• Words and images by Layne D

Capturing that vintage tone

How aPurla Handcrafted Guitars hand wind their pickups the old fashioned way.

As you probably know by now, we like to be pretty hands on with our guitars. When it comes to our electric guitars we want to capture that wood tone perfectly, which is why we hand wind our own pickups, and we make them to vintage specs.

Pickups can look pretty unassuming, and yet they are an essential part of an electric guitar, without them the guitar has no voice. This is why you can only really hear the electric guitar once it is plugged in.

Vintage Humbuckers in Blackwood casing.
Our aPurla Handcrafted Vintage Humbucker pickups in Blackwood casing.

So what is a pickup?

At its core a pickup is the means of transferring a mechanical signal/sound into an electronic signal/sound. If your guitar is a vocalist, then the pickup is a microphone. It is what allows us, the audience to hear the music even if it is on a large stage.

The pickup is a transducer that captures mechanical vibrations produced by musical instruments, and converts these to an electrical signal that is amplified using an instrument amplifier to produce musical sounds through a loudspeaker in a speaker enclosure.

The signal from a pickup can also be recorded directly.

The majority of electric guitars and electric basses use magnetic pickups. Acoustic guitars, upright basses, fiddles and other folk instruments often use a piezoelectric pickup. Most pickups have magnetic pole pieces (with the notable exceptions of rail and lipstick tube pickups—one or two for each string), approximately centred on each string.

aPurla handcrafted guitars Humbucker pickups
Lots of Humbuckers ready to go!

To make a pickup you can use all different types of wires, coatings, waxes and finishes. The quality of the pickup, like anything comes down to the quality of the parts used.

Pickups are as diverse and different as the guitar makers making them, or the guitar players playing them, so we won't go into too much detail about every style of pickup you can get, instead we will tell you a little bit about how we make our pickups.

On our electric guitars we usually feature between 1-3 pickups, but 90% of our guitars have 2 pickups.

Our pickups are made up of magnets, plastic bobbins, beeswax and high quality copper wire, plus any extras like timber casings etc.

We find we get the best result out of al-ni-co magnets (aluminium/nickal/ and cobolt compound). This type of magnet was an early form of magnet with a relatively weak magnetic field, but it has beautiful vintage tonal characteristics that can't be found in modern day magnets, such as rare earth or ceramic. Some makers tend to use rare earth or ceramic magnets for instruments used mostly in the metal genre as they give a larger output, but because we are capturing a vintage tone we use the al-ni-co.

We wind the copper wires around the magnets thousands of times by hand using a small bobbin winding machine. This is the most hands on method of winding pickups and each pickup is unique because of this winding method.

The enamel coated copper wire that we use is extruded until it is thinner than a human hair, and has the thinnest coating of all the copper wires available. Poly coating is the most commonly used alternative coating as it can be applied to the wire, immediately dried and spun onto a spool ,whereas enamel has to be dripped onto the wire and air dried. This means cables thousands of meters long have to be zigzagged around the warehouse where these are produced to dry. It is a significantly more difficult method of coating, but creates the thinnest coast possible. A thinner coating means the winding's can be laid closer to one another, this lowers the capacitance in the coil which means the pickups have better output, less losses and a better sound.

Cutting wires for pickups.
Cutting wires for pickups.

The fact that they are hand wound also improves this capacitance characteristic, because the winding's aren't sitting perfecting side by side, but in a more scattered pattern.

Perfectly parallel machine wound pickup cables have higher capacitance than ones sitting in a scattered pattern, and high capacitance isn't desirable in this situation.

Our pickups are potted, this means they are dipped in some sort of wax. We dip ours in pure beeswax, but some people use paraffin wax, or a mix of both. The purpose of potting is to glue the wire windings of the pickup together to feather some of their sensitivity. Pickups that aren't potted tend to be micro-phonic, so even the slightest tap can set them off. Some players like to have un-potted pickups for recording purposes as they can be used ornately, but they tend to wreak havoc on stage performances. This is why most pickups are potted.

Our preferred type of pickups to make are vintage style Humbucker pickups and P-92s for our electric guitars.

Humbuckers are two single coil pickups placed side by side, and wound in reverse direction to one another in order to cancel the naturally occurring hum that happens in a coil when it is wound in a single direction.

The P-92s are a single coil pickup with lots of winds in the coil, and big chunky magnets.

We're always inclined to use a mixture of the J and P style pickups in our bass guitar range. These pickups tend to use dual magnets per string as opposed to single magnets placed directly underneath as seen on a standard electric guitar. With bigger strings we find basses need this extra boost. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

So you can see we take our pickups pretty seriously, we make them with a lot of love and we hope you love them too!

This blog may be short but the art of pickup making is long, we hoped you liked our overview of our pickups. To hear the kind of result we are getting with our pickups come and check them out, and have a play at the Australian Academy of Music at 26/302 Southpine Road, Brendale.