Lollar Pickups Blog

Welcome to the Lollar Pickups Blog, where we discuss in detail the finer points of Lollar Pickups and share the latest news from the Workbench.

Guitar Pickup “Lifespan”

Another set of questions we get on a regular basis goes something like this: Do vintage guitar pickups have a “lifespan?”  Can vintage guitar pickup sound quality change or degrade over time?

In most cases the tone does not appreciably degrade if the coil is still intact. However there are 2 main factors that can affect your guitar pickup over time. A change in either of these can cause a loss or change in the tone of your guitar pickup. We will discuss these factors one at a time.

First, let’s talk about how guitar pickup magnets can be affected over time.

Some pickup designs used magnets that were not made of a permanent magnetic alloy. A prime example is the Rickenbacker horseshoe pickup. These magnets – which are the “horseshoes” themselves – often go dead or “almost” dead. Once they lose their magnetic charge to a sufficient degree, the result will be a loss of output and frequency response.

The U-shaped metal "horseshoes" are the magnets for this Lollar horseshoe style pickup.

The U-shaped metal "horseshoes" are the magnets for this Lollar horseshoe style pickup.

The second point about guitar pickup magnets involves AlNiCo based magnet materials. It is important to note that AlNiCo magnets can be easily degaussed, and the way many pickup designs are made allows the AlNiCo to degauss from 20 to 30%. AlNiCo magnets can also be degaussed by rubbing them with a piece of steel, or by placing another magnet in close proximity. As a side note, from time to time we’ll get a customer whose pickup “suddenly had very little output and frequency response.” In a couple of cases it happened “just after a break.” Guess where these customers set their guitars? Right against a large speaker cabinet, right against the back side of the speaker cone. In other words, right against a large magnet! Immediate de-gaussing!

Now let’s talk about how guitar pickup coils are affected over time.

There is a life expectancy for many older pickup designs. For example, P-90’s had a coil former (bobbin) made of a plastic material that can degrade over time. In these cases the bobbin will eventually disintegrate, leaving less substantial material to support the coil. This allows the coil to shift or slump, which affects the sound quality. Gibson also made pickups out of a tortoiseshell plastic. This material can also degrade and fall apart.

Fender pickups that were not wax potted can eventually come apart. In fact, many vintage pickups were not potted with wax or shellac.

This guitar pickup coil was not protected with wax or shellac. This exposed the coil to damage if bumped or dropped.

This guitar pickup coil was not protected with wax or shellac. This exposed the coil to damage if bumped or dropped.

If a pickup is not potted with wax or protected with shellac, the pickup coil is more vulnerable to damage or movement of the thin copper coil wire. If the pickup gets bumped or dropped, the coil can shift and collapse making it much looser and more microphonic. This is very common and is one of the reasons why we pot just about everything we make, even if it’s only for 10 seconds. My pickups will still be as microphonic as I like to make them, but the coil will be far less likely to shift and become loose over time. Once a vintage pickup coil becomes loose it can get progressively worse very quickly.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

Guitar Pickup Phasing & Lead Wire Direction

Answer to your question: Which way do my lead wires go?

We are asked these three related questions on a regular basis:
Does it matter which side of the guitar pickup that the lead wires exit? Does it matter which way I point the lead wires when I install the guitar pickups? Do the lead wires have to be oriented out of the same side for both guitar pickups when I install them?

Generally speaking, the direction the lead wires come out of the pickup has no bearing on guitar pickup phasing. You can rotate the pickup left or right (clockwise or counterclockwise) and it will not matter. The only time left and right orientation comes into play is with staggered pole pickups, and even then there are people that use a reverse from normal stagger.

The only way phasing could be affected is if you installed the pickup completely upside down, which would reverse the phase. In other words, accidentally installing a guitar pickup with the pole pieces pointed into the guitar cavity. But this seems highly unlikely – this would mean the base of the pickup would be pointed toward the strings.

The misconception that the lead wires need to come out of the “same side” of the pickup most frequently comes up when customers are installing humbucker pickups.

humbucker-lead-wire-orientationIf you take a look at this photo, you’ll see that the lead wires are coming out of “opposite” sides of the pickup. This will happen if you are installing your humbuckers in the “conventional” way. That is, installing them with the adjustable poles of the neck pickup sitting closest to the fingerboard, and the adjustable poles of the bridge pickup sitting closest to the bridge.

Our recommendation is to install the guitar pickup with the lead wires oriented whichever way installs the best, easiest, or most conveniently oriented toward the control cavity. Also base your decision on what goal you want to achieve, as with the humbucker example.

All About Guitar Pickup “Hum” or Noise – part 3

Any final thoughts on what I can do about noise from my guitar pickups?

This is part 3 of our 3-part series on guitar pickup noise. This section describes a few gear modifications that you can consider, and also talks about a few electronic devices that some players have had success with.

I love the sound of my single coil pickups, but the noise really bothers me – is there anything else I can do?

After all is said and done, a Fender style guitar can have close to 5 feet of non-shielded, cloth covered wire.

After all is said and done, a Fender style guitar can have close to 5 feet of non-shielded, cloth covered wire.

There are also a few direct modifications to your gear that are possibilities to consider. One thing you can try is to replace all of the unshielded wire inside the guitar with shielded cable. Any length of unshielded wire much longer than an inch can sense the 120 cycle frequency. Fender guitars are typically loaded with about 5 feet of single conductor non-shielded lead wire. However, you have to think about this strategy before you do it. This is because replacing the lead wire with shielded cable can lead to a slight amount of high frequency loss. Your guitar may sound slightly darker after making this swap, which is the drawback of this modification. Another thing to consider is a shielding paint. Some builders we work with paint all of the control & pickup cavities with a conductive shielding paint. It is easy to get hold of at Stewart MacDonald’s guitar supply. You paint all of the cavities and also the back of the pickguard. After this is done, and dried of course, you have to attach a ground wire to it. With this approach you can also loose a little high end. The other draw back of shielding the cavities is that it’s easy to short out your signal if a lug on a pot or switch touches the shielding paint.

I have heard that there are some other devices out there that can help with reducing noise, is that true?

There are in fact some electronic ways of dealing with guitar pickup hum. For example, a noise gate is a device that will sense the difference between when you are playing and when you’re not playing. It will cut off the signal from your guitar when you’re not playing. You set the minimal volume level, and then it automatically cuts off the signal to the amp when the volume goes below this (when you’re not playing). Unfortunately, this can sometimes sound unnatural, and it can also limit your dynamic range. There is also a device called a hum de-bugger. The manufacturer indicates that it is not a noise gate – they call it a hum extractor. I haven’t used one myself, so I can’t comment on its effectiveness. What I can say is that when you are working with certain gear combinations, or if you are headed for a venue that you’re unfamiliar with, then having several noise suppression devices to work with can only be a good thing.

What do professional musicians have to say about single coil noise?

I have talked to many professional players who tour and record with single coil pickups. Many of them claim that hum is not an issue. Obviously they have learned to deal with it by paying attention to their surroundings and finding a good place and direction to stand. Most often there is a “sweet spot” where noise is dramatically reduced just by pointing your guitar in a different direction. For even more detail on this, please see parts #1 and #2 of this 3-part series.

All About Guitar Pickup “Hum” or Noise – part 2

How can I manage the noise my guitar is making?

This is part 2 of our 3-part series on guitar pickup noise. This section describes some of the ways to solve or at least manage the noise you may be hearing from your guitar.

Everything checks out – so how can I deal with the noise I’m still  hearing?

The easiest way to stop or at least minimize the 60 cycle hum is by using RWRP pickup sets and then putting your pickup selector in a middle position so that it runs 2 of your single coils together at the same time. By doing this much of the 60 cycle hum will at least be reduced.

 

Before I switch to the middle position, is there anything else I can do to reduce the guitar pickup hum I’m hearing?

Here is a good checklist of some of the major things you can address:

1-Dimmer switches and ceiling fans. If you have one of these on the same circuit you have your amp plugged into you will get a lot of 60 cycle hum. In fact, you can get so much that it will overpower your amp. Plug into another circuit!

2-Proximity to a neon sign. These can cause a lot of noise. Turn it off if possible. If you are playing in a venue where they want to leave it on, see if it can be moved – at least for a few hours.

3-Amp ground switch positioning. If you are using a vintage amp, and a Fender in particular, make sure that you have the ground switch in the correct position.

Make sure to check the ground switch on you amp.  Your amp can be a source of noise if not properly grounded.

Make sure to check the ground switch on you amp. Your amp can be a source of noise if not properly grounded.

4- Proper outlet wiring. Believe it or not, I have found many miss-wired sockets in many different clubs. So checking your wall outlet can sometimes solve the problem – especially if you have ruled out all of the other more obvious causes. You can get a simple circuit tester at most hardware stores. When you plug it into the wall there are a series of lights that will tell you if the outlet is wired properly. These testers are only a few dollars and they will show you if the outlet is reverse wired. They will also show you if the ground in the outlet is connected or not.

5-When you are not playing, keep your hands on the strings. You can also roll the volume off all the way.

 

So there is no “one size fits all” answer, is there?

Generally speaking, minimizing noise with single coils is a matter of looking around and seeing what is causing the interference. If all else fails throw that selector switch into the middle position on a 2 pickup guitar, or in either the 2 or 4 position on a 3 pickup guitar. That is what an RWRP pickup is made for – that middle position is the hum-canceling position. I agree it’s not the ideal solution, but it does give you an alternative to bailing out on a bad situation.

All About Guitar Pickup “Hum” or Noise – part 1

Is the noise from my new Lollar pickups “normal?”

We will be publishing a  three part series on guitar pickup noise. In this series you will be able to read the main questions we get on this subject. Each of the questions will be followed by a thorough answer or discussion.

 

I just got my new pickups installed and I seem to notice more noise than I’m used to. Is there a problem?

It is interesting to note that one of the most common “causes” and “solutions” to hearing noise from your new pickups is recognizing the fact that they are brand new. In other words, we find that just after a new set of pickups is installed, our customers are listening to their guitars much more intensely than usual. You are listening to the new pickups for the first few times, in much greater detail, and you are paying more attention to them. We typically recommend that you do a side by side comparison of your new set and a set you are “used” to. The best way to do this is simply get out another guitar that you’re familiar with and switch back and forth. After doing this a few times, most players realize that the new set is actually similar, if not better, when compared against a familiar guitar.

 

I hear a little noise from single coils AND humbuckers, what’s the difference?

Lollar Imperial Humbuckers will cancel 60 cycle hum

Lollar Imperial Humbuckers will cancel 60 cycle hum

Single coils are sensitive to both 60 and 120 cycle noise. Of course humbuckers cancel the very loud, low frequency noise of the 60 cycle frequency. But all pickups will sense the 120 cycle frequency. Fortunately it can be displaced by shielding and having your strings grounded. For example, when you touch the strings most of the 120 cycle goes away. The most distracting is the 60 cycle hum, because the only thing that will quiet it is actually moving the position of the guitar relative to your position on the stage or in the room. In other words, the solution to this is simply standing in a different place.

 

If I hear a little noise from my new pickups, is there something wrong with the pickup?

Lollar P90s have a large coil, which can cause noise

Lollar P90s have a large coil, which can cause noise

The noise is not the pickup itself – it is caused by external electro magnetically generated fields. The pickup is basically acting like an antenna and “receiving” the signals generated by this electrical field. Also, the size of the coil can have an effect on how much noise is generated – a bigger antenna has a better ability to receive these signals. So that means a P-90 or Charlie Christian with a large wide coil will be noisier than a narrower, taller Fender type coil.

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