The Next Generation of Guitar Pickups – Part II

In Part I of this article last week I reviewed and expanded upon the traditional electric guitar pickup (and by extension the electric bass…same deal, just bigger) and detailed the genius of Larry Fishman and his Fluence line of 21st century pickups that instead of wrapping the magnetic core of the pickup with a mile of wire, he has taken and reduced the wrap to the wire as printed circuit traces on a substrate of silicon wafer. Then he stacked something like 28 wafers, then a spacer and then another 28 with the circuit running in an opposite direction electrically from the first. Then using the usual and customary micro spot solder copper pads that are on such wafer tech, he connects it all as is required.

The magnetic core in the center is gaussed and then degaussed according to the magnetic modeling profile that his company developed to characterize the field strength and density of classic examples of traditional pickups from the various eras. He then runs this very uniform, wide range output through a preamp circuit that is part of the encased pickup casing and has two user switchable patterns laid into each circuit, essentially giving the player the ability to have one pickup with two distinct voicings, e.g., perhaps a classic ’57 PAF tone and a ‘70s Hot Rodded tone all at the flick of a switch.

It’s essentially a modeling pickup and can run on a 9-volt battery or an optional rechargeable Lithium battery pack that will run over 200 hours off a charge. I don’t use active pickups on my guitars, but I’m definitely looking to take these for a ride in the not too distant future. I’m not a big fan of modeling either, except for the Tech 21 of NYC Sans Amp and its various descendants. Why? Because it’s analog. As I understand it, this Fluence pickup’s modeling is analog too. Conceptually, I’m sold.

So what do I have on the menu for this week? I’m going to write about Lace Music and a couple of their entries, one relatively old, yet still different and their 21st century entry into, “and now for something completely different”. Lace Music is fairly well known as the inventor and maker of the Lace Sensor pickup in the ‘80s that had an exclusivity agreement with Fender Musical Instrument Corporation to sell his product only to Fender. That agreement ended in the mid ‘90s, as I recall, and they’ve continued to develop their original Sensor technology along with a new innovation that I find most impressive.

Also, I’ll bring an unusual take on the old ways from one Dr. Scott Lawing, PhD who is a guitar player that studied engineering to support his music habit; that’s my take on it anyway. It’s kind of the same reason I went to pharmacy school…to support my music habit. Of course a wife, two kids, a dog and a mortgage figured prominently into my decision as I’m sure some similar considerations influenced Dr. Lawing’s decisions as to a profession.


He is the inventor of and the co-owner of Lawing Musical Products with his wife Claire. His innovation is unique enough, that I look at it as a 21st Century twist that while not a complete departure from the original, he certainly offers a problem solving approach.

Lace Music

The Lace Sensor

In the early 1980’s Don Lace, Sr. developed and invented the Lace Sensor electric guitar pickup. He entered into an exclusivity agreement with the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation that essentially made Fender the one and only customer who was able to purchase the Lace Sensor. This pickup was OEM equipment on a couple of high-end Fender Stratocaster guitars and the Eric Clapton Signature model. The agreement came to an end in 1996. After that point, the Lace Sensor was commercially available to anyone.

What made the Lace Sensor different was the design of the pickup. It is a true single coil, but the geometry is a bit different in some respects. The magnetic core has no pole pieces and the coil is buried within a set of “radiant field barriers” that both shield the coils from outside EMF (Electromagnetic Frequency) noise, e.g. such as a neon sign transformer or the ubiquitous 60-cycle AC hum that we all know and despise. The design results in a super quiet single coil pickup.

The magnetic flux is not as pronounced and that allows the pickup to be parked much closer under the strings. Because the field barriers also focus the field (as seen below in the diagram), there is less of an opportunity for outside EMF to couple with the field coil within the pickup. According to Lace, this design also allows for the pickup to sense a larger area of string vibration in terms of volume as the pickup is looking at 36 different points, as opposed to the 4 to 12 of the standard pickup. I’ve seen barium ferrite referred to in some of the literature as the magnet that is used in at least some of these pickups. Because the field strength is lower, the strings are not dampened by the magnetic pull; sustain and pitch of the vibrating strings are not affected.


The other advantage is that there is no drop off as the string(s) is bent when the neck pickup is engaged, a problem with some Strat-style single coils as there are relative null areas between the pole pieces on such traditional designs that can be an issue with the amount of lateral string movment incurred in a bend at the neck position pickup.

They are offered in single coil, humbucker, with a metal cover including simulated screw pole pieces, called the Deceptor (the non-traditonal appearance was an issue for some), Tele-style, acoustic guitar, Resonator, Mandolin, Bajo Sexto, etc. There are no Bass Guitar pickups in this one line by Lace, but fret not (perhaps not the best way to put that unless one play’s the upright exclusively)…as this will be covered in a minute by Lace.


The Holy Grail Pickup

The sons of the late Don Lace Sr., Don Jr. and Jeff have been at the helm for almost 25 years now. They created a more traditional single coil that utilizes some of the same kinds of ideas from the Lace Sensor, developed by their father, and came up with the Holy Grail Pickup. The coils are wound on a triangular bobbin, whose plane runs at a 90 degree, perpendicular angle to the plane of the strings; this is opposite from how a conventional pickup bobbin wind is configured. There are two coils, positioned to either side of a core on metal slug pole pieces. As is seen in the diagram, the radiant barriers are still present and the apex of one triangular coil is opposite the base of its neighbor.


As I understand it, the pole pieces are like the pickups of old and are the magnets. I believe Barium Ferrite is the material used in this design owing to a greater magnetic flux as compared to its physical volume. It offers the same advantages of the older Lace Sensor design except that it has exposed pole pieces and I believe it is a single coil size humbucker voiced as a hot single coil from what I heard in terms of the video demos.

The Lace Alumitone

This is the real groundbreaker here. This does not look like, nor does it operate like any pickup that I’ve ever seen before. First off, all other traditional electric guitar pickups utilize a voltage driven design. The Alumitones utilize a current driven design. I won’t go into explaining what that means as that could take up the rest of this article easily. Suffice it to say, that it is a significant departure from the old school way of thinking and is not something seen often in the world of analog music gear electronics. I’ll explain more a bit here and a bit there as I go along.

Basically, the “coil” is the significant chunks of chrome-plated aluminum that one sees on the top of the pickup. The chrome plating acts as a large single wrap coil of wire, with the Aluminum substrate allowing for a larger current to be genrated than in the voltage driven designs. The darker strips are the actual magnets. They are Ceramic 8 type magnet , as seen in some of the other traditonal pickups that use ceramic magnets in their construction.

There really is no mile-long bobbin of wire wrapped thousands of times to make the coil as we are accustomed to seeing. The design reminds me a little of a power step-up transformer in some repsects. Aluminum is a dimagentic material and has some very weak magnetic properties when exposed to a magnetic field. So, when a string is plucked or a chord strummed, the change in the flux induces a current to flow in the aluminum.

The aluminum is inductively coupled to a series of laminations, which in turn is coupled to a tiny coil of wire underneath the pickup body and the resulting current flowing out and down the wire is sent through the guitar’s tone and volume controls and on its merry way to the amplifier. These last two couplings would seem to act much like a transformer would in an audio circuit and allow for the tweaking of the pickup’s voice. As with the Lace Sensor and the Holy Grail, this system is completely passive, i.e., no batteries.

Lace claims that because it is able to capture a broader spectrum of frequencies coming off of the strings, the “information” sent to the amplifier allows for nuances normally lost-in-translation with traditional systems to be heard. Part of this is intuitively apparent as the DC resistance measured off of an example a buddy of mine had just purchased was somewhere in between 2.5 k Ω and 3.0 Ω (my multimeter has seen better days and this was its last “official duty” before it got replaced). This would suggest that the high end is not lost as is the case in traditional “hot output” designs; the Alumitone is also supposed to have a fair amount of output owing to the current driven design. The pickups are quiet and not prone to picking up unwanted EMF as the lack of a large, inductively coupled voltage driven coil design makes the Alumitone almost completely impervious to the normal noise generators one would encounter in a venue or in a home studio.


The line includes both single coil pickups of the Strat and Tele style, Himbuckers, Extended Range for the 7 and 8 string guitar crowd, P and J Bass Pickups, Pedal Steel guitar and more. Oh, one other perk. It is said that on account of the materials and construction utilized in these pickups, the average Les Paul-style guitar can shed up to a half pound of weight using the Alumitones over a traditional pair of pickups and three quarters of a pound if one has that Peter Frampton or Ace Freehly tribute guitar or a clone therof. That actually is noticable about the middle of set three out of a five set gig. Been there. Done that. Got the back brace to prove it.

Lawing Musical Products

Zexcoil

Zexcoil pickups are the result of what happens when one takes one part passionate guitar player and mixes such with one part incredibly gifted, educated and experienced scientist/engineer. He started to examine how to improve on the traditional design and create a noise free and toneful pickup that would be relatively free of the shortcomings that the old-school methods never have completely overcome. One of his discoveries had to do with the pole pieces and their contribution to the magic recipe that he sought.


According to Dr. Lawing, “Our intensive and detailed study of the origins of the tonal response in electric guitar pickups has convinced us that the electromagnetic properties of the pole piece are the single most important factor in determining what we think of as the voice of a pickup.”

The kind of magnet utilized is a trade secret. In reading a two part blog that Dr. Lawing wrote, he discovered that he could not arrive at where he was looking to go using Alnico V, so it is a fair assumption that this popular alloy is not the material that provided the necessary magnetic field.

So what is different about his design? To begin with, his pole pieces are not round, staple-shaped, blade, non-existent (as in some of the Lace designs) or diamond shaped. They are a highly eccentric ellipsoid in terms of geometry. Each pole piece has its own individual winding. The pole pieces are wound in groups of threes, with the windings and direction of the magnetic poles in one group completely opposite, or flipped if one will, from its counterpart. This provides the hum cancelling ability and some of the noise reduction.

The focus of the field is also concentrated owning to the design, which assists in squelching other extraneous sources of noise. The resulting signal to noise ratio (s/n), like the Lace and Fishman products, is exceedingly high (desirable as this quantification relies on the numerator, i.e., the signal, being significantly larger than the denominator, i.e., the noise, in this ratio, as measured in decibels). Zexcoils are able to do this without the use of dummy coils, noise antennas and redundant shielding; these are eliminated as they carry a tonal penalty, paraphrasing Dr. Lawing.

Zexcoils have one of the best true humbucker and single coil sounds that I’ve heard with my own ears. According to Dr. Lawing, “We also have a feature we call the Silent Split™. The Silent Split is an internal series/parallel switching, enabled with a 4 conductor wiring. In normal mode, we run straight through all six coils. In Silent Split mode the two pairs of coils are in parallel with each other. The Silent Split lets you toggle between a humbucker tone in normal mode and a single coil tone in split mode. And, because all coils are engaged in both modes, it’s always quiet.”

But wait as there is more. One of his discoveries in designing this process was the ability to apprehend certain classic tones, owing to the magnetic properties of the different materials used in his pole pieces. By further varying the tonal properties with altering the number of winds around each individual pole piece, he developed an impressive tonal library as a result of his R&D process. The result is that the Zexcoil pickups come in a variety of flavors. The downside is that they are only sized as direct drop in replacements for Strat-type single coils, Tele-Type single coil guitars and the venerable Jazz Bass Guitar at this time. Still, the variety of tones that are available is astounding, especially in a three pickup machine like a Strat.

I suppose one could rig a DIY workaround for humbucker equipped guitars where the second coil would be an empty single coil cover with no pole piece holes in it, with both mounted to a home-built carriage that would allow the retention and adjustment screw/spring assemblies to function as normal. These plain single coil covers are available on the internet as aftermarket. So it’s possible to make this work for other pickup sizes if one is adequately motivated. He has even worked out a compatibility table or matrix to allow for the best mix and match configuration on a Strat or Tele-style guitar right down to the proper resistance of the pots, what kind of taper to use for the pots and the use of push-pull switching pots to take advantage of the silent split feature.

In a way, I guess Zexcoils are sort of the thinking man’s pickups…where Dr. Lawing has already done all the heavy lifting and the player simply has to consider the mix and match desired and then select the recommended ancillary control equipment. One can DIY the rig or one can purchase the rig in a semi-ready to go package, soldered up and mounted on a cardboard template. All one need provide is a pickguard, the knobs and switch tip. Single pickups are available for sale too. It’s all passive and that’s an attraction, at least for me. Below I’ll include a graphic and the accompanying table for the tonal library characteristics that he has created as well as his Compatibility Matrix.


The Compatibility Matrix, i.e., “Serving Sugestion”


One is always welcome to experiment, but it seems that he’s gone to so much trouble to provide the resources to get the most potential out of his product; it doesn’t hurt to give it a go and then decide if experimentation is warranted.

Well, there you go. These are definitely not your grandfather’s or your father’s pickups, except for maybe the original Lace Sensor. As traditional a lot as guitar players are, it’s not always a bad thing to embrace new technology. To each their own it is said.

I believe that there is a lot to own here, given that there are millions of electric guitarists, as an aggregate, where the instrument has taken hold. If given a fair chance, I think these innovations will see self-improvement, to the end that there is more mass appeal. Who knows what other useful innovations will come out of these designs. After all, at the end of the day, it’s about providing better tools with which one can musically express themselves.

*Disclaimer: Yeah, I referred to various other companies and their products, trademarks, copyrights, patents, etc. that are owned by Fender, Gibson, etc. …so that it’s clear… I’m not endorsing or implying any relationship currently between the companies profiled and the other companies mentioned or implied in this column, yada, yada, yada. What was it Shakespeare said about the lawyers…?

-Kirk Bolas - MU Columnist
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