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Inventing and re-inventing the legendary Stratocaster pickup.

By Chris Kinman (Kinman Guitar Electrix)

June 2000

In a far off land a long time ago, a fellow called Leo was experimenting with solid body guitars and a new concept in pickup design. No one really knows for sure how he came up with the end result but from what I know of the story I suspect it was due to a combination of simple design, a desire to have something simple and cheap to manufacture, team effort, a pound or two of happy accidents and a dash of serendipity and magic.

The actual structure or architecture of the pickup could be considered to be an excessively simplified design. Basically it was just six rod magnets, two fibre boards and one coil of wire wrapped around the six magnets. How simple can you get. BUT, what's not obvious to the uninitiated are the electrical complexities of that coil, with math so complex that some of the equations would fill a small room. Even Leo himself probably didn't understand everything that was going on inside his pickups at the time. But what he did know is the sonic results of the things he experimented with and manipulated. He played around with different magnets, different gauges of wire and different numbers of coil turns. His pickups evolved quickly into something that was to become almost immortal, setting the benchmark for guitar sound for the next half century, and then some. History is still being written but the one thing that doesn't change is guitarist's love of the sound that Leo Fender invented in the early 1950's.

His simple design lent itself perfectly to shaping what became known the world over as, the Fender sound. A lot of other pickups just didn't have the response to pick attack or have the sharp presence and dynamic range or shimmer that Fenders have. Especially Gibsons humbuckers, which are muddy and lack presence in comparison.

The thing we love about Strats* and Teles* is the way they respond so incredibly well to picking, plucking, scraping, pinching, biting and tapping of the strings..... all the notes on a fretboard just seem to explode out of the amplifier with the slightest stimulus. This is the attack characteristic we hear so much about. But it's more than attack, the resonant frequency and Q factor play vital roles also.

Of course along with these great attributes came a set of problems (welcome to planet Earth). Slowly players became more and more aware of the annoying little hum that these otherwise wonderful pickups also generated. The louder the music got the worse the problem got. Finally when feedback was discovered and distortion devices came into vogue the hum problem exploded into frontline prominence. Guitarists didn't have anywhere to turn for answers. It seemed to be that if you wouldn't give up your Strat or Tele and play a Gibson you were condemned to live with the irritating and distracting hum.

Then in about 1972 another guy with the unusual name of Quilla H. Freeman of Hollywood patented a thing called a 'Single Pickup Frequency Control' (USA Patent number 3,657,461). Exactly just what was going on his head at the time he gave name to the thing is rather curious, not to mention the bizarre light prism magnet he refers to. This 'Single Pickup Frequency Control' actually was a noiseless pickup, the first Stacked humbucker no less. Poor old Quilla probably never made a cent from that patent but several American pickup manufacturers sure did with their version of his design. His design, strangely enough, is remarkable similar to the Fender Vintage Noiseless pickups of recent years. The main difference is that Quilla specified a single 'light prism rectangular parallelepiped' magnet within the coils instead of 6 rod magnets the way Fender have. Just what a 'light prism rectangular parallelepiped' magnet is remains a mystery to this day, I have never heard of such a device and I couldn't find a reference to it in any text book although my Dictionary explains parallelepiped as a 6-faced polyhedron with 6 parallelogram sides so this obviously is Quilla’s way of describing a Ceramic block magnet. It's got me stumped why he used such gobbledegook terminology. Maybe Quilla was suffering the hangover effects of the strange substances prevalent in the 1960's, remember he did call his vertical humbucker a 'Single Pickup Frequency Control' and I haven't quite figured that out yet either (actually I don't even have the slightest clue, the only thing I can come up with is he was calling Hum cancelling by the term frequency control ). It seems he just wanted to impress with fancy technical jargon or maybe he wanted to confound the Patent examiners or would be patent violators. Who knows?

Unfortunately his design was doomed from the beginning since it couldn't replicate the sonic and response characteristics of the much loved Fender single coils because it was a common Stack and it didn't look much like a Strat pickup, although it did cancel hum. Not covering the Fender style versions in his Patent kind of causes one to wonder where he was hiding up until 1972, I didn't think the Hollywood hills were so extensive as to prevent exposure to the all invading all conquering Stratocaster. But the big American pickup makers didn't seem to mind the shortcomings and they marketed the hell out of their Stacks and Vertical humbuckers and made a fortune. So back to square one, the poor old Strat and Tele players went back to noisy single coils rather than sacrifice the sound and feel of their much loved instruments with Stacks.

What many people didn't realize though is that working away for years and years in the back streets of Brisbane (Australia) was a bloke (me) hell bent on solving the problems with Strat pickups. 16 years to be precise. In 1971, a year before Quilla had his masterstroke of technical brilliance, I came up with a novel concept of a stacked humbucker that would look just like a Strat pickup. But the more I understood it the more I realized that the design cancelled more than the dreadful noise, it also cancelled the tone, being an idealist I didn't offer any for sale. Stupid idealistic me.

I must have had a major obsession with perfection or something because I kept coming back to the problems of noise in Strats and Teles over the next umpteen years. Although I actually achieved workable active systems that did kill the noise in Strats and Teles during the 1980's the cost and installation demands were off-putting to all but the most hum-sensitive guitarists.

Lets skip about 10 years to 1995 when I finally made the breakthrough that I'd been searching for all those years. Through sheer fool-hardy persistence, scientific investigation and many late nights burning the midnight oil I finally found what it was that killed the tone in noiseless single coils. The evil enemy of Fender sound was actually a very complex phenomena and the understanding of it took years to fully develop into a saleable product.

One of the things I wanted passionately from my pickups was simple installation, so guitarists could buy a set of pickups and take them home and fit themselves. Pivotal to that was the need to make them sound like a Strat pickup using the original stock-standard 250K Ohm volume control. Certain other manufacturers, who shall remain nameless, resorted to specifying a 1Meg Ohm volume pot in order to achieve something like a Strat sound, but not quite the real deal in one instance and not even close in the other. One company even enlarged their product range by offering these pots as an accessory line. Silly me, I should have seen the potential market for value adding mandatory accessories too.

Anyway, it's the year 2000, and 4 patents later I am making a bit of a name for myself with my AVn Strat pickups. AVn being an acronym for Authentic Vintage noiseless. Hank Marvin, who had been years searching for a noise solution, jumped in head first and embraced my new technology and so was instrumental (haha, no pun intended) in opening up the European market to my products. Today I offer a range of Hank endorsed pickups for Stratocasters as well as my usual AVn-models for Strats. Both feature the hum-cancelling ability of a conventional humbucker with all the sonic attributes of much loved Strat pickup sound and feel. As well as original appearance and the convenience of being a simple drop-in replacement so you can do it yourself (provided you are competent at using a screwdriver and a soldering iron).

Now lets take a minute to discuss the mystical subject of volume controls. Like I said before there are certain other makers who specify a non-standard 1 Meg volume pot. Why is that and what does it mean in terms of sound? Well I don't want to divulge my closely guarded secrets (and anyway it's technical stuff that is a bit of a challenge to understand unless you are an electrical engineer skilled in the art of pickup design) but suffice to say that certain performance characteristics can only be achieved under certain conditions. Two of those characteristics are dynamic range and Q and these are the most important things governing Strat and Tele sound. It's a combination of dynamic range and Q that defines attack and presence, the quintessential elements of Fender single coil sound. It's attack and presence that sets Fenders apart from Gibsons. It's the things that gives Fenders the tone, feel and response that guitarists prize. It also shapes the transparency and crystalline tone of Fender single coils. In short, dynamic range and Q are the most important tone shaping characteristics of these wonderfully responsive pickups. Without it you don't get the twang, bite, or as one British journalist put it, the Strat spank.

Unfortunately it's these elements that are sacrificed first in noiseless design and it's a very tricky design balancing act to preserve them. I achieve that balancing act in the design and manufacture on my AVn products, so it's self-contained in the pickups. Other makers can't do that, either because they don't grasp the problems OR they don't want to infringe on others Patent rights (mine), so they try to fix it after the event by specifying a higher value volume pot. This after 'fix' however would be best described as an attempted 'fix' since it is only a partially solution. The correct way to solve the problem is where the problem exists, inside the pickup. That's the big secret of my Fender style pickups and remains so. Kinman is the only one to work as intended with the stock-standard volume pot. So there you have it, the significance of the mystical volume control.

The future holds even more stunning developments that are in the works now, but the Research, Experiment and Development phase (R&D) of products like these is long and arduous so don't expect anything this side of next year. Meanwhile I hope you discover what all the fuss has been about and reward yourself with a set of Kinman pickups into your Strat. Your reward will be my reward; mine knowing that there is one less of theirs and one more of mine, yours having mine and not theirs.

And remember this…."If you always do what you always did, you'll always get what you always got" (Chris Kinman paraphrasing Albert Einstein when talking about the lack of innovation in pickup design, 1996).

All my best in AVn-Sound

Chris Kinman
Kinman Guitar Electrix