You are here

What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

For all things relating to guitars, basses, amps, pedals & accessories.

Moderator: Moderators

What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

Postby ZfM » Fri Feb 12, 2021 12:26 am

Hello. Like many of you, I have quite a few stock Squier & MIM Stratocaster pickups lying about, and some videos on YouTube suggest you can remove the ceramic magnet and swap out the metal pole-pieces for AlNiCo ones. There is also a video suggesting putting an AlNiCo bar magnet on the back, that it can work as well as AlNiCo pole-pieces ...if the non-magnetic ones are decent quality(?)

But one video suggested fewer copper winds are used on the cheap pickups and that strong ceramic magnets are used to provide enough output, by way of compensation. Does this sound plausible? Copper is pretty cheap!

I assumed the AlNiCo pole-pieces are (or were) simply more costly than ceramic bars, and that other cuts are made simply by using a cheaper plastic bobbin and the care spent on the winding itself (i.e. more human input).

Anyway, if the number of winds is indiscriminate between machine-wound stock ceramic and machine-wound AlNiCo pickups, then it might be worth giving it a try. (I have an old Squier fixed up that I was going to buy new pickups for.) Any thoughts?

Another suggested use for a cheapo pickup is to remove the magnet and poll-pieces and to use it as a hum-bucking dummy coil.

Regards,

ZfM

P.S. Incidentally, I'm talking older Squier pickups! The newer 'Classic Vibe' Squier range, Fender sourced AlNiCo pickups from Tonerider, which I think sound great!
ZfM
Poster
Posts: 13
Joined: Sun Feb 16, 2020 10:03 pm

Re: What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

Postby gingertimmins » Fri Feb 12, 2021 11:04 pm

I don't know the answer to your question exactly but I have done this exact thing with three sets of pickups.
The ones from my mim strat turned out really well, I used alnico 5 pole pieces and I actually still rock them in a newer mim strat. They definitely sound like low output pickups with a tiny bit of grit.
on the other two sets from Squiers I used alnico 2 and 4 magnets, both of which sounded thin and weak.
As far as I understand A5 is the most powerful alnico magnet and the fact that they still sounded pretty low ouput would suggest that perhaps you are correct regarding the number of winds. The only other variable is that one set was mim and could have possibly had more winds being from a more expensive guitar. That said, I have always found the cheap squiers to sound harsh and too hot.
gingertimmins
Regular
Posts: 489
Joined: Wed Dec 05, 2007 1:00 am

Re: What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

Postby zenguitar » Fri Feb 12, 2021 11:23 pm

The potential problem with replacing the steel poles and bar magnets with magnetic pole pieces is the risk of damaging the coil.

The original Fender construction had nothing between the poles and the windings. They were wound right onto the poles with no former. There is a long history of pick-ups being damaged by pushing the poles in or out to add or remove the stagger on the pole pieces. There is also plenty of history of similar damage when completely replacing poles.

If it works, great. But be prepared to accept that you are always taking a risk of permanent damage to the coil when you attempt tases sort of mods.

Andy :beamup:
User avatar
zenguitar
Moderator
Posts: 11321
Joined: Thu Dec 05, 2002 1:00 am
Location: Devon
liberté, frivolité et vanité

Re: What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

Postby ZfM » Sun Feb 14, 2021 2:30 am

>"As far as I understand A5 is the most powerful alnico magnet..."

I think it goes up to AlNiCo VIII for guitars.

>"...and the fact that they still sounded pretty low output would suggest that perhaps you are correct regarding the number of winds."

I wonder if original Guyatone Gold Foil pickups have a lot of winds, because they use weak rubberised magnets, so I've been told, "like fridge magnets", although the only fridge magnets I've seen are ceramic.

>"...the other two sets from Squiers I used alnico 2 and 4 magnets, both of which sounded thin and weak."

I suppose if they turn out to be too weak, there are those tiny AlNiCo cube magnets (about 2mm x 2mm x 2mm) that you can buy as a kids toy. Putting one or two on the back of each poll piece might add strength.

As far as modifying them is concerned, one method is to simply stick the pickup onto (or near) a preheated clothes iron for about 30 seconds and it supposedly melts the glue/wax just enough to allow the bar a pole-pieces to come off/out. One video showed a guy resealing them in a mixture of paraffin & beeswax until the bubbles are released then hanging them out to dry.

"The potential problem with replacing the steel poles and bar magnets with magnetic pole pieces is the risk of damaging the coil."

Yes, I'm sure it's easily done, but they're hardly worth selling on eBay and I can't see me using them as they are for anything. You can get fair sounding unbranded AlNiCo V sets for under £20 from China, free P&P. But, I'd expect the Fender pickups to be better wound and so modifying them might be worth it. I think Fender have given up on ceramic magnets, especially for their vintage range of Squier and MIM guitars.

That said, I've been told that Wilkinson 'Vintage 60's' (referring to the stagger) ceramic pickups can sound better at low practice & recording volumes than Custom Shop 60's Fender, but that the AlNiCo pickups provide better dynamics for playing louder, which would be important if you have a tube amp. I don't know how this correlates with theory or how well the theory is understood over the art.
ZfM
Poster
Posts: 13
Joined: Sun Feb 16, 2020 10:03 pm

Re: What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

Postby zenguitar » Sun Feb 14, 2021 3:02 am

People who trash pick-ups when trying to replace metal poles with magnets prefer to avoid advertising the fact on YouTube. Just saying...

;)

Andy :beamup:
User avatar
zenguitar
Moderator
Posts: 11321
Joined: Thu Dec 05, 2002 1:00 am
Location: Devon
liberté, frivolité et vanité

Re: What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

Postby ZfM » Sun Feb 14, 2021 3:16 am

I think I'll just try modifying a cheap unbranded pickup and see how it goes.

Incidentally, I get the strong impression there are some 'boutique' pickup sellers who get coils wound in China and finish them off with vintage cloth wire, beeswax and brown paper to look lovingly handmade, claiming them to be hand-wound. It was clear from one seller that he had no idea what 'hand wound' meant, and believed it to mean sitting wrapping the wire around the bobbin by hand.
ZfM
Poster
Posts: 13
Joined: Sun Feb 16, 2020 10:03 pm

Re: Changing Magnets in Cheap Pickups

Postby ZfM » Sun Feb 14, 2021 10:33 pm

One YouTube video compares a ceramic bar magnet with an AlNiCo bar magnet, each stuck to the same pole pieces, same guitar, strings, wiring. I believe any difference would be due to magnet strength rather than 'type'. But the problem with this comparison is that there is likely to be a difference between six magnetic pole-pieces and six pole-pieces magnetized by a single bar magnet.

I mean, Lipstick pickups with a bar magnet at the centre of a coil show that string frequencies bleed into each other when they share a single magnet. Could this also be the case, to a lesser extent, with pole-pieces magnetized by a single bar magnet? I know the pole-pieces will provide isolation, but a single magnet still connects them.

Maybe this is the real difference, at least for single coil type pickups: separate magnets for each string generally give a preferred sound, i.e. better distinction between string frequencies. That said, there is nothing to prevent manufacturers from splitting the bar magnet into 6 pieces and magnetizing the pole-pieces separately, yet they don't bother. Anyone seen this in a pickup?

>"The original Fender construction had nothing between the poles and the windings. They were wound right onto the poles with no former. There is a long history of pick-ups being damaged by pushing the poles in or out to add or remove the stagger on the pole pieces. There is also plenty of history of similar damage when completely replacing poles."

I wonder if winding directly onto poles is one of the key differences between true vintage and retro pickups. In any case, I really would only suggest experimenting with cheap unbranded/Squier, possibly MIM pickups, with the strong ceramic bar magnet, as opposed to leaving them in a drawer.
ZfM
Poster
Posts: 13
Joined: Sun Feb 16, 2020 10:03 pm

Re: What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

Postby CS70 » Mon Feb 15, 2021 12:16 am

ZfM wrote:Hello.

Without going in the specific, "cheap" can be in materials and construction, sure, but more often than not the savings are in quality control - and the tolerances which are required to throw things in the bin or ship them as product.

Which is why you can be very lucky with some cheap stuff, especially older.

This is especially true of handmade stuff. Things produced mostly with computer controlled machinery tend to be both cheap and of uniform quality at the source - so for these there's probably more chance that the reason of low price is indeed the choice of materials.
User avatar
CS70
Jedi Poster
Posts: 7743
Joined: Mon Nov 26, 2012 1:00 am
Location: Oslo, Norway
Silver Spoon - Check out our latest video and the FB page

Re: What really makes cheap Stratocaster pickups cheap?

Postby Wonks » Mon Mar 08, 2021 5:45 pm

'Cheap' comes down to manufacturing methods and materials used. Most cheap Strat-style pickups work and produce a reasonable clean one, but they generally sound one- dimensional without a lot of dynamic range.

There is nothing inherently bad about ceramic magnets. For example, the Seymour Duncan JB pickup, used by many guitar makers as the bridge pickup of choice in a wide range of rock-orientated guitars uses a ceramic magnet (as do almost all high-output pickups).

Alnico comes in various magnetic strengths, with types 2, 3, 4, 5 and 8 being the ones most used for guitar pickups. Strength generally increases as the number goes up, though type 3 is slightly weaker than type 2 (and type 3 isn't strictly Alnico as it doesn't contain any cobalt so is really an Alni magnet).

Ceramic magnets (more correctly ferrite magnets) produce a stronger magnetic field than Alnico can (for a given size), but ceramic/ferrite magnets aren't as strong as Neodymium magnets. Ceramic magnets can also vary wildly in output depending on their make-up, but there is no simple strength classification system for them. So not all ceramic magnets are equal.

A lot of the sound of a pickup comes down to its construction.

A classic Strat pickup has six alnico 5 rod magnets as pole pieces, and their bobbins are really just plastic caps at either end of the magnet poles, with the 42AWG Formvar insulated wire wrapped directly around the pole pieces.

The fact that the windings directly touch the magnets is the main reason that you shouldn't try and adjust the pole piece heights of staggered height pickups. There's a very good chance of the movement breaking the very thin pickup wire next to the magnets.

Image

The bobbin material has an effect on the pickup sound (mainly through the amount of capacitance it gives the pickup), as does 1) the number of turns of wire used, 2) the thickness of the wire used and 3) the insulation used on the wires.

The more turns of wire, the higher the pickup output is (coupled with magnet strength). But the more turns of wire you have, the greater the pickup inductance is, and the lower the 'resonant frequency peak' of the pickup is, which knocks off highs and boost more mids.

More windings mean the windings take up more room. Beyond a certain point you can't keep them within the outline of the bobbin, so you then have to use thinner wire. 42AWG is the standard gauge wire used for low to medium output pickups. 43AWG wire is thinner and is used for higher output pickups. Even thinner 44AWG wire is sometimes used for multi-blade pickups where you need to get two coils wound in a space that you'd normally only have one coil.

The thinner the wire, the more likely it is to break, so manufacturers will generally tend to use the thickest wire they can (even at the expense of having slightly bulging coils) to reduce the number of rejects.
Wire thickness affects its resistance per unit length, so a length of 43AWG has around 27% more resistance than the same length of 42AWG wire. And 44AWG wire is 27% more resistive than 43 AWG and 61% more resistive than 42AWG wire for a given length.

So, when comparing pickup DC resistances, you need to know what gauge wire they are wound with e.g., a 10k ohm 43AWG pickup will almost certainly have less output than a 9k ohm 42AWG pickup (given the same magnet type strength).

Different insulation materials (normally formvar, enamel or poly) have different thicknesses ,which means that the conductive windings are further apart or closer together depending on the insulation used and vary the pickup's inductance and capacitance (and so the resonant peak of the pickup) and also the ‘footprint’ of the coil. Formvar is a classic insulation coating, whereas modern pickups will have a cheaper poly coating.

The wider the coil, the larger the length of string the pickup will sense from and a tall, thin coil will produce more highs than a shorter, wider pickup coil for the same number of turns.

Most cheap single coils use a one-piece bobbin, the same that is the norm for humbuckers. Here the windings are separated from the pole pieces by the plastic of the bobbin material, so you’ve already moved away from the classic single coil Strat pickup construction. It’s going to change the pickup capacitance, and also the shape of the coil. To fit the same number of turns in the outline of the bobbin, you may well have to move to using 43AWG wire.

Fitting steel slug pole pieces with a ceramic magnet stuck to the bottom will definitely change the shape of the magnetic field the strings pass through compared to the more tightly focussed field of magnetic pole pieces, and that affects the sound of the pickup.

Cheap single coils will certainly be machine wound. So, the coils will be more tightly packed than on vintage pickups. They will almost certainly be heavily wax potted to avoid microphonics. Vintage Strat single coils were wax potted, but often to a far less permeating level. After ’64 and well into the 70s they were lacquer potted. Unpotted and lightly potted pickups can have a small amount more top end but it is a very small effect. And unless very well scatter-wound, they can be very microphonic (which isn't good beyond a very limited degree).

So, your typical cheap single coil single coil pickup is quite a different animal to the classic Strat single coil, despite it looking very similar at first glance.

The one-piece bobbin does mean that you can change the steel pole pieces for Alnico rods on your cheap pickups without risk of damaging the coil, so you get a lot of the way towards a more classic sound. But to get any closer, you do need to replace the pickups. Tonerider and Iron Gear are two makes I know that make great sounding single coils to the classic recipe, and you have to spend a lot more money to get anything significantly ‘better’.
User avatar
Wonks
Jedi Poster
Posts: 11239
Joined: Thu May 29, 2003 12:00 am
Location: Reading, UK
Correcting mistakes on the internet since 1853