Fender amps, the Princeton Reverb and Deluxe Reverb, both from ’73 and Blackfaced, love single coils, and the early break-up helps bright singles to compress quicker and give you more expected tones.
The Vibrolux is also plugged into a Celestion Alnico Gold 12″ in an open back pine cab; this speaker sounds glorious with PAF’s. And all my recent HD VL PAF demos use that speaker and the Elitist Les Pauls. You couldn’t ask for better tones than that.
I’m also using two SM57 mics to record the speaker. One up against the grille and one about ten feet away up at ear level for room ambiance. Those mics were used a lot for guitars on classic recordings, and I like what they give me. I keep my recordings unaltered, with flat EQ in the small mixing board, straight into a Zoom Q3HD digi-cam set on higher than CD quality, like 96khz setting. Then the video is dumped onto the Mac and edited with no changes in the audio. No effects, no pedals, simple. All the recordings are done with the amp volume on 4, treble on 8, and bass on 2, I have the vibrato turned off, and negative feedback loop turned off to give me loud volume break-up at a much lower volume to save my ears and my marriage, ha!
GC: Do you have a library of good, benchmark standard vintage pickups?
DS: Oh yes, I have my cluttered “pickup museum” in cabinet drawers and boxes and tins scattered about with all kinds of strange and classic pickups; they are my teachers. I have several vintage PAF’s, a ’58 strat pickup, a Charlie Christian ’37 pickup, many different DeArmond designs, all the variations of P13’s, some P90’s, Jaguar, TTops, Dirty Fingers, plus all the commercial Humbuckers that claimed to be PAF replicas that we analyzed, (sadly none were). Plus, sometimes I have customers who send me vintage pickups to try out and study. Last year I had two separate individuals send me unmolested 1965 first-year TTop sets, with covers never removed. They told me to do anything I want to analyze, dissect or anything except destroy my research pickups. That was quite a fascinating endeavor, and I learned what the first changes were right after the last early Patent in ’64 and saw things that later TTops had disappeared forever.
Dissecting vintage pickups is a fascinating job for me. You can read them like a book. When I was dissecting old P13’s, I saw them try different things, always looking to improve the pickups. They, at one point, had insulated the magnets with paper tape to keep them from interacting electrically with the baseplate and cover, another one, they varnished the magnet to try doing the same thing. This meant that they were aware that P13’s were just too dark sounding, and they were trying to reduce inductance and AC resistance. Those guys were not stupid. I have even read one interview with Seth Lover in a Japanese book where he said they designed PAF’s to have a certain inductance. You don’t read that over here. I think his American interviews have maybe been censored. I have also noticed that PAF’s hit certain AC resistance and inductance readings consistently when they are wound to the actual recipe of 10,000 total winds. But yeah, I love vintage pickups and will trade my work for exotic, valuable examples for me to study and listen to.
GC: Do you rely upon benchmark standard guitarist/recordings to sort out and qualify exceptional vintage pickups with which to model current pickups? If so, can you share any of those iconic tunes?
DS: Yes and no. Haha, I’m a Pisces and always see both sides of the coin! I studied and found every studio recording and video and concert footage I could find on YouTube or pirate videos of vintage Les Pauls and their PAF buckers in the beginning, especially with PAF’s. Michael Bloomfield, Jimmy Page, Kossoff, Albert King, BB King, Peter Green, Gary Moore– all these guys played PAF-equipped guitars. And there is good video and albums of their work. The live films are better because recording studio engineers can make a guitar sound like anything they want. Live films are less manipulated in general. PAF’s basically are quite bright pickups in general, but studio engineers, faced with some Blues-rock guy and his amp dimed as Clapton did on the Beano album, are horrified at the treble frequencies hurting their ears and microphones, so they EQ the high frequencies down, and the mix-down for vinyl takes more out in the end, so what you hear on albums isn’t real. Peter Green’s guitar has been recorded in video when he was playing it, and then when Gary Moore owned it, and a good YouTube video of Larry Corsa of CV Guitars, noodling on it at a guitar show in Texas with a big smile on his face. In every context, the guitar sounds totally different. The studio recordings of it make it sound really warm and fat, yet some live footage of Gary Moore makes it sound like I know PAF’s really are bright and crisp.
I love the videos of Albert King playing his original Gibson flying V because that was his best tone EVER, and BB King when he played PAF-equipped guitars early on; his tone, then to me too, was his best. Obviously, by now, you can tell I am PAF crazy and totally obsessed with them, LOL 😉 But, I do the same things with any vintage pickup I am trying to recreate. Charlie Christian pickup is a favorite. I figured out a way to build a pretty accurate one into a dog ear P90 cover so anyone with a guitar like that can enjoy those tones. Strat pickups, Tele pickups, it doesn’t matter… I have to immerse myself in the best of recorded music. Most importantly, the LIVE concert footage and dealers on YouTube playing them like you and I would without a studio engineer and video sound guy altering the real voice of these old pickups. Give me a f#*#ing old pickup to figure out, and I’ll lock myself in the shop, and just like being on drugs, looking at history in my hands and getting into the minds of the people who touched that pickup, the women who actually MADE the pickups as most did. I love the reverse-engineering process and the knowledge hidden in these archaeological tone artifacts. Crazy, huh?
GC: Do alternative woods and composite materials in guitar building present fresh opportunities for pickup innovations?
DS: I would say not. You could build a guitar completely out of plexiglass. It’s been done before– or aluminum, or any kind of wood you can name; the guitar pickup is still just a voiced microphone; it hears in a certain way, it has its own voice, yet it hears the primary voice of your guitar when it’s unplugged. Can you design a pickup to fit a certain combination of woods and/or exotic materials? I suppose so, but then you’re in the guitar building business rather than pickup making because you’re presenting a package. You already know about the TAO Guitar guys because you know them and did a wonderful interview and presentation of their astounding masterful works of tone art. They are masters of industrial art focused on guitars. If you’re doing that kind of work instead of building the millionth Les Paul clone or another Tele relic idea, you really just have to try different pickup ideas out and see which brings out the beauty of the instrument’s natural sound. If someone were making guitars out of brass and glass or something oddball like that, maybe what I make wouldn’t work at all for that. The tone starts with the materials of the guitar, the wiring harness. It has to have an unplugged natural beautiful sound before a pickup ever gets put into it. So, in that sense, any well-designed and produced pickup that hears what the builders put into his creation should work. The things that PAF’s taught me are things that generally work for all pickups. They are servants to the guitar, not the masters.
GC: Do your own methods and equipment allow you to design a pickup from a sound sample?
DS: No, that’s not the way I work. I’ve had some guys ask me to give them some artist’s sound, like Tuck of Tuck/Patty, for instance. Well, I gave it a shot, but then I found out what pickup Tuck actually uses, and it’s a pickup that’s only going to give a real hi-fi kind of sound that Tuck makes sound beautiful. But it’s not something I make or would want to make. I get guys who want certain classic rock hero’s tone, like Page or Allman, yet they think that those tones came out of a pickup. They are mistaken because what they love came out of a studio engineer’s manipulation of sound, AND out of Duane’s specific choice in speakers, bass speakers actually, an open back Marshall cab, and his extensive use of his tone controls, which most guitar players never touch. A pickup won’t deliver an artist’s tone, period. If someone wants a peculiar or certain kind of sound that I don’t make, I will tell them who does. Tuck, for example, uses Bartolini pickups that are designed for a very clean flat kind of sound. I am mostly serving the Blues guys and the guys who want their guitars to sound like a real vintage Tele, or Les Paul, or ES150, etc. I don’t do custom pickup design, though I offer to slightly vary my recipes if I think it will work for a request with real-world validity. To design a pickup from scratch can take over a year to figure out and test among different players. For pickup makers who think they want to get into this as a serious business, it’s a good exercise to see if they can give a customer what he asks for; getting your face smashed in from failure is a good learning experience, haha. I did that many times in the beginning, and it was priceless.
GC: Any opinions about tone caps and pots in the pickup circuit? There’s lots of discussion about various types of caps.
DS: Yes, everything in the wiring harness contributes greatly to helping or hurting your pickups. Generally, the best pots are CTS, but every company that sells them is selling different versions of taper and tolerances. I like to use 550K range pots for the neck position for my PAF work because it aids the clarity. For the bridge, I like to use lower-value ones in the 450K range. So, to get those values, I have to buy them from two different sellers. The stock value for Les Pauls is supposedly 500K, but when you buy pots, they are never really going actually to be 500K. Harness “tuning” for PAF’s is critical to me. I send customers supplier links for what I use in my demo guitars. I’ve collected a big collection of actual specs from vintage Gibson harnesses, and pots were all over the place as far as values go, from a low of about 425K to a few that were actually 1 megohm! With their LP Jr.’s, they tended to use 500K volume and 250K tone pots.
Tone caps are super important; some players have the misconception that you can put any cheap capacitor in your guitar, and you can hear no difference; of course, they’ve never actually tried it, haha. With my PAF’s you always want to use paper in oil types because they have a more round-sounding vintage character. This is why NOS vintage Sprague paper in oil “bees” are highly sought after and very expensive. Not all Sprague bees were paper in oil; there has to be an oil filler cap on one end. These are good caps, but I found there are better ones-the Jensen Copper Foil, paper in oil .022uf is the most astounding, best tone cap for bridge position, with my Vintage Lab PDF buckers. I tested many types of tone caps, including the old Sprague bees, and the Jensen just beat everything, hands down. But in neck position, the Jensens were too round sounding and not very focused. I use a .015uf value there for the best clarity, and I found that any of the NOS Russian military paper in oil (“pio’s”) are just excellent and very affordable.
The caps must be wired the 50’s method, which is just a small difference in how the pots are configured and which lugs the caps are soldered to. You end up with incredibly useable pots, and when turning the volume pots down, you don’t lose clarity at all, so you never want to use tone-killing “treble bleed” circuits in a 50’s repro harness. The kind of wire is also a big tone component in the harness. You must use the vintage type braided shield, 22 AWG cloth-covered core wire that places as Mojotone sells. Some guys sell “vintage correct, 2 pair” braided wire, but it’s not made right and is tightly woven and sounds terrible. I have some of that wire and had to tear it all out because it was higher capacitance and was dumbing down the pickups.
For Strats and Teles, the same principles apply. It’s best to find some NOS ceramic disk tone caps; the modern ones aren’t quite the same or as good sometimes. You want to use the cloth-covered wire as the originals did, good-quality CTS pots, and no trick switching or treble bleed stuff. Paper in oil tone caps can work really nicely in Fender harnesses as well.
For Les Paul guys, I have a list of suppliers I used for the components in my demo guitars; I’ve tried a lot of different parts, caps, pots, and wire, so I know what gives the best results that I use; they can email me for the list if they want.
GC: What’s the ideal cable length a guitar player should use?
DS: It’s a personal choice and depends on what kind of cable you’re using. If you’re playing a Strat, you really don’t want to be using a high-efficiency oxygen-free silver plated wire cable because they are low capacitance, and you’ll get tones that are too bright. Someone once gave a cable like that to Stevie Ray Vaughan, who gave it back, saying it “let too much ‘electricity through.” Hendrix used coil cords in his day, they are notoriously high capacitance cords, and SRV tended to like them as well because they tame treble. I like to use a good quality George L’s guitar cord for my Les Pauls, about 15 feet long. The bottom line is to use the guitar cord that best works with your type of guitar and amp. I saw one guy on YouTube with a vintage Les Paul, who uses a 50-foot guitar cord, all coiled up at his feet, because he doesn’t like the brightness of his PAF’s, and uses the cord to dumb them down, such a shame, in my opinion, the pickups are masked over…
GC: What are your favorite guitars that you own and play most?
DS: My Epiphone Elitist Les Pauls are my favorites. No, they’re not a $6,000 Gibson, but I don’t think I would ever pay such crazy money for a factory LP anyway, and I doubt they would be any better than these two. If I were rich, I’d buy something like what the TAO Guitars builders make. I can’t say enough good about their masterworks of art, playable top-notch design, and great tone. I have various G&L and Fender guitars, all are good, but I’ve upgraded the electronics in almost everything I own. Even some of the Korean-made Epiphones I have are great guitars if you replace the harnesses. I have the Koll Possumcaster, a Nashville-style Tele he built for me, which is wonderful. I have a Chinese Michael Kelly big jazz archtop that is an amazing guitar, completely faultlessly built. A guitar doesn’t have to be expensive to make me happy playing it; the $200 Stellar is a real player, but it’s really beat up from hundreds of pickup changes, and it’s not very pretty to look at, but it plays and sounds wonderful. I have about 20 guitars and really don’t want anymore, unless someone wants to send me something to use for demos, like a generous customer in Australia who sent me a USA Custom Strat to replace the awful Chinese Squire I’ve used in some demos. New guitars are so disappointing mostly; they take hours to replace the harnesses and upgrade the bridges to make them into something special. I also have my Epiphone ES295 that I love. You can get them cheap because some of them had awful neck angles and no shims under the pickups, so it’s a risk, but they are great guitars if the harness is replaced. My guitars are all “test dummies,” so they get their pickups changed a lot. So it’s good that they aren’t expensive, because they get abused, ha.
GC: What are your top 5 desert island albums?
DS: Jeezus, that’s a hard question. It would probably be albums that I grew up from my youth: Electric Ladyland, Disraeli Gears by Cream, Freddie King- Getting Ready, Jethro Tull- Thick As A Brick Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Music is indeed the “soundtrack of your life,” and those albums are time machines that take me back to a time when music helped me survive the rigors of young life and took me to a higher place. Jimi Hendrix was and is my Guitar God. I literally worshipped that man when he first burst onto the scene with Purple Haze. I got to see him in ’68 in a very small venue, an ice skating rink that was being demolished and turned into a small club. I sat about six feet in front of him while he screamed thru two Dual Showman amps. There were only maybe 50 people in the audience, mostly local guitar players. When his set was finished, they all sat in stunned silence; no one could believe what they heard, like a man who just landed from space. After the show, my friend took me to the equipment room, and we asked to see Jimi’s guitar; we knew the manager, and he threw down Jimi’s case and left the room. I opened the case, and there sat a holy relic, his white Strat. I was too terrified to pick it up and just strummed the strings and stared at it. We thought about stealing it, as the door was open to the street, and no one was in the room but us. But I said no, and we walked out the door and ran straight into Jimi! I was too shy to talk to him, so my buddy asked him what amps he prefers. “Marshall and Sound City amps.” He was really shy and humble, and that memory is etched into my soul like it was yesterday. Electric Ladyland was a gift from God, I counted the days until it came out, and I bought every album of his until his death. He made guitar into a drug of enlightenment; his solos made me high; very few players can do that to me…
GC: If you could contract to exclusively make pickups for a handful of iconic guitar players, like some classic composer just writing music for a royal family, who would they be?
DS: You know, as an album art designer who did hundreds of album graphics and covers for many, many famous players, I really don’t have any real guitar heroes anymore. I don’t listen to guitar music much except for research. I’d love to make pickups for Junior Watson, Duke Robillard, Charlie Baty… But famous guitar players are just people, and it doesn’t really matter to me to make pickups for famous guys or not. It doesn’t really help sell pickups. I do have a few celebrities I’ve done work for. It’s nice to appreciate those who have owned vintage Les Pauls and want those tones again, and understand exactly what I did with my PAF’s for instance. So that’s always nice to have that kind of feedback. Robben Ford would be fun to do a set for. I think by the time you get to be my age, you’ve kind of been through the guitar hero worship thing. But then you’re done with it. If Jimi were still alive, I would love to meet him, but not as a guitar player, but as a man, and talk about universal spirituality with him.
GC: Will you take your pickup secrets to the grave, or are you keeping a journal that can be passed on to some chosen golden child when you pass on?
DS: I’ve had to think about this some as I’m getting up into years, where people my age die from being worn out and have already had musician friends leave this Earth in the past few years. The work I did on PAF’s was so long and laborious, I don’t think anyone will ever recreate it, and I’d hate to see this knowledge completely lost. I’ve thought about doing an Advanced Pickup Making Book, but writing a book is incredibly arduous and difficult. But, I couldn’t sell a book like that because it would put me out of business, and I have resistance to making things easy for other makers who don’t want to do any hard work as I did. I see that attitude too much; they want easy answers and don’t want to do anything other than buying ready-made parts and make a quick profit. There are a few rare ones out there, though, that I’ve helped a little bit, who have curiosity, who spend time doing experiments. If I did a book, it would be more like a book of experiments to do, questions you would have to answer by doing the work, and not just a recipe book where you don’t really learn why the recipe works. I’ve somewhat started to write down the PAF research, but there is so MUCH of it, so much data, and I keep going back over the data and seeing new things in it all and re-interpret it. The recent HD PAF’s came as a result of reviewing the data one more time, and it was a great step forward. If I don’t do it now, while I am actively making pickups, the work could be lost because little details as I’m doing things would be forgotten. For pickup making in general, I discovered things I don’t see others know about that would be good to pass along. It would be nice to have an apprentice or someone to help with the work, but I’m so detail-driven. I would be difficult to work for, haha, and then there’d be the huge risk of someone learning what I know then leaving and putting me out of business by outproducing me. I was warned about that from a good pickup maker that I respect.
GC: Thank you for the interview! Is there anything we haven’t covered that you feel people should know about guitar pickups?
DS: Yes, a few things, maybe I should mention…
I produce a very small amount of work, so I have always had a fairly long waiting line for my pickups. I am only an old man business. I do everything myself. It can be exhausting to keep up with orders, find time for R&D, historical research, and doing experiments. Emails and educating players take up a tremendous amount of my time too. My pickups and story have been featured in several guitar magazines, so there is more demand than I can keep up with. Yet, there is always room in my waiting list for anyone wanting and willing to wait for the work of someone who uses science and engineering to make pickups that are works of tonal art, made from passion and technical understanding, and actual research of true vintage examples of tone history. The pickups speak for themselves.
My pickups are extremely detailed and well thought out, so they take much longer to make than what others are doing. The VL HD PAF’s take this idea to extremes; I have to make two completely different sets of parts for bridge and neck buckers because each uses secrets. I learned why some vintage PAF’s sounded best in the bridge position, and some made better neck pickups. So, this means a full set of HD PAF’s takes about a week to make from scratch; this is incredibly slow, but there is no other way to get the exact quality of truly accurate PAF tone that I demand from myself. So, my production output is low, and you won’t find my pickups being sold by others on eBay, hardly ever because the majority of players who buy my work keep the pickups permanently in their guitars.
As you can tell, my love PAF’s is an addictive obsession. The difficulty in talking about them in public is that I have to shield my words and only talk vaguely about what I did to get where I am today with them. This means I can’t post on some guitar forum “proof” of what I did or even infer how I get the sounds I do. I have been called a liar by many other pickup makers because I didn’t share my knowledge with them. I can’t even begin to tell you what a long and horribly frustrating process discovering their secrets was, the many many nights I couldn’t sleep because I hit a brick wall in my research and often had to literally start over again when my ideas and theories didn’t work. No company on Earth would ever pay a lunatic like me to spend ten years to figure out ONE pickup, and this is precisely why all of them have failed at it. A lone hermit nut case who loves PAF tones could only do this kind of job; no one else would have done hundreds of experiments and spent so much money when things often looked so hopeless. I am proud of that work I did and would love to share it all with one person someday so that when I am gone, the work will go on, and players will get to play something that makes them smile. This typical email I got late last year from a well-respected luthier in Europe is my big payoff for all that work and pretty much says it all – why I continue to make pickups:
“Dearest Honourable Mr. David Stephens!
What can I say?
I had a ’58 Les Paul once ever since I have been missing something in the tone of all-electric guitars I’ve had since.
I pick up my guitar after having had your pickups installed, and there it is, after forty years.
The essence of the tone. When missing, that makes you buy loads of effects and gears to compensate for what’s missing – is there again.
Thank you, David; it’s not often the words of a man correspond with the reality of what he’s trying to describe.
Thank you from all my heart, Richard R.”
I have new types of pickups coming very soon; subscribe to my YouTube Channel http://www.youtube.com/sdpickups to see my most current work, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, or to discuss getting on my list to have pickups built. If you want a fast answer, keep your questions and email short, long rambling emails are hard to answer during my work nights. I am also completely nocturnal and do all my work in the 10 PM-6 AM hours, and I don’t take phone calls.
Thanks for the great questions, there is no other magazine that has asked such in-depth questions as you have, and I think your magazine’s future is very bright…