Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A (Not So) Brief History of Electric Guitar Pickups

Without pickups, electric guitars won’t make a sound, but do most of us guitar enthusiasts know the origins of this iconic invention?

By: Ringo Bones

The electric guitar pickup has been around for quite some time now that – believe it or not – it even was invented before the electric guitar! And unlike that fraudulent Wikipedia entry – reminiscent of that David Beckham being an 18th Century Chinese goalkeeper – single coil electric guitar pickups were not invented by Slash of Guns N’ Roses. The patent application for a single coil electric guitar pickup appeared as early as 1926. Although no particular person was credited in the single coil pickup’s invention; it was probably John Dopyera – a Slovak émigré to America and inventor of the dobro – probably invented the single coil electric guitar pickup. After a growing demand by Jazz guitarist at that time to find a six-string that can be played as loud as a grand piano, or loud enough not to be drowned out by a typical Big Band’s brass horn section. Which is kind of strange given that Richard Wagner would have been the most likely one to demand such an instrument to be played in his gigs at Bayreuth – or is it Gustav Mahler?

It wasn’t until the 1930s when single coil pickups began to be used in the musical instrument we now know today as the electric guitar. Rickenbacker International Corporation of Santa Ana, California – founded by Adolph Rickenbacher and George Beauchamp – were credited to be the first ones to make a production run of the electric guitar in 1932 utilizing those single coil pickups that were first patented in 1926. Although Les Paul was more famously known as the electric guitar’s inventor because he holds the most number of patents that enable us to play and appreciate more of the electric guitar. Like the multi track recording technique.

Single coil electric guitar pickups are renowned for their tonal sparkle and clarity, but are notorious for picking up noise signals - Particularly those from power transformers or motors operating from the 60-Hz alternating current. Worse still, single coil pickups propensity for stray EMF noise pickup gets worse when comes near to electrical devices reliant on “mangling” the 60-Hz sinusoidal waveform in order to supply them with a high-voltage DC - Like those Budweiser neon signs populating most club stage venues being lit up by solid-state multiplier circuits. Not to mention the 15.75-KHz horizontal sweep frequency generated by the fly-back transformer of CRT-based computer monitors - which makes single coil pickups buzz like a 10,000-strong hive of angry yellowjackets. More bad news to those recording their guitar tracks with a desktop PC-based hard disk recording system. All spell bad news to those who fell in love to the ping and shimmer of a vintage Fender Stratocaster.

Back in 1954, Seth E. Lover – a design engineer for both Fender and Gibson – designed what is now commonly known as the humbucking pick up. Humbucking pickups are composed of two single coil pickups connected in series and out-of-phase with each other. Or the end of winding terminal of one single coil pickup is connected to the end of winding terminal of another single coil pickup (or the start of winding terminal – whichever produces the loudest sound, better tonality, hum cancellation etc.). This pickup is simply a double-coil pickup interconnected so that the signals introduced by extraneous noise such as hum are cancelled out while retaining the signals introduced by vibrating strings. Although not perfect in canceling hum – though it is perfect for canceling that pesky 15.75-KHz horizontal sweep fly-back transformer noise of TV monitors – the performance in terms of signal-to-noise ratio improved significantly.

As a rule, single coil pickups are much louder than their humbucker counterparts. And although most – if not all – Fender Strats made from the late 1950s onwards has a dual-pickup setting where the reverse-wound / reverse-polarity middle pickup becomes a de facto humbucker pickup – with the requisite hum cancellation – by setting the switch to positions 2 and 4. It still can’t match the open tonality of the accompanying single coil pickups. Humbucking pickups produce a sound which most veteran guitarists describe as “phasoid” and has a midrange hump that can manifest itself as a honk when used with the requisite vintage tube-based amplification – not that there’s anything wrong with it though. Just ask those legions of Gibson Les Paul and Marshall Amplifier owners.

Fortunately, there had been advances in single coil pickup design since Seth E. Lover invented the humbucking pickup in 1954. Although most of it is primarily “tone-driven” not noise cancellation. Like those Lace Sensor pickups by Actodyne General Incorporated - which the company also holds patents for the US Patent # 4,809,578 with their Lace Micro-Matrix Comb technology. Made famous by the guitar legend Jeff Beck in his custom Fender Strat, Lace Sensors are revered by guitarists around the world as the Holy Grail of electric guitar single coil pickup technology - Although there are others who swear by Full-Frequency single coil pickups by Evans – which were made famous by Queensrÿche during the late 1980s and early 1990s. But for those who prefer “scientifically verifiable improvements”, they gravitate towards EMG pickups with their active electronics that prevents all of the harmful effects of external noise signals -although they are seen as anathema by those who grew up on vintage pickups sporting post-WW2 era Alnico magnets.

At present, electric guitar pickup designs that capitalize on hum and noise cancellation while retaining the vintage sound of Rock N’ Roll are touted as the most advanced pickups in the market today. Like the latest models of DiMarzio’s Virtual Vintage passive replacement pickups that uses transformer winding technology – probably from Nikola Tesla’s old notes – that damps noise signals while retaining that traditional Fender Stratocaster-style spank. But others still clung on to their real vintage pickups like those original Alnico magnet equipped Fender-style single coil pickups and P-90 pickups. Although none of today’s major electric guitar pickup manufacturers had offered solutions to minimize and eliminate noise coming from cellular phone / mobile phones and their transmitting towers (and Internet Modem noise?).

1 comment:

  1. The 1926 patent on the single-coil electric guitar pickup, have you read this from a Gernsback Publication's Popular Electronics from the late 1970s? Maybe it is one of those unsolved mysteries on why history has inexplicably forgotten whomever invented the single-coil electric guitar pickup.