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Twisted Tale of an old Strat pickup

(Aged / Un-aged Fender sound).

Everyone has heard that the old Strats have a special sound, this mystical thing called Vintage sound. Because the mystique of these old instruments adds value to them it puts them out of reach of most guitar players. Hence it's rare to find anyone who actually has first hand knowledge of aged sound. This thing that is so legendary is largely un-experienced and so the mystique and lack of explanation has spawned some less-than-accurate imitations over the years.

When magnet aging became the rage I was lured into believing that this was the thing responsible for the old sound. It made sense to me, at least hypothetically, that magnets did age and that this must be the reason that old Strats sound the way they did, some 20 years on. Then I read a scientific article about advances in permanent magnet alloys and how dependable and stable they were and how they didn't loose any appreciable strength over 100 years. Huh? I thought, but what about the old Strats? Their magnets aged!! It's common knowledge…….or did they?

Now being naturally curious I began to poke around certain old Strats that came into my temporary custody for repairs. I ever so carefully put a little bit of guitar string onto the magnets to test their strength and make comparisons to new pickups that were lying around. Guess what? I couldn't tell the difference. OK, so my method was crude and not sensitive enough detect the subtle weakness of the fields of the old Strat magnets, or so I thought. A few years later on I purchased an instrument called a Gauss-Meter, it's an electronic device that measures the field strength of magnets.

The very first day I had this thing I did some measurements on some old and some new pickups. Guess what? my suspicions were confirmed, at last I had proven that magnets don't age. The 1,200 odd gauss I measured in a new Strat pickup was almost identical to the old 1962 pickups, no difference. This revelation came as no surprise to me as I was pretty sure from my crude testing method, but it's nice to have ones suspicions confirmed by a laboratory instrument.

So the question came into my mind, if it's not magnets that age then what does? That question remained answered for about 10 years. Years later I acquired another invaluable piece of equipment, an Audio Frequency Analyzer. This device draws graphs that are representative of the frequency response of things like coils and the like.

Can you guess the first thing I did when I got this AFA? You guessed it, I headed straight for a new and an old Strat pickup to run some tests. The results were astounding and very interesting to say the least. There it was, the graphical representations of both pickups drawn out on paper in black and white. Irrefutable evidence of the differences between an aged pickup and a brand new one, no less than a scientific explanation of the legendary Aged Tone phenomena.

From the sound of an old pickup I had long suspected that it had less output and less presence or attack and that's exactly the story told by the graph of the AFA. The all important Q factor was the tell tale, for the new pickup the graph trace was high and proud and stood up like a tall sharp peak representing a high Q factor. But the old 1962 'L Series' pickup was markedly lower in the peak and more rounded on the top and the output voltage was markedly less; the tell tale sign of a much lower Q factor.

Sometime later on I was sent two 1964 Strat pickups for rewinding. These old pickups have a nasty habit of going open circuit due to oxidation of the copper wire. It's like a time bomb ticking away and when the “use by” date is up, poof….a massive loss of output and the sound loses all the bottom end, all one is left with is a pitiful, squeaky little sound that is a mere ghost of it's former self. This is the death sound of a pickup.

As it turns out I was able to repair one of the pickups without rewinding because there was this broken wire on the outside of the coil. When I soldered them back together the pickup came to life and was as good as new (well not quite as new as we'll discover later). But the other pickup was really gone and there was no option but to rewind it. I mused that this is going to be very interesting project because I'll be able to directly compare two identical pickups from the same guitar one in original condition and the other with a new coil.

I rewound the second pickup in Formvar HF42 wire that I got from America, it's the same wire that Leo used in his 1964 Strat pickups. I wound it to the same tension and but I had to guess the number of turns as 8,300. That was a lucky guess because the DC resistance of the finished pickup was almost identical to the other one. Next to the wax pot for dipping. After all was finished I ran another graph on the rewound pickup and guess what?? It looked like a new pickup that's what! It had the same high peak as a new unit.

So I decided to listen to these two pickups to confirm my suspicions. Fortunately I have this Strat with the side cut out that I can slide pickguards into and out-of quickly and easily so I can make fast meaningful comparisons between pickups on the same instrument. It's an R&D tool that I made to test and develop my new pickups. So I mounted both pickups into two pickguards, the neck position of each, because I can hear the subtle differences between different pickups better in that position.

First I put the rewound unit through it's paces…snap, crisp, pop…the unmistakable sound of a new Strat was what I was hearing. Fast attack, big transient response with lots of presence and brittle top end… nice but a bit on the brittle side with excessive glass sounds.

Next I plugged in the genuine old 1964 pickup, the one that had aged over the years and was rescued from a certain death by yours truly. As I played this one it was immediately obvious, like cheese and chalk, it was dull and uninteresting, no presence and no snap and definitely no 'ice pick' …. Almost like the tone control was turned down. This pickup had aged way beyond graceful into the unusable area. There was absolutely no doubt about it, the AFA graphs had told the story accurately and predictably and the sound tests confirmed my suspicions about aged magnets and aged coils.

So three you have it folks, aged magnets are not what causes old Strats to sound like that because they don't actually age at all, it's the coil that's responsible.

Now for a twist. No one has figured out how to artificially age a coil yet, so there is really no such thing as a replica aged single coil. There are many fine single coils made today like Lollar’s and Van Zant that are very, very good pickups but which can not accurately be labeled authentic vintage sounding. Any recently made pickup will sound new, no matter how old it looks and no matter how aged the magnets are, no question about it.

Now for a bigger twist. Remember those graphs, the ones of the two pickups, one old and one new? It just so happens that my noiseless design is not nearly as simple as a single coil and that means I have more elements that can be manipulated and fine-tuned, I guess I'm lucky in that way. With a huge balancing act I can replicate that exact curve of aged tone with my noiseless design. I have proven that it's possible to juggle all the elements of my design and manipulate certain performance characteristics to achieve the same thing as a genuine aged coil does. This is why I call my pickups the AVn range, Authentic Vintage noiseless. Ironic ain't it? that a high tech noiseless design is finally able to recreate aged vintage tone when no one can duplicate it in single coil design.

All my best in AVn-Tone

Chris Kinman.