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    Today I was just sitting around and playing bits and pieces of Setting me up from the first Dire Straits album. As the camera and recording gear was still in place from the last video, I spontanously decided to film a short sequence.

    It is not really a performance of the song in the sense of playing the right pieces in the proper order but rather some jamming with myself within the groove of the song. In such a situation I usually play a mix of original licks from both the studio version and numerous live versions which I have somewhere in my head, plus some improvisation, so it is not an authentic version of the original. Still there are many riffs you will recognize from the record and might be interested to see how I play them.

    The guitar is my 1983 Squier Strat from the first Japanese vintage series. These are really great guitars with a nice sound. Unfortunately they are getting rare, especially the fiesta red ones, and prices have started to rise considerably.

    I replaced the original pickguard with a Sultans pickguard with the VFS-1 pickups. Here I am playing the bridge pickup in the tapped position. The guitar has 008 strings and is tuned to open A.

    I did not use an amp but played into a portable PCM recorder, and added some basic effects (reverb, compression, dealy… plus some slight phasing) in the recording software. This approach is just for convenience, as I don’t have to mess around this way with the amp settings, mic positions etc.

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    With the following video I was trying to demonstrate the basic sound difference between a vintage Schecter Dream Machine and a ‘traditional’ Strat.

    The Dream Machine is from about 1980, it has a Koa body and a one-piece Pau Ferro neck. The three pickups in the brass pickguard are the tapped F500T’s. It has s a hardtail brass bridge.

    The Strat is a 1983 Japanese vintage Squier Stratocaster, unmodified.

    Of course the amp & effects settings are 100% identical for both guitars. Also they both have new strings of the same brand and gauge (Fender 09 – 40). Each of the three pickups on the Schecter can be switched to the ‘normal’ coil (tapped) or the overwound (full) coil but I will only use the tapped pickup positions of Schecter in this video, as these are more comaparable to the Fender pickup sound.

    Beside the sound difference, note that there is less hum and noises with the Schecter as the metal pickguard and the copper tape around the pickup coil provide a better shielding.

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    In 1980, shortly before recording the Making Movies album,  Mark Knopfler got several Schecter Dream Machines. It was a sunburst Schecter Strat (serial number S8136) that was used at least on the song Tunnel of Love and that was stolen from the boot of a car near the band’s rehearsal room in Greenwich soon after.

    There are only a few pictures of this guitar available. They are all from the same photo session with photographer Adrian Boot, and only two of these are in colour. One of these two pictures was on a cover of the Greek ‘Pop Rok’ magazine from December 1980, and medium quality scans of the cover could be found on various sources in the web.

    I recently got hold of a copy of this magazine. It features a 3.5 pages story/interview with a live picture from summer 1979 plus various press kit pictures of the Making Movies album.

    As Adrian allowed me to use detail parts of his pictures for our ‘scientific purposes’ here in this blog, I can show the guitar itself at full resolution here:

    Schecter Dream Machine

    From this view we can see the pickguard and the neck very well but unfortunately hardly anything of the two tone sunburst and the beautiful flame of the birch body. We cannot see the bridge completely, neither. In fact there is not one picture at all available that shows  whether this guitar has a tremolo or a hardtail bridge (!). I’d guess it is the tremolo version like Mark’s other Schecter Strats all are but who knows.

    The pickup screws and (probably) the six bridge screws are nickel while the pickguard screws seem to be gold, also gold Kluson tuners and brass strap buttons. The nut is brass, as on all Schecter Dream Machines (brass hardware was essential for their hardware philosophy). The neck is what was called ‘figured maple’ in the Schecter catalogue, in this case flamed birdseye maple. However, the flame and the birdseyes are less prominent than e.g. on Mark’s red Schecter Strat. Note the dots on the neck surface, all of Mark’s other Dream Machines are dotless.

    The guitar strap in this pictures looks similar to the black Music Man strap that Mark had in the late 70ies, but it is not a Music Man strap.

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    The deluxe box set of Mark’s new Tracker album features a short film by the Danish director Henrik Hansen. It is already available on Youtube:

    I think it is a nice film which shows Mark at work, developing songs for the new record, and at leisure, walking his dogs. I am sure you will enjoy the film very much.

    With this blog post, I want to discuss a few guitar details seen in this film – well, this is a guitar site :) . At the beginning of the film we see Mark in a side house of his home at the English south coast,  sitting at a table with a beautiful look on the ocean (which in fact is just 20 meters away). He plays Basil on an acoustic guitar, his vintage Martin D18 (this should be the one pictured in this blog post). On the table we see stuff like a variety of bottlenecks – both brass and glass-, a guitar cable, two books about guitars (Gibson Electrics by A. R. Duchossoir, and the ‘bible’ about National resonator guitars by Bob Brozman), a Mac notebook, and more. I should be a good guess to say that it is here where Mark composes some of his songs.

    At 0:37 we see the same place from outside the window. Here we can see the peghead of a Strat, it seems Mark does not only use acoustic guitars at home but also electrics. Apparently it is his white 1964 Strat, the one used on e.g. Sailing to Philadelphia (we can see it at 1:54 or around 2:49, played in the same room). I wondered if he has certain guitars which he always keeps at home, as it seems most of the electrics are located in the room over his British Grove studio in London, a nearly two hours drive away.

    Well, we can see him playing the same guitar at British Grove studio, around 2:24. The song seems to be Lights of Taormina. (I say it seems as I have not heard the album yet, although the first download links have apparently appeared in the web – I ordered my copy of the box set so that I have something to look forward to in March :) ). The condition of this vintage guitar is amazing! Note that Mark put strings with a wound g-string on it – it seems to be Mark’s favourite for slide now (he played Gator Blood with bottleneck on it on the last tour).

    white-1964-strat

    The white 1964 Strat – note the Money for Nothing bottleneck :)

    white-1964-strat-2

    Here you can see the pickups height adjustement nicely – also note wound g-string

     

     

    The next guitar that appears in the film is the 1958 Les Paul. Here is a picture that shows some setup details, like the height of the stop tailpiece, the pickups, or strings. Note that the stop tailpiece is very low.

    les-paul-58-setup

    les-paul-58-head

    The head of the 1958 Les Paul, note details like the laquer checking

     

    Another interesting detail is the view on the software mixer, at 1:20. Mark’s electric guitar are the purple mixer rails. Here we see that they recorded the guitar to three parallel tracks, probably one for each microphone they used. The tracks are mixed together with  -4.0 dB, -9.8 dB, and -23.5 dB for the three tracks, all panned into the center. The label below says ‘mk-elecgtr_57′ for two of the tracks, and ‘mk-elecgtr_67′  for the one in the middle. My guess is that two were recorded with a Shure SM57, and one with a Neumann U67.

    tracker-mixer

    Like always, use the comment function below to add your comments, or more details that might be worth discussing.

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    It seems to be out of question that the pickups are an important ingredient that defines the sound of an electric guitar. Besides obvious contruction differences – like overwound single coil pickups, or single-coil sized humbuckers etc. – there are many details , like different magnet alloys or different wire for the coil, that make a subtle or even clear sound difference. And there are many ‘external’ aspects, like shielding, pickguard materials etc. that might also influenece the sound of a pickup. And of course there are many myths and speculations about what else is said to be important as well – some can be true, others probably not.

    With this blog post I want to list and describe some of such aspects, and let you know my opinion on what is important, and what is not. I have a long experience with pickups, so I have tried out much myself, and I think I can judge other questions from my technical background knowledge. Of course there are other things where I am not sure myself, as I have not a/b compared each single possible combination of pickup features within the same guitar, but I will let you know my guess here as well. Much of the stuff I will discuss will be with the typical Strat pickup in mind – the probably most important pickup for us Knopfler fans, but many results will of course also apply to other pickups. So let’s start with the…

    Pole pieces material

    First, there are pickups with Alnico (an AL-uminium/ NI-ckle/ CO-balt alloy) pole pieces and pickups with steel pole pieces which touch a ceramic bar magnet on the underside of the pickup (‘ceramic’ pickups). The Alnico pickups often have a stronger magnetic pull to the strings which makes them sound more snappy, also they are considered to sound warmer, while the ceramic pickups are said to sound more sterile, or even harsher.  Ceramic Strat pickups can be found e.g. in some Squier Strats, and often in low-end guitars, but e.g. the last Van Nuys era Schecter pickups, the ‘Monstertone’ pickups developped by Tom Anderson, are ceramic as well (these are NOT the Schecter F500T pickups that Mark Knopfler had in his Schecters).

    ceramic-pickups

    Pickups with ceramic magnets

    Both will definitely sound more or less  different but I have heard many ceramic pickups that actually sounded great, so I would not agree that these are generally inferior. It is rather a matter of what you want or prefer, or maybe also which pickup sounds best in a particular guitar.

    Among the Alnico pickups, there are many different alloys, with Alnico V or II being the most important ones. In these the proportions of the three main ingredients aluminium, nickle, and cobalt are different. Alnico V is surely the most important one for Strats, all the original Fender pickups used it. However, there are some who believe that e.g. the Alnico available  in the 50ies or 60ies was possibly closer to what comes as Alnico II these days, or that over time the magnets changed – e.g. lost a part of their magnetic strength – and sound for this reason more like a different alloy than Alnico V. Generally V is stronger than II, and the sound is snappier with more punch and direct treble than the softer and warmer sounding Alnico II.  Other alloys like Alnico III are also  used, possibly in vintage Gibsons or Fenders as well. The problem is that nobody knows for sure what these companies ordered then, or if they sometimes simply changed to a different alloy as e.g. cobalt prices went up, or simply something was not in stock when they ordered.

    Conclusion: Makes a sound difference, normally clearly audible

    Winding wire insulation

    The hair-thin wire for the coil is always made of copper. To wind a coil, you cannot use bare copper wire, it has to be insulated. As it is extremely thin wire, this insulation is not the coloured plastic like on ‘normal’ cables, but often a clear coat that is not visible with the bare eye. This insulation can be made of different materials, e.g. Formvar or enamel on old Fenders, but also polyurethane or polyamide is used.

    pickup-wire

    Different wire insulations have a different colour (pictures courtesy Haeussel Pickups)

    As this is just an insulation, you might argue that a different material should not lead to any sound difference. However, it does! How is this possible? This is because all the wire of the pickup coil makes a capacitor – remember from your school days, two opposite metal plates that do not touch make a capacitor. Instead of metal plates we have the wire here, and all the surface of each single winding lies next to another winding, so they make a capacitor as well. Maybe you also remember that the insulating material between these metal plates – e.g. air, oil, paper,.. – also changes the value of the capacitor. So the same is true for the wire insulation, all the different materials have their own specific ‘dialectric constant’ that influences the overall value of the capacitance.

    Not only the material matters, but also the thickness of the insulation. Remember the capacitor at school, the distance between the metal plates matters. While the insulation is always ‘thin’, it still has a thickness that is not to be neglected. And sometimes the insulation is even thicker for a more durable wire, so called double-coating. When talking about old Fender pickups,you will hear terms like  heavey Formvar, or plain enamel. Heavey means  double coated here, and plain means single coated.

    Conclusion: Wire insulation makes an audible difference as well. It depends not only on the material (Formvar, enamel,..) but also on the thickness so it is difficult to say what exactly sounds like what.  The difference might be subtle – but I could assure myself that I can hear it.

    Potting

    Pickups are normally potted with hot wax, sometimes also with laquer (e.g. old Tele nek pickups). This is done to avoid that the pickup is too microphonic. The loser the coil is wound, the more microphonic the pickup might be. You will not only hear a louder noise when e.g. tapping on the pickup (with a non-magnetic material, e.g. with your fingertips), but this will also increase the danger of squealing feedback at high volume.

    The wax (or laquer) can change the ‘dialectric constant’ of the coil as a capacitor (see the passage above), so it can make a sound difference. Some of the early Gibson PAF pickups are said to be non-potted, or hardly potted. The sound might becoame a bit ‘airier’ without the wax.

    Conclusion: Theoretically possible, but a rather subtle difference – not too important in most situations.

    Connecting wire

    Some pickups have cloth-covered push-back cables, others have plastic insulation cables in different colours. I cannot imagine how this should make any sound difference, so it is just a question of ‘vintage-correctness’, or of ease to handle it (push-back cable is nice to solder, you just have to push it back a bit, and it will slide back after soldering).

    However, if the cables are drilled – like e.g. the three cables on the Schecter F500T pickups – there might be a small capacity again, however so small that I personally would not bother about it too much. If the cables are shielded however, more capacitance is added which might become audible.

    Conclusion: Normally no difference

    Age/Magnet strength

    A stronger magnet results in clearer and stronger treble, and a snappier tone, similar to the difference between e.g. Alnico V and II (see above). The strength can be measured, and it is a fact that with age magnets can lose a part of their strength. It is possible to remagnetize them to their original strength if they become too weak. The slightly weaker magnets might be one ingredient of vintage tone! Also you should avoid to use a soldering gun (instead of a normal soldering iron) when handling pickups, and for sure be careful when placing your guitar near to very strong magnets (e.g. resting it against a speaker cabinet with powerful speakers). This can not only make the magnet weaker but also cause some weird magnetic behaviour within the pole pieces.

    Conclusion: Makes a sound difference.

    RW/RP

    Single coil pickups will hum when being exposed to certain magnetic fields. The idea of a humbucker pickup was to eliminate this hum by using two coils with opposite polarity. A similar hum cancellation can be achieved with two single coils as well (e.g. when playing the typical Knopfler bridge-middle pickup sound). The two pickups must be wound in opposite directions then (this is meant with RW for reverse winding). To avoid that the sound of  the guitar strings is cancelled as well, the polarity of the pole pieces must be different, too (RP for reverse polarity). This idea came up in the 80ies I think. Mark’s Fenders and Schecters at the time of early Dire Straits did not have RWRP for this reason.

    Apart from some theoretical reasons related to two coils with different magnetic fields that influence each other, I don’t see how this can affect the sound of the guitar – at least not as much to make an audible difference.

    Conclusion: I don’t think it can make an audible difference.

    Pickup dimensions

    If you look at several old Fender pickups, you will often notice that they all look a bit different. Some seem to be a bit taller so that the pole pieces seem a bit shorter on the top side. This will affect the dimensions of the coil, a flatter coil with the same number of turns will appear wider, while a taller coil will be narrower. The different distance from the wire to the magnets will change the properties of the coil, so this can make a sound difference. A wider one should be a bit warmer, while a taller one should have a bit more treble.

    Conclusion: Might make a subtle difference.

    Winding pattern

    In the old Fender days, the pickups were wound on machines but the wire was guided by hand. When winding more than 8,000 turns on a coil, the girl who operates the machine –  mostly girls did this job at Fender – has to make sure that the wire goes evenly on the coil to avoid all wire being in the middle of the coil only, so she will move her hand to guide it from one side of the coil to the other, back again, and so on. If she does it quicker, or even at some random pattern, you will get what is called a scatterwound coil. The pattern in which one layer of wire lies to the next, or even one turn of wire, might again influence the capacity, and possibly other properties of the coil as well.

    Conclusion: Might make a subtle difference.

    Screws, rubber tube, springs

    This should not make any sound difference. It is true that each piece of metal that comes into the field of a pickup affects the tone, due to an effect called eddy currents (see below), but different pickup screws, or a metal spring instead of a piece of rubber tube to hold the pickup, should not be enough metal to make it audible.

    Conclusion: Not important for the sound.

    Base plate / Metal cover

    The original Telecaster bridge pickups had a piece of metal below their bottom bobbin. This changed the field of the coil, and also reduced treble due to eddy currents. Some maunfacturers add such a plate to some Strat pickup models as well, often for the bridge pickup, to boost bass a bit and make treble end softer.

    The same is true for a metal case, as. e.g. on a Tele neck pickup, or on a PAF humbucker. Removing / adding these will make a clear sound difference (more treble without case).

    Conclusion: Make a clear difference.

    Distance between pickups and the strings

    The closer the pickup is to the strings, the louder the pickup will be. The sound also becomes more direct, more snappy and punchier. However, you will get the infamous  ‘Stratitis’ effect, a strange wobbling and somewhat ‘out of tune’ sound as the magnetic pull makes the string vibrate unevenly.

    Conclusion: Besides the volume differnce and the Stratitis, this will also affect the tone to some extend.

    Shielding

    To avoid hum from electric fields (it does not help much against magnetic fields), some manufacturers use a shielding foil, or an aluminium shielding plate below the pickguard. Believe it or not, this can make  a sound difference, due to possibly added capacitace but more because of what is called eddy currents. These will dampen the resonance peak of the pickup, and also change the frequency response close to this frequency. The more metal you have within the magnetic field, the stronger the effect. This means a very thin foil will not make an audible difference, but the 0.3 mm shielding plates of those 60ies Strats – like Mark used to play – does.

    Schecter F500T pickups have a loop of shielding copper tape around the coil. This also makes a difference – even a big one! This is mainly because of added capacitance, plus some eddy currents.

    bridge-1-small

    The shielding copper tape around the coil of a Schecter pickup changes the sound of the pickup.

    Conclusion: Not with a very thin foil, but can make a difference otherwise.

    Pickguard material

    It should not matter if the pickguard is 2 or 3 millimeters, or of vinyl or celluloid BUT … if it is made of metal it will have a big effect on the tone! This is because of eddy currents again. The aluminium pickguard on Mark’s red Schecter Strat clearly changes the tone of the pickups a lot! The effect is much stronger than most other aspects discussed before. You might say there is only a subtle sound difference between e.g. an original Fender vintage pickup and a good replica like the Seymour Duncans which Mark put in his red Schecter, but there is a huge difference between the same pickups in a plastic or metal pickguard. This is a part of the Schecter Dream Machine sound but there were many old Fenders with anodized aluminium pickguards as well (e.g. David Gilmour’s #0001 Strat).  Search on youtube, you will find many videos to demonstrate this.

    white-3

    The metal pickguards of the Schecter Dream Machines make a big sound difference! If you want that sound, it does not make sense to put the same pickups into your guitar without having the same metal pickguard.

    Conclusion: Makes a big difference.

    Volume and Tone pot values

    Makes clearly difference, see this blog post for more info.

    Guitar cable quality

    The quality of the guitar cable also makes a sound difference. Each cable has a capacitance, a typical cable about 30 pF per feet. So the longer the cable, the more capacitance, but the distance between the inner lead in the cable and the outer shielding also affects the total capacitance. The resonance frequency of a Strat pickup will shift from about 8 kHz without a cable to something like 2 – 5 kHz with  a cable!  An 8kHz resonace peak will not sound ideal for many situations, definitely not for most distorted sounds, so the cable really shapes the sound here, adding (!) midrange to the sound while reducing treble.

    Conclusion: Can make a big difference.

    Others

    The material, or colour, (black/grey fiber board, plastic) of the pickup bobbins should not matter at all.

    Bevelled/unbevelled pole pieces however can make a very subtle difference as the magnetic field can be a bit stronger, or more focussed, at the end of a bevelled magnet (bevelling was done to make it easier to push the pole pieces into the bobbin, not to shape the sound).

    The material or thickness of the plastic caps does not matter. An original or rewound coil should not matter if everything is exactly the same (which in fact hardly ever will be) but generally a good rewinding job with the right materials does not automatically mean a loss of sound.

    Staggered or flat pole pieces lead to different volume of the individual sound, and other effects due to a different magnetic field are possible but seem to be unlikely to me.

    The tension of the wire while winding makes a subtle difference. With more tension the wire is puuled and becomes thinner a bit, so the DC resistance per turn will increase.

    Of course different wire gauge (AWG 43, AWG,43,…) makes a big difference, so does different pole pieces diameter, but these are really differences that totally change the design of the pickup and should not be considered here in this list for this reason.

    A Tele bridge pickup will sound different in a Tele bridge of  massive brass – like the Walk of Life tele bridge – than in a Fender vintage bridge of much thinner steel. This is due to eddy currents again, and adds to the  tone change of a brass bridge vs. a steel bridge (that can also be heard acoustically with the unplugged guitar).

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