There’s a lot of conflicting information out there. Many suppliers will offer you a pre-loaded Gilmour solution, but once you begin to look into some of the technicalities, it’s apparent that many of the solutions are succeeding in merely “approximating” the Gilmour sound. There is some detailed information – (unquestionably accurate – since it comes direct from Gilmour’s own guitar tech) – available in Phil Taylor’s book on the subject, but getting hold of a copy at the moment is stupidly difficult. The latest edition is completely sold out, and there’s open competition in trying to get hold of older, second-hand copies. There’s also plenty of other information out there from other builders and enthusiasts, who have put together their own projects, and done their own research along the way. And additionally, there are also the official, Fender tribute models to look at.
In the case of this project – I’ve taken much of my technical, source information from Craig Wells at Overdrive Custom Guitar Works in Stockton, California. Craig supplies, or custom manufactures, some of the quality parts required to build a faithful, Gilmour Black Strat replica. he’s also done a great deal of research into how to source, reproduce and combine some of the components – (perhaps most notably the black, acrylic scratchplate. More of that later). Overdrive have put together quite a few Black Strat projects over the years, and Craig’s guide on the available alternatives for parts sourcing has been invaluable. I’ve taken plenty of his advice on board for this project – and I’ve already asked Overdrive to supply one of their custom black acrylic scratchplates for my build, together with a few of the authentically reproduced hardware items. Overdrive’s replicas are some of the most carefully considered I’ve seen out there, and the level of detail they manage to reproduce is impressive.
Admittedly – it’s quite an extravagance to have to ship custom parts in from the USA – but I want this build to gradually evolve into, “the best I can achieve”. Because I can’t find parts of this quality and authenticity in the UK, I’m willing to go the extra mile to find custom parts a little farther afield.
So far, in planning the project build – most of my considerations have been based around the general “look” of the guitar, but in sourcing the components – the pickups take a different sort of consideration. Rather than just “look” the part – they have to function correctly to provide the necessary tone. The “voice” of the instrument. The Stratocaster guitar, and its’ particular combination of three, single-coil pickups, already has it’s own, distinctive sound – but that “voice” covers a wide range of characteristics. If you consider various famous Stratocaster players from different eras of the Stratocaster’s 70 year history, it’s apparent that the instrument has evolved along the way, and that behind that evolution, is an incredibly versatile platform – capable of quite different characteristics, in different hands.
Buddy Holly, Hank Marvin, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Dave Gilmour – all Stratocaster players, all immediately recognised for their individual tone. Much of that is down to the way they physically play the instrument – how they intonate the strings. Some is down to the way they set up their instruments. Some to the way they amplify or reinforce their sound. However – they all started with standard, Fender Stratocasters. In some cases, along the way, they have changed that basic specification to suit their own individual tone, and approach to playing.
In the case of Dave Gilmour’s Stratocaster – there have been so many modifications over the years , it’s almost impossible to identify the definitive state of the classic “Black Strat”. The most obvious take is to focus on a particular pickup combination – one which has evidently been worked on and developed by Gilmour over the years. This particular combination, and the switching circuit behind it, specifically tries to capture the exact, distinctive guitar tones created by Gilmour on the classic Pionk Floyd albums “Dark Side of The Moon” and “Animals” – through to the “Comfortably Numb” solo on the album “The Wall”, and on into Gilmour’s solo career and more recent live appearances. The three pickup combination has taken Gilmour the best part of his career to arrive at, and Craig at Overdrive has done plenty of analysis to find the ideal combination of pickups to best reproduce that particular distinctive sound.
Alert. This might get nerdy. But first – For the uninitiated. A little background
All single-coil pickups basically work the same way. Six magnetic pole pieces are surrounded by a belt of fine wire made up of thousands and thousands of loops – usually insulated copper. This wire is about the thickness of a human hair, so it’s gradually wound around the pole pieces to build up a surrounding coil. As the metal strings of the guitar vibrate in the magnetic fields provided by the pole pieces – a varying electrical current is induced in the copper coils. This signal is then sent to the jack plug socket. A simple process – but one which effectively translates the vibration of the guitar strings into an electric current. It’s the very basic device which, together with an amplifier, makes the concept of the electric guitar possible.
Knowing the basics – it’s difficult to see exactly how you could modify the setup enough to make vast differences to the tone produced. We know that the electric guitar is a surprisingly versatile and emotive instrument, in terms of the sounds it can produce. The mounting position of the pickups has a bit to do with it. Pickups mounted in the neck position of a guitar usually produce a warmer, more mellow response – wheras those placed close to the bridge are more abrasive in character. Yet the design of the pickups at each location is pretty much consistent – and surely, that can’t account alone for the vast difference in the sonic palette available to different players. Some of it must be down, in part at least, to some variation from a standard, generic specification.
If we go back to the basic concept of the guitar pickup – most of the variations in pickup specification are to do with the type and strength of magnets used, the polarity of the poles and the direction of coil around them, the thickness and type of wire, as well as the number of winds on the copper coil, and the overall shape of the coil. Differences due to variations on standard specifications can be measured – but most measurements need special equipment and, besides, making modifications with this level of technicality and speciality is well beyond what most amateur self builders would ever think of getting involved with.
So – since I’m not attempting to wind my own pickups, and I’m merely going by recommendation in sourcing each pickup – there’s little point me trying to delve into much more than the given technical specification for each pickup, and a recommendation for an available alternative. It helps to consider why each particular pickup is in there, what characteristics it’s intended to reinforce, and also how the pickups might combine, but beyond that – it’s enough, for my purposes, merely to try to find an example of each recommended pickup – and then try to make sure the specification of each example is wired in such a way that it can do its’ job properly.
Since some of the recommended pickups may no longer be in production, I’ll probably have to have one eye on the second-hand market. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot to be said for using “vintage” pickups, which have been “played in” and mellowed a bit over the years. I just have to try and find working pickups which promise an equivalent output and character to the original. For this, providing the candidate is of the correct design – I’ll be checking the DC resistance of each pickup to try and make sure it’s functional, and within the general sort of tolerances I need. The DC resistance isn’t an exact measure of anything other than the amount of resistance provided to an electrical current passing through the pickup coil, and is down to the amount of copper wire and the strength of the magnets used. The more wire there is, and the finer it is – then the more resistance the coil offers. In some ways – the resistance can be linked to the “power” or “output” of the pickup – although there are other variables to consider – so it isn’t really the full story. Most pickups are wound with a certain number of turns, and with a particular gauge of wire, in a particular pattern. Providing the DC resistance readings are within a reasonable tolerance, and the pickups are of an equivalent design to Gilmour’s – then my build will have a reasonable chance of doing a similar job.
So – on Overdrive’s recommendations – the magic combination – the pickups which, together, go to approximate the character and output provided by Dave Gilmour’s original “Black Strat” pickups are:
Neck pickup – Fender, Custom Shop “Fat 50’s”
The Custom Shop “Fat 50’s” variant of the standard, Stratocaster pickup is a vintage style, single coil pickup – based on the original design and specification of the period. Of course – these aren’t actual vintage pickups, however. Their construction is slightly brought up to date – resulting in a, supposedly, slightly more “modern” sound – but essentially, these modern pickups convey much of the basic Fender heritage from the original days of Leo Fender, and the first Stratocasters. The sound is often referred to as sounding, “bell-like”, and as having a distinctive “chime”, or “ring”. The pickup is designed to maximise the clarity of the treble and bass response. The more modern take on the original specification increases the bass response slightly – but the original “scooped” characteristics of the Stratocaster tone are provided in the way it always has been. Tones generated by the neck pickup tend to be used “clean” by the guitarist – ie. not distorted too much by pedals or effects, and the tone of the neck pickup is perhaps known most for “jazzier” type work, or for rythmn parts – where the guitar sometimes sits a bit more “in the mix”. Overall – the neck pickup probably doesn’t provide the biggest amount of distinctive character to the Black Strat on it’s own – but the Fat 50’s neck pickup is widely acknowledged as an example of one of the best “original style” pickups that Fender have produced. The neck pickup is used, somewhat uniquely by Gilmour, in combination with the bridge pickup via a special switching arrangement. The “Fat 50’s” neck pickup probably wins it’s place on the Black Strat because it’s one of the best, basic single coils around – with enough quality – but not too much unique personality of it’s own.
It’s there to sound like a vintage Fender Stratocaster neck pickup – and it does the job.
Since the neck position is located at a place on the guitar where the strings can vibrate quite freely – the oscillations are enough to produce the required inductive effect on the copper coils quite easily. For that reason – the neck pickup doesn’t need to be over powered, or “overwound” much. The Fat 50’s pickups are given a few extra turns of copper – but they are normally rated as having a DC resistance value of around 6.1k to 6.2k. The DC resistance is measured using an accurate multimeter – but can only ever be measured and assessed within a general tolerance range, since outside factors such as temperature can slightly affect the readings.
Most of the pickups made by Fender are originally sold as matched sets, or in “loaded” guitars and pickguards. Getting hold of a single neck example means I pretty much have to visit the guitarist’s version of a breakers yard. I find a candidate on UK’s eBay, and it’s nowhere near as expensive as having to bring one in, new, all the way from the USA. I’ll have to take pot luck, and hope it’s all OK – but there isn’t actually that much that can physically go wrong with a guitar pickup. They tend to either work – or they don’t. If it doesn’t work – it’s going straight back.
This Fat 50’s neck pickup came originally “from a Custom Shop Stratocaster”, and has presumably been separated from it’s set because – as a neck pickup, (and therefore ideal for the Black Strat treatment) – it’s probably worth more when sold on its’ own. There’s no Custom Shop sticker on the pickup in this case – but I’ve no reason to doubt it’s authenticity. It certainly looks correct, and displays the required characteristics:
- A black, fibre, bobbin
- Fine, enamel coated, copper wire (should be 42AWG Formvar).
- The (Alnico 5) pole pieces are staggered in a “vintage configuration” to balance the output across the strings, and across a vintage radiused neck
- Signs of wax potting
- Black and white, fabric sleeved connecting wires
- An all important blue dot on the reverse, which identifies it as the neck pickup of the Fat 50’s set. (Bridge and middle pickups have either a red dot, or no dot)
The pickup poles are supposedly hand bevelled – but there’s not much sign of any major bevelling here. After some research, I understand that manufacturing tolerances can, (like plenty of Fender’s other output over the years), “vary somewhat” – and that pole pieces “only get as much bevelling as they need”. Some of these look like they’ve had a mere swipe of a file around the top – but that’s deemed enough, in some cases. The wires look like they’ve been cut a little short – but I can always lengthen them if needs be. There’s no ribbon binding around the coils – I’m not even sure there should be. No screws or original rubbers provided either – but the basics are there.
According to Craig Wells’ extensive pickup testing data – the neck pickup on a Black Strat should provide a DC resistance reading of around 6.0k to 6.2k. This one checks out at 6.32k – meaning it’s a touch hotter than average. However, since winding tolerances are normally only ever within 5% or so, and since the same can be said for the accuracy of most multimeters – this looks like a pretty good candidate for the build. It needs a bit of a spruce up – it’s clearly been well played in – but that may well add to it’s character. With pickups – it’s all about the tone. So long as that’s right – a lot of other cosmetic stuff can be forgiven.
Middle pickup – Fender, Custom Shop “69” – “AY” (Abigail Ybarra), initialled
It’s been said, that the Fender Custom Shop “69” set of pickups provide “the best neck and middle pickups Fender ever made”, but partnered together “with the very worst bridge pickup”. By the late 1960’s Fender had made a few revisions to the original “vintage style” specifications, but in doing so – they were mass-producing pickups which literally defined the sound of the sixties. I suppose one particular player sums up the character the CS69’s were intended to invoke – and that’s Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix reputedly always used stock Fender pickups – and it’s probably no surprise that Fender’s “best pickups” are still built in their Custom Shop, specifically to bring the sonic characteristics of that particular era to modern ears. Fender describe their CS69’s as “the sound of Woodstock”, although ther character probably encapsualtes much of the music created during the late 60’s – but especially in California, and the rest of the USA. The pickups are single-coils – designed and wound to be “bold and punchy”, and will have a DC resistance rating, on testing, of between approximately 5.25k and 5.45k. Since the CS69’s should therefore have a slightly lower resistance reading than the Fat 50’s, neck pickup – they will probably need to be driven a little more than the neck – but then that will tend to provide a little more break-up – resulting in the distinctive tones that these pickups are known for. Fender simply state that the “CS69’s love effects pedals”.
In the usual CS69 set – the pickups are usually pretty well matched, with consistent output across the set. In fact they are usually fully interchangeable between positions. (Quite often sets of Fender pickups have quite different resistance values for each of the different positions – hence the colour coded, dot markings on the Fat 50’s sets). Once again, for the Black Strat build, I only need one pickup from a set – but I got the opportunity to buy a second-hand, matched set of CS69’s – in this case initialled by Fender’s very own Abigail Ybarra. (I’ve been thinking about further modding my Ash Stratocaster project from last year. Since that has a kind of late 60’s, large headstock thing going on – I’ll use the other two there, with a different bridge option to complete the set and cover for the “worst ever Fender bridge pickup”).
Abigail Ybarra worked for Fender from 1956 – winding pickups from 1958, until her recent retirement. In those years Abigail, (Abby) wound literally thousands of pickups – some of them reputedly, for Hendrix himself. Although, in her later working years, she mostly supervised in the coil winding room at Fender Custom Shop – she still wound some “specials” herself, and pickups marked “Abby” are reputedly by Ybarra herself. Sets like this one initialled “AY” were more likely wound by others, but under her direct supervision. However, since her recent retirement, a few years ago, the initials “AY” are no longer added to any Fender pickups – so a set of “AY’s” is another nod to part of the Fender legend, and they are becoming quite a sought after item on the second hand market.
The set of CS69’s I managed to secure, came second-hand – clearly pulled from someone else’s build – but they appear to be a fully matched set, and tick all the boxes:
- Grey fibre bobbins (period correct)
- Fine, enamel coated, copper wire, with black ribbon binding.
- The (Alnico 5) pole pieces are staggered in a “vintage configuration” to balance the output across the strings, and across a vintage radiused neck
- Black and white, fabric sleeved connecting wires (period correct)
- A full set of Fender Custom Shop stickers
- “AY” initialled and individually dated, 4-01-11, 4-02-11, 4-01,11
From the lengths of wire left attached to each of the pickups, I can tell which configuartion they have been previously installed. The wires look a bit short in a couple of cases – so again, I may have to solder on some extensions here and there. Checking the set for DC resistance with a multimeter, I find the neck pickup (dated 4-1-11) reads at 5.33k – the middle (dated 4-2-11) reads 5.74k and the bridge (dated 4-1-11) reads 5.36k. Obviously they were adding a few extra turns of copper in February of 2011. According to Craig Wells’ data – the middle pickup on a Black Strat should provide a DC resistance reading of between 5.22k and 5.64k. It looks, therefore, like any one of the set will work for me. I’ll probably be choosing either the current neck or, most likely, the current bridge pickup, and then using that in the middle position for my build.
Bridge pickup – Seymour Duncan, Custom Shop SSL-1C DG
The bridge pickup is probably where the Gilmour sound is most distinctive. Gilmour himself has tried a variety of other pickups in this position, over time – and at some point, he began to look at pickups made in the Seymour Duncan Custom Shop. He tried a standard SSL-1 in the bridge position for a while – but had the specification customised and revised to boost the output. They achieved this by adding more copper turns to the pickup coil, resulting in the SSL-1C specification. (The “C” standing for “custom”). This, hotter version of the SSL-1, eventually went into full production as the SSL-5 – and many project builders use an SSL-5 in the bridge position to good effect. It’s a standard bridge pickup upgrade for Stratocaster players looking for a little bit more, than what Fender generally put in there.
But it turns out that there’s also a special Seymour Duncan Custom Shop version of the customised SSL-1C available, which reproduces the exact specification used on Gilmour’s own “specials”. For their cost and rarity, the SSL-1C DG pickups may as well be sprinkled magic pixie dust. For all the world – they look exactly the same to me as any other SSL-1. Under the covers, they look to have have exactly the same number of turns of exactly the same copper wire, around exactly the same pole pieces. The main difference however, seems to be that the copper wire is “scatter-wound” onto the bobbins in exactly the same pattern as with Gilmour’s own pickups. With so many specifications matched – there shouldn’t, in theory, be anything else out there that sounds as close to the original Custom wound Seymour Duncans, made for Gilmour himself.
Of course – they’re custom made, exclusive, and are therefore stupidly rare and expensive. Especially here, in the UK. Craig at Overdrive has done a lot of work looking at the actual specifications and output measurements of Gilmour’s pickups and – don’t ask me how – has managed to secure a limited supply of these particular hen’s teeth. Since I was going through the process of shipping a few other Overdrive custom parts to the UK for my build, I thought I’d take the opportunity of adding a DG pickup to the order while I had the opportunity. Price-wise, it’s expensive – but probably about as much as any other boutique-build pickup. (I think the individual Don Mare pickups for the “Dragoncaster” build are around the same price-point). The thing is – by the time the SSL-1C DG has been shipped here to the UK, and the relevant Customs Officials have taken their share on top of the Taxman’s slice – the bill has additionally gone up by 30% or so. It therefore makes sense to combine the shipping with some of the other components I’ll need. I don’t think I’d necessarily use the DG otherwise. I think an SSL-5 would probably do just as well…
…but what the hell. Then I wouldn’t have the specially stamped and, “Maricela Juarez” signed, bobbin. I wouldn’t have the special Seymour Duncan, Custom Shop sticker. And I wouldn’t have all that extra pixie dust and packaging. Technical stuff like the scatter winding isn’t visible – but the custom winding has been designed to give the SSL1C-DG, a DC resistance of somewhere between 12.61k and 13.65k. That considerable boost to the potential output of the bridge pickup is there to allow play in the bridge position to “cook” a little bit more. The extra power makes the bridge pickup an ideal pickup to solo with. The voicing, with it’s extra treble – perhaps a result of the special scatter winding – when combined with the additional power, allows the soloing instrument to easily cut through the mix and stand out from the rest of the instruments. The pole stagger, and number of windings, may also go to provide additional sustain and harmonic detail – both characteristic of that distinctive tone. With the eventual addition of the concealed pickup switching circuit, for which Gilmour’s guitar is also famous – this, in combination with the other Fender Custom Shop pickups should, theoretically, absolutely nail the Gilmour tone issue.
My pickup came nicely boxed, and with a test reading done by Craig showing DC output at 13.22k. That’s right where it should be – maybe a touch hotter than the average. My own multimeter gives a reading at room temperature of 13.29k. Perhaps that’s down to multimeter tolerance. Perhaps it’s a touch warmer here than it was in Stockton? Then again – all of my readings have been slightly higher than expected. perhaps it’s my multimeter’s tolerance?
This version of the SSL-1C DG pickup is what Overdrive call their “Original” – since it is identical to Gilmour’s original and does not offer any options for hum cancelling (“Rw/Rp” – Reverse wound / Reverse polarity). Like most pickups – leads can be reversed, pole piece polarity switched, even coil windings reversed so that, when used in conjunction with certain other pickups – the signals are differently polarised. This can “phase cancel” and completely eliminate the troublesome, 60Hz “ground hum”. The hum-cancelling effect is standard fare for guitars using humbucker type pickups but I’ll stick to an “Original” for my purposes. I’ll be fully screening the guitar cavities, and using the best electrical components I can, so I’ll be keeping outside, electrical interference to a minimum anyway. Beyond that – the specification includes:
- Hand, scatter-wound coil
- Staggered, beveled Alnico V pole pieces
- Cloth insulated 22 gauge hook-up leads
- Keyed bottom flat work stamped with “SSL-1C DG”
- Coil windings are wrapped with cloth tape.
- Pickup is wound and signed by “MJ” (Maricela Juarez) at Seymour Duncan Custom Shop.
And so, with the three pickups in the project box – together with an extra couple for the next project – I’m a few items further down the shopping list. Even so – there’s still a fair bit to sort out before I can begin to assemble anything properly. But it’s starting to come together, and that’s progress. I’m already looking forward to testing these pickups when they’re finally installed.