Hand Wound

May 18, 2014

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Assuming you are still alive and having carefully extracted your guitar from some orifice, following an ill advised “relicing cream” suggestion (see some earlier drivel I wrote), have a thought on this :

I’ve just been reading one of those glossy monthly guitar publications – “Repetitive Guitar Bollocks”. Next to a handy chord box randomly reminding me how to play a E 7 sharp 9 – like I’d forgotten, I came across a review on hand made pickups by some small cottage industry type. ( I think that’s commonly referred to as the Hendrix Chord. I’m bloody sure he knew more than just that one though).

“Cottage Industry” now there’s a weird term. Conjures up images of George Michael and thatch.

I bet George doesn’t know the first thing about industry, getting his hands dirty or thatch – let’s not go there.

Pickups. Anyway this bloke tests pickups, obviously, he’s reviewing them after all. It’s his job.

Get this, to quote : “Well balanced old school sounds, refreshing absence of muddiness, slightly fluffy, nice degree of phasey mid-range scoop, quack, plenty of beef, snarl, sweet ride”.

What a nut job. I’m getting hints of vanilla and raspberry with overtones of stoats’s breath and lark’s teeth. Complete tosh. What is scooped mid ? I defy anyone to play like it.

So this bloke makes pickups, (the other bloke, not the nut job, keep up), they certainly look the part and they work. Brilliant ! What more do you need to know or expect ? I think they were reviewed in a farm yard.

Down to the nitty gritty. They use Formvar Wire, presumably because good old Leo Fender did too. Now correct me if I’m wrong but Formvar is a trade name for a branded enamel wire insulation – some form of vinyl acetate resin.

Formvar retains its insulating properties at cryogenic temperatures and is compatible with transformer oil and oil filled applications. It can also withstand high voltages in excess of 1500 V DC.

Now that’s just really useful next time I play my guitar at sub-zero stood in a vat of oil, or on Pluto maybe, jacked up to the electric main at the same time. Somebody once said they wished I played on Pluto.

I would guess that old Leo used Formvar wire because that’s what the local transformer factory used. His mate probably nicked the first batch. He tried it and it worked – no surprises there. Then he just banged pickups out – with a minimum number of windings to produce a half decent sound and save on the cost of precious copper. While Leo was at it I also guess he picked up off cuts of Forbon sheet for his flatware from the same place. And thus another legend was born. Black or grey ? Which sounds best ? Who cares ? More on Forbon another day.

Purists despair of me. I don’t think the insulation (or Forbon for that matter) makes the slightest bit of difference to your sound. I accept the overall physical volume, and size of the coil makes a difference technically – whether you can hear that difference for the same gauge wire is a moot point. To suggest that the choice of insulation, an inert, unreactive material by definition, applied microns thick, versus a similar chemical insulation applied a similar number of microns thick, can affect the sound is, frankly, barking mad.

Anyone who has ever hand wound a coil will tell you that the thickness or choice of insulation had no bearing on the finished size of the coil. It is primarily all down to applied tension and personal technique – snap a few wires and you back off the tension. It’s all done by hand and naturally varies, no matter how good your technique. I was going to get back to George at this point……..

I suspect that Formvar, as a company, or branded product, no longer exists.

There are plenty of hand wound boutique pickup manufacturers out there. I’m not sure what boutique implies, I always think of the 118 118 geezer selling pickups in a 1960’s dress shop. Odd, but there you go.
It’s an age old science and method which we can loosely follow using the same old materials and techniques as those early electric guitars. Whether you want single coils, humbuckers, P90’s, they all sound great and are all individual. Each one undeniably unique by the very nature of the methods used.

Experiment, give some a go – and yes, we wind them too, but not in a farm yard.

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